Why You Should Know About Concert Photography

Lady Antebellum performing on stage at the New York State Fair on Wednesday, September 1, 2010.

Lady Antebellum performing on stage at the New York State Fair on Wednesday, September 1, 2010. Nikon D700/70-200VR, 1/200s, f/4, ISO 450, EV -1.3, 200mm focal length, spot metering.

One of the unique opportunities I get each year at the New York State Fair is to photograph concerts of big name recording artists. Last year I photographed Sara Evans and, this week, Lady Antebellum. Normally such events do not allow digital SLR cameras and long lenses into the venue unless you are working for the media.  However, the skills used for concerts are also needed if you go to tourist destinations which feature live shows that allow photography like Walt Disney World (You just knew I was going to sneak that in, right?) or local shows, plays and concerts.

As you can see from the Lady Antebellum concert photo, stage lighting is an exposure meters nightmare. If you use matrix or evaluative metering the camera’s computer will try and balance out the bright subjects in the spotlights and the dark shadows which often surround them.  That is a very tough task for even the best of cameras.

To simplify the task, I switch to spot metering which takes the area the camera meters from the whole frame down to a small percentage.  The spot meter area can often be chosen in your camera’s settings.  Mine is 12% of the center area in my viewfinder.  By metering an area that small, the camera can easily determine the exposure to use.

From left to right are the members of Lady Antebellum Hillary Scott, Charles Kelly and Dave Haywood.

From left to right are the members of Lady Antebellum Hillary Scott, Charles Kelly and Dave Haywood. Nikon D700/70-200VR, 1/250s, f/2.8, ISO 1000, EV -1.3, 200mm focal length, spot metering.

In the photo above, I metered off of Charles Kelly’s face.  His skin was the brightest under the lights and once I got him exposed correctly, I did not worry about the dark shadows.  I still needed to do one extra step which was to dial in the exposure using the exposure compensation button.  You will notice the EV number is -1.3 which was needed to control the highlights coming off the performer’s skin.  Even then I had to recover some highlights in post-production.

Let’s review

  • Change Exposure Metering to Spot
  • Meter off the brightest part of the scene
  • Use Exposure Compensation button to control highlights

Oh, yes, and practice.  If you are asked or want to photograph a play, for incidence.  Ask if you can come to dress rehearsals when full stage lighting is used.  I got to practice a lot over the course of this fabulous two hour concert. :)

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23 Responses to Why You Should Know About Concert Photography

  1. Mike Criss says:

    Wow, that first photo is fantastic. Great advice on the metering, I don’t use spot metering enough.

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  2. Gerry says:

    Lady Antebellum should use that top photo on its website. (Notice I did not say “album cover.” I’m trying to keep up here.)

    Your shooting advice probably applies equally well when a person is trying to capture a white spaniel in a sun-dappled woods. Although by the time I went through all those steps he’d probably have hared off after a rabbit. Dogs are such a trial. Anyway, I’ll give it a try.

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  3. milkayphoto says:

    Oh, lucky you!! Fantastic shots, Scott. I’ve been really diggin’ Spot Metering lately. Works so well and you’ve explained it perfectly!

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  4. Karma says:

    Thanks again for explaining photography tips in easy-to-understand language. That’s a pretty darn awesome picture, even for a non-country-music follower like me! ;-)

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  5. Nye says:

    Thanks Scott, it’s really good to know about the spot metering, and I would never thought to set the EV to a negative number since it was dark in there already. I was at Virginia Beach in July for the live concert and my image came out awful.

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  6. Susan says:

    Thanks Scott…very helpful article.

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  7. Great shots, Scott. I used a similar method to shoot the moon recently, except I shot in manual and used a tripod. I also used live view to focus manually (at 10x zoom) and turned off the image stabilization.

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  8. Thank you for those very good advices, I am not familiar with this kind of photography but it is well worth trying. Fabulous first picture !

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  9. These are great shots, did you use a tripod as well?

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    • I did not use a tripod for three reasons. 1.) With the amount of people at this concert, it would have been a huge safety hazard and I know I would have been asked to not use it. 2.) Using spot metering, the shutter speeds were in the 1/125 to 1/250th range. 3.) The VR lens was able to take care of any movement by the photographer. :)

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  10. BecBennett says:

    Thanks so much for those details! I’m going to a couple of concerts in the coming months, so I might see if the local paper would be kind enough to give me a media pass in exchange for use of my photos. Just to be sure I’m allowed to have my camera in there.

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    • Good luck! There is really no reason to keep dSLR cameras out of concerts or sporting events these days. P&S cameras are so good these days as to get quality photos. I do realize a big lens is a hazard and could bother other people though. At least, the Carrier Dome doesn’t mind me bringing it in.

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  11. Pingback: Back to the New York State Fair | Views Infinitum

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