Gear Guide: Best Camera and Lenses for Concert Photography

Concert photography is one of the most exciting fields of photography out there. After all, who doesn’t dream of capturing iconic images of their favorite pop stars or rock stars? Thanks to the plethora of musicians and bands going on tour every year, plus the abundance of affordable camera gear out there, the interest in becoming a concert photographer is at an all time high. In fact, the writing of this post is inspired by the recent flood of emails I’ve gotten from aspiring concert photographers. If you’re dreaming to be shooting in the photo pits, here are some tips to help you gear up and prepare for your first or next concert shoot.

Concert photography camera tips 6

Ellie Goulding performing in Seattle.

Concert Photography 101

Before you jump into concert photography, it’s important to understand the basic rules and conditions of photographing concerts. Be aware that even with an official photo pass, the ability to photograph concerts is a privilege, not a right. Sometimes rules change and you may be asked to shoot from an odd angle or for a shorter period of time than you were initially promised. If conditions change, fight for your rights within reason, but always respect the final verdict, or risk being blacklisted from ever being invited to shoot another concert again. Always listen to the security guards or general manager at a concert, and respect your fellow photographers in the photo pit.

Rules of Concert Photography

  1. Photographing the first three songs of an act (generally both the opening band and headlining band).
  2. Photographing from the photo pit (a blocked off area in front of the stage), OR the soundboard (requiring a telephoto zoom lens).
  3. Photography with DSLR cameras from special areas (ie. the photo pit or soundboard) is permitted with the issuing of a photo pass, obtained at the main box office with prior approval from the band’s publicist or management.
  4. No flash photography is allowed.

After understanding these pre-existing conditions for concert photography, we can now explore what gear is appropriate to take awesome concert photos.

How do I get a photo pass?

Photo passes are physical badges or stickers that you will receive on-site at the venue, but you will only get one of these passes if you’ve been pre-approved by the band’s publicist or management. This is generally coordinated by email. I’ve written another post that goes into more detail on how to get a press or photo pass.

how to get a press pass

The photo pit is a sectioned off area in front of the stage where you can shoot if you have a press pass.

DSLR is the gold standard for camera bodies

Most concerts are photographed in low lighting since flash is not permitted. Hence, you’ll want a solid camera and lenses that perform well in low lighting conditions. In terms of camera bodies, mirrorless cameras are coming along, but most concert photographers still opt for DSLR cameras. Why DSLRs? Mainly for their consistent ability to photograph well in low lighting conditions, and because they come with reliable, professional support. Both Canon and Nikon offer respective Pro Service memberships for professional photographers, which grant members expedited and discounted repairs and support on select gear. Personally, my Canon Pro Services (CPS) membership (or Nikon Professional Services equivalent) has come in extremely handy for their help in repairing and tuning up my gear with quick turnaround time. Such Pro Services don’t exist for other camera manufacturers.

In addition to inquiring about a Pro Services membership with your camera brand of choice, also look into insurance for your gear. Cameras and lenses aren’t cheap, so be sure to protect these investments by having your gear covered under your personal property or business insurance provider.

Essential Concert Photography Camera Features

  • high ISO
  • good autofocus
  • high shutter speed
  • full frame – although a crop sensor isn’t bad either since these cameras typically offer higher shutter speeds
Concert photography camera tips 2

The Cure performing at Sasquatch Music Festival.

Best DSLR Camera for Concert Photography

best food concert camera photographyconcert photography camera gear guideconcert photography camera gear guide
Canon 5D Mark IVCanon 5D Mark IIICanon 6D
Nikon Version: Nikon D800Nikon Version: Nikon D750Nikon Version: Nikon D610

Best Lens for Concert Photography

There are three zoom lenses that are ideal for concert photography: the Canon 16-35mm f/2.8, Canon 24-70mm f/2.8, and Canon 70-200mm f/2.8. Collectively, these lenses provide wide-angle coverage for photo pit shoots, and a nice telephoto zoom. All lenses also have a constant f/2.8 aperture, meaning they excel in low-lighting conditions.

Wide-Angle LensMid-Range ZoomTelephoto Lens
best concert camera photographyconcert photography camera gear guideconcert photography camera gear guide
Canon 16-35mm f/2.8Canon 24-70mm f/2.8Canon 70-200mm f/2.8
Nikon Version: Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8Nikon Version: Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8Nikon Version: Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8
Concert photography camera tips 5

A soundboard shoot using a Canon 300mm f/2.8 lens.

DSLR Camera Lenses for Soundboard Shoot

If you are shooting from the soundboard, a 300mm lens is generally the best focal length of choice. I never use anything less, and I rent mine from my local camera store here in Seattle. These super telephoto lenses are notoriously expensive, so consider renting the lens from your local camera store, or from Borrow Lenses. Be sure to get a monopod as well for added stability.

