Concert photography and focus

Discussion in 'Portraits and Fashion' started by gaelen_marsden, Dec 9, 2004.

  1. I've been shooting concerts occasionally for a school paper for the last few years (see for a few older examples). I've generally been fairly happy with them, but have found I have a real problem with focus. In particular, I have a lot a sharp microphones with fuzzy faces in behind. I use HP5 at 1600, two older EOS cameras (Elan and 10S), 50/1.8, 85/1.8, and 20/2.8.
    I find that I can't see well enough through the view finder to focus manually, or even adjust the autofocus. Clearly a larger f-stop would help, but I find I mostly need f/2 - 2.8 to get enough light onto the film at hand-help shutter speeds. Any suggestions on what I can do to improved my focus? Maybe I should practice more with adjusting the autofocus? Or should I spend my time developing a steadier hand so that I can shoot at lower shutter speeds and get a larger dof?
  2. Gaelen, I see on your website that you wear eyeglasses. Also that you study physics, so you probably know your way around optics a bit.

    I'm not familiar with your two cameras (I presume slr type?), but did you know that a 35mm slr's viewfinder typically displays a virtual image at about 1 meter (or a bit closer)? It may be that your eyes can't see sharply at that distance. Note that you might think you can in office type lighting, but in dim light it might not be so good (your pupils open up). What I'm leading up to is that you might just need a corrective diopter on the eyepiece. If you want to try this out, look into the viewfinder with a weak pair of reading glasses (say about 1.25 diopter). If this significantly improves your ability to focus with the viewfinder, you are on the right track.

    Regarding that business about a steadier hand, this is always a good thing to have. You might consider use of a monopod (a one-legged "tripod"); this would help steady things a lot.

    Also, in case you've not seen it, there's a nice article about concert photography on photonet at this url

    Hope things work out with regard to focusing!
  3. Make sure the camera focuses on the face, not on the microphone - that's all there is! Put the face into the focusing bracket indicator(s) on your camera, press the shutter button half way, recompose and shoot.

    Try this in broad daylight. If your camera consistently misfocuses, perhaps the focusing brackets are misaligned, or your AF system needs recalibration. In that case you may be better off getting another body, perhaps one with illuminated focusing points, they make it easier to see what the camera actually focuses on in low light.
  4. What kind of shutter speeds are you getting? If you go too slow, the musician's movements will blur the image, too. Of course that's not always bad.
  5. What do you mean by "adjusting the AF"? If it is "selecting a sensor pointing into the musicians face" it is the one and only essential about low light photography!!! Your AF works stupid-computer aided. The computer has the following routine 1. Awaking, 2. Damn dark here!, 3. Hey spots, find something to meter on; I'll listen to the one finding the closest distance.
    During the search of the spots the bright contrasty microphone is the candle in the night. So the AF will use it.
    My advices are: Practice selecting AF spots. My ones blink on the screen. switch your camera to focus priority, try to get some focus assist light (red pattern beam) wich works without flash and for all, not center only spot, or use the center spot for focusing and shift the camera. Go for a monopod and good luck.
    I had to do my concert shots without AF and had similar problems. Concerts are among the nastiest subjects. Maybe premium equipment helps, but even there seem to be lots of space for improvements.
  6. Ok, this is just a shot in the dark, and may NOT prevent the MIC from being in prime focus, but it's worth a try. (I like Bill's explanation...even I didn't realize the importance of proper dioptric adjustment.)

    You MAY be able to use a newer EOS flash with the IR assist beam. (I can't recall if Canon puts these on their flashes or not...aftermarket flashes such as Promaster and Vivitar have them.) You, of course, don't want to expose with the flash, so you may have to "fool" the camera into using your desired shutter speed, and cover the flash head with black electrical tape...but it can help in low light.

    While that's a way-out way to do could help, and I mention it in case you've already got a flash like this- certainly not worth buying one just for this reason.

    I've always estimated my distances in situations like that. Pick a bright spot somewhere the same distance away as your subject is, and focus-lock on that. (DON'T exposure lock, only focus lock.) Recompose and shoot.

    Incidentally, I use a similar method with exposure in a program mode. You can always exposure lock by quickly moving from a backlit subject until you get a reading more in line with what you think it should be- as opposed to shooting in manual mode. It's a fast way to make the adjustment without fiddling around with changing modes. EOS allows you to program exposure shift, so it doesn't apply as much as with older program mode cameras.

    I get irritated with my Elan in low light, and constantly shift into manual focus to deal with it.
  7. Manual focusing on an AF system, where both the screen and the lenses are optimized for AF, can be a real pain. Even with good eyes, in the dark it's not easy. I've found that if i have to switch off AF on my SLR due to the too low light level, i'm better off with a waist-level finder equipped TLR or a rangefinder. They are both much much easier to focus.

