Aperture, Shutter Speed and ISO: Basics in Concert Photography

AC/DC: “It´s a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock ‘n’ Roll)”

Before you start your journey to becoming a Rockstar Concert Photographer, you need to master the basics of photography, such as aperture, shutter speed and ISO. Fear not, this will be as basic as it can get.


The aperture is the opening, or a „hole“ located inside the lens and allows you to select how much light hits the digital sensor of your camera. This hole is formed by a series of overlapping metal blades (Diaphragm) and can be adjusted with your camera to make the opening larger or smaller. The larger the opening, the more light can enter (large aperture). The smaller the opening, the less light can enter (small aperture). The exact same principle applies to the function of the iris of your eyes.

Apertures are also known by f-numbers. The smaller the f/number the larger the opening in the lens (large aperture). Especially, in the beginning, this nomenclature can lead to some confusion and it took me a while to figure out how f/numbers work. Technically speaking the f-numbers are ratios and are determined by dividing the diameter of the lens opening by the focal length of the lens. Since I promised to explain it in a way that you don´t have to have a Ph.D. in physics, I´ll leave you with this explanation and rather focus on the practical aspects how to use these f-numbers for our advantage.

F/numbers like 1.4, 2, 2.8, 4 and 5.6 reflects the widest opening (dependent on your lens) and will admit the greatest amount of light. Whereas f/numbers like 8, 11, 16 and 22 reflect the smallest opening which lets in less light. When you set your lens to the smallest aperture number you are shooting „wide open“. If you choose bigger aperture numbers you are „stopping the lens down“.

When you increase the f/number by a full stop (or one-stop increment) e.g from f/2 to f/2.8, the lens lets in half as much light as before. This means that f/4 allows half as much light as f/2.8 and f/5.6 allows half as much light as f/4. On the other hand, f/8 lets in twice as much light as f/11 and f11 lets in twice as much light as f/16.

Why would you want to change the opening in your lens? Well, you might think that the only aspect to consider is to control the flow of light that hits the camera sensor. It sounds obvious that when shooting on a sunny day in bright sunlight you should make the hole (the aperture) in your lens smaller. Whereas when you are shooting a concert in low light conditions you should set the aperture wide open to let enough light hit you camera sensor.

But the aperture has an even more important function, namely to control Depth of field (DoF).

Simply speaking, Depth of field is the area of sharpness within a picture. I am sure you have already noticed this phenomenon in magazines or picture books of professional photographers. Some photos contain e.g. models where only the eyes of the person are in focus whereas the background is blurry. When focusing your lens to a certain point, everything in the image on the same horizontal plane is in focus as well. Everything in front and behind this point (plane of focus) is not in focus. So, the depth of field determines the area that´s in focus and the aesthetic quality of the blur produced in the out-of-focus parts of an image is referred as BOKEH (japanese for blur).

What influences Depth of field:

  • Aperture. for me this is by far the most important factor to determine DoF. A small f/number (large aperture) not only allow to let in more light, but also decreases the Depth of field. This will result in a very shallow focus area in your picture and an out-of-focus foreground/background. The wider the aperture (the smaller the f/number) the smaller the DoF. Therefore portrait photographers often use an aperture of f/1.4 or f/2.8 to get this effect.
  • Subject distance. The distance between you and the subject also determines the DoF. The closer you focus on your subject, the shallower the depth of field. It makes a huge difference if the artist on stage is two meters away or he leans over to you and sings into your camera.
  • Focal length. The third component that influences DoF is the focal length of your lens. The longer the focal length e.g. 200mm the shallower the DoF. The shorter the focal length e.g. 35mm the deeper the DoF.

Summary of Aperture for concert photographers:

Get the „fastest lens“ within your budget. With “fast” lenses I am referring to lenses with a small aperture number such as f1.4, f1.8 or f2.8. I shoot 95% of my concert shootings without exception with small f/numbers. Most of the time you have to deal with ultra low light situations during concerts. So, the only way to get a decent exposure is to let as much light into your camera as possible. This you can archive by setting your lens to the smallest f/number (big aperture). In addition your photos will have a shallow Depth of Field which helps to blur out some distracting stage elements behind the artists. For example, if you focus on the eyes of your model using an aperture of f1.8, then the ears will be out of focus. Therefore, it’s important when using small aperture numbers, to always focus on the eyes of the musicians on stage!

If you want to know more about which lens you should get to start with read here: Concert-photography-for-starters-on-a-budget.