Soundboard Shoot Gear  
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Canon 400mm f/2.8Canon 300mm f/2.8Canon 100-400mm
Nikon Version: Nikon D400mm f/2.8Nikon Version: Nikon 300mm f/2.8Nikon Version: Nikon 80-400mm

Soundboard Shoot Accessories

To help support the weight of super telephoto zooms, you use a monopod. A step stool can also come in handy for venues with extremely tall stages. Be sure to check with the venue to see if they allow stools.

Soundboard Shoot Accessories  
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Carbon Fiber Monopod11-inch Step Stool2-Step Folding Stool

Flash (if allowed or appropriate)

On very rare occasions, some concert venues and bands will permit the use of flash. Or you may want to have a flash handy for crowd shots or artist portraits. If needed, this the best DSLR camera flash to invest in.

concert photography camera gear guide

Nikon Alternative: Nikon SB-700

Camera Bag and Harness

concert travel photography camera gear guide

Think Tank Changeup Belt Pack

concert photography camera gear guide

Think Tank Airport Takeoff Rolling Bag

leather camera strap hold fast gear money maker

Hold Fast Gear Money Maker leather camera strap

Not essential, but good to have lenses

A fisheye lens for crowd shots and tight spaces: Canon 8-15mm f/4 / Nikon 10.5mm f/2.8

A prime lens for really really dark concerts: Canon 50mm f/1.4 / Nikon 50mm f/1.4

Other essential accessories

Earplugs – always protect your hearing!

Press pass holder – to keep your coveted photo pass safe and easily seen by security guards

SanDisk CF or SanDisk SD Memory cards – 16GB or 32 GB sizes are generally fine; have a couple handy just in case

Memory card wallet – to hold your spare memory cards

Spare camera battery – have at least one spare camera battery with you, just in case

Business cards (with your name, email, website) in a business card wallet – to hand out to inquiring fans

Do I need one camera, or two?

DSLR camera bodies are pricey, making it tough to fathom why a photographer might want more than one. However, consider that concert photographers get just three songs’ worth of shooting time (sometimes less). Usually, they will have at least two different lenses to switch between in that short period of time. These two constraints make it perfectly logical to have at least two camera bodies on hand. Personally, I tend to have my Canon 5D Mark III with my 24-70mm lens, and my Canon 6D with 70-200mm lens on me at every concert I shoot, helping increase the odds of nailing the best shot.

Are used cameras a good deal?

Buying used camera gear saves money, as there are certainly deals to be had online and via Craigslist. Generally speaking, the higher the value of the camera you’re looking to buy, the better it is to purchase it through a certified used camera dealer (such as Keh Camera). This way, you’ll have a recourse for exchanging or returning it in case there are problems. However, the number one factor that you should always check for when evaluating used camera bodies is the shutter count or shutter actuations. All cameras have a shutter life expectancy that varies according to the camera model but is generally between 100,000-300,000. The higher the shutter count, the more likely you’ll need to have that shutter replaced at a cost for maximum performance.

Over To You

Do you have any concert photography tips or gear recommendations? Let me know in the comments below!

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By | 2016-12-21T17:57:27+00:00 April 15th, 2016|5 Comments

About the Author:

Suzi Pratt is an event, food, and concert photographer based in Seattle. She started Intrepid Freelancer to inspire and teach others how to start a photography business. View her at photography portfolio, and subscribe to herYouTube channel.

  • Tamar

    Hi Suzy,
    Thanks so much! I’m a music writer who sometimes doesn’t have the benefit of a photographer so trying to figure out what camera will be the best for me. A few people suggested mirrorless cameras instead of the regular DSLR. Any thoughts on that?

    • Hi Tamar,
      Thanks so much for your feedback! I also started out as a music writer before going into photography. Mirrorless cameras are a great option because they cost less and generally weigh a lot loss than a DSLR. The only drawback at times is that DSLR camera sensors are much larger and thus take better photos in low lighting scenarios (which is 99% of concert photography situations). Also, mirrorless camera bodies might be cheaper, but the accompanying lenses can be pricey.

      If you go mirrorless, I’d recommend trying out the Sony a6000 and pairing it with a nice Sony lens. The below combination would be a low cost (compared to a DSLR) way to pull off some nice concert photos.

      Sony a6000:
      Sony lens:

      If possible, try out this combo or another mirrorless option by renting from your local camera store or a friend. I always think it’s best to test out gear before buying it, or buying it with a flexible return policy just in case it doesn’t live up to your expectations.

      Hope this helps! Do update me if you happen to pursue a mirrorless camera option.

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  • Timothy Dannenhoffer

    And if you don’t have a pass to take photos with any camera of your choice?

    I’m just a regular fan looking for the best camera that most venue security will allow in. Compact, fixed zoom lens and 1″ sensors. I’m looking at the Panasonic ZS100 and the Canon G3X. What do you think?

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