Concert Photography How-To: Metering & Exposure, pt. 1


Between the dim, monochrome washes of basement dives and the explosive lighting of arena shows, achieving the correct exposure for concert photography can be one of the biggest challenges for beginning and experienced shooters alike.

Here's a basic four-step breakdown for how I set exposure shooting gigs.

Determining Exposure for Concert Photography

The following, which requires shooting in manual mode, is my standard process for setting exposure at the start of a set and for every lighting change afterward:

  1. Shoot a test exposureFor this test frame, I'll just make an educated guess at exposure given the amount of light in the venue. Generally this is going to be around f/2.8 and 1/160 between ISO 1600 and 6400.
  2. Review the histogram and image displayThat's right, chimp it up. In reviewing the above test frame, I'll look at both the histogram and overall rendition of the image. With the latter, it's important to use a camera with a fairly accurate LCD, otherwise one can be misled. I'll also review the areas of blown highlights to ensure that important details are intact in the subject.Of the four steps, this is both the most difficult and the most important. The good thing is, if you blow it, you've always got another shot.
  3. Rinse, repeatToo bright? Too dark? Go back to step 1 and adjust as necessary. ISO, shutter speed, and aperture – whatever it takes. When you've nailed it, proceed to the last step.
  4. Set it and forget it 

    Once you've achieved optimum exposure for the current lighting scheme, lock it down and concentrate on making images – i.e., don't sweat the technics. When the lights change (and they will), go back to step one and repeat the whole process.

Notice that I haven't mentioned the in-camera meter and with good reason. As any experienced photographer will attest, all light meters can lie; or at the very least, they are never accurate 100% of the time for all scenes or situations. With concert photography, this take away is especially true.

End Notes:

Ideally, this give and take process only takes a few seconds of the first song as the lighting scheme stabilizes, and for every subsequent major lighting change. Obviously the above routine is less applicable to strobes and highly variable lighting, but this four-step system is my core basis for establishing exposure throughout a set.

In the next article in this two-part series, I'll go into more depth on the additional techniques I employ in conjunction with this routine to achieve the best possible exposure at the time of shooting.