How to: Shoot a Concert with a Compact Camera

Eight tips to help you get great shots of the show, even if your sitting in the nosebleeds.

You don't need to be in the photo pit shooting with a pro DSLR to come home with some great concert pictures. The following eight steps will help you to get some great images using your compact camera, even if your seats aren't so great.

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_Shot at ISO 800, f/3.5, 1/13 second with Exposure Compensation of -2. _ Just because you’re not down in the pits with the pros, doesn’t mean you can’t make the most of your concert photos from the stands. You definitely shouldn’t expect to get the same level of quality in your shots you’d get using a big fancy DSLR. But since you won’t be allowed to bring a DSLR in to a large concert anyway, it pays to manage your expectations and accept that your images may not be perfect. In the end, you’ll feel even more satisfied when you get a nice shot. I took a Nikon Coolpix S8000 to Jones Beach in Wantaugh, NY to watch Phish finish up their summer tour. Here are the resulting images and seven tips for making the most of your shots. Also, you should remember that even if an image isn’t perfectly sharp, it still might be usable at a smaller size, so it might pass muster on Facebook or elsewhere online.Philip Ryan
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ISO 800, f/3.7, 1/1.3 second. Tip 1: Know Your Camera It’s tragic, but not everyone gives their camera’s manual the good, thorough read it deserves. That said, we suggest that everyone at least take the time to learn where the various controls are on the camera and change any settings you can ahead of time, to prevent future fumbling in the dark. For example, if you plan to edit your photos on your computer before printing or posting them online, then it makes sense to switch your color-space from sRGB to AdobeRGB so that you’ll capture a wider array of colors. If you’re only going to post online, then sRGB should be ok. If you’re hoping to choose what the camera focuses on, then you’ll want to set the camera to “Spot AF” if it’s available. On the Nikon S8000, I set the “AF area mode” to “Center” and then pressed the shutter halfway to focus and meter and reframed before pressing the shutter button all the way. At the very least, you should tour the menus and learn where the various settings are on your compact, because there likely won’t be time to learn once the concert begins. ** **Philip Ryan
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_ISO 800, f/3.5, 1/40 second with exposure compensation of -2. _ Tip 2: Hold It Like an SLR Holding your camera out in front of you and away from your face is not a very steady way to take a photo. Your elbows usually end up away from your torso and most people end up holding the camera lightly between three or four fingers, or worse yet, with only two fingers. If you hold the camera with both hands, putting the whole left and right sides of the camera in contact with your hands and your left thumb along the bottom, you’ll have a more solid grip. Then, if you tuck your elbows into your sides and keep your shoulders relaxed (let them fall as low toward the ground as possible), you should have a more steady hold on things. I brought along a Hoodman HoodLoupe, which creates a viewfinder-like experience by covering up the LCD with a hard rubber box that has a lens at one end that you can look through to frame your shot as if it were an electronic viewfinder (EVF). This also adds a third point of contact between you and the camera since the HoodLoupe can press against your head, thereby keeping the camera even steadier. In fact, the sharpest photo I got—the one of guitarist Trey Anastasio and keyboardist Page McConnell-- was captured while using the HoodLoupe. The other nice thing about the HoodLoupe is that it blocks the light coming from the LCD, so you’ll be less annoying to the people around you.Philip Ryan
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ISO 800, f/5.6, 1/50 second with exposure compensation of -2. Tip 3: Use Image Stabilization If your camera has it, and most do these days, you should turn image stabilization on. Some cameras shift a lens element to compensate for the natural shakiness of your hands, while other cameras shift the camera’s sensor for the same effect. Either way, since the lighting won’t be bright enough to allow for very fast shutter speeds, you’ll want to do as much as you can to combat shake. Holding the camera properly, as mentioned previously, and using image stabilization should go a long way to helping you get better shots. Remember, even though image stabilization allows you get sharp shots at slower shutter speeds, if your subject is moving, it will still be blurred. So, don’t expect it to help when you’re trying to get a shot of drummer John Fishman running around the stage in a dress before doing a vacuum solo.Philip Ryan
