Amber Stokosa Photography | Photography Tips: Shooting Concerts With Poor Lighting

Photography Tips: Shooting Concerts With Poor Lighting

July 05, 2013  •  11 Comments

We've all been there. It hurts your heart when you have to crank your ISO. You just want to go back and slap the lighting guy, push him aside, and turn up the spotlight (if the venue has one).

The bottom line is, you're just not going to get spectacular shots out of a gig with very poor lighting. This happens mainly in dive bars and smaller venues (<500 capacity), although the lighting at club-type venues can also be a bit dim.

So here are a few pointers on how to deal with less than ideal lighting at a show when shooting at f2.8. If you have anything to add please feel free to comment!

1. Look for the brightest area on stage. When a performer steps into the light snap as many photos as you can. Be patient, especially if you are able to shoot the entire show.

The Stationary Set

2. Crank your ISO so that you can have a fast enough shutter speed to eliminate or decrease motion blur. I'd rather have noisy, in-focus photos than shots fllled with motion blur. 

3. Take wider shots. In darker situations when there are several shadows, wider (further away) images put the scene together a little more nicely and are easier to work with when editing. 

The Stationary Set

4. When editing the images, increase the exposure a bit along with the highlights. The white balance will, most likely, be off; so play around with the colors and tone curves a bit. It can be fun, and gives you an opportunity to be creative.

5. When a color is too saturated (saturated red light is a concert photographer's worst nightmare), your best bet is to convert the photo to black & white.

The Stationary Set

6. Snap on your f1.8 lens, if you have one. I mainly use an f2.8 because I like being able to zoom, but I have an f1.8 for worst case scenarios.

7. I don't recommend this, but when nothing else seems to be working in your favor, use flash. The reason I don't recommend it is because flash can distract performers, annoy fans, and take away from the feeling and atmosphere of your photos (using the available light makes for a better ambiance and provides more of an "I feel like I'm there" feeling to their viewers). But in desperate situations it can be necessary. ***BUT keep in mind that "no flash" is often a restriction when shooting a show.***

New Politics

8. If you're sitting there editing your photos and you find yourself heaving sighs of disappointment, and you know your way around Photoshop, add a cool grunge or antique-type overlay. It'll add more character to a photo and take away from the fact that the lighting might not be awesome or the photo isn't completely in focus. 

The Royal Concept

9. A local venue here recently got a strobe light installed in the ceiling. While you can't time your shots with strobes, take as many shots as you can when the strobe is flashing (the "spray and pray" method) and usually you'll get at least one shot during which the strobe flashed.  

New Politics

If you have more tips please feel free to add them in the comments below!


Amber Stokosa Photography
@Mike Catshoe Hughes: Yikes, when it's that dark maybe try turning on your AF assist light if you can't or don't want to use flash.
On the Nikon D7000 I try not go above 5000 but I go to 6400 when it calls for it.

Thank you all for your input!
Mike Catshoe Hughes(non-registered)
When it's all saturated out with red, instead of automatically converting to B&W, try messing about with the sat and luminance of the purple and magenta channels in particular (easy to do in LightRoom) Maybe 50% of the time it will help clean up the face skin-tones, sometimes surprisingly well.
Does anyone else have to manually focus when there ain't enough light for autofocus? That's usually when I'm down to the 1.4 lens anyway, and with such a brutal DOF, it gets very hit and miss. Any hints or tips? What ISO do people push to? I will run up to 6400 on the Canon 5Dmkii and maybe 3200 on the Canon 60D.
In difficult scenarios like this I always try to shoot at or above 1/125th, lens wide open at 2.8 or 4.0 depending on lens. Anything under 1/125th and you're starting to risk motion blur. IS helps if you have it and you can drop your shutter speed a bit. Different cameras have different ISO max levels, mine is 1600 so I usually am there. Not all of us are shooting with D4's. I almost always have to open shots up a stop or so in Lightroom - don't be afraid to use post as a way to help a shot. Try never to use a flash. The best concert photographers I know never use them, even in bars. GET CLOSE! Even in low light your lens will perform better if the subject is 5-10 feet instead of 15 or 20 feet from your lens. Be nice and thank people around you who give you room. Be nice to security. And tip the wait staff well. Good luck!
Use a shorter lens to avoid some of the shake and crop.
Tim Reidy Productions(non-registered)
I hate flash in general for concerts, but I will use it especially if there is no light and I cannot see the band, I just shoot a lot less, but I do know that no one else can see the action going on too.
My tip is to find the highest range that your camera can comfortably handle.
and I prefer if all can enjoy the show, so make it easy as possible for the other viewers when at a show
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