Concert photography: Robin’s view

Just as I was returning from my short holiday to Phnom Penh, I was invited to shoot the dress rehearsal of an unusual rock concert, Let’s Rock, at KLPAC (Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre). The concert featured lead vocal performances from three prominent local singer-songwriters, Nick Davis, Bihzhu and Fuad (from Kyoto Protocol) and was backed by the KLPAC Symphonic Band orchestra, a 20 member strong choir group from the Young Choral Academy and a 4-piece band. They covered iconic rock songs from the 50s all the way to the present day hits: such as Elvis Presley, Beatles, Queens, Guns and Roses, U2, Coldplay and many more legendary rock artists! I was privileged to be there at the dress rehearsal and was blown away by the concert. The photographs have been unexpectedly well received and are circulating around. In this article, I wanted to share some crucial tips on managing a challenging live stage shoot.

Note: MT previously wrote about concert photography here.

All images shot with the Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II and M.Zuiko lenses 12mm F2, 45mm F1.8 and 75mm F1.8.

The most important factor, for good shots in any live performance, is access. In most cases, concerts and live music venues ban or restrict photography. Being able to get close to the performers and move around freely for different vantage points can make a world of difference. The best time to photograph a performance is during the dress rehearsal. I’d recommend contacting the production publicist or PR contact directly to arrange a special pass to access the dress rehearsal. For my shoot, I was able to roam freely and not worry about being intrusive or blocking the audience, which helped me shoot a range of varying compositions, from tight close ups of the lead singers in action, to wide angle shots showing the orchestra and choir group in the background.

For a live performance, it is extremely important to capture the energy of the performers. To do so, I focus on very specific moments when the performers show certain intense facial expression. If you cannot feel the intensity of the artist, then something is missing from the shot. The images should portray the vibrancy and liveliness of the stage, and the powerful emotions in the music. Knowing the song well helps predict when the singers will react in certain ways throughout the performance. You also have to rely on repeated attempts to capture the best expression or emotion. If your camera has unreliable focusing, this can be an issue.

Knowing your camera well improves the efficiency in shooting such a fast paced performance. Generally, you will have to operate the camera in complete darkness and not knowing where the important buttons and dials are will result in lost shots. As for camera settings, I shoot in Aperture Priority, setting the aperture to wide open all the time. I change the ISO sensitivity as necessary, from ISO400 to ISO1600, and I make sure the shutter speed never drops below 1/100sec. For fast moving action, I would shoot with the shutter speed at 1/250sec or higher. I was able to adjust settings on the fly by playing with the exposure compensation. Since the stage was lit by multiple sources of lights with different colors, I shot in RAW and dealt with white balance adjustments in post-processing.

Although the lighting was considered dim, I could get away with ISO800 or below most of the time thanks to a wide aperture lens. As much as I treasure the versatility of zoom lenses and not having to change lenses often, the bright F1.8 lenses can pull in considerably more light than F2.8 on the zoom lenses. That gives me a little more than one full stop of exposure advantage and allows me to keep the ISO numbers as low as possible. Using lower ISO results in less digital noise in the images and better tonality and dynamic range and provides more headroom in post-processing to recover details. For this particular concert, I used three prime lenses: Olympus M.Zuiko 12mm F2 for wide angle coverage, 45mm F1.8 for most of the shots and 75mm F1.8 for extra tight close ups. I also brought along the venerable telephoto zoom lens, 40-150mm F2.8 PRO, but did not find the need to use it.

I really enjoyed shooting this concert, and more importantly, the performance was incredibly breathtaking! Imagine Nirvana’s legendary Smells Like Teen Spirit supported by a powerful orchestra and choir vocals? It was so surreal and beautiful I decided to attend the concert on their final show, just to immerse myself completely in the awesomeness of the concert. I guess this show was special to me, because almost everyone involved in the concert thanked me personally for the photographs. I was just doing my small part in supporting the local performing arts scene.

