Primes vs zooms for indoor concert photography

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I regularly attend (classical) chamber music concerts, and when I'm not playing myself I like to take photographs of the other players. Now before I switched to MFT (I've always used fixed lens compacts before) I did some research on what lenses to get, and was pretty certain that fast primes like the PL25 f/1.4 and P42.5 f/1.7 would be most suitable for this purpose: larger aperture = lower ISO = better pictures. Some people were actually arguing that zooms are "unusable" because they lead to "unacceptably high ISOs".

However, when I actually got those primes I found that I almost never use them for concerts. In practice I'm using the P35-100 f/2.8 much more often (I love that lens and am glad that I got it!).

It's usually not appropriate to move around while someone is playing, so I have to take pictures from my seat. Also, there might be one person playing, or 5, or anything in-between. Sometimes I like to isolate one or two players and sometimes want to include all players in the photograph. This means I'm constantly switching focal lengths: I can't "zoom" with my feet and I'm adjusting my framing all the time. In addition, depending on where I'm seated, 42.5mm is not