Shutter Speed

Shutter speed is the second component used to achieve the correct exposure. When you press the shutter button on your camera, a device called “the shutter” inside your camera opens and allows light to pass from the lens into your camera body to hit the camera sensor. The time the shutter stays open allowing the light to hit the sensor is called shutter speed.

This means that the shutter speed controls the effect of motion in your photo. Fast shutter speeds freeze the action. Slower shutter speeds allow to record the action as a blur.

The various shutter speeds are indicated as whole numbers such as 60, 125 or 250 in your viewfinder or on your camera display. However, these numbers are a fraction of a second: 1/60, 1/125, 1/250. Most newer cameras have the ability to set the shutter speed between very slow 30 seconds to ultra fast 1/8000 seconds. Shutter speeds over one second e.g. 2 sec are marked with two hash marks after the number such as 2“.

Iron Maiden - Buce Dickinson

Iron Maiden

If you go from a shutter speed of 1/125 seconds to 1/250 seconds, the shutter stays open for half of the time. 1/125 seconds is double the time as 1/250 seconds, so half of the light will hit the camera sensor. This might sound complicated, but once you thought this over, it´s simple. The higher the 1/x time is, the faster the shutter speed. 1/250 seconds is faster then 1/125 seconds. 1/500 seconds is faster then 1/250 seconds.

In concert photography, I shoot 99% of the time with a fast shutter speed around 1/200 of a second to make sure I get sharp images of the artist. Sometimes I set a slower shutter speed to blur parts of the image. One great example is to blur the drumsticks of a drummer. Since the drummer is sitting relatively still, but his hands with the drumsticks are moving fast you can capture a sharp image of the person with blurred drumsticks which gives the feeling of motion and action. The same applies to a guitarist who’s strumming hand is moving fast.

As a rule of thumb: 1/focal length is the slowest shutter speed you should use when hand-holding your camera because of camera shake (50mm -> 1/50sec, 200mm -> 1/250sec, and so on). If the subjects are moving and rocking (and the band members usually are), you’ll need even faster speeds. So remember, you’ll get blurry photos because of your camera shaking, or because the subject is moving too fast, but in both cases, your shutter speed is too long to freeze the action

Drummer Chad Smith of the band Red Hot Chili Peppers during a concert on Dezember 7th 2011 in the Stadthalle in Vienna

Red Hot Chili Peppers



Another important setting on your camera is the ISO value. ISO refers to the sensitivity of your sensor (in analog times it was the sensitivity of the film). The higher the ISO setting e.g 800, the less light is needed for a correct exposure. However, the higher the ISO value, the warmer the camera sensor gets and the more noise you will encounter in your photos. Most of the time, you’ll find yourself dialing your ISO setting up to at least 1600 to get a decent shutter speed in low-light concert photography. There are ways to reduce the noise during post-production, but the aim is to keep the ISO as low as possible.
Aperture, Shutter Speed and ISO are interconnected. If you change one variable, you’ll have to adjust the others as well to get a photo with the right exposure.

Aperture, Shutter Speed and ISO in concert photography

You set f1.8 and ISO 1600 and the camera gives you a shutter speed of 1/40 sec. This shutter speed might be too slow, resulting in a blurred photo. You can’t reduce the aperture number since it’s limited on the 50mm lens to f1.8. However, you can crank up your ISO to, let’s say, 3200 (from ISO 1600 to 3200 is +1 stop), therefore your shutter speed will be one stop faster at 1/80sec (from 1/40 sec -> 1/50 ->1/60 -> 1/80 sec., +1 stop). I want you to get a feeling for these numbers.

We now have an aperture of f1.8, ISO 3200 and a shutter speed of 1/80 sec. Are you still with me? If there’s action on stage and the musicians are moving fast, you need a faster shutter speed. Guess what? We’ll have to crank the ISO up to 6400. Now we’re approaching the technical limits of crop sensor cameras. Remember, the higher the ISO the more noise. If we use ISO 6400 we get a shutter speed of 1/160 sec, which will probably get the job done.

What is your experience with the basics in concert photography (Aperture, Shutter Speed, and ISO)? If you have any questions post them in the comments below

Rock on


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  • William Richards

    Love this explanation Matthias! It’s pretty simple really 🙂

    • Thanks William! It´s meant to be as basic as possible, because you can also get awesome photos without knowing all the technical details how a camera works. And this is the aim with my short post. Once you have an idea how Aperture, Shutter Speed and ISO works you are ready to put your camera into the manual modus.