The Olympus M.Zuiko 12mm F2, 45mm F1.8 and 75mm F1.8 lenses are available from B&H
The Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II is available from B&H


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Images and content copyright Robin Wong 2017 onwards. All rights reserved


  1. Chris Beloin says:

    Hi Robin – How are you setting a minimum shutter speed in aperture priority? I have the EM-1, mark 1 and to my knowledge this is not possible (at least easily) with Olympus cameras. It seems like you can adjust everything in the world except what you really want at times.

    • Robin Wong says:

      You can do that only with the E-M1 Mark II. Not the older cameras.

    • Khosrow says:

      You can do that be setting the flash slow limit (Menu Cogs -> Cog F -> Slow limit). It doesn’t work for the Silent (electronic) shutter though.

  2. Frank Sobol says:

    I have enjoyed all your m43 stories for the quality of the photos and the discussion of your photo processes. I was wondering about how you handled switching between 3 different lenses during the likely fast pace of the performers? Frank in Eugene, OR-USA

    • Robin Wong says:

      Knowing the performance is important. I know specifically when certain crucial moments were happening, so I can decide whether I want a close up (75mm lens) or a wider coverage (25mm lens).

  3. My “go to” lens for concert and theatrical photography is my trusty Zuiko 35-100mm SHG. It works great on my EM-1 and EM-1 Mk II and I think the range of focal lengths it offers covers most situations well. I will occasionally use my m4/3 12-40mm for full stage shots and my Zuiko 50-200mm HG for extreme tight shots. I generally shoot shutter priority often at 1/320 which normally results in an F2.0 aperture. I prefer to keep the ISO as low as possible but in some situations I’ll go up to 3200. To keep from exceeding that ISO I generally use Auto ISO but set the upper limit at 3200.

    • Robin Wong says:

      Optically that 35-100mm F2 SHG is tough to beat, even to today’s modern standards. However, that is not an easy lens to handle, being so large and heavy! I’d take smaller primes every time.

  4. I started using the aperture priority, but since in general concert photography involves a lot of fast movements, changed to use shutter priority (between 1/200 to 1/320 range), auto iso and spot metering. Generally, good results.

    Only wish that m4/3 could have more ISO headroom, since ISO 3200 are needed in a lot of situations, even using 1.8 lenses – maybe when BSI sensors are available it improves. In fact, for web viewing, the GH5s could be a very good m4/3 concert shooting camera…

    Tip for a fun (and kind of cheap) lens to use when you are far from the stage: the Contax-Zeiss 135mm f/2.8. Good sharpness wide open, and since you can get a closer image, you don’t lose much details when using high ISOs. Generally I use for singer’s facial shots from far distances – the trick is prefocus using peaking and the microphone (when in a mic stand).

    • Yes, I find that aperture priority doesn’t make much sense if you want to shoot wide open in a dark environment because the camera is very likely to max it out anyway.

      The electronic viewfinder in M4/3 cameras is very nice to have in concerts: bind a button to exposure lock, and all you have to do is watch through the viewfinder and lock when you’re happy with the exposure. If the lighting isn’t rapidly changing (and it often isn’t), this technique can be very helpful, particularly with spot metering.

  5. Brilliant photos, Robin. That 75mm has a certain magic, no doubt. It brings you face to face with a performer at each peak moment, as you expressed, closer than one would ever get without the lens taking you there. Thanks for sharing your techniques and insights.

  6. I know that closed eyes is usually interpreted as a sign of intense concentration, but still I find it odd that not a single photo has singer’s eyes open. Any particular reason?

    • Robin Wong says:

      I have plenty of open eyes, but when their eyes were open, their facial expressions were mostly neutral and uninteresting. I was looking for more intense and dramatic facial expression to display show of energy on stage.

  7. Would be interested to know the exposure specs on each of these images – surprised that they’re as sharp as they are if you’re really getting down to 1/100! Not familiar enough with the EM-1 II – can you get the ISO to float when in “manual” mode w/fixed aperture/shutter speed? This would be the perfect application for it.

    • Robin Wong says:

      It is too much trouble to put in the EXIF data one by one. And yes, there is the function of Auto ISO that automatically adjusts depending on your shutter speed and aperture settings.


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