Taking Concert Photos: ISO Explained

Recently I have had several requests to talk a little about ISO settings, what I use and why. First, thanks for the specific request. Second…well, no second just let’s get into it!

On a technical level, ISO really is just an acronym for the International Standards Organization that has set specific parameters for measuring film speed, or the sensitivity of film to light. Because there are many makers of film, having a standard by which to go by makes life much easier for photographers to know a basic benchmark of how and when to use various film types.

Now that we have entered a digital age, we still live by these same standard numbers handed down to use from the films used previously. This does keep things easier for those transitioning from film cameras, and because it is a simple numerical progression it is easy enough for the rest of us as well.

Without getting into the various details, which really has no impact on the way in which you use ISO settings, ISO is a matter of simply the bigger the number, the more sensitive your camera is to light. So, in dark settings you will likely use a higher ISO number, in bright settings like a bright sunny day you will use a lower ISO number.

There is a give and take to your ISO choice though that you need to be aware of.

With higher ISO numbers, along with the ability to capture more light in a short time you end up with more “noise” in your image due to some of the phyiscal characteristics and limitations of your camera sensor. This noise factor varies camera to camera, with better quality cameras having less noise at higher ISOs. Generally, though, the bonus of a lower ISO setting is that you will get richer colors and lower noise when ample lighting is available. Here is an example of extreme noise in an image:

ISO Noise Example

So how does this impact you with concert photography you ask? Thanks, I was just getting to that.

ISO in Concert Photography

I am always asked what is my magic settings on my camera for concert photography. The answer is really that there is no magic setting; sorry to disappoint. The lighting for different concert set ups, the specific venue, whether you are indoor or outdoors, and even how strong the spotlights happen to be that night can all impact your settings. That said, I do have some benchmarks I start at and then make adjustments from there.

This next section is really only helpful for those that are willing to try shooting in manual (M) mode on their camera. I usually start with my camera set at f/4.0 (with one particular lens), 400 ISO and a shutter speed of 1/200. The reason I try things at 400 ISO first is that I feel like I get richer colors, lower noise and fewer blown out highlights at that setting. If lighting ends up too low, such that I am not capturing any of the colors int he background or if I have to lower my shutter speed to much to capture anything, then I move up to 800 ISO. At times I have even bumped up to 1600 ISO, but then I tend to get too much noise in the image. I reserve 1600 ISO for truly dark situations such as this:

Paul Peterson on Bass

Of course noise isn’t always a bad thing. Some times it can be quite an artistic effect if done right, appearing like an older photo or newsprint. Many software programs can reduce noise quite easily as well if you would like to see it removed, so rather than miss a shot because you know it will be grainy using a high ISO, get that shot and reduce or remove the noise later.

Why Bother?

So why all this talk about ISO? Going back to my article about not using your flash for better photos, I am a big believer in using your camera controls to get the best possible photo. Sure, there are times when leaving the camera in the automatic mode is best, including using a flash; better to get the shot than not at all. But, when you are ready to get serious about taking great shots, learning how to get the best out of your photo is not only fun, but very rewarding. You may will likely end up with a bunch of bad shots along the learning process, but in the end you will be taking better photos in a way exactly like you are anticipating.