Questions answered: what gear should I use for live music photography?
Every few days I have someone reach out to me asking what photography gear I recommend - usually what specific gear is best to start out in live music photography. I’ve decided to consolidate some of the key things I’ve learned over the past year of touring and shooting live events. Hopefully this will be helpful for some of you!
Potentially the most favourite camera bodies of live music photographers are the full-frame Canon 5D series, notably the 5D mark III and mark IV. Other strong contenders are the Nikon D750, and Sony Alpha series.
If you’re just starting out, look into these crop-sensor options:
Nikon D7200 - RRP £550
Sony A6300 - RRP £650
Sony A6500 - RRP £900
Canon 80D - RRP £900
If you’re looking to upgrade, or are in the market for a full-frame or mirrorless, look into:
Sony A7SII - RRP £2,000
Sony A7RIII RRP £2,800
Canon 6D II - RRP £1000
Canon 5D IV - RRP £1,500
Nikon D7500 - RRP £800
I personally LOVE mirrorless cameras, especially the Sony. They have fantastic dynamic range (perfect for low light photography), insane ISO capabilities, and are lightweight.
If you’re just starting out:
Nikon 35mm 1.8 - RRP £150
Sony 28mm 2.8 - RRP £340
Canon EF 85mm 1.8 - RRP £375
Canon 50mm 1.8 - RRP £100
If you’re looking to invest:
Sigma 50mm 1.4 ART - RRP £500
Sigma 85mm 1.4 ART - RRP £600
Canon 24 - 70mm 2.8 II - RRP £1,200
Canon 16-35mm 2.8 II - RRP £1,800
The lowdown on lenses
Generally for live music photography you’re going to be photographing in low light situations. The main thing to look for in lenses for low-light photography is how low/wide their aperture goes. This is shown by the f-stop, or number that follows the ‘f/’ on the lens. The sigma 50mm has an f-stop of f/1.4, meaning it can have a wide aperture. Lenses with wide apertures are often colloquially referred to as ‘fast’ lenses.
So what you need to look for is fast lenses. The f-stop listed on a lens (i.e Canon 24-70mm 2.8) indicates the widest the aperture can go. Some zoom lenses do not have a fixed maximum aperture, and the lowest f-stop may vary depending on the focal length you set the lens to.
The wider the aperture, the more light that can be let into your camera. However, note that opening the aperture increases the depth of field, meaning it can often be more difficult to focus your image accurately. Best place to read into this some more is here.
Take a look at the photos below and note the difference in using different aperture settings to adjust the depth of field. You can read more about depth of field and how it works here.
1. This was taken with an aperture of around f/3.0 and so has a medium depth of field - you can see how quite a bit of the photo is in focus. The vocalist and some of the crowd are sharp, and you can still make out a lot of detail of the rest of the tent and atmosphere. I chose to keep this depth of field medium so that the artist didn’t appear separated from the audience, whilst also giving it a more old fashioned editorial feel.
Shot on Sony A7SII with Sony 28mm 2.0
2. This photo was shot with a wider aperture at f/1.8 so has a shallow depth of field. I chose to shoot this on a wide aperture so that I could just get the guitarist in focus as he looked back at me - the background is super creamy and adds to the intensity. I chose to keep the depth of field very shallow on this one as I wanted to capture John as isolated from the background and everything else that is busy going on, to freeze a millisecond in time and capture him during movement.
Shot with Sony A7SII with Sigma 50mm 1.4 and prism.
Photographing live music requires more than just a camera body and lens.
SD cards: I recommend the SanDisk 64gb Extreme Pro - having a fast card (fast write-speed to camera, this card being 90MB/s is vital for being able to take many shots consecutively without having to wait for the camera to write them to the card. Always best to have a spare card with you too incase your go-to one fails, this backup could be the cheaper but still very reliable SanDIsk 32GB Ultra a
Batteries: I always take at least 3 batteries to a gig. When I’m on tour I carry 5 batteries with me, plus a dual charging bank. Sony cameras can sometimes eat through their battery faster than other brands, but whatever brand you’re using, I recommend at least having one backup battery per gig.
Camera strap: The standard camera strap that comes with your camera will work fine. I don’t tend to shoot with the strap round my neck as I find this constrictive, but it’s great to have looped around your arm. Gigs can be pretty crazy, and one loose crowd surfer kicking you or your camera could be the end if you’ve not got it attached to you somehow. You can also get specialist straps like this dual camera harness if you’re using two bodies with different lenses and want to switch easily between them.
Prism: This isn’t a necessity, but it’s something that I sometimes use if I’m feeling like it. Prism’s can be used to create cool light-leak effects when shooting wide open (on a low aperture such as f/1.8). Check out Jessica Whitaker’s helpful video on prisms to learn more about this technique. Using prisms in daylight is fun, but it’s even better when using them with strobes! They’re also pretty cheap.
Earplugs: When you’re so close to the amps you need to protect your hearing. I recommend the Alpine MusicSafe Pro plugs. You can also use standard foam earplugs. However, unlike the Alpine plugs you won’t get the benefit of being able to ear people speaking as the foam earplugs don’t have filters etc.
Camera bag: Anything that suits you best! separate compartments is a good idea. I use a vans backpack (which they don’t sell anymore but this one is similar) plus a camera insert like this at the bottom of the bag, and voila you have a makeshift professional camera bag!
Bum-bag/Fanny pack: I started using a bum-bag in festival season as it’s great to carry around everything you need all day without having to carry a bag, but I carried on using it into tours outside of festival too. It’s great to carry spare batteries and SD cards, plus your prism, earplugs, and sometimes you can even fit a lens in there. I’d recommend always carrying earplugs, a spare battery and a spare SD card when working a festival or on tour.
I hope that covers everything! Please feel free to comment any other things you’d like me to cover, or if this has helped you out in any way. I’d love to hear your feedback. I’m going to be doing a post on editing techniques and workflow soon. If you’d like to stay notified for that, make sure you sign up to my newsletter.