how to photograph a concert


[note:  I receive no benefit from any party linked in this article.  The links are there solely to be helpful.]

When photographing concerts, I generally shoot jazz, preferring a small cozy club, like photography-friendly Birdland in NYC, over large venues.  Because jazz focuses so heavily on solo efforts, I find myself concentrating on single musicians as opposed to the group effort, but whether you shoot jazz, rock, pop, or classical, certain basics apply to all concerts.  With that thought in mind, and with the additional caveat that there are many paths to the same goal, below is what works for me when I shoot a concert.


Dave Liebman at Birdland -- Panasonic DMC-GH2 with Leica Summilux 35mm F/1.4 ASPH


For the small venue, I always call in advance and ask whether still photography is permitted.  Photography-friendly venues will allow you to shoot with the consent of the musician, whose permission is generally sought just prior to the performance.  Most jazz musicians have no problem being photographed, particularly the old-timers, but an unwilling few have allowed me to shoot them in rehearsal instead.  A small minority, and thankfully only a small minority, have simply refused.  If the venue generally prohibits photography, I’ll sometimes take the extra step of contacting the musician’s management to obtain special permission, in which case it’s hard for the venue to then refuse.  When asking, I always emphasize that I don’t use flash and I don’t shoot in quiet moments. I also generally stay put so as to assure I’m not interfering with the music.

In large venues, like the Wilmington or New Orleans Jazz Festivals, there’s no need to ask, as every other person in the audience is often aiming something at the musicians.


Maynard Ferguson at Glenelg, MD


A fast lens — at least an F/2.8 — is essential.   So while I have a Canon EF 24-105mm F/4L IS USM AF, I generally favor my faster Tamron AF 28-75mm F/2.8 XR Di LD because of the extra stop.  Under concert conditions, that extra stop can mean the difference between capturing a moment at a shutter speed of, say, 160 (1/160th of a second) instead of 80, and that one stop can mean the difference between a sharp image and one that’s blurry.  Generally, I try to shoot at a speed of at least 100, but if a musician is in a slow, quiet moment, a shutter speed as slow as 45 or even 30 may work.  As a rule, I shoot as fast as I can without making the image too noisy.  For the 5D Mark II, this means I try to stay under ISO 3200, and for the Panasonic GH2, I try to stay under ISO 2500.

One of my favorite lenses is the light and relatively inexpensive ($379)  Canon EF 50mm F/1.4 USM AF.  While a little soft at F/1.4, this lens performs well at F/2.0.  (At this aperture, the above-noted shutter speed of 160 now becomes 320, and that’s usually fast enough to freeze the face of a constantly-moving musician.)  If I can get close enough to the stage, the 50mm sees a lot of action, and as a bottom line, I always keep it in my bag.

Keb' Mo' at the Recher, Towson, MD

Given the right light and distance, I’ll also rely on the Canon EF 70-200mm F/2.8 L IS USM and the Canon EF 135 F/2.0 USM (perhaps Canon’s sharpest lens).   I recently purchased but have yet to try the Sigma 85mm F/1.4 EX DG.  To my amazement, I found this lens to be significantly sharper than the Canon EF 85mm F1.2 L II USM, a lens that cost $1200 more.  At wide apertures, both of these lenses have gorgeous bokehs, always a nice addition to an image.

As a supplement to my Canon system, I also use the Panasonic DMC-GH2, and while most of its current lenses are too slow for the concert setting, the 20mm F/1.7 (a 40mm equivalent) is a winner.  I’ve also used the GH2 with a few Leica lenses, and though this requires manual focusing, the GH2 has a zoom-focus feature that works well so long as the musician isn’t jumping around.  Most Leica lenses are as fast as can be (e.g., F/1.4 or F/2.0) as well as tack sharp, even when wide open.

One additional item that I’ll sometimes take to a concert is the Gitzo 2561T Traveler 6x Carbon Fiber Monopod .  It’s small (14.2 inches folded), light (11.06 oz.), and wonderfully inconspicuous.  In a club setting, when sitting at a table, I’ll often put the monopod on my chair, raise it to where needed, and lean it against the table for extra support.


While there are no set rules for concert shooting, here’s what I’ve settled into:

1.  If I’m in a venue where I can’t roam, I’ll try to select a seat that gives me a 20% to 30% angle of the musician I’m most interested in.  I find that angled shots provide a greater feeling of dimension and drama.  I’ll also try to assure in advance that obstacles like heads or a music stand will not be in the way. (If you see a music stand on the stage prior to the concert, it’s a good idea to find out where it’s going to end up.)


Roy Haynes at the Wilmington Jazz Festival

2.  I prefer to concentrate on one musician and wait until he or she reaches an ecstatic moment of visible emotion.  This doesn’t mean I tightly close in on the subject.  The resolution of my cameras is strong enough to allow me to frame a much larger composition than the one I have in mind.  In other words, I shoot with the thought that I’ll crop in post-processing.  The simple thought here is:  it’s better to have too much to choose from than too little.  Also, while I prefer relatively tight individual shots, I remain cognizant of the background, so if for example there’s a trio, I may try for a composition that equally weights the background players on each side of the subject.

3.  For me, the face is usually the most important part of the image.  As a result, I target the face using Canon’s partial meter mode.  This mode perfectly exposes the designated Focus Point by measuring a circle that extends out from the Point in an area that covers approximately 9% of the lens.  As I shoot, I often check the images to assure there are no glitches, like an accidental changing of the exposure.


Jane Monheit, The Rams Head, Annapolis, MD

I’ll also check the images to see if metering at plus or minus 1 on the face will give me a better tonal range as to the rest of the image.  I know that in Photoshop, a plus or minus one will still give me the detail I want in the face, and may otherwise help with shadows or highlights, depending on what the rest of the image shows.  While bracketing may sound like a good idea, I think constantly changing faces and action make it less practical, and more importantly, with few exceptions, I find that the above procedure gives me just the right exposure.

4.  If I need to recompose the shot after I target the face, I’ll lock the exposure with the appropriate button so the face remains perfectly exposed.  Rather than constantly exposing the face from the center AF Point (which I use as a default), I find myself sometimes changing the AF Registration Point to one that allows me to naturally “fall” on the face. The Mark II easily permits this, and as a result, I can avoid the need to constantly recompose the shot.

5.  I generally stay in aperture priority mode unless the lighting is constant and the musician isn’t highly active, in which case I may go to manual.  If my shutter speed is still too slow after adjusting the aperture and ISO, I’ll sometimes underexpose by as much as one stop to obtain extra speed.  [See How to Play with Shutter Speed to Freeze Action.]

6.  I always shoot in RAW.   ­­­


Benny Golson at Smoke, NYC

7.  As noted above, it’s helpful to have lenses that are F/2.8 or faster.  I find that unless the lighting is uncommonly good, I’m often shooting in the lowest apertures available.  This is usually fine in regard to depth-of-field so long as I’m concentrating on only one musician.   If I can get a decent shutter speed in the “sweet spot” of the lens — which is usually a stop or two up from the widest aperture — I’ll do this to get a sharper image.  Also, I always use a lens hood to avoid glare from side lights.

Finally, I also try to remember why I’m there in the first place:  I love jazz — so happy shooting, and don’t forget to enjoy the music.

More Jazz/Blue images appear at:  click here

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