Commack High School Winter Concert I
First gallery of the winter season and it's a concert by the 9th graders. Very impressive groups! They did a great job.
I thought I'd start off the winter concert season by giving you some tips on how to photograph your typical school concert. It's not as easy as it looks but with a little preparation and planning you can minimize the stress.
- First, set up your camera as much as possible before you leave home. If you've shot a concert in your school before you should know what the exposure and white balance settings should be. If not, at least you can get in the ballpark. At Commack High School my white balance setting is on tungsten (usually a little light bulb in your settings) because stage lights are almost always tungsten balanced. I avoid auto white balance because it tends to try to "normalize" the stage lighting and wash out the colors. I put my camera in manual exposure mode because there's no way any of the automatic exposure modes are going to work with a strongly lit subject against a black background and foreground; you'll get blown out highlights every time. At Commack I start out at ISO 6400, f/4.5 @ 1/125 second. In any high school you're not going to get even lighting and you'll have to adjust your exposure so I'll do this by varying my shutter speed for various parts of the stage and risers that are unevenly lit. The thing with concerts is that, although you'll probably need to use a fairly high ISO, your shutter speed doesn't need to be that fast. The musicians are fairly stationary except for their arms and, even if you blur their arms this can be an interesting look, as in the photo on the left.
- If you have a lens with vibration reduction (also know as "image stabilization" or "optical image stabilization" depending on your camera manufacturer) this is the place to use it because it will help a lot with slower shutter speeds in low light. Stage lighting may look bright but that's because you're sitting in the dark. You want to bring your longest telephoto lens, especially if you're only shooting your kid and not the whole ensemble. I shoot with a 100-400mm lens which, on a DX body gives me around 150-600mm. If you are shooting the whole ensemble also bring along a medium zoom, something around 16-55mm on a DX camera or 24-70 on a full frame camera.
- Get to the concert early. You want to get your camera and lens(es) setup while the house lights are up because once the concert starts it's probably gonna be dark where you're sitting.
- If you're lucky enough to have your kid sitting or standing in the front row of the ensemble, you hit the jackpot. Pick out a seat up front, preferably on the aisle. If not, you probably want to get as far back in the auditorium as possible, especially if your auditorium slopes downward. It also helps to ask your kid where they'll be sitting or standing to ensure you're on a side where they're facing you.
- While the house lights are still up get your lens attached and turn off your flash. Your flash will do nothing but light up the heads of the people sitting in front of you, make your photo look strange and generally annoy everyone. Trust me, it will do more harm than good. Even if your flash is strong enough to make it to the stage it will only wash out the dramatic stage lighting and make your photos look flat. If your camera has a quiet or silent shutter mode, now's the time to turn it on. If your camera can display a histogram in the viewfinder, turn that on also; it will help you get the proper exposure once you start shooting. You want the histogram as far right as possible without climbing the right wall. Vary your shutter speed to adjust this.
- As soon as the house lights dim and the ensemble gets on stage or on the risers you want to set your exposure. This goes without saying, but you should know how to make these adjustments in the dark. If you can't you're pretty much screwed, so practice at home at least setting your aperture, shutter speed and ISO.
- The ideal time to take the photos is when a band or orchestra is playing their loudest passage and the members of the choir are all singing together. This minimizes the chance that the sound of your shutter will be annoying and, in the case of a shot of the whole ensemble, makes it look like they're actually performing rather than sitting/standing around. You want the musicians to look like they're playing their instruments and the singers with their mouths open.
- Finally, take some photos but enjoy the concert. That's why you came, right?
Questions? Use the email form on the homepage. Have fun.