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_ISO 1600, f/5.6, 1/4 second. _ Tip 4: Make use of exposure compensation. The out of the ordinary lighting at concerts will confuse just about any metering system, especially in fully automatic modes, so you’ll need to be able to adjust how the camera meters to get a decent shot. That means that the one setting you’ll definitely want to know how to control is “Exposure Compensation”. As it is on the S8000, it’s often found in the cluster of buttons (or round pad) that lets you navigate the menus and is represented with the +/- icon. On the S8000, that icon is dark in the upper left, with a white + sign, and white in the lower right, with a – sign. That’s because if the photo is too dark, you’ll want to apply positive (aka +) exposure compensation to brighten the image up. If the image is too bright, then you’ll want to apply negative (aka -) exposure compensation to make the image darker. If your camera has the option, you’re best bet is to use “Spot Metering” on the face of the band member you’re trying to shoot. Phil used “Center-weighted” metering on the S8000 because that provided the narrowest area of metering available on the camera.Philip Ryan
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_ISO 1600, f5.6, 1/50 second with exposure compensation of -2. _ Tip 5: Keep Trying I shot a few hundred photos at the show and walked away with only a handful of usable images. Since the stage lighting can change so rapidly at a concert, it’s quite possible that the intensity of the light will change between the time that you meter and press the shutter button. That means you’ll get a lot of shots that are too bright or too dark, and even the effort you put in to adjusting exposure compensation might not save the next image you shoot. As you get used to the fluctuations and the general style of the lighting director, you might be able to anticipate what will happen, but ultimately, you should expect a lot of throwaways and always keep hope alive. You might shoot 20 or 30 horribly blurred messes and then get one amazing shot.Philip Ryan
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_ISO 800, f/4.3, 1/2.5 second. _ Tip 6: Go Wide and Wander Concert lighting today can be quite amazing. The colors available to lighting designers have expanded greatly in recent years and the brightness of the lights has gone up too. If you only try to get close up shots of the band, then you’ll probably be missing a very beautiful bigger picture. Zoom out and you can get some breathtaking shots of the overall lighting design for the stage. This typically changes from song to song at very least. At a Phish concert it usually changes as the musical themes of each song do. Phish’s lighting director Chris Kuroda has been with the band for so long, and knows the music so well, that he is considered by the band and fans as the fifth member of Phish. His designs are quite intricate and no set of Phish concert photos would be complete without at least one wide-angle shot. You’ll also want to move around the venue at some point if you can, since shooting from just on location all night can become stale. If you’re running to the concession stands, try to bring your camera along and grab some shots from a different vantage point. If you go farther up in the venue, you may happen upon some lights being shone on the crowd too. Kuroda often used the crowd as his canvas and typically to fabulous effect. At Jones Beach, I was able to meander his way into the VIP area where I walked down a long boardwalk to get a shot of the venue and the crowd during the break between the first and second sets.Philip Ryan
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_The best way to remember a concert may not necessarily be through photos, sometimes video can do a much better job. _ Tip 7: Shoot Video Most compact cameras these days can shoot video and the S8000 is certainly no exception, being able to capture 720p HD footage. The myriad problems you run into in terms of trying to get a fast shutter speed while shooting stills just don’t exist with video, so you should be able to get nice footage without much problem. You should note that it is often forbidden to shoot video at concerts, so please pay attention to such prohibitions, but if possible, it can be a nice way to capture the moments that you can’t quite get with stills.Philip Ryan
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_ISO 1600, f/3.6, 1/13 second. _ Tip 8: Turn up your ISO Since the lights won’t be bright enough, you’ll have to turn up the sensitivity of the camera’s sensor to allow for the fastest shutter speed you can muster. That means setting the camera’s ISO to a higher number. I mostly used ISO 800 and 1600 with the S8000 even though the camera goes all the way up to ISO 3200. Why not go all the way to 3200? Noise. The farther you turn up the ISO, the more noise your images will have. Turning on the camera’s “ noise reduction”, will help, but it will also blur away some valuable image detail in the process. You probably can abandon the idea of using a compact camera’s top ISO setting, but at one or two notches down, the noise level may be acceptable to you. Do some experimenting to see where you should draw the line. Don’t be afraid to jack the ISO all the way up for your last few shots. If you’re only planning on displaying small versions of your photos online, the results may be acceptable.Philip Ryan
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