Today I want to lend a hand to all the live music photographers across this great city. I know you’re out there, because live music is what draws most of the shutterbugs to Austin (me included). For those of you just getting started or for those who are ready to go beyond the “auto” mode on your camera, this article is for you as I will list all the necessities for how to get the best shot in a poorly-lit venue, despite whatever gear you have.
For starters, I usually shoot in the “TV” or “S” mode on my camera. This is a half-manual mode where I choose the shutter speed and ISO, and the camera picks the F-stop for me, depending on what kind of lens I’m using. The advantage of this mode is that there is one less setting for me to worry about! All I pick is my shutter speed (which I usually start around 1/160th of a second) and my ISO (which I start around 800) – the camera sets my aperture. Now, these are just starting points for test shooting…I often have to raise both my shutter speed and ISO in order to freeze the musicians’ action in just the way I like – BUT it keeps down the number of camera settings I have to think about while shooting – helping me keep my eye and my mind on the show at hand.
Now let’s talk about gear. First of all, despite whatever your buddies told you, your camera of choice is not the most important piece of the photographic puzzle…lenses are. I highly recommend that you go out and purchase a lens that has an aperture of f/2.8 or less. A low F-stop range lets in a lot more light than the kit lens that came with your camera. Picking out one of these lenses can be tricky if your budget is limited…a wide-angle zoom that opens to f/2.8 can cost you up to $2,000 or more if you buy the Canon, Nikon or Sony brands. Sigma and Tamron both make excellent wide-angle zoom lenses that are far cheaper than the parent brands, but still give you marvelous quality. These are often less than half the cost of Nikon or Canon’s wide-angle zooms, but they perform just as well. The reason Nikon, Sony and Canon’s versions cost so much is that they are the sharpest wide-angle lenses you’ll find, but unless you’re shooting weddings for a living, sharpness isn’t everything.
Your other option is to find a prime lens, like the world-renown “nifty fifty” that both Canon and Nikon make. Prime lenses usually open up wider than f/2.8, which is GREAT for live music. They are also usually sharper than a wide-angle lens, as they have fewer working parts – and therefore cost less AND at the same time, are made with higher quality glass for ultimate sharpness. What a deal!!
Now, if you’re truly limited by your budget and you’re stuck using the kit lens that came with you DSLR don’t get discouraged, because lenses aren’t everything (but they sure do make the near-impossible possible!). The main thing you’ll need to know is how to adjust the ISO on your camera. ISO determine’s how sensitive your camera is to light, and every DSLR allows you to adjust your ISO as it gets darker and darker. In a poorly-lit venue, I recommend you start at an ISO of 800….but know ahead of time that’s just a starting point! In really dark situations, 800 ISO may not be sensitive enough. You may have to raise that ISO number to compensate for a lack of stage lighting, and any DSLR will allow you to do that. In fact, most DSLRs nowadays will allow you to go as high as an ISO of 3200…that is very sensitive indeed, allowing you to take much faster pictures in darker situations. Now, with manual photography, everything is about trade-offs. Be sure to remember that as you raise your camera’s ISO, your images will become grainier and grainier, losing clarity and sharpness throughout the whole image. If that graininess bothers you, then it’s time to invest in one of the low-light lenses mentioned above, and if you need help picking the right one out, call us here at Precision Camera, and our sales staff will point you in the right direction. We even sell used lenses for DSLRs.
Have more questions about low-light shooting? Whether it’s live music, night-time weddings, or something equally challenging, just come in and talk to our sales staff. They’re all quite knowledgeable and LOVE everything photographic. If you’re set up on gear, feel free to email me with further questions. You can reach me at email@example.com. Until then…keep shooting and Happy Hunting!