Concert photography from the back row

Written by Gary on December 9th, 2011

We all want a little memento of the concerts we pay lots of money to attend and enjoy but taking a reasonable photo from 100m or more away is challenging given the constraints imposed by the concert venue – in particular – most only allow photos from “small digital cameras” and ban videos.

Don’t bother bringing a dSLR or large lenses – the security staff will almost certainly ask you to put it away.

Simple point and shoot cameras with their tiny sensors and minimal telephoto zoom reach are not going to get very good quality shots unless you are lucky enough to get to the mosh pit near the stage.

My solution which pushes the venue limits and may still require some discretion, in particular, you do not want security staff to be given the impression your are doing long sequences of video as that would be banned no matter what camera or lens you use.

Camera choice:

The best compromise then is a small, compact mirrorless camera with a built-in electronic viewfinder (you do NOT want to be distracting everyone with bright light coming from an LCD screen – use the viewfinder to do everything).

I use a Panasonic GH-1 Micro Four Thirds camera although even this is probably getting a bit big for venue staff – a smaller mirrorless camera such as a Olympus E-PL3 with the optional viewfinder may be a better option, and the Olympus cameras have the added benefit of built-in image stabilisation which can be useful in this situation where you will be using relatively slow shutter speeds of 1/125th second for 200-270mm telephoto reach at ISO 800.

The newer Sony NEX mirrorless cameras (eg. Sony NEX 5n or NEX 7) could be used if they have an electronic viewfinder but they have the disadvantage compared to Micro Four Thirds in that the same size lens does not give you as much zoom – and for this, you want as much telephoto reach as possible from your lens. Furthermore, they do not have built-in image stabiliser like the Olympus cameras do.

Lens choice:

Next step is to choose a lens to use which will give you enough telephoto reach without being too large that venue staff will object.

My preference is a legacy manual focus Olympus OM lens with wide aperture.

Olympus OM because they are among the most compact lenses you can get.

Manual focus lens because, I like to manually focus and then just leave it carefully in that focus position so I can just pick the camera up, turn it on and I am ready to capture a key moment without having to worry about focus – autofocus lenses may struggle in many concert lighting conditions and may cause you to miss your shot.

The Olympus OM 135mm f/2.8 lens is probably the largest lens you can get away with and this gives you sufficient telephoto reach for a large concert venue while the f/2.8 aperture allows you to keep ISO around 800 and shutter speed around 1/125th – 1/200th sec.

If you know you will be a bit closer to the stage, the Olympus OM 100mm f/2.8 lens is smaller and much more likely to be acceptable to venue staff.

Next step is to set your camera up.

Firstly make sure it will NOT be firing the flash – flash will be useless at such distances, it will drain your battery and it is really, really annoying to everyone else.

Set your ISO to ISO 800 – a lower ISO will mean shutter speed will be too slow for hand held telephoto shots and you will end up with too much camera shake.

If your camera is an Olympus, set image stabiliser to the focal length of the lens you are using – assuming it is a legacy lens such as an Olympus OM lens.

Next, set your exposure mode to MANUAL and with your lens wide open (eg. f/2.8), take a few shots at different shutter speeds until the exposure of the faces on the stage under the stage lighting looks adequate – this will be something like 1/125th sec.

Finally, use magnified view to accurately focus your lens on the stage.

Then you are ready to go.

These images have not been cropped and have not had any post-processing (except colour adjustment in the last one) other than resize to web size and the default Lightroom export sharpening for screen.

Elton John

Elton John in concert, Melbourne 2011

Taken from a long way back using Panasonic GH-1 with Olympus OM 135mm f/2.8 lens.

Elton John

Elton John


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