There is but one “simple” method to begin increasing the quality of your images and the quantity of your keepers when shooting live music. Manual operation of your camera’s technology. Decoupling the aperture, shutter, and ISO from your cameras auto modes allows one to take full advantage of the creative control and exposure latitude possible with modern DLSR systems.
Modern cameras are packed with amazing technology that seemingly allows one to push the button and capture a perfect frame each time. From full on automatic, aperture priority, and shutter priority – they all provide inputs to the camera’s capabilities from different perspectives to create a perfect exposure per the camera’s interpretation of the values needed to expose the scene properly. In many circumstances these modes will serve you well. However, using these modes in the world of live music photography will likely ensure you end the shoot with a potluck of images ranging from average to mediocre. Let’s review each of these modes and how they participate in controlling a cameras’s exposure.
In Auto mode, the camera controls all aspects of the exposure setting the aperture, shutter, and ISO to achieve a proper exposure of the frame. The extreme lighting conditions of a constantly changing concert stage is not a place where this mode is remotely successful. Do not use it, plain and simple.
In aperture priority mode, you control the aperture, the camera controls the shutter speed. Aperture is measured in f-stop and controls the size of the diaphragm in your lens and thus the amount of light reaching your cameras sensor. Measured in f-numbers (f/1.4, f/2, f/2.8 … f/22) the smaller the f-stop the larger the diaphragm opening and the greater amount of light hitting the cameras sensor. The larger the f-stop, the smaller the diaphragm opening and the lessor amount of light hitting the cameras sensor.
Applied in concert photography, this allows you to control the amount of light the camera sees and allowing the camera to determine the associated shutter speed for its perception of a proper exposure. In most indoor/evening shows you are going to be dealing with apertures between f/1.8 and f/4. You may have some limited success in this mode, but often you will find the overall frame reasonably well exposed with an out of focus artist due to the camera decreasing the shutter speed as it compensates to properly expose the scene per its perception of a proper exposure.
In shutter priority mode, you control the shutter, the camera controls the aperture. Shutter speed is the effective length of time the shutter is open or how long light hits your camera’s sensor. Generally speaking, shutter speed is measured in fractions of seconds (1/30, 1/60, 1/125 .. 1/250). The larger the denominator the faster the shutter. The smaller the denominator, the slower the shutter.
In concert photography, the shutter generally applies to stopping the action on stage by the artist as well as assisting in minimizing the effect of camera shake by the photographer. Aside from certain creative choices one may wish to achieve, you generally want an artist captured without motion blur and thus will choose a shutter of 1.5 times your lenses focal length. I tend to shoot shows with a lot of artist motion on stage. As such, regardless of focal length, my shutter is going to fall no less than 1/200 if at all possible. Reasonable success can be expected in this mode, with consistently sharp images as you are forcing the shutter at a constant value. However, stage lighting and the artists movement on stage is going to change faster than your camera can possibly calculate and adjust the aperture resulting in a mixed bag of successes and over/underexposures.
Manual is control. Manual is creativity. Manual is consistency. Manual is a means by which you can establish a baseline for shooting in the ever changing moments of a live music performance. Manual forces you to think technically about your exposures. Over time this thinking will become instinctive and repeatable regardless of venue and lighting treatment.
To illustrate this principle, grab your camera and go to your kitchen. Put the camera in aperture priority mode watching the camera meter and shutter react as you pan the room. Take a series of frames of fixed objects (sink, toaster, canisters, etc). Take a step left and right and shoot again. Now put the camera in shutter priority and complete the same exercise this time watching the camera meter and the aperture. Review the photos and notice the exposure differences between shots in this relatively stable environment. Next, select a few shots you like, replicate the exposure settings in manual, and take a number of frames of the same object. Finally, review the images captured with manual exposure.
What you are witnessing is a predictable consistency in your exposures that can only come from operating your camera in its manual mode. Take this method into your next few live shoots.