Gig photography from the crowd – knowing your camera

Before I get started, a disclaimer. I’m not professing to be a great gig photographer but over the years I’ve managed to get a number of decent shots from the crowd using compact cameras. I’m surprised by the number of gig-goers who simply don’t understand anything about their camera and have it on full auto and try to capture images from the crowd using the tiny built-in flash. It’s rare that the band will be close enough for the flash to have any effect and although occasionally they may capture a reasonable image due to the camera effectively selecting reasonable settings for the lighting, most people could get far better photos by taking it off ‘auto’ or the ‘candlelight’ setting. I’ve regularly stood next to people using exactly the same camera as me, with them using ‘auto’ and them getting far worse results than me. So I thought I would offer some useful tips for other non professionals who shoot from the crowds.

First some images captured using a bog standard compact. The following images were captured using a Panasonic TZ5. This camera is almost entirely automatic and produces very ‘muddy’ images in the dark. But by understanding the camera features it’s still possible to get reasonable results.

Yeah Yeah Yeahs
2009 – Yeah Yeah Yeah’s captured using a Panasonic TZ5. This camera is almost entirely auto and is the kind of camera used by most gig-goers. Shutter speed set to 1/100s via the ‘maximum shutter speed’ menu option which overrides it’s auto mode. ISO800. f4.8

Ting Tings
2009 – Ting Tings – Panasonic TZ-5. 1/250s used to freeze movement. ISO800

The basics

All photography is about capturing light and at gigs, light can be hard to come by. An SLR is ideal for gigs because it allows you to do two things. Photograph using a fast lens and to use higher iso’s without noise ruining the photo. It would be great if we were all allowed to take a SLR into a gig but understandably most venues do not allow us to take them in. But I’m rushing ahead of myself. Lets talk about some photography basics and I mean basics.

There are three main parameters that are important in photography, aperture, shutter speed and ISO.

Aperture – The aperture is the hole in your lens that allows the light through to your camera’s sensor. The size of the aperture is described using a ‘f-number’. The aperture number is a measure that describes how much light your camera will let through to the image sensor and how much of the scene is in focus. The smaller the f-number, the larger the hole will be and the shallower the focus of the camera will be. When photographing in poor light, the more light you can let through to sensor, the better. So a lens with an aperture of f1.4 will let in more light than a lens with an aperture of f2.

The standard f-number scale is:

f1.4  f2  f2.8  f4  f5.6  f8  f11  f16  f22

The amount of light captured halves as you move from each number while the depth of field increases (amount in focus).

Most people when they’re selecting a camera for use at gigs think that it’s important to get a camera with a large zoom. I did the same myself, buying a Panasonic TZ5 with 10x zoom. The zoom is undoubtably useful allowing you to capture action from further back in the venue. Unfortunately, the design of the lens for these cameras means that the maximum aperture is usually a slow f4 (at the wide end) to f5.6 at the zoomed end. This means they let far less light in that a smaller zoom camera. For example, the Olympus XZ1 has a 4x zoom with an aperture of f2.5. This means it lets in four times the amount of light than a camera with an f5.6 lens. So when you select your camera, try to get a camera with a fast f1.8 lens. It’s easier to crop an image than it is to add light to a dark photo.

Shutter speed – This describes how long the shutter stays open. The quicker the shutter speed, the more chance you have of capturing fast movement. It’s important that you choose a shutter speed that freezes the movement of the band. (unless off course you want to capture the movement of the band). Important to note is that if you use a longer zoom, then the image becomes more susceptible to your hand shaking and you’ll have to use a quicker shutter speed to stop the image from being blurry.

ISO – ISO describes the sensitivity of the sensor. The higher the sensitivity, the more sensor noise will creep into the image. With ISO there’s a simple rule. The bigger the camera’s sensor, the better the camera will be at producing usable results at higher ISO. ISO numbers are easy to understand. Each time the ISO number doubles, so does the light sensitivity. ISO200 is twice as sensitive as ISO100. ISO400 is twice as sensitive as 200, and so on. Unfortunately compact cameras have very small sensors and so the light capturing pixels are smaller than on the large sensors in SLRs. So often struggle to produce clean images above ISO800. So try and buy a camera with as larger sensor as possible.

Gig (all) photography is about controlling these three factors to get the best possible results from your camera in the low light and this means taking your camera off the auto setting and to explore the other modes.

