Music photography: the best cameras to get great gig shots
2nd May 2012 | 11:00
Choose the camera and kit to suit your skill level and venue
Photography gigs explored
Shooting live music events can be both challenging and rewarding. Having the right kit for the job is half of the problem, since difficult lighting can be par for the course at concerts. And although your camera may be able to take great photos in more favourable conditions, the unique challenges faced at a gig can call for some specialised equipment.
This guide to cameras for photographing gigs has been designed to help photographers of all skill levels and budgets to choose the right gear for concert shooting.
Whether you're a casual or beginner photographer, an intermediate photographer who takes things more seriously, or an aspiring professional, the best kit for shooting pictures at events is detailed here.
So what challenges can you expect to face? A lot will depend on the kind of venue the event is hosted by. The most common types of events include those hosted at small pubs or bars, medium to large venues, arenas and outdoor festivals.
Each kind of venue involves different challenges, whether it be with the lighting, or the space available to shoot from.
For example, gigs held at small bars and pubs will often have poor lighting and no separate space to take photos from, whereas arena gigs often require photographers to shoot from the sound desk at the back of the venue, especially when the event is seated, or the artist is a well-known pop singer. Each will place different demands on the photographer, and the kit you use.
Larger venues often require a photo pass to enable you to take interchangeable lens cameras into the event.
If you're not lucky enough to obtain accreditation, will we also detail suitable cameras for taking pictures from the crowd. In these cases, do be careful to check your ticket, since some venues and artists ban photography altogether.
So now let's get on and check out the best camera for every different kind of gig environment you could possibly find.
Best cameras for shooting concerts from the crowd
So... You have a ticket to see your favourite band or singer performing at your local venue and you really want to take some decent pictures to remember the event by.
You've read the details printed on the back of your ticket and photography is allowed, but it says that "professional" cameras aren't. Normally this means cameras with interchangeable lenses, although bridge cameras will sometimes be disallowed too, depending on how staff at the venue interpret "professional".
The latest compact digital cameras take good pictures in low light, which makes them ideal for capturing a concert from the crowd.
A general rule of thumb to follow to ensure you will be allowed to take your camera into the venue is that the camera should be small enough to fit in a handbag or coat pocket.
Due to the difficult lighting that can be faced, a camera that takes good images in low light, with some manual control, is often preferable. Although not completely necessary, having manual control will enable you to override the exposure, which will often be thrown wayward by the lighting used at the event.
Because you may be unable to get physically close to the stage, a good zoom with image stabilisation is also something to look out for.
The following cameras should be able to do a decent job of capturing the scene at a concert from the crowd. However, it is worth noting that if the lighting isn't favourable, almost every compact camera will struggle.
Canon Powershot SX230 HS
Specs: 14.1MP, 1080p video, 14x image stabilised zoom
Sporting a 14x Image Stabilised lens, a 14.1MP rear-illuminated CMOS sensor and some manual control, this camera promises to be ideal for taking images at a concert from the crowd, due to its performance at high ISO sensitivities. The slim, compact design shouldn't raise too many eyebrows from staff at venues, either.
Read our full Canon Powershot SX230 HS review
Fuji Finepix X10
Specs: 12MP EXR sensor, 1080p video, 4x zoom with bright f/2-2.8 aperture
Although this camera doesn't offer the zoom range of others mentioned here, the 12MP EXR sensor, coupled with the fast f/2-2.8 lens, make this camera ideal for taking images in low light conditions. The excellent build quality should help the camera to survive the rough and tumble of a concert crowd, too.
Read our full Fuji Finepix X10 review
Panasonic Lumix TZ30/ZS20
Specs: 14.1MP, 1080p video, 20x optically stabilised zoom
Panasonic has long been synonymous with superzoom compact cameras, and its Lumix TZ30 camera should be quite well suited for capturing live music from the crowd, thanks to its 20x optically stabilised zoom and an aperture priority mode. The touch AF and shooting modes should make shooting with the camera held high a little easier too.
Read our full Panasonic Lumix TZ30/ZS20 review
Best cameras for shooting concerts in a pub or bar
Taking pictures of live performances at your local bar or pub venue may not be all that glamorous, but it's where all musicians start out their career. Who knows? That band playing your local boozer might turn out to be the next U2 or Radiohead, and that female vocalist who performs regularly at the local working men's club may turn out to win the next X-Factor.
Since small venues like this work to tight budgets, stage lighting is often poor, and conditions can be cramped. Usually there are very few restrictions as far as photography is concerned, but it is always polite to check with the artist first if, for example, you wish to use flash.
If you are a beginner, most entry-level DSLRs, such as the Canon EOS 1100D, Nikon D3100 or Pentax K-r, will enable you to take decent pictures at an event such as this. And so long as the artist is fine with you using flash, the kit lens and built-in flash unit should suffice, in conjunction with a high ISO setting or longer shutter speed, so that the atmosphere of the gig isn't lost.
