FAQ: Nikonians Stage, Concert and Nightlife Photography
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Author: Brian C. Morrison (bcm75)
Editor: Armando J. Heredia (Covey22)
Please direct all inquiries and corrections to the parties listed above.
Intent: This document is an effort to address Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) regarding technique, equipment and industry practices in the Stages, Clubs, Concert & Nightlife Forum.
1. What are the basics to photographing stage/concert/nightlife events?
One of the basic concepts you need to learn is the difference between flash and flash-less photography. Generally, at most indoor concerts and stage events, flash will be prohibited. This is known as ambient-light or available-light photography. This is enforced for several reasons. Safety is one - multiple flashes going off right in front of the performers could be a distraction. Granted, the distraction could be mild for a drummer in the heat of the moment, but fatal for a sword swallower who's about to do the deed. Another is ambience - fans and patrons have paid good money to see the performers and not be blinded by strobes continually going off.
This restriction, as it turns out, can be a good thing -- why wash out all that interesting stage illumination that the lighting designer took so much time to work on, with boring daylight-balanced flash? Use the lack of flash to your advantage to capture the interesting colors and shadows that are inherent in any stage show.
An example of great stage light color. (Technical data: Nikon D2x with AF-S Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8 VR lens at 70mm, 1/125 sec. at f/2.8, ISO 1600). Copyright (c) 2006 Brian C. Morrison.
Without a flash to bring up the low light levels, even a professionally-lit national touring act is going to be on a very dark stage, from your camera's point of view. Recent digital SLRs exhibit excellent performance at high ISOs, so don't be afraid to crank it up as high as necessary. Typical ISOs required for indoor shows will be 400 and up, with 1600 being quite common. Even ISO 3200 in a poorly-lit club could be usable. For film shooters, high ISO emulsions have never been better. Even pushing consumer-grade ISO 1600 film one-stop still gives very satisfactory results with proper exposure technique.
Film continues to provide sharp and high-contrast photos, despite this genre's transformation by digital equipment. (Technical details: Nikon N80, Nikon 70-300mm f4-5.6 ED, Copyright (c) 2002 Steve Johnson.
(Caveat: Nikon's original D1 Digital SLR, introduced in 1999, has acceptable image quality up to ISO 400. ISO 800 and higher should be avoided on this model as the image quality is generally poor in ambient-light photography. The subsequent D1H model greatly improved upon this performance).
In addition to the generally low light levels, the dynamic range present at almost every show will be far beyond the range of your DSLR's sensor, especially if you put the lights themselves in the frame. The bottom line is, try to get a good exposure for your subject and let everything else fall where it will. Artificial illumination (ie, flash or strobes) is not only used to bring up light levels, but to balance the levels and bring them within range of the sensor or film. Since we are generally not allowed to use our own artificial sources, we have to make do.
A typical stage scene at a mid-sized club with good lighting -- the stage lights are compeletely blown out, and various individual channels are blown in different parts of the image. Specular highlights on the drum hardware are also outside of the dynamic range. (Technical data: Nikon D70, AF-S Nikkor 17-55mm f/2.8 DX lens at 17mm, 1/20 sec. at f/2.8, ISO 1600). Copyright (c) 2006 Brian C. Morrison.
The histogram of the preceding image. Note that it "bunched up" at both the shadow and highlight end, indicating a greater dynamic range than the camera can handle. Available-light stage histograms will typically be "bottom-weighted" as this one is.
If you are allowed to use flash - great! There are many techniques that go beyond simple front-curtain flash photography to allow the photographer to creatively capture the mood, moment and intensity of the performance. See Question 3 below for more details on strobe and flash use.
2. What equipment is needed?
There's bad news and good news -- the bad news is, you will need fast lenses for indoor concert shooting under available light. These lenses can gather much more light than consumer-grade zooms in order to keep your shutter speed high or "fast." A high shutter speed combats the main enemy of ambient-light photgraphers - handshake. A quick example - hold out your hands, palm up or down, and watch it for a few moments - you might note just the tiniest bit of shaking or trembling. Everyone has a small amount of handshake or vibration - it's just the way the human body is built. In a poorly lit environment, your shutter speed will be very low when using consumer grade lenses. Couple that low shutter speed with the inherent shake in your hands and this is a recipe for blurred subjects, even if they are standing still. Fast lenses allow you to get a higher shutter speed at any given ISO setting, thus offsetting the handshake phenomenon and allowing you to get the right exposure that "freezes" subject motion. Good concert photographers will use whatever they can for support to help combat this -- the subwoofers, the barricade or the edge of the stage can all be your friends.