  • Phillip Johnson

    Great explaination. I shoot with a D7100, but need new glass (only have a 18-200 3.5/5.6) and never go past ISO 4000. I am going to upgrade to a D610 and also get a 14mm 2.8,.27-80 2.8, and a 70-200 2.8. I really want to up my game as I become more experienced. Do you think it would be beneficial for me to keep my D7100 as a secondary when I go out on shoots? Thanks Matthias!

    • Hi Phillip, thanks for your comment. Wow, sounds like you are taking concert photography serious ;). You´ll be blown away when using your new equipment. If you can afford it, you can just keep your D7100 as a second body. It´s always good to have a backup body in case something happens. I have a D700 and a D800 and fortunately they never broke down, but you´ll never know. Let me know your experience with your new toys and good luck.

  • Thanks matthias! Your information helps me a lot, thanks for sharing!

    • Hi Daniela! Great to hear that you got some more insights about photography from this post.

  • Great info Matthias, and I really enjoy seeing your work! I am fortunate to have some good gear (Nikon D7000, 50 f1.8, 85 f1.8, 17-50 f2.8) and I really love the challenge of capturing the energy of the performers 🙂 I have been doing small club shoots for over two years, and my biggest struggle is with getting shots that are in focus. What focusing mode do you use?

    • Hi Larry! Thanks for your post. your gear looks like perfect for low light work such as concert photography. I would suggest to use only the middle autofocus point (and recompose when you need it) as it is the most accurate one. Furthermore you can set your autofocus mode to Continuous shooting mode. This will help your camera focusing on moving subjects. hope that helps!

  • Charla Stephenson

    Matthias, thank you for the great info. I have a Nikon D80. I am saving for a newer and better camera but this is what I have for now. I use my prime lens most of the time. I rented a zoom but my ISO on my camera goes from 1600 to HI. Do you know what the limit of the ISO is? I purchased my camera used with no manual. Thank you!

    • Hi Charla! Thanks for your comment. I just looked up the ISO settings for your D80: ISO 2000 (HI0.3), ISO 2500 (HI0.7) and ISO 3200 (HI.1.0). So you have the highest ISO setting at 3200, although I would advice to stay at 1600. Therefore the prime lenses are a must. What zoom lens did you rent? If it had an f number higher f2.8 you might not be able to get decent pictures, cause your shutter speed might be to long. Hope that helps. Please fin more infos to your Nikon D80 here: http://www.dpreview.com/reviews/nikond80/2

  • Charla Stephenson

    They were both f2.8 Should I consider a f1.4 prime as well? I usually shoot at ISO 1600. Just through my experience with my camera; I found it to be the best. This really is a great site. Your explanations are very clear, and easy to figure out. Thank you so much for the add. If you ever have a moment please take a look at my Negative Image Photography Facebook site and let me know what you think. If you don’t have time for that; I completely understand. I am sure you get heaps of requests.

    Thank you again!

    • I often have ISO settings up to 6400 and 9000 if there is really a lack of light on stage. With the D80 you have only the possibility to reach max 3200. So the only component to get more light into your camera is the aperture of your lens. If you shoot ISO 1600 and you get shutter speeds of about 1/160 or 1/250 and faster by using an lens with f2.8 you´re good. If you get shutter speeds of about 1/50 and you have already your highest ISO setting of 3200 then you have to use prime lenses with f1.8 or f1.4. This is also the reason why pro concert photographers use full frame body cameras (bigger sensor -> higher ISO settings). I´ll explain full frame vs. crop sensor cameras in one of my next blog post. Thanks again Charla and I´ll check out your page.

  • Charla Stephenson

    Thanks again! Can’t wait to learn more!

  • This is great, I will try your advice, I’m shooting metal gigs and they are so fast on stage, plus it’s always dark 😀

  • David Horrocks

    Hi, I left a message about settings, I have gone back over the tips and still not sure on a thing or two.

    If I’m shooting lets say a drummer at F1.4 prime lens, ISO around 1200-1600 and set my shutter speed to 1/250sec, do I shoot the guy in F PRIORITY. mode or SHUTTER PRIORITY mode ? As I’m shooting a moving target with arms all over the place would I keep it in shutter priority mode or would you concentrate on the subject drummer who maybe moving less and shoot in F / Aperture priority?

    • Hi David. I would say it doesn´t really matter. Either you set your aperture or your shutter speed. I was using Aperture priority mode and it worked great for me. I set my f number to e.g. f2.8 and my ISO to 1600. Than I took a photo and had a look which shutter speed my camera took. If the shutter speed was too slow I cranked up the ISO. You can also try to shoot in full manual and set everything for yourself.

