How To Shoot Great Concert Photos Using a Point-and-Shoot

I love shooting live music.  I really really love it, and I was doing it for years before deciding to make it my living.

My first ever rock concert was No Doubt at the Roseland Ballroom in New York City.  I walked into the club with one disposable camera and used it up within the first three songs (one of those photos can be seen here).  Capturing that memory forever is something I still look back on, and it sparked my initial interest in live music photography.  For most, seeing a favorite artist live is an event they want to capture themselves––it adds a personal touch to the concert going experience.  But this is a practice that has been botched way too many times by those who have no freaking clue what they are doing.  I urge you: If you’re going to take pictures at a concert, do it the right way.  Say goodbye to zooming all the way on your iPhone to get a fuzzy outline of your favorite performers.  You will now be an ace at photographing concerts on your compact camera (remember that thing?  Before your iPhone?).

I’m going to break this down into three major portions: 1) Selecting a camera for the concert, 2) Shooting the photos, and finally 3) Post-processing.  

Part I – Selecting Your Camera

When I saw Fitz And The Tantrums at The Wiltern back in July 2013, I shot some photos on my PowerShot SX230HS.
When I saw Fitz And The Tantrums at The Wiltern back in July 2013, I shot some photos on my PowerShot SX230HS.

This part can seem daunting, especially if you haven’t already purchased a point-and-shoot.  Point-and-shoots have made leaps and bounds in the quality they output in the past few years.  A camera with a decent optical zoom (not digital because digital zoom will make concert pictures suck BIG TIME), and a good battery life (since the camera will most likely be running for most of the concert).  If you already have a point-and-shoot, don’t feel the need to run out and buy a newer one.  You can still get great results as long as you’re shooting in one of the manual modes.  Do yourself a favor and sit down with the camera’s User Manual and find out where everything is.  Locate how to change the aperture, shutter speed and exposure compensation.  And don’t worry about the flash, since you will not be using it.

Part II – Shooting the Concert

I shot this photo of Adrian Young (Drummer of No Doubt), also using my PowerShot SX230HS.
I shot this photo of Adrian Young (Drummer of No Doubt) in December 2012, also using my PowerShot SX230HS.  Using Aperture Priority: the metadata reads ƒ/4.5 @ 1/250, -1 1/3 EV.

It’s the day of the show!  Woohoo!  So let’s set up the scenario to give you the optimal shooting conditions.

  • Make sure you’re prepared!  
    • When you’re buying tickets, General Admission is your best bet.  When you hold a GA ticket you have better chances of getting closer to the stage, and this will give you the best results.  The closer you are to the stage not only improves the quality of your photos, but it also ensures that you won’t be shooting over too many heads during the concert.  My advice: get to the venue as early as possible.  Wait around with other fans for a few hours before doors open.
    • Before you leave for the venue, keep a mental checklist of everything you need: extra memory cards, backup battery, and above all DON’T FORGET THE ACTUAL CAMERA.  I’ve done it before, believe it or not.
  • Assume your position.
    • You will pretty much be static for the concert.  Remember that being front-and-center isn’t always the best thing, tons of action takes place towards the left and the right.  When people filter into the auditorium they almost always go right to the center, which is dumb.  So bypass the dummies––the lead singer will come over, and now you can also shoot the other band members (and maybe even get a shot of the drummer!).
  • Dial in your settings first!
    • I immediately put in a starting ISO of 800, and step down the Exposure Compensation (EV) to -1.  Since you cannot change lenses, the next best thing is fooling the camera into thinking you aren’t in low light (since compact cameras have compact brains).  These initial settings will help to freeze the motion on the tiny sensor.  No one likes looking at a blur of light and movement!  The downside is that the image is going to be darker, but for the most part you can fix that later.  Play with these settings.  You may need to boost the ISO to 1600 and the EV to -2, or anywhere in between.  We’ll tackle that a little later.
    • This is when you make sure that your camera will be shooting in Manual mode (Aperture Priority (Av) and Shutter Priority (Tv) work as well).  Remember when I told you to read your camera’s User Manual?  Here we go: unlike when you shoot with a DSLR, changing the ISO & EV is a bit cumbersome.  Most point-and-shoots require fiddling with the on-screen menu.  You will most likely have to change your settings at some point during the show, so memorize your camera’s menus like your Social Security Number.  
Garbage performing at the Electric Factory in Philadelphia.  The band's lighting plot was extremely dark, and I found myself troubleshooting immediately.
Garbage performing at the Electric Factory in Philadelphia. The band’s lighting plot was extremely dark, and I found myself troubleshooting immediately.

Alright, now the lights have dimmed and the show has begun.  The first song will give you a general idea of what the lighting will be for the rest of the show. so that first song is where you should do your troubleshooting.  For instance: Garbage rarely uses spotlights in their set.  I was not aware of this until the band’s first song, so my first few photos with my camera were dark.  In my experience, the lighting plot generally reflects the type of music the artist plays (unless it’s at a smaller venue, then it’s completely up to what kind of lights that club has).  Look at the images you are capturing.  Are they blurry?  Are they too dark?  Fool around with the aperture, shutter speed and exposure compensation.  I DO NOT RECOMMEND GOING OVER ISO 1600 on a compact camera.  The sensor is too small and there will be an inevitable loss in detail.

No matter how desperate you are, DON’T USE THE FLASH.  It is not powerful enough to reach the stage, even if you’re up against the barricade. Overall, your photos will be even darker than they are with the EV stepped all the way down.  Plus, it drains your battery more.  Plus, it’s annoying!

Most importantly, enjoy the show.  Put your camera down for a while, because you will not truly experience the show if you are shooting the entire time.

Part III – Post-Processing

You’ve got memory cards filled with concert photos, some of which were shot at high ISO.  Lightroom.  Do not pass “Go,” do not collect $200.  Go right to the “Import” module in Adobe Lightroom.  Because Lightroom has the most advanced and easy-to-use Noise Reduction capabilities even when editing .JPEGs (I you could also use Adobe Bridge).

I won’t go in to post-processing too in-depth since every camera is different.  But my general rules for post from a point-and-shoot are:

  • Use the Exposure slider sparingly, because you are editing .JPEGs; unless you have a point-and-shoot camera that shoots in .RAW.  Experiment with white balance, highlights, shadows, whites & blacks.
  • Edit only the keepers.  And it’s possible there are very few; at least you have some.
  • I do all final edits like sharpening and resizing by jumping over to Photoshop.
This image of Jake Shears from the Scissor Sisters was underexposed, so I used color layers in Photoshop in lieu of the Exposure slider in Lightroom.
This image of Jake Shears from the Scissor Sisters was underexposed, so I used color layers in Photoshop in lieu of the Exposure slider in Lightroom.

That’s my general overview.  The bottom line: these aren’t going to be portfolio calibre*, but it’s still fun to share the photos you took at that concert you went to with your friends.  And if you’re a budding music photographer, this is a fun way to start.  Zero pressure.

*Sometimes you get lucky; one photo in my Live Music portfolio was shot on a compact camera, and you would never be able to tell.
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Conor

Photojournalist based in Philadelphia. Occasional writer. Always wondering what became of Luke Skywalker's X-Wing after he arrived at Cloud City.

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