Donny Osmond in Blue, 2004 UK Tour
There is a time and a place for flash photography, but concerts are not it. There will be some that can show me some great shots they got because their flash fired off just perfectly, but I will tell you those are the off chance exceptions rather than the rule.
I have to reveal my bias that in general I don’t like flash photography. I use studio flashes for portraits and at times I use a fill flash when lighting is terrible and it is my only choice. Other than such necessary situations, I avoid using a flash at nearly any cost. Unless you really know what you are doing with an external flash that can be adjusted for specific creative needs, typically you will get the washed out, bright faced look to your photos that we all know and
love hate. That may be a bit extreme, but you know what I mean.
You can use a flash, but it is going to look so much better without it.
When it comes to concert photos, a flash is usually going to muck up your photo more than it can help. If you are further back in the crowd than four or five rows, you are going to get a nice picture of the back of fans’ heads in front of you to outline the bottom of your photo. How nice. If you happen to be close enough for your flash to actually reach the entertainer that is the subject of your photo, chances are that you will overexpose the shot because it is so dark around him. If you do happen to get a good balance of lighting from the flash for your subject, more than likely you are going to wash out the colors on stage that could make your photo so much better.
Now I know some of you that are now nay saying me that have good enough cameras with a powerful flash that works from a distance or you have mastered your settings well enough to get a good balance. I say more power to you. The fact is that many concerts and/or entertainers won’t let you use a flash anyway because of how distracting it is to have flashes continuously popping off in front of you. Donny happens to be quite tolerant of it, but I submit that you will get much better looking photos if you learn to take the shots without a flash.
Take the photo associated with this post. If I had fired off a nice, powerful flash I would have ended up with a bright shot of Donny on stage with some small circles of light where the spotlights originate. By not using a flash I instead ended up with a cool composition of lights encompassing my subject. Pretty neat.
No Flash Pitfalls
Now there are some pitfalls associated of foregoing the ever present built in flash; topping the list is blurry photos. In low lighting cameras adjust their automatic settings to compensate to try and get a well balanced, bright photo. The first thing a point and shoot camera will do is turn on the flash. If you go into your settings and force the flash to be off, then the camera will compensate by slowing down the shutter speed to let in enough light. The slower the shutter speed, the more light hits the sensor (digital) or film. The problem is the longer the shutter speed the longer your subject and you have to hold still, which we all know isn’t going to happen at a concert. There is no easy answer to this one.
For all of you manual settings types, most of the time you cannot get a decently sharp photo at better than 1/60th of a second; anything lower is pretty much impossible to hold still enough unless you have a camera or lens with image stabilization (IS).
To hold your camera more still you have a few options. Since tripod are frowned upon in the concert venue atmosphere, you have to do a little innovation. First, prop your elbows on the backrest of a chair or two in front of you (splitting the gap between two people more than likely). This works in slower times in the concert when everyone is holding still. Second, keep your elbows in tight to your body to help prop up your hands and hold the camera more still. This really does work if you practice some. Third, if you happen to have rushed the stage in a crazed frenzy, in the time before you are escorted back to your seat by a kindly usher you can prop the camera or your elbows against the stage to steady the camera.
Now that you have your camera still, how to get your subject to hold in place is a whole different animal. Most entertainers tend to move around the stage during their performance quite a bit, unless they are planted at a piano or some similar situation. If you pay attention to a song or two you can generally catch on to an entertainers habits of placement on the stage, particularly when they are going to come to a stop. Ballads are not typically as much of a problem, but I’ll touch on some of the intricacies of catching a good expression on a future day.
To get the great shot when your subject is not moving around so much, anticipate where they are going to be and line up for the shot. You can even pre-focus to that spot and get him right when the shot is dead on.
If you have some manual settings there are a few things you can do to improve the chance of grabbing a great photo, even in poor lighting conditions. First is your aperture, or the opening in your camera lens that lets light through. The larger the hole, the more light gets in. Pretty simple, right? Actually this is one of the most confusing aspects of a camera for most people, including me for a long time. The reason that the bigger the number, the smaller the hole. This reverse aspect always throws people off. Without delving into the technical details, if you can set your aperture, set the smallest number possible. Most of the time I shoot at 4.0 or lower, down to 2.8 typically. Using a wider open aperture means you have a narrower depth of field, which can make it harder to get your subject in focus, but the extra light it lets in is well worth it.
The second major feature to look at is your ISO, or film speed. With digital cameras you can set the sensitivity of your camera to mimic common film speeds. The higher the number the more sensitive your camera is to light. The trade off is that your shots will look grainier as you get into higher sensitivity ranges. I typically shoot concerts at 400 ISO where possible, bumping up to 800 ISO when necessary. This number is not arbitrary though as it depends on your equipment, including your lens and sensor quality.
When you gotta, be smart about it
Some venues or situation simply just do not have enough lighting to pull off a non-flash photo. If you must use a flash, see if your camera lets you dial back the power a bit. Another option is to use the “slow sync” feature. Slow sync tells your camera to leave the shutter open for a longer time to capture the background lighting, and then at the last moment fires off the flash to illuminate the foreground subject. Using slow sync can lead to some very vibrant photos as the camera tries to balance the best of both photographic styles.
Practice, practice, and a little more practice
All of these techniques can work, but finding what works for you is the key. The only way you can figure out what captures the shots you like is to try things out. The more you experiment and make note of things you like, the more you will hone in on your favorite settings. A big advantage of digital photography is that the cameras store the settings you used into the photo files. When you look at the photos later on and find ones you like, you can look at the file details and see what settings you used to take it. Take some notes and use them the next time you are at a concert. It’s that easy.
In the end, it comes down to getting familiar with your camera and fixing mistakes until most of your photos are great. You will still those that are not great, but if you can increase the percentage of good ones, you will also increase the number of great ones!
Canon 10D, 28-135 EF IS 1/60 at f/5.6 and 400 ISO
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