This shot is an example of using a slower shutter speed to "blur" the subject slightly, resulting in a picture that has a feeling of movement. (Technical data: Nikon D2x with AF-S Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8 VR lens at 70mm, 1/60 sec. at f/2.8, ISO 1600). Copyright (c) 2006 Brian C. Morrison.
On the other hand, using a fast shutter speed freezes fast action. Note the singer's hair standing straight up in mid-headbang. (Technical data: Nikon D2x with AF-S Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8 VR lens at 70mm, 1/320 sec. at f/2.8, ISO 1600). Copyright (c) 2006 Brian C. Morrison.
The good news is that there is no need to go out and purchase Nikon's expensive f/2.8 zooms. Fast, inexpensive, high-quality prime (non-zoom) lenses are perfect for this type of work. Image stabilization or Vibration Reduction (VR) as Nikon calls it, is not a substitute for a large aperture or "fast" lens. The performers will be moving around too much, and as noted above, you will need the availability of the fastest shutter speed you can get (not that you will always use it, but it is essential to have faster shutter speeds available). Here is a partial list of recommended autofocus lenses (* indicates a cost over USD500 based on new/used street prices, P indicates a Prime lens):
Nikkor 10.5mm f/2.8 DX Fisheye *P
Nikkor or Sigma 14mm f/2.8 *P
Sigma 24mm f/1.8 DG P
Sigma 28mm f/1.8 DG P
Nikkor 20mm f/2.8 P
Nikkor 24mm f/2.8 P
Sigma 30mm f/1.4 DC HSM *P
Nikkor 35mm f/2 P
Nikkor 50mm f/1.8 (or f/1.4) P
Sigma 50mm f1.4 HSM P
Nikkor 60mm f/2.8 *P
Nikkor 85mm f/1.8 (or f/1.4*) P
Micro-Nikkor 105mm f/2.8 (VR or non VR) *P
Nikkor 105mm DC f/2 *P
Nikkor 135mm DC f/2 *P
Nikkor 180mm AFD *P
Nikkor 200mm f/2 VR AFS *P
Tamron 17-50mm f/2.8 *
Nikkor 17-55mm f/2.8 DX*
Nikkor or Tokina 20-35mm f/2.8*
Nikkor 28-70mm f/2.8 *
Tamron 28-75mm f/2.8 *
Tokina 50-135mm f/2.8 DX *
Sigma 50-150mm f/2.8 DC HSM *
Sigma 70-200mm f/2.8 DG HSM *
Tokina 80-200 f/2.8 *
Nikkor 80-200mm f/2.8 (any version) *
Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8 VR AFS *
Please see the Nikonians Camera and Lens Compatibility Chart for more information.
In times past, primes tended to outshine zooms in terms of sharpness and contrast, but modern-day designs have eliminated that advantage at all but the highest cost tiers. In terms of practicality, a zoom will give you the luxury of not having to reframe by stepping forward or back, but a prime is lighter and less bulky. Be aware though, at typical shows, you will be limited in your ability to move closer or further away to frame the subject, due to barricades, seating, security or the edge of the stage.
Any modern Nikon digital SLR will handle this type of photography quite well. The choices are varied - ranging from the fast-focusing 12MP D2X to the light-weight 6MP D40. Many photographers like to use two bodies -- one with a shorter prime or zoom, and the other with a longer lens. I like to use my 70-200 on my D2x, and 10.5mm Fisheye or 17-55 on my D70, for example. At poorly-lit small clubs, I might substitute faster primes (Sigma 30mm f/1.4 and AF Nikkor 85mm f/1.8). If you don't have access to the "pit" at the front of the stage where the Pros shoot, you will most likely be forced to use longer lenses and may not even need anything less than 85mm. The pit will likely be filled with other photographers so any supports such as tripods or monopods will be restricted or banned.
Overview of a typical large club, The Aragon Ballroom in Chicago, IL, USA. In the middle of the frame, you can see the barricade that seperates the audience from the front of the stage, and gives photographers and security staff a place (albeit a small one) to work. This is the shooter's pit or "the pit." There's not much room to move in or out to frame a shot. Copyright (c) 2006 Brian C. Morrison.
