live music venue photography tips

Taking photos at live music venues can be rewarding, but very challenging. You're likely going to have to deal with very low light, constantly changing intensity and colours of light, as well as crowded and cramped areas to move around.

The following is by no means the only way to shoot live gigs, but it's the way that works for me.


The gear I am shooting with is a Canon 5D Mark iii, a Sigma 50mm Art f/1.4, Canon 16-35mm f/2.8 and a Canon 580EX flash. I also carry a backup Yongnuo 686EX-RT flash.

Although I take a flash, I try and use it as little as possible, preferring to take the band shots, and the patrons close to the band at high ISO. I turn on the flash for focus critical shots like staff group photos behind the bar, or patrons that are in darker areas.  This adds an additional challenge of having to switch settings quickly, from a high ISO setting, a low f stop number to a settings more typically used with flash photography. This is where storing your custom shooting modes to C1, C2 or C3 comes in very useful.

I tend to use manual mode for my high ISO shots and store the flash settings agains C1, where I can quickly turn the dial 2 clicks either way to go between my 2 settings.  You also have to turn off the flash when using going to your high ISO setting.

The flash settings I typically use are |ISO 400|F/4.5|1/30sec| 
ETTL works well, but I sometimes dial in some negative flash exposure compensation if peoples faces look washed out.

In manual I use |Auto ISO| either f/1.4 or f/2.8 depending on my lens |1/50sec -> 1/100sec| I've only just started using auto ISO and still not convinced this is the way to go. I am constantly checking the ISO setting chosen, as I don't particularly like going over ISO 3200.

Focusing in low light is a whole other story, but there is a solution.

By using the AF Assist beam on your external flash unit to project a grid on your subject. But I hate using flash you say...

In either your external flashes menu or your cameras flash control menu, you can simply turn the flash off whilst still allowing the AF Assist to illuminate.  It is also a good idea to change from a single focus point to a group, this makes it quicker and more likely that your camera will pickup the AF Assist grid that is projected for your flash on to your subject.

When using high ISO settings and no flash, you're never going to get tack sharp, low noise images, but to me this lends itself very well to portraying the vibe of a live band venue. 

I welcome any comments, as well as any of your tips.