For those of us with children, friends, or relatives that have school students that perform, or just love to take photos at various performances (where photography is allowed), taking photographs in a darkened room or venue can be tricky. This article will be for those starting out with a DSLR or mirrorless camera that has full manual settings, on how to take photographs in an event, without a flash, and still capture the special moments you want.
Let’s face it, we all have seen someone use a flash from the middle of the audience, and the burst of light not only can be distracting for the performer, but also for the other audience members, as well as any video production taking place (which we do professionally also for various choirs and events around Las Vegas, Nevada). A typical “on camera pop-up flash” is designed to only throw artificial light so far, and in a concert setting it generally is of no help for the photograph you are hoping to capture.
First, let me say a few things about Manual Mode on your camera. Your camera documentation or any Google search will give you various information about how to switch from Automatic Mode (typically the green rectangle on the dial) to Manual Mode (typically M on your dial). There are other settings on the dial between A and M that have value too. This article will presume you are comfortable getting out of Automatic Mode and shooting in Manual Mode, which is where the power and creativity of your very capable camera comes into play.
Manual Mode allows you to set everything you need for a photo. Things like Aperture, ISO, Shutter Speed, as well as White Balance, Picture Style, Focus Point(s), and various other settings. For this discussion, I am going to focus on the first three items mentioned, Aperture, ISO, and Shutter Speed. These three settings work in concert (no pun intended) to help capture the best image from the event, giving you full control and not need to use a flash. By experimenting and using the ambient lighting at the event, which all concerts have some sort of stage lighting, you can eliminate the reliance on you flash. Manual Mode also eliminates your camera from automatically popping up the on camera flash when it thinks additional light is needed.
APERTURE <-> SHUTTER SPEED <-> ISO
Ok, let’s dive into Manual Mode without a flash, for a concert setting:
To set these various settings in Manual Mode (at least from a Canon camera perspective), and with the camera powered on and ready to use, press the Q button (or equivalent ) on the back of the camera to set the settings from the display screen.
Part of the three main settings that work together, aperture is the amount of light your lens will let into your camera to be captured by your camera’s sensor. Sometimes referred to as “F-stop”, the lower the number, the “faster” the lens will work, allowing more light into the camera. Aperture also controls depth of field, but in a concert lighting control is generally more important.
(Note: In addition to M mode, there is also AV mode on your camera, where you can lock in the aperture setting and the camera can control other things based on this setting, but that’s another review for another time – or your own exploration).
Set your aperture as low as possible, which will be based on your lens type, focal length, etc.
The faster the “glass” the better the photo can be captured in low light settings. However, to get a low aperture setting for your camera (f1.2, 1.8, 2.0, etc.), you will spend some significant dollars on the lens.
Generally speaking, in a concert or event setting you will be hand holding your camera, meaning no tripod attached (unless you are lucky to have the right spot and permission to use a tripod at the venue). As such, you will want to use a shutter speed that will minimize or eliminate any motion blur from the camera.
Typically, a shutter speed at 1/60 second or greater works well for “hand holding”, anything less you will start to see some blurring in the photo. Faster is better in a situation where things are moving on the stage. Maybe start with a speed of 1/100 or greater and work up or down from there.
Experiment with higher setting, as you want to shoot with the highest possible. However, keep in mind that the higher the shutter speed, the less time light can get into the camera.
The last part of the exposure triangle is ISO, which is a holdover from the old film days, but basically is related to speed of the photo. The higher the ISO, the less light needed and the faster the image you can capture. Generally, in concerts with low light, an ISO of 1600 or even 3200 is not uncommon. And sometimes if your camera allows, 6400 or even 12800 may be available and needed. A word of caution through, the higher the ISO, the more “grain” or “noise” may be in the photo (those little color dots).
So, to recap this portion:
- Higher ISO speed starting in the ISO 1600 or 3200 range first
- Fastest aperture as possible (based on the lens being used – faster the glass the better)
- Higher Shutter speed of at least 1/60, higher as needed based on the production movement
With some experimentation, you can master Manual Mode in an event, without your flash.
There are a few other settings to be aware of that will affect the photograph being taken.
White Balance – While capturing the image at the correct speed and with enough ambient lighting is important, the color of the photo is equally important. All cameras have a “White Balance” setting, which has various settings that can be manually selected, assuming you know the specific type of lighting being used. Lighting will vary settings, and different kinds of lights can be used throughout the production. There could be sunlight, shade, fluorescent lights, tungsten lighting, as well as other varieties of light. For me, I generally use a setting on my camera called “AWB” or Auto White Balance, and let the camera figure things out. While not as good as the human eye and balancing colors, most cameras do a pretty good job (and things can always be changed in Post Production also). There are times I will set a specific white balance.
JPEG vs. RAW – As a beginner, or if you just want to easily get the photos out after the concert without much or any post-production, you probably want to use JPEG format for your photo capture. While I generally shoot most of my photos in RAW format, and provide various levels of post on them, sometimes a simple shoot and upload/share is all that is needed. RAW format should not be scary to you. In simple terms it is the unedited/unaltered data the camera sensor saw, beyond things like aperture, ISO, shutter speed, and such, so you can modify these as you wish. Note: Most cameras will allow you to capture both JPEG and RAW photos at the same time, but be aware that this will take of valuable memory card space, as well as hard drive space for storage.
Metering and Focus – Use spot metering (center of your lens), as well as center automatic spot focus, and this should generally get your subject matter in the right light and in the right focus, as you can directly point this part of the lens and settings on the subject, artist, etc. While cameras are smart, they are also programmed to do what you tell them to do, and if spot metering or center automatic focus are not used, allowing the camera to have full use of the metering mode and focus mode, your results may not be the greatest and what you expected.
Drive – On Canon models, there is a setting called “drive” which controls the number of shots taken when the capture button is pressed. For low light settings, experiment with Low Speed Continuous or even High Speed Continuous, as this will give you various options of the same general photo to review and select from. Options are always good to have.
There are other settings your camera may have that you can explore and see what works best or to your liking. Everyone has their own way they want the photos to look.
Auto Mode – No Flash – Ok, seems out of place to get this far and reference that some cameras have an “auto mode but without an automatic flash”. In a worst case scenario and things are going right, this may be the one setting that can help, until you get better a full Manual Mode. If you have this setting it typically is a rectangle with a slash mark over a flash symbol.
Memory Cards – It is best to start out with fresh memory cards with no previous images, allowing as much space as possible for your capture. I clear all my cards I bring to an event (assuming I have already imported the previous images) and make sure they have been formatted by the camera (through the menu settings), to ensure they are ready for use. Additionally, have more than one card is helpful to ensure you have all the storage room possible. The beauty of digital photography is that is a photo does not work out, you can easily delete it and try again!
Venue and Production – Not that this has anything specific to the camera settings, but if you understand the concert venue, the production flow, and other related items, being ready for the photographs you are hoping to capture come easier and with less stress. Maybe quiz your performer and see what they can offer about the best place to sit (where possible), possible lighting set ups, etc.
The biggest word of advice for beginners moving from “Automatic Mode” to “Manual Mode”, and ditching the flash in the process, is to not be afraid to jump in and take chances. Be ready to adjust on the fly to ensure you don’t miss the moment, but with some pre-concert event experimentation, you should be ready to go at the event. The performers and the audience will thank you for not using that annoying and useless flash from the middle of the venue, and you get to capture some great looking memories. Happy Photographing!