Photographing Concerts with a Leica Rangefinder
I do a fair amount of concert photography with the Leica M9-P digital rangefinder camera. This presents certain challenges not affecting the typical DSLRshooter.
Chiefly, there’s the limitation on focal length. Although M-mount lenses are made up to 135mm in size, the longest practical length is 90mm. That’s because above that length, the image inside the viewfinder brightlines is so small that it’s very difficult to focus accurately.
In larger venues where it’s hard to get close to the stage, I prefer a Leica Tele-Elmarit-M 90mm lens. It’s small, fast, and sharp, and cheaper to buy used than the current 90mm lens in Leica’s lineup. On a Leica M3, with its high viewfinder magnification, it’s even better.
If I can get closer, I might use anything from a 21mm to a 50mm lens; it depends on the size of the stage and my distance from it. If I know I’m not going to be reproducing the images at a very large size, I might even use the 50mm at some considerable distance and crop the images in post, since it’s a much faster lens than the 90mm.
Then there’s the matter of lighting: to use flash, or not to use flash. Since many very fast lenses are available for the Leica, I don’t use flash — since I can’t always get right up to the stage, this works out for the best, anyway. No sense in illuminating the backs of the crowd’s heads instead of your subject (many venues prohibit flash photography).
Since most stage lights are tungsten, even with colored gels, I either set my white balance (WB) to 3200° Kelvin, or, if I can get close enough to the stage, I set it manually with a WhiBal card. Even though I often process concert photos in black and white, this saves a step in Adobe Lightroom.
Exposure & ISO
I set the shutter speed to “aperture priority” and open the lens to its fastest setting. Using the TTL meter, I aim for a part of the scene that is neither too bright nor too dark and “lock” exposure by depressing the shutter release to the 1st stop. If there’s room, I use a tripod to steady the shot, compose, and shoot. I’ll “chimp” on the 1st shot to check the exposure; if it’s okay, I stop previewing and just take pictures (I set previews to “off” in the camera’s settings).
Outdoors during daylight hours, set ISO to 160, and use a ND filter as necessary. After dark or indoors, bump that to ISO 800. Anything above ISO 800 may produce unacceptable noise. These settings assume a fairly fast lens (f/2.8 and below).
Don’t worry about the shots you don’t get: exposure, composition, focus are all likely “gotchas” that will ruin most of your shots. You’ll probably shoot a lot of pictures, and from those you’ll pick the best ones when it’s over.
For a position close to the stage or in other restricted areas, you will need credentials. If you are covering the event for a publication or website, they may issue a you a press ID; be aware, however, that many venues require a pass produced and issued by the promoter, venue, or band management. Contact the appropriate person and request credentials: try the musician’s website (look for a “Press” link), or contact the venue itself. You many find the venue has a general “non-flash photos allowed with a camera phone or point-and-shoot in non-restricted areas,” or photography may be prohibited altogether unless they’ve issued you credentials. Find out in advance.
Remember, other people are trying to see the stage. Others are also photographing. Don’t stand at the front chimping; move out of the way if you are reviewing your pics. Don’t block the view in any case; stay low, watch where you cast shadows, and be aware of what’s happening around you.
Under no circumstances should you distract the performer. Don’t yell, wave your hands, or do anything to get a performer to look your way; they have enough on their minds without you being a jerk.
I usually offer the performer a pick of the best images afterward, with the understanding that I retain full rights to the image, and that they need my permission to use them for commercial purposes, e.g., on a CD cover or a concert poster.
A stage show is an opportunity to enjoy yourself. You’ll take better pictures if you use your ears; scientific fact!* Relax, enjoy the show, and take pictures.
M-mount lenses do not provide aperture information to the camera body, either electronically or mechanically. Therefore, f-stop settings are approximate, and are probably wildly inaccurate. For what it’s worth, I usually shoot with my lenses wide open.