Taking Great Concert Photos With Bad Lighting

The event started at 6pm and featured great beer, food trucks with a menu incorporating bacon – of course! They also had wrestling, and the live music of Kaylin Roberson, of which I took several concert photos.

Since this started at 6pm, taking photos would be a particular challenge. If you browse through the galleries from that evening, you can see the finished work. I want to go through how I achieved the look of these photos, mainly the ones from the live music. I initially just brushed this off as "I just got lucky with great stage lighting", but a comment someone from Kaylin's team made me realize this truly wasn't by accident. I often give into self-doubt!

He said, and I quote:

Thanks and man you are good!! I hope you continue.  Getting clear, live pics is difficult to do.

I realized at that moment, that: No, this wasn't by accident. There was thought and technical skill put into getting these shots. Also, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so it's up to you to even decide if these were well lit or not.

Super basics of taking a digital photo

In short, to take any photo, your camera needs light. This is called the exposure. When a photographer is talking about the right exposure, we're talking about getting the perfect amount of light. Now, in some instances, we want less light and others we want more. Depends on the look you're going after. No matter what – your camera needs SOME light to take a photo.

Your camera takes in light in three ways that all need to harmoniously blend together. They are:

  1. Shutter Speed
  2. Aperture
  3. ISO

Shutter Speed

If you're shooting with a DSLR camera, there are two shutter curtains that open and close to allow light to pass through the lens, and hit the image sensor. Those curtains are physical 'doors' that are mechanically driven when you push the shutter button - aka the button you click to take a photo. The amount of time those curtains are open for is called the Shutter Speed. It is measured in fractions of a second. A common shutter speed to shoot with of 1/250 means the curtains are opened for exactly 1/250th of a second. A shutter speed of 1/1000 means it's open for even less time than 1/250.

The trade off with shutter speed is that with slower speeds, you have to be much more steady. Any movement will be noticed as motion blurs in your image. For instance, in the live music gallery mentioned, due to the lighting, I was taking most of the photos at 1/125 of a second, and in some instances 1/50 of a second. That is way too low for handheld photography. Typically for that slow of a shutter you are mounting to a tripod.

I wasn't setting up a tripod at a concert - obvi'.

Aperture

The aperture determines how much light is passed through, by means of the opening in the lens itself. This is measured in stops, or an f/number. When using a prime lens, like the one I primarily use for instance, it has a maximum aperture of f/1.8. An aperture of f/1.8 is very wide open. In comparison, an f/4 aperture is less open, or it's more closed up. So, the wide the aperture – the more light comes in.

There is a trade off here as well. The wider your aperture is, the greater depth of field you are creating. In the case of the concert, I wanted to capture as much detail of the stage as possible. Normally you would set your camera to a higher aperture, which lets less light in, but also creates a narrow depth of field – bringing more of the foreground into focus.

ISO

I mentioned earlier taking a digital photo, because the ISO for digital photography and traditional film points to two different values, but they ultimately describe the same thing.

When it comes to digital photography, the ISO is representing how sensitive your camera sensor is to the light. The lower the ISO, the lower the sensitivity is. The lowest ISO settings most cameras get to is ISO 100. Depending on your camera model, you might be able to achieve up to ISO 3200 or 6400, or even high as 12,800.

You want as low of sensitivity as possible because the more sensitive you make your camera sensor - it gets grainy. This is specifically why night time photos taken with your camera phone come out grainy

The image sensor is so small to begin with, your camera automatically adjusts the ISO for you. So in low-light conditions, your camera phone will jack the ISO very high in order for the sensor to be more receptive to limited lighting around it - but again, it introduces a lot of graininess.

In a perfect world

In a perfect world you can completely control all three of these, known as the exposure triangle.

The concert was not a perfect world. It also happened to be the first time I've ever shot live music at night.

I was up for the challenge! 💪

There are other factors that can help take a photo in lower light. First off is the type of camera you are using. Wether you're using a DSLR camera or a point-and-shoot style camera, better quality cameras will have better image sensors - which capture light better.

The type of lens you are using will also play a factor. Each lens has a maximum aperture. For instance, when buying a DSLR camera, it may come with a kit lens, which is often an 18-55 zoom lens. Meaning, it can shoot a focal length of 18mm (wide angle) up to 55mm (zoomed). This is sort of the equivalent of a digital camera that has up to a 4x or 5x zoom. (Sort of). These kit lenses though, usually have a maximum aperture of f/3.5 at 18mm and a maximum aperture of f/5.6 at 55mm. More expensive zoom lenses will offer a constant aperture of f/2.8 at any focal length.

How I Shot The Kaylin Roberson Show

Here's how I was able to get these beautiful concert photos from the Bacon & Brew Festival.

Half-Luck, Half-Talent, All nerves, and a splash of Lightroom.

Let's take this example photo.

1/320 sec @ f/2.2 – ISO 10,000

This is one of my favorite photos. Caught at just the right time. This was shot at 1/320 sec @ f/2.2 So, this means the shutter was open for exactly 1/320-th of a second, and the aperture was set to f/2.2, which is a fairly wide aperture.

Normally, I would leave the ISO set at 100 – the lowest sensitivity, to avoid graininess in the final photo. In the dark conditions though, it would have left the stage very dark.

So, instead, I painfully decided to crank up the ISO. In this shot, all the way to 10,000. Fortunately the Canon 5D MK-IV has a very good sensor, and is capable of obtaining clear-ish shots at that ISO.

I fibbed a little

The image you saw above, was the final, processed photo in Lightroom. The original image is below.

The original image by itself isn't bad, it's just not GREAT!.

Original image, before post-processing

So this is why I said getting these amazing shots at the concert was 50/50 skill and luck, and a splash of Lightroom.

Now, Lightroom has it's limits, but I was able to take a photo with a good foundation and work with it. The composition was great, the lighting was ok-ish, and it was shot in Camera RAW. Let's jump into Lightroom.

This is how the color correction looks inside Lightroom for this photo. If you're new to using Lightroom, like I am, you'll find presets are your best friend. I bought a preset pack from Peter McKinnon, which came with about 20 presets, of which I use about 3 most of the time.

There's nothing the presets are doing other than just moving sliders and levers and buttons. You could achieve it on your own, but I think the results are far better when using something like this preset from an experienced photographer.

Take a look at the full gallery and tell me what you think in the comments below. 😉

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