I've spent quite a bit of time this summer taking photos at festivals. This is an area of photography which I really enjoy, as it combines my love of music with my love of taking photos... what's not to like?! The lighting, that's what!!!! Photography is ALL about the light. Live shows don't usually have much of that and the light that is present is harsh; forever moving and changing colour... nightmare.
The usual photographic response to a lack of light is to increase your aperture and/or slow down your shutter speed. Sorted. Except, this isn't really a perfect solution when shooting gigs. Increasing the aperture lets in more light, but results in a very shallow depth of field, which means that your focusing needs to be spot on. Cameras often struggle to autofocus in low light... so this can make things difficult.
So, you slow down your shutter speed to allow longer for the sensor/film to absorb the light. Result. Well, not exactly. If, like me, you shoot rock bands, who tend to move around a lot on stage, you are going to need a reasonably fast shutter speed to freeze the motion (unless you are purposely going for motion blur, which can look good for some shots).
So, "how is it possible to get good gig shots?" I hear you ask...
One way is to increase the ISO (sensitivity to light) setting on your camera. A lot of photographers don't like doing this, as it increases digital noise (which means the quality of the images reduces). However, unless you are shooting an outdoor festival in the daylight, its pretty much essential when shooting gigs. The important thing to remember is to test your camera... practice at high ISO's and find the upper limit that is acceptable to you. And don't forget to play around with your editing software - noise reduction functions are pretty good nowadays, but don't go to far with it! A bit of noise is preferable to strangely smooth images lacking in detail!
Your gear makes a big difference too... especially your choice of lens. To a degree, the lens you use is down to personal preference and the venue at which you are shooting. If you are shooting at a smallish place and/or you are close to the stage, you might choose to use a 50mm prime lens with a maximum aperture of around f1.8. For bigger venues, however, you might need a longer focal length. Personally, I like the flexibility of a zoom lens, as this means you can vary your focal length to get the whole band shots and the close ups. Whatever lens you chose, however, it needs to have a wide maximum aperture to ensure that you can keep your shutter speed at an acceptable level. I use a Canon 24-105mm f4 L series lens. Although f4 isn't a huge aperture, it's wide enough when paired with my Canon 6d, which is really good in low light.
Another option is to use a flash. Personally, I don't, as it can be distracting to the band and is generally considered bad etiquette. It can also ruin the atmosphere of the photograph, so I'm not really a fan.
Ok, lets talk settings. Now, bare in mind that every venue is different, so you need to do some test shots, look at the images (zoomed in on your screen) and analyse the histogram. However, here is my starting point, which I will then tweak as necessary:
ISO: auto, with range fixed between 100-12800
Metering: Spot (meter for the face)
Focusing: Al Servo/continuous
And remember, at some festivals, you will only get in the photo pit for the first three songs, so you haven't got a lot of time to get the shots. So before the festival season is over, get out there and get practising!