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Gig photography with a compact camera

I often get asked for tips on getting the best from gig photography using small digital cameras. Many models now have a significantly improved available light performance so it's very possible to get decent results even from inexpensive compacts. The content of this page was originally a forum post to answer a specific question and it needs attention to write it better as a stand alone article, but for now, I've posted it here to refer to again. I also have a finished piece on gig photography using a mid-range digital camera and I need to re-write them all to bring them up to date. For now, the original low light article is on my live music web site.

Watch your shutter speed if it shows in the display and keep a good grip on the camera, to hold it nice and steady and tuck your elbows into your ribs. If it has a eye viewfinder, use this rather than the back LCD as you can then brace it against your face, much steadier than out at arms length.

The vast majority of poor live music photos I see are down to movement - and there are two kinds. If the light is low, which necessitates a slow shutter speed, this can record both your own movement in the images (i.e. if you move the camera within the time the shutter is open, the movement is recorded), which shows as double or ghosted images or in less severe cases, just soft edges and loss of sharpness - this is called camera shake.

With a slow shutter speed, the subjects can move within the shutter opening too - this is movement blur - if you're unlucky and it's very dark, you can get both. So watch the shutter speed it presents you with and try and keep above something like 1/30 second, anything less than that, keep the camera good and steady. If you can adjust aperture, open it as far as it will go - i.e. the smallest number, possibly something like f2.8 on a compact. The tiny sensors in digicams allow for a big depth of field, so you can still get most of a stage in focus with a wide aperture - light is your priority.

Be aware that zooming in often stops down the aperture - i.e. makes the hole in the lens iris smaller, which means the shutter has to stay open for longer to let the same amount of light in, leading to slower shutter speeds - see above. So if you're struggling with the light and resulting exposures, avoid zooming if you can - better a wide shot you can crop from, than zooming in and it being spoiled by movement. Also be aware that as you zoom, your movement is telegraphed through the camera with the longer focal lengths, so you need an increasingly faster shutter speed to avoid camera shake, the longer you zoom. So keep at wider angles unless you've got a very steady hand.

If you can adjust the metering mode and you have a spot meter, use that and take meter readings (i.e. it's probably at the same time and place you focus) and focus on faces preferably If the stage is dark and the band highlighted in spotlights, any sort of evaluative metering which takes in the whole scene will allow for the dark backgrounds and over-expose the band's faces, that's why you often see bleached faces, they're over-exposed. The black background doesn't matter, your priority is faces, so spot meter off them if you can.

If you don't have a spot metering mode, but do have some exposure compensation controls, most cameras do now, dial in something like -2/3 EV - that's two thirds of a stop of negative exposure compensation. This tells the camera that the scene is darker than average and adjusts accordingly. A camera assumes that most scenes are an average tonality of 18% - so expose for this generalisation within its results - with stage scenes with huge contrasts and often a lot of dark, you're obviously outside this generalisation - the scene overall is darker than the camera expects, so you need to tell it that this is correct - i.e. compensate for the darker than average scene, your Exposure Compensation. Go to negative numbers for dark scenes, positive for lighter than average scenes.

The effect of Exposure Compensation on average metering.

Take my trusty assistant Qui Gon Jinn - under the spotlight of a little LED torch and against a dark background. The left shot is with no exposure compensation, which as you can see, his face is too bright because the camera has taken the dark backdrop into consideration, then middle frame is with 1 stop of -ve EC - still blowing some detail from his face and the right frame is with 2 stops of -ve EC - see how much better it is overall. And look how much faster the shutter speed is now, much easier to hand hold and keep sharp. You won't need that much if you have spot metering, I deliberately used an average metering to exaggerate the results.

Regularly check the results on playback to check they look okay - don't set something up and trust it will be okay - keep checking and tweak where necessary. Use spot metering for scenes of high contrast like this.  Use the support band to do some practice shots and set your camera ready - but be aware that supports often have different lighting, almost always less of it. Make sure you have memory cards and batteries where you can reach them without spilling bag or pocket contents in the dark.

I took this (above right) recently with a compact camera (Fuji F11), using spot metering off his shirt and minus one third of a stop of exposure compensation.

If you want a whole stage shot, take a meter reading and focus on someone (or something) who looks sort of mid-toned - in this case, I used Peter's shirt on the right. Touch the shutter button lightly until it shows the exposure and that you've achieved focus lock, then re-compose the shot to what you want to include, but still holding the shutter button down to keep your settings, then take the frame. With small sensor compacts you have plenty of depth of field. I took this over my head. If I'd just placed the camera over the scene as I wanted it and taken the shot, it would have focused in the centre, on Robyn in the dark shirt and that would have caused the lighter bits to be over-exposed. So choose where you focus carefully - unless you're very close to the scene and zoomed right in, you should have enough depth of field for a shot like this for most of it to appear sharp.

Don't focus on something especially light or dark - it will mess with the exposure. If in doubt, flesh, grey foldback monitors or the stage in some indirect light will provide a good neutral spot to meter from.

If you don't know what a good tone is to meter from, look at the palm of your hand, tonally every race of human has a palm that's around 18% - so a photographer always has a grey card with them for metering from!


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