PASM (Programme, Aperture, Shutter, Manual)

You may have noticed that you have some mysterious modes on your camera ‘P’, ‘A’, “S’, ‘M’. (Canons have TV and AV instead of S and A) These modes are the key to maximising your camera’s performance.

A – Aperture priority

In this mode, you set the aperture you want and the camera alters the shutter speed and ISO to ensure that enough light is captured. Most cameras will select a low ISO (to minimise noise) and increase the shutter speed. This often leads to blurred images as the shutter speed is too slow to freeze the action. But in good light, Aperture priority allows you to control how much of the image is in focus and this gives you more creative control over your images.

S – Shutter priority

In this mode you set the shutter speed and the camera alters the aperture and ISO to capture enough light. Like ‘A’ the camera will alter the two remaining parameters, aperture and ISO. Quicker shutter speeds freeze action. Slower shutter speeds allow more light in but lead to blurry images.

Although most bands don’t move around that quickly, you still need to select a relatively fast shutter speed to freeze the band’s movement. I’ve found that the best compromise between freezing motion while still letting in a reasonable amount of light is 1/80s. For faster movement, you may have to increase the speed to 1/125 to 1/250. (Difficult to get usable results with a compact at these shutter speeds). If you have a slow lens and your camera produces poor high ISO results, then you may have to use 1/40 and accept motion blur. If you’re using a slow speed, you might benefit from switching on your camera’s image stabilisation.

One thing I’ve notice is that often the camera will select something like f4 and then increase the ISO. If this is not ideal for your camera, you may have to select the ISO manually or choose to shoot in Manual mode.

M – Manual

It sounds complicated. But once you get to know your camera and your camera’s metering, it’s not that difficult. Manual mode requires you to manually set the shutter speed, aperture, and ISO. I have to admit, I tend to use manual with my SLR but rarely with my compact.

P – Programme

I’ve not mentioned ‘Program’ mode. In Program mode you alter the ISO the camera controls the aperture and shutter speed. I never use this mode.

How I shoot at gigs

Over the year’s I’ve found shutter priority to be the most reliable way to capture decent photos. I’ve also moved away from the automatic Panasonic TZ5 used for the first two photographs, first to an Olympus XZ1 and recently to a Sony RX100. Both these cameras offer RAW support and a PASM mode. Neither of these cameras are cheap. But in general with digital cameras the more you pay, the better the results will be.

RAW mode effectively records the image without applying any processing. This is useful because cameras usually apply noise reduction and colour profiles to the JPEGs. In the case of say the Panasonic TZ5. It’s noise reduction settings at ISO800 and above tend to create a blurry mushy mess. But using tools such as Lightroom or in my case Apple’s Aperture, you can use can use their noise reduction facilities to control how your final image looks. For example I find that many cameras add red noise to blacks at high ISOs. You can supplement the application’s noise controls by tweaking the colour levels so that the reds are turned into black. If all else fails, I try converting the image to black and white because sometimes the noise doesn’t overly effect the look of the image (old fashion B&W film often had a grain so it can give the image ‘character’).

In terms of my current cameras, the Olympus XZ1 has a very fast and sharp lens. It offers an f1.8 at wide and f2.5 at tele. Unfortunately, this camera struggles when the ISO is pushed beyond ISO1250. Up to 1250, the noise is evident but it’s more like film grain and doesn’t unduly detract from the image.

My newer Sony RX100, although it also offers a fast f1.8 lens, it quickly drops off to a slow f4.9 as you zoom. However, the two stops of light advantage the Olympus offers is easily made up by the fantastic ISO performance of this camera. Although it’s a tiny camera, Sony has managed to squeeze a relatively large sensor into the camera and for web photos, I find I can push it to ISO6400. In fact ISO6400 better than ISO1250 from the Olympus. It also has a 20 mega pixel lens. So you can often leave the camera at the faster wide end and then crop the photo in post production.

Obviously there’s a lot more to capturing reasonable images than just setting the camera to ‘S’ mode and the camera will play an important part in the results you achieve. Other important factors are using exposure compensation and working around the limitations of your camera’s focusing system. For example I usually manually set the focus point and then put the camera into ‘high speed’ capture mode and capture four of five images to increase the chance that one image is in focus. But I think  getting used to ‘S’ mode’s a good starting point.

Other factors to think about.

