Aperture, Shutter Speed and ISO in Concert Photography

Aperture, Shutter Speed and ISO: Basics in Concert Photography

aperture_shutterspeed_iso

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.

Aperture

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

 

ISO

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

Matthias