    I'm not suggesting to buy one of these; i'm just saying what solution I have found. If you have any of these type of cameras, try them once. Or borrow one froma friend, etc. Also, these are easier to handhold (no mirror slap). With a TLR i have no prob handholding at 1/15s (ok...using a neckstrap too).
  8. maybe this is odd sounding but take a sport photography approach for focusing. They've been shooting action photos for a long time before the invention of autofocus. Use the trick of focusing on a line on the playing field and waiting for the moment to come when the players come to that spot or somewhere near it. or focusing on the ball on a soccer freekick or the paint of basketball layup when they launch into space

    in a concert, it's even easier, they gotta come back to the microphone stand and sing sooner or later... have it focused on the tip of the mic and then add a couple inches beyond it and that should be where their face is going to come back to. Drummers stay put and bass players don't move much. Guitarists are fairly static when they are doing a solo. even when crazies jump around, it's off the drumset platform or something. use the mic cords ductape if you can when they are in the middle of the stage

    The only tricky part is the indeed low lighting... Pray that the house lights has a decent amount to work with... Whip out the handheld light meter if you can get near enough to the stage just to make sure. HP5 at 1600iso is more then enough though. oi! try 800iso at f4 plus be able to shoot at 1/250 still and freeze the action... are you able to shoot at those settings? if not... that might be resulting in some of your fuzz. Just a guess though.. even at 1/250th you should still have plenty of moody lighting and a bit less grain at 800iso. Isn't bulk HP5 film grand:) I read of pros who use 100iso FP4 & kodak slide film at f1.8 at 1/30th... so it can be done

    only thing i can ask... is when you listed your gear... why didn't you have a mild telephoto??? my 135mm is my favourite to use for close-ups of a musician ten feet away on stage, try it out if you get a chance... it's wicked awesome fun

  9. one thing to a monopod... it's too tempting to use it as a roman legionaire short stabbing sword when warding off crazies at the front of a mosh pit pressing in against you... dunno what kinds of music you people shoot but jabbing elbows at people to protect my gear and shielding it to my chest... i ain't time to set up a monopod... i can live without lol
  10. Spearhead

    Spearhead Moderator

    When there's not enough light, I usually prefocus on a spot that is lit and wait, as suggested above. Other times, I wing it on the manual focus and it works pretty well. Focus on the mike (if they are at the mike) and then manually back it off a bit.<p>

    I agree about the monopod not being that useful - only certain places this will work, with certain crowds. A lot of the bigger venues won't allow them.<p>
  11. >> I agree about the monopod not being that useful - only certain places this will work, with certain crowds. 30 or 1/60), I blurred about 3/4 of my shots. A monopod would have helped immensely while I was up on my toes, squeezing off the shots as gently as I could. If I can get things to work, here's one of the sharp ones.
  12. I am just a beginner and people have already answered about focusing. So I will just comment on a lower shutter speed. I bought a bag with adjustable straps so you can carry it on your back, side or front. It has a rigid top, so if you fix it on your front it gives you a very firm support for your elbow. I shot a show with 100 mm lens at 1/30 seconds. I believe I could use a slower shutter speed but the pictures would blur because people move. Their hands already blurred a bit at 1/30 when they were dancing.
    It is also very convenient when you have all your gear in front of you so you can easily change lenses, etc.
  13. A faster lens could help make focusing easier, even if you don't need to shoot it wide
    open. And it's not like a 50/1.4's going to do too much piggy bank damage. The more
    stops between focusing aperture and shooting aperture the easier things are both for you
    and for your camera's AF.

    If you find AF picking up the mic is a consistent problem try looking for angles where
    getting mic focus will also give you good face focus--like in the shot Brian posted.

    You could also consider trying TMZ/D3200.
  14. I shoot with a Canon 10S & an A2E (not using the E part) & I shoot concerts. You have some of the best (at least film) bodies for this. I use the 2.8 zooms (28-70 & 70-200). One big thing I realized early was to move out from behind the mic. Meaning shoot more of a 45 to the wire (or antenna side) of the mic. If it's not in the center, it's easier to focus on the face and NOT the mic. Also I know on the 10S you can set the focus marks. Go ahead and set it to the "top" side of the frame. (I assume (I know) you're shooting verticals....) Do you have an example.
  15. I shoot at low light concerts every week and I rarely spend much time worrying about focus. You will generally know where the performed will be when singing or performing so try focusing on them when they are standing still and then when they perform you simply wait for them to come into the area you focused on and then click away. You get lots of dark, out of focus, mics in the way type shots doing music photography but when you get a good shot it's generally because of practise, practise and more practise.

    Have a look at some of my concert photos and if you want to know how I captured any of them feel free to ask.


    My Concert Photos
  16. I use a monopode quiete often.
    Harry Fayt
    Feel free to comment and rate my portfolio ;-)
    By the way Gaelen you have nice photos on your website, they have a vintage flavor I was surprised to read exposure date 2002.
  17. Spot focus, AF-hold and fast hands. Shooting at F1.4 or F2.0 is rather unforgiving so focusing on the mic and waiting for the face to show up is not always the best option. Concert photography is about technique and speed; fast ISO, fast lens, fast hands and quick reaction times to lighting and mood.

    In my opinion practice is the only way to get good, at anything really, and concert photography is no exception. It's very challenging and frustrating but capturing a special moment for an artist is very rewarding.

    you can check out my concert portfolio at

    Best of luck!

Share This Page