For photography without the flash, a 30mm, 35mm or 50mm prime lens with a maximum aperture of f/1.8 or faster will enable you to work more effectively with ambient lighting.
Most compact system cameras can take high quality images in low light. But using a screen or electronic viewfinder in very dark conditions can be difficult so the camera will struggle to display a suitably clear image for critical focusing, and contrast detection AF often struggles in low light.
Intermediate photographers may find the direct control and improved autofocus of a mid-range DSLR body such as the Canon EOS 60D, Nikon D90, Sony A580 or Pentax K-7 will stand them in good stead when shooting an event at a pub or a bar.
Just as is the case with a beginner, a 30 to 50mm prime lens with an aperture of f/1.8 or faster will enable you to work under ambient lighting conditions.
A zoom lens covering roughly 18-50mm, with a constant f/2.8 aperture, may also be an asset, even if you're using flash. The faster maximum aperture will enable more of the ambient light to be captured at reduced ISO sensitivities.
The greater flexibility of an external flashgun may also help, since they are more powerful and the light can be bounced off surfaces at the venue and directed out of the eyes of the performer.
In addition to a standard f/2.8 zoom lens covering 24-70mm, an ultra-wide zoom lens in the 16-35mm range, also with a constant f/2.8 aperture, will enable more of the stage to be captured in one shot, or full-length shots of the performer in cramped conditions.
A range of prime lenses with focal lengths from 24mm to 85mm may also be preferred if you prefer to work with the ambient conditions.
Shoots at venues with little or no lighting may require a wireless flash setup to get the best images possible, so long as permission from the artist can be sought. By placing flash units around the stage, and even using coloured gels in some cases, you can effectively create your own lighting on stage for the shoot.
Best cameras for medium or large venues
As the venues get larger, the restrictions tend to get tighter. Gigs held at medium or large concert venues tend to require appropriate accreditation to enable you to take an interchangeable lens camera into the venue.
Although most venues of this size will have a pit at the front, which you can gain access to with your pass, you will invariably only be able to shoot the first three songs of each act, and it will be very rare that flash is permitted.
Because flash is rarely permitted, beginners will do well to invest in a lens with a fast maximum aperture. The option with the lowest cost is a 30 or 50mm prime lens with an aperture of f/1.8 or brighter, which can often be picked up for around £100/$150, or even less in some cases. Although this be great for low light, it lacks flexibility if shooting a more active performer.
In these cases a zoom lens with a fast constant f/2.8 aperture covering roughly 17-50mm will help. Those offered by third party manufacturers, such as Sigma, Tamron and Tokina, cost less than the manufacturer's own lenses.
This coupled with a standard f/2.8 zoom covering roughly 17-50mm and a telephoto zoom with a fast f/2.8 aperture covering the 70-200mm range. The bright maximum apertures will enable sharp images to be taken under most stage lighting and will also isolate your subject from a potentially cluttered background.
Professional photographers will find the quality at high ISO sensitivities and increased dynamic range offered by a full-frame DSLR, such as the Canon EOS 5D Mk II or Mk III, or the Nikon D700, invaluable.
Two or three zoom lenses with a constant aperture of f/2.8 will be the norm, the most common being lenses covering roughly 24-70mm and 70-200mm. Some professionals may wish to pack an ultra-wide zoom for capturing more of the stage too.
Although flash is rarely allowed, it pays to be prepared and pack an external flash unit, just in case. On the same note, a prime lens with a bright maximum aperture of f/1.8 or brighter will cover those times when the venue appears to forget to switch on the lights.
Best cameras for arenas or stadiums
Concerts at arenas or stadiums are often among the best lit, but due to the stages being larger, and restrictions for where you can shoot from being the norm, these kinds of gigs often have the greatest requirement for specialised equipment.
Many arena concerts require accredited photographers to shoot from the sound desk, the aisles, or even the back of the room. If you're lucky, you may be escorted to the pit at the front to take photos, but this often isn't the case.
If you are a beginner, and you're lucky enough to have gained accreditation for a show at an arena, and you haven't the means to buy fancy professional lenses, an image stabilised 70-300mm zoom lens coupled with an entry-level DSLR body, such as the Canon EOS 1100D, Nikon D3100, or Pentax K-r, should give you a reasonable chance of getting some decent images.
The image stabilisation should enable slightly slower shutter speeds to be used. Even though lighting at arena shows is generally quite bright, this may still be necessary due to the slow f/5.6 maximum aperture of these lenses.
If you're lucky enough to own a camera with in-body stabilisation, then it isn't be necessary to buy a stabilised lens.