3. What camera settings should I use?
Automatic or Vari-Program settings (i.e., Sports, Night Portrait, etc) should be avoided. This type of photography assumes you have learned the PSAM shooting modes - Program, Shutter, Aperture and Manual.
Aperture priority is often favored; simply set your lens wide-open to get the fastest shutter speed that you can. Conversely, you can set Shutter priority to keep your shutter speed at a minimum threshold (1/60, 1/125, etc) to avoid handshake or freeze action and let the camera decide what aperture to use. If your camera is capable of Auto-ISO, you can enable it to avoid having to manage that setting and allow you to concentrate on photographing the show.
Autofocus settings - "Continuous" focus setting is most efficient, either through setting your servo to "C" and using the shutter release button to focus, or via the AF-ON button. The performers are generally moving, and with the slower shutter speeds inherent in indoor concert shooting, you need to be very careful with your focus. Depending on whether the performer is in bright light, the quality of the lighting in general, and whether the subjects are moving, usable shutter speeds can be as low as 1/15 sec. "Focus and recompose" is more difficult with non-static subjects and should be avoided. For lower-end camera models, try to use the center focus point since it's usually the only one that has both vertical and horizontal sensitivity and will not likely be fooled into focusing on the "wrong" area.
Metering mode is a personal preference, but Matrix should not be used. You will generally have bright light sources in the frame which make getting a consistent reading without underexposure difficult. Personally I like to use Center-weighted with appropriate exposure compensation, which depends on the color of clothing worn by the performers as well as the color of anything else in the center of the frame. Many people also use spot metering to good effect, choosing to take their reading off of a face or piece of clothing, again with appropriate exposure compensation.
For digital shooters, White Balance can be a vital setting. If the lighting is generally static and "normal" in color (for example, at a piano recital), establish a custom WB either through a mid-tone object under the stage lighting. Alternatively, you can use a gray card and illuminate it with the stage lighting to set the custom balance, or an Expodisc. Typically though, the lighting is dynamic, and your best bet is try and shoot a few frames to identify what the dominant light source is for the moment (incandescent, flourescent, etc) and set the appropriate preset WB accordingly by previewing the test shots on the rear LCD. You'll have to do this everytime you sense the lighting arrangement has changed.
Under conditions where the light is more "artistic" and brightly colored (for example, at a hard rock concert), camera white balance is not as important -- bright red lighting is not supposed to be realistic or look normal, so don't sweat it. In fact, performers taking on the color of the lights can make for quite an interesting photo.
Bass player illuminated by predominantly red stage lighting.
(Technical data: Nikon D70, AF Nikkor 50mm f/1.8 lens, 1/320 at f/2, ISO 1600). Copyright (c) 2006 Brian C. Morrison.
In any case, RAW (.NEF) workflow is highly recommended, not only for the ability to fine-tune WB after the fact, but also for its highlight-recovery prospects when converting to JPEG, TIFF or PSD.
Film shooters will have to rely on screw-in filters that compensate for the cast of specific lighting sources ( i.e., FLD filters for flourescent daylight bulbs), which is traditionally more challenging. Several emulsion brands have a forgiving color correction range that can be compensated for by lab processing, so if you didn't have or select the right filter, it's still possible to salvage the shot.
Film grain or digital noise is a critical consideration for this type of photography. In traditional film, the higher the emulsion speed (ISO), the grainier the photo. Modern film stocks have greatly improved upon this characteristic, so it is easier to create saleable photos using ISO 1600 film. For digital, the higher the ISO setting on the camera, the more visible the noise becomes. Unfortunately, digital noise is not considered as aesthetically "pleasing" as film-based noise effects. Film noise adds an overall effect or texture to the photograph. Digital tends to a multicolored static-like mess that reduces sharpness and in extreme cases, muddies colors. Expect to use specialized post-processing tools such as Noise Ninja or NeatImage to optimize image quality. In addition, never underexpose a high ISO image - digital noise is enhanced in shadow areas by underexposure and is extremely difficult to remove. A frame at ISO 1600 underexposed by as little as 1/2 stop could be headed straight for the recycle bin.
An original image, converted from NEF before NR processing. (Technical data: Nikon D2x, AF-S Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8 lens at 90mm, 1/100 at f/2.8, ISO 1600). Copyright (c) 2006 Brian C. Morrison.
100% crop of the JPEG conversion. Note the noise in the darker areas and almost complete lack in the highlights. Copyright (c) 2006 Brian C. Morrison.
