Taking good pictures at a concert can be challenging when you can’t take a good camera in with all the proper metering and exposure settings. It is too dark and unless you are in the front row, you are too far away for the flash to do any good. While our phone and point and shoot cameras usually lack the necessary controls and features to make shooting a concert easy, they might just give you enough control over the settings for you to do a decent job.
Zoom is usually limited to “digital” zoom which really means cropping the picture to make it seem bigger or some limited optical (aka real) zoom. This makes it hard to get great shots of the performers if you are not terribly close. The real, optical zoom can overcome this if the zoom is great enough but the digital zoom is only going to give you a lot less detail since it’s only cropping the real image and you are mostly going to be seeing big pixels, not a close up. Not a whole lot you can do to overcome this.
They also often do not have a spot metering capability to set the exposure for just the stage which means it they are going to meter the exposure for the entire picture and not any particular point. The problem with this is the camera is going to try to create an over all exposure that makes the blacks gray and overexposes the light areas on stage creating a big blob of light. The cameras are overexposing the image when they do this. With a DSLR shooting raw there is still a lot of data in the file you can use to fix an overexposed image on the computer but with the jpeg files our cell phones and point and shoots give us what you see is almost all you can get. You can’t fix overexposure or underexposure much with a jpeg.
And finally, because concert is so dark, the camera is going to be shooting at a very slow shutter speed so it lets in more light which means you have a real problem with camera shake.
So what can you do?
As I said, the cell phone and point and shoot cameras are likely to want to try to overexpose your picture because it doesn’t know it is supposed to be dark. To overcome this, if your camera offers exposure compensation you can use it to deliberately underexpose the picture, at least underexposing it compared to what the camera thinks the exposure should be. What you are really doing is tricking the camera into something like the proper exposure. You can experiment with the exposure compensation to see what you can get. With the point and shoot I was using at some concerts recently I found that its max compensation of a full -2 stops did the trick. The stage wasn’t a blown out ball of light and the areas that were supposed to be dark were dark.
The shutter speed is still going to be slow which means camera shake. Even if you can brace the camera on something like a railing, the simple act of pushing the shutter button down or touching the screen will cause shake. To overcome that you can use the self timer features to delay taking the picture until a few seconds after you push the button. This gives you time to steady things down and hold as still as you can. Warning: the scene can change quite a bit in the few seconds between when you push the button and when the picture is taken!
The picture below is an example of what you can get when doing this. It was shot on a Fujifilm FinePix XP10 using its “P” mode. That gave me control over the focus mode to do center focusing and control what it was focusing on. It also allowed me to use the exposure compensation to “underexpose” the picture by -2 stops, the maximum it allowed. I used the self timer with a 2 second delay. I’d press the shutter, brace the camera and wait. Sometime the scene changed too much in those 2 seconds, sometimes it didn’t.
This picture is not entirely what came out of the camera. The lower right corner was very dark and distracting. In Adobe’s Lightroom, I used a graduated filter in that corner to increase the exposure a bit although it was not a lot because you cannot do much with jpg images. I also used some settings to reduce the digital noise that introduced in that corner and smooth things out. It comes out better but it is not too different from the picture as it came out of the camera. The picture below is the out of the camera version and you can see there isn’t a major difference.
Our cell phones and point and shoots are not great for concert photography but even with their limited controls you can make some adjustments and get some pretty good shots.
Some other shots from the concert using the techniques described above.