Intermediate photographers should be served well by a mid-range camera body such as the Canon EOS 60D, Canon 7D, Nikon D90, Nikon D7000, Sony A580 or Pentax K-7. The direct nature of the controls will enable you to adapt to changing lighting conditions more quickly than would be possible with an entry-level DSLR.
A telephoto zoom lens covering the 70-200mm range with a bright maximum aperture of f/2.8 will be the most useful lens for this kind of concert, although some may find a standard f/2.8 zoom handy for wider shots of the venue or stage.
Most professionals will use a full-frame camera body such as the Canon EOS 5D Mk II, Canon EOS 5D Mk III or (soon) Canon EOS 1DX, or the Nikon D700, Nikon D3s, or Nikon D4 with a 70-200mm f/2.8 images stabilised lens as a basis for a gig kit.
For those gigs where restrictions require images to be taken from the sound desk or aisles, a 300mm f/2.8 prime, or a teleconverter for use with the 70-200mm f/2.8, is necessary to enable close cropped images of the performer. Some photographers may even hire longer lenses up to 400mm or even 500mm for shooting concerts with these restrictions.
These lenses will generally require a sturdy monopod to enable sharp images to be taken. A standard 24-70mm f/2.8 lens will also be required for shooting wider shots of the venue, or for shooting from the pit.
Best cameras for shooting outdoor music festivals
In the summer the music moves outdoors for festival season. Shooting music outdoors puts different demands on your kit, with many artists performing in daylight, and others on smaller covered stages making it a challenge in itself to be equipped for everything. There's also the weather to consider, since it can change from bright and sunny to thunder and lightning within minutes.
Accessories that are useful for all levels of photographer include a good waterproof, breathable clothing, and waterproof covers for your cameras and lenses. Although a bin bag and an elastic band may do for a short while, any prolonged rain will require a dedicated cover.
Optech Rainsleeves are a good option for those on a budget. They are basically a plastic bag shaped specially for a camera with a drawstring that fastens around the end of the lens. A hole is also cut out in the rear which can be fixed around the viewfinder eyepiece, to enable a clear view.
Another accessory that can be useful at festivals is a step of some kind. Outdoor stages at festivals tend to be quite high, to accommodate the large crowds that gather. This causes a problem because you can only get a clear shot of the performer when they're at the front of the stage, and then the image is taken from a very unflattering angle, right up their nose.
A folding plastic step is ideal for small to medium festivals, but larger festivals may need something a little bigger. A proper set of aluminium stepladders is the tool of choice for photographers who regularly shoot these kinds of events.
At least two lenses will be needed. The standard kit lens that came with your camera will be great for taking shots of the atmosphere at the festival, but inadequate for shooting artists on stage. An image stabilised zoom covering 55-200mm or 70-300mm will enable better shots of artists on stage, and will be more than adequate for shooting during daylight.
Saying that, with those lenses it may be a struggle to get decent images after sunset, unless the stage lighting is favourable. For smaller, covered stages, a 30-50mm prime lens with a maximum aperture of f/1.8 or faster will help under the darker conditions faced there.
Intermediate photographers will find a mid-range DSLR such as the Canon EOS 60D, Nikon D90, Sony A580 or Pentax K-7 work well. For peace of mind, a weather-resistant body such as the Canon EOS 7D, Nikon D7000 or Pentax K-5 may be preferable to help prevent the ingress of dust on dry days and moisture in inclement weather, since even when using a rain cover, cameras tend to get wet during prolonged rain.
An f/2.8 telephoto lens covering 70-200mm is the ideal lens for shooting festival stages, and a standard f/2.8 zoom covering 24-70mm is perfect for shooting stages under cover, and for capturing scenic views at the event.
Professional photographers, or those aspiring to be, will find the quality at high ISO sensitivities and improved dynamic range of a full-frame DSLR invaluable.
Weather-sealed cameras such as the Canon EOS 5D Mark III, Canon EOS 1D Mark III, Canon EOS-1DX, Nikon D700, Nikon D3s, Nikon D4, Pentax K-5 or Pentax K-7 are built to withstand the rigours of being used in changeable weather conditions, and should be high on the list for most pros.
A 70-200mm f/2.8 lens with optical stabilisation will be suited for most types of stage, with a 24-70mm f/2.8 lens being used for smaller covered stages and scenic shots. Depending on the festival being covered, this kit may be complemented with a 1.4x or 1.7x teleconverter, or a 300mm prime lens, for taking close-cropped images on very large stages.
An ultra-wide zoom or fisheye lens is also ideal for scenic views and for taking scenic shots and images of the crowd, which are all part of the atmosphere of the event. Although flash is rarely permitted when shooting the stage at festivals, many professionals will carry one anyway, just in case, for portraits taken on site, or atmosphere shots at all times of day or night.