Concert photography with a broken camera

Submitted by John on Fri, 12/28/2012 - 19:38

A week ago I went to a Down and Above concert, and I took a ton of photos, which I am still editing because I'm slow at editing. I think it was a fairly successful concert shot, but it was probably a bit unusual from a photographic gear standpoint, so I figured I'd talk about that.

Ian Allison from Down and Above

My 20D broke in August, so I switched to doing film photography for a while. About a month ago, I really needed a digital camera, so I bought a 30D with a cracked back screen from a co-worker for 100 bucks. The 30D and the 20D have the same sensor, so I didn't gain anything in picture quality, but the 30D is ever so slightly more responsive, and the bigger RAW buffer means fewer lost shots.

But the back LCD screen is horribly broken and displays no useful image.

For day to day usage this is not really a problem. For one thing, I have been shooting film for the past five months. I know about what the proper exposure should be in my house, and with no screen to check my shots, I'm much more careful than usual in making sure my settings aren't goofy before I press the shutter button.

But concert photography is a whole other ball game. The lights are constantly changing, constantly swinging around and constantly never exactly in the right spot when you need them to be. Normally in a situation like that I would take a guess, shoot, chimp, and iterate. But with no screen, how could I chimp?

Fortunately I had shot a concert at this same venue 4 or 5 years ago. Unfortunately, try as I might, I could not find my raw files from that night. I found the edited jpegs, but those were well nigh useless because they did not have any camera metadata in them to help me figure out the exposure settings I used last time!

In desperation I googled around to find out what I could about camera settings for concert photography and I came upon a useful article by Tom Di Maggio. In the article, Mr. Di Maggio says he starts with ISO 1600, f2.8 at 1/160th of a second.

Well that was good news for me. My camera only usefully goes up to ISO 1600. My three lenses only go up to f2.8 (OM Zuiko 24mm, 35mm, and 100mm). And hey, my long lens is a 100mm lens, which on my camera gives me an effective focal length of 160mm. So as long as I was reasonably careful, I could get reasonably sharp shots with my 100mm.

Zach Young from Down and Above at the Varsity Theater

(The 100mm f2.8 OM Zuiko is the Best Lens in the Universe, by the way. It's relatively cheap because everyone wants the f2.0 version. But the 2.8 lens is very lightweight, and the rendering quality is absolutely stunning. [Yes, it's manual focus only. According to one of my photographer friends, any lens that does not have autofocus is "a steaming pile of crap!" I suppose for him it would not be the Best Lens in the Universe. But for me it certainly is.])

Anyway, back to the metering problem. I resolved to use those settings as a starting point, and to check the actual lighting conditions with the "spot meter" in my camera (the spot meter in my 30D is not very tight, and not really a true spot meter. But it would do in a pinch.)

Every time I checked the light with the spot meter, it was spot on at 1/160th, f2.8, and ISO 1600. I did shoot a few dozen back up frames at 1/250th of a second and 1/80th. of a second. No matter what settings I was using, because of the constantly changing light show, some were over exposed, some were under exposed. But overall I was mostly pleased with how the pictures came out.

Ian Allison from Down and Above at the Varsity Theater

One thing that worked surprisingly well was to put the camera in spot meter mode, and then have the camera pick the shutter speed with a fixed aperture. You'd think that would never work, but as I mentioned before, the "spot" meter on the 30D is really a big center patch, and even though I wanted to place the center of attention outside the center of my photos, enough of the subject was in the center so it was able to meter off the spot, and then ignore the vast spots of black behind the performers.

Dave Young from Down and Above at the Varsity Theater

This last picture here was taken with the 24mm (all the rest were taken with the 100mm):

Down and Above at the Varsity Theater

The 24mm OM Zuiko lens is really a poor performer with my Canon 30D. It imparts a bizarre, uneven color cast, and the photos have a plasticy feel to them. When shooting film, it's really a nice little lens. Nothing spectacular, but it's still pretty solid.

But one cure for that stupid color cast is to shoot in black and white! I don't know why I didn't think of that before. Now that I have thought of that, I think I might spend a weekend shooting black and white digital with just the 24 and see how it goes.