  • Avishek Dey

    I am currently using Nikon D5100. I am looking forward to buying AF-S VR Zoom-Nikkor 70 – 300 mm f/4.5-5.6G. .Will that be a right lens for an Indian Classical Music Concert Photography if I have access to the stage and artists are at a distance of 60-80 ft ?
    What other lens shall be good if would like to have a good depth of field for the same purpose.

    • Hi Avishek. I think the 70-300mm range is a good choice for this kind of access. However f4.5-5.6 might let in too less light. If the stage is well lit you should be fine with it, but in general you´ll need at least a lens with f2.8. A great option for you might be Nikon 17-55mm f2.8 lens. (however it´s expensive)

      • Michael Gilligan

        The only fast inexpensive telephoto for nikon is the old pro nikkor 80-200 2.8 af (non-d). You can get them used for about 350, which is less than the new slow ones. The drawback is that they’re slow to focus, so you’re trading slow lens speed for slow focus speed. For still/slow-moving subjects, that won’t be an issue.

  • Samantha Stolwijk

    Awesome info. just wondering would the canon T5i be able to pull it off if so what typ of lens do i buy? i do everything now with my canon powershot sx40 which is my first ever camera, the problem with that one is i have iso to 3200 but the F doesnt go lower than 4.5 how do i set it lower or is that not possible on that camera? thanks so much for your help.

  • Laura Sol

    Hi, Matthias! Kit: Canon t2i, tamron 17-50mm f2.8, ISO 6400. I shoot for pleasure but I’d love to Ace it! How can you go to 1/200!!! I think the “faster” I can go is 1/50 (if I’m lucky!) shooting at f/2.8 ISO 6400. Yesterday I experimented with the 50 mm f1.8 and though I got some at 1/80 the shots are very limited. Thanks!

    • Hi Laura. It all depends on the stage lighting! If there is low light on stage than is low light. Sometimes I shot at f1.8 at ISO9000 and the photos still turned out almost pitch black. What you might want to do is to shoot at ISO 6400, f2.8 (or 1.8) and 1/125sec. shoot in RAW and if the photos turn out to dark fix it in post pruction with the exposure slider. If you get too much visible noise, get my free black&white Lightroom presets here: http://www.howtobecomearockstarphotographer.com/black-and-white-photography/

  • Happycat

    I’m always very insecure about my photography and its so much pressure trying to get it right so im finding this very helpful and will definitely put your tips into practice

  • Michael Gilligan

    Something I discovered the last few times shooting shows with ‘bad’ stage lighting: Just as stage lighting can be too meagre, it can also overpower a sensor very easily, even at reasonable ISOs like 1000-2000. If your test shots come out white-washed, or yellow-, or red-, even when the lens is stopped down, then noise is probably the issue, and you need to keep the ISO strictly below 800. The problem then is that you have too much light, so you should have a decently fast shutter speed even with a slow lens or a stopped-down fast one. Failing that, shoot from an angle. Failing that, shooting raw copies of all your jpegs (while expensive memory-wise) can rescue a large percentage of noise-fettered photos.

    In situations where the stage lighting changes from too much to too little, I like to dedicate two different sets of camera settings for each scenario. My d7000’s two customizeable user modes are handy for this. For the heavy lighting, program U1 as Aperture Priority Mode, ISO 640, F/5, and program U2 as Manual Mode, Auto ISO, F/2.8 (or as wide as you’re comfortable with) Shutter Speed 1/160 (or as slow as you’re comfortable with) for low-lighting. Then fix the raws you like in photoshop later.

    • Hi Michael, thanks for sharing your advice here! Although I adjust everything on the fly in the pit it can be a good idea to have different sets of settings predefined

  • Cody Strubel

    Great article! I understand shutter speed more than ever before. My question is if I’m shooting with a Nikon D750 and a 24-70mm f/2.8 lens and I crank the shutter to 200…would the cameras auto iso mode be sufficient or should I really concentrate on dialing that in? My local club has very poor lighting as many do.

    • Thanks for your comment Cody and great to hear that my article was of help. I don´t use Auto-ISO and always dial it in manually. If the club has poor lighting than ISO 200 is definitely too less. I would rather guess it´ll be about 1600 to 3200, which is no problem for the D750. However there is no problem if you try Auto ISO the camera will handle it for you. Hope that helps and let me how it worked out