  • The closer you are to the front, the less you’ll have to zoom. So get there early. You never know, you might like the support act.
  • Make sure you use the camera’s strap. You don’t want your camera to end up on the floor.
  • Watch the band. Think about the music and watch for patterns so that you’re ready for a good shot
  • Limit the number of photos you take. You’re there for the gig. I tend to take photos in three blocks, beginning, middle and end of the gig. I then put my camera in my pocket so that I’m not tempted to photo everything
  • I usually don’t video any of the gig. I find that I end up watching the screen and not the band.


Hey Sholay at Hoxton Square
Hey Sholay captured using an RX100 at the Lexington. (1/80s f4.9 ISO6400). Although this is a small venue, I had to zoom because the crowd was quiet empty so it hung back from the stage. The lead singer also moves his arms around a lot. So I couldn’t drop the shutter speed to 1/40s and use ISO3200. Converted to B&W the noise isn’t unpleasant.


The Staves
The Staves captured at the Village Underground. (1/100s f4.9 ISO2500). Decent lighting so the ISO didn’t creep up too high so I could use a quicker shutter speed. B&W for effect.


276/366 - The Crookes at Lexington
The Crookes at the Lexington. Closer to the stage than Hey Sholay and I wanted to capture the movement of the band. (1/100s f2.5 ISO2500 RX100). The shutter speed allowed me to freeze the slower guitarist and the quicker movement of the lead singer. I think movement helps this photo. So don’t be afraid to use shutter speeds that don’t freeze all of the motion.


272/366 - The Kills
The Kills at Alexandra Palace. (1/100s f4.5 ISO6400 RX100). This was a big concert and pushed the Sony RX100 to it’s limits as it had to be zoomed in to capture anything. Many of the photos from this gig were too dark. But it was a classic example of a gig where flash was never going to help. Choosing 1/100s or quicker was necessary because Alison Mosshart rarely stands still.


The Hives at The Roundhouse
The Hives at the Roundhouse (1/80s f3.2 iso125). A lucky capture. I normally would choose a faster shutter setting for somebody jumping. But luckily it came out well.


313/366 - The Hives at The Roundhouse
The Hives at the Roundhouse (1/80s f3.2 ISO1250 RX100 In-camera B&W JPEG). Remember your camera has picture styles. These tend to only apply to JPEG. So don’t be afraid to switch to JPEG if you feel the photo might benefit from a picture style. In this case, as the Hives were dressed in top hats and tails. The Sony’s ‘high contrast B&W’ mode was perfect for this gig.


264/366 - Japandroids at Heaven
Japandroids at Heaven. (1/160s f1.8 ISO1250). This gig was poorly lit. This was the first gig I used the RX10o at. So I wasn’t 100% confident in all the settings. So the ISO was initially let low and the camera zoomed out. As you can see, selecting a faster shutter speed allows action to be captured.


Alabama Shakes at the HMV Forum
Alabama Shakes. Really simple shot. (1/80s f4.9 ISO6400 RX100). This photo has quite a bit of noise in the blacks. By tweaking the colour levels it was possible to loose much of it. This photo also shows how by using off centre (look up rule of thirds) focus point you can create more interesting compositions than by simply having the subject in the centre. This photo could be improved by taking it into Photoshop and removing the spot lights. But I tend to only tweak levels and crop photos before uploading to Flickr. The photo also shows the disadvantage of crowd photography. If you have spotlights behind the singers head. You may find that you all your photos come out poorly.


248/366 - The Savages at Electrowerkz
The Savages (1/80 f2.8 ISO1250 Olympus XZ1). A very poorly lit gig. If there’s flashing spot lights, it can be worth switching your camera to ‘continuous burst’ mode and take a series of shots. You might be lucky and capture the flash light on the face. This happened here. As it was RAW I could pull down the over exposed image.


Race Horses
Race Horses (1/80s f2.5 ISO800 Olympus XZ1). Converted to B&W due to noise


Pulp at the Royal Albert Hall
Pulp at the Royal Albert Hall. (1/80s ƒ2.4 ISO 1250 XZ1). If you’re at the limit of your camera. Try converting it to B&W. Also try to avoid using the full zoom and crop afterwards. In this case, if I fully zoomed, then the photo was underexposed. By zooming back out slightly I could improve the exposure and then cropped it slightly in Aperture.


Chapman Family
Chapman Family at the Bull and Gate (1/80s f2.5 ISO1250). Shows one of the difficulties you can run into. Colours can be ‘clipped’ as some cameras can be oversensitive to one colour. The Olympus XZ1 seems to be red sensitive and the face is a bit ‘blown out’