While my normal go-to lens for indoor concert photography is a midrange zoom like the Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8 (or Nikon 17-55mm f/2.8 on APS), telephoto lenses can be an essential part of the live music photographer's kit. The highly utilitarian wide-to-short-tele midrange lens excels in from the pit for most venues, but some situations can benefit from the graces of a long lens, which can bring the action to the photographer and create more flattering perspectives than shorter focal lengths.
Range: Reaching the Action
One obvious advantage of telephoto lenses is their reach, which can be essential when photographing musicians from a distance. Whether it's picking up the drummer at the back of the stage or photographing far back from the stage, a long lens helps close the gap and bring the action to the viewer.
In this shot of Pet Shop Boys‘ Chris Lowe, a 70-200mm lens allowed for fairly tight shots, even though photography was restricted to the sound board behind the pit at the band's request.
Even with moderate distances, a telephoto lens can help deliver high-impact, frame-filling close-ups performers. The Nikon 70-200mm was perfect for photographing Chan Marshall, AKA Cat Power, performing at the 2007 Pitchfork Music Festival, and stayed on the camera for her entire set.
Better Angles and Perspectives
Particularly for tighter shots of individual performers, a telephoto lens can lens a more flattering shooting angle while still producing frame-filling shots of the subject. Long lenses allow photographer to shoot more obliquely along the stage, rather than right on top of the subject (or under, as the case may be in the pit).
When photographing singers, shooting down-stage will often provide a key degree of separation between the the face and microphone. This technique can be especially useful for performers who hold the mic close to their face. Even a short telephoto lens can provide the reach to shoot from a distance down-stage, as the following shot with the the Nikon 85mm f/1.4 shows.
At the Pitchfork Music Festival, the long reach of the telephoto zoom was key in photographing artists like Sam Beam. During Iron & Wine's set at the three-day event, shooting slightly off-axis with the 70-200mm allowed for a higher hit rate for clear shots of the singer's face, which translates into a better visual read and more impact.
Telephoto lenses can provide visual isolation not only through their narrower field of view, but also with their shallow depth of field as well. These aspects of selection may be useful for composition and readability of the subject in a cluttered environment.
This benefit is particularly true for daytime, outdoor events, when more abundant light can create more visual competition in the environment surrounding performers. In this shot of Devendra Banhart, using a long focal length and wide aperture with the 70-200mm created plenty of separation between the folk singer and the background.
However, for even with stage lighting, a long lens can provide very useful isolation that allows for creative composition and framing that can help highlight a subject.
In this shot of the Dresden Dolls‘ Brian Viglione, the Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 allowed for a tight, abstracted shot of the drummer, reaching through the clutter of his setup.