The Best ISO for Concert Photography

If you're new to live music photography, you may be new to photographing using high ISO settings. A common question for newer music photographers is, “what ISO setting should I use for concert photography?”

While there's no single setting that will work for all situations, overall what I'd say this:

Use the ISO you need to make the images you want.

Why avoid high ISO?

The biggest avoidance with using high ISO is due a decrease in image quality. Generally, with digital sensors, image quality declines in a few notable ways above (and below) the base or native ISO of the sensor. The base ISO is the sensitivity at which no digital gain is applied to the image capture. When photographing above the base ISO, the signal is amplified, and too with it digital nose.

Digital noise is the prime symptom that most people associate with photographing at high ISO. In addition, dynamic range, color fidelity and more also suffer.

High ISO is a compromise

In photography, there are three variables that dictate exposure:

  • Shutter speed
  • Aperture
  • ISO

With concert photography, one is working in low light and the production. Using primes or even f/2.8 lenses, we're very often photographing at max aperture to let in as much light as possible. So here, aperture is fixed as well.

That leaves aperture and ISO as the main variables we may change in the dimmest venues for live music. So we are often left with the choice — motion blur or grain.

All things being equal, most photographers would prefer a pristine image, without significant blur or grain. That said, within the constraints of exposure, we must choose our compromises.

It's natural for many photographers to want to avoid excessive grain or digital noise, particularly if you're not used to seeing it in your images.

Why high ISO doesn't matter in music photography

So, back to the question — what's the “best” ISO for music photography? My answer is always this:

Use the ISO you need to make the images you want.

Now here's why:

If the “worst” thing someone says about your images are that they're a little grainy, that means you did everything else right. You nailed the composition, the angle, the moment, the emotion.

Consider every classic rock photo that's ever etched itself in your memory. I'm not looking at the iconc photos of Lynn Goldsmith or Jim Marshall or Mick Rock or Pennie Smith and thinking, “Incredible, but a little too grainy.”

Don't sweat the technique. This includes motion blur, focus, or any other technical bit of execution or image quality. So long as they're not distracting, these aspects can be often less important than the moment, lighting and emotional impact of the image.

My personal suggestions for ISO

I'm a hugely technical photographer and pride myself on my execution. Still, I will never hesitate to choose an image that captures a decisive moment imbued with emotion and passion over a technically precise image that lacks these qualities.

These days, most full frame cameras perform wonderfully at high ISO. Even with APS-C sensors, you should be able to comfortably use ISO 3200-6400 with proper exposure.

On my Nikon Z 9, I will use up to ISO 12800 without much hesitation. Most of my concert photography lives between ISO 3200 and 6400. It's a rare day when I photograph at ISO 1600 or below as a professional music photographer.

No one cares about noise except for nerds

I have never once had a client comment on noise. Not in an editorial sense and certainly not for commercial applications. Never once has a paying client said, “The images are too grainy.” The people who do genuinely care about image grain enough to actively comment on it as a critique are probably dorks on the internet.