100% crop after application of Noise Ninja. The noise has been greatly reduced, but at the cost of some detail smoothing. Sharpening after application of noise reduction would be required. Copyright (c) 2006 Brian C. Morrison.
On the rare occasion you are allowed to use flash, feel free to move beyond the traditional "deer in the headlights" look of direct flash. Slap a diffuser or a color gel onto the strobe, try bouncing it off the ceiling, get it off-camera using a cord or Creative Lighting System (CLS), or try "dragging the shutter" which gives a photo with some blur to emphasize movement.
Dragging the shutter. (Technical data: Nikon D2x, AF-S Nikkor 17-55mm f/2.8 DX at 35mm, 1/6 sec. at f/8, ISO 400, SB-800 with Sto-fen Omnibounce orange to match stage illumination, rear synch, tungsten white balance). Copyright (c) 2006 Brian C. Morrison.
4. So how do I get started?
It's unlikely that U2, the latest Broadway production or the hippest European nightclub is is going to allow you unfettered access unless you are a photojournalist with credentials or are working for the performers or venue. The best idea is to call ahead and ask about restrictions on cameras, but even this has its pitfalls. The venue may not be familiar in advance with a particular band's requirements about audience photography, so their answer will be a "best guess". Many stage productions and plays have copyright limitations that prevent the photography of live performances, even for non-commercial use. Club or street shooting for commercial profit requires individual release forms for each recognizable person you photograph.
I should caution you now on trying to "sneak in" any cameras into a venue that strictly prohibits them or looks to restrict "professional-looking equipment." Most events prohibit the use of reproduction devices, including video and audio recorders, for a variety of reasons. The venue would restrict them due to privacy and liability issues and the performing group's contract may have stipulations that prevent photography that would result in loss of reputation or revenue since they don't control the distribution or sale of such items. Unauthorized photographs, video and audio recordings taken under such restrictions could be considered "bootleg" and could potentially put you in a law-breaking situation. Bottom-line: don't do it.
So your typical starting scenario would likely put you in the general audience section at a large venue. If you want to get closer without breaking the rules, the best idea is to try and shoot local acts at smaller clubs. Offer the performers and/or the venue the chance to use your shots on their website in exchange for a photo pass to shoot the show; you might be surprised how many people say "yes". The photo pass will allow you into areas reserved for photographers (the pit at the front and sometimes other areas), and to bring in any equipment you need (no flash, of course!) If you manage to snag a pass, be aware that the normal restriction at concerts is that photographers may only shoot during the first three songs of each set. You'll have to work fast!
Another idea is to go the outdoors route -- security is more forgiving at free outdoor "festival" stages, and you might even be able to walk up very close to the stage to get some great shots.
Major outdoor festivals like the JVC Newport Jazz Festival have plenty of space and separate the shooter's pit into credentialed and general public areas. Often, the difference is only about 10 feet or so between yourself and where the press stands - easy game for a digital SLR and a bit of judicious cropping. (Technical data: Nikon D100, AFS Nikkor 80-200mm f2.8, 112mm, 1/1000th, f6.3 -0.7EV, ISO 400). Copyright (c) 2005 Armando J. Heredia .
For stageplay productions, get to know the production staff, especially the director or producers. They might allow you to shoot during rehearsals and let you build a portfolio. Eventually, most stage photographers establish a relationship with a particular venue, usually moving on to become the "house" photographer.
Sometimes, it's all about timing. Unofficial house photos for a ballet company's production of "The Nutcracker." The official house photographer wasn't set up for a digital workflow (strictly 4x5 film), so this photographer was invited to obtain marketing shots after the director saw his casual photos of the company's rehearsals. (Technical data: Nikon D100, 24-85mm f3.5-4.5 AFS G, 85mm, 1/20th, f4.5, ISO 1600). Copyright (c) 2003 Armando J. Heredia.
5. Final Thoughts
Having made it through this FAQ, the rest, as they say, is up to you. Above all, find and take advantage of any opportunities to improve your photography in this genre. Making mistakes and learning what works for you can only happen if you are shooting frames every chance that you can. Small venues and relatively unknown performers give you the best chances and a fairly permissive environment in which to practice your craft. Who knows, you might be shooting the next Phish or Led Zeppelin. Don't forget to post your results in our forum and don't be afraid to ask for critique and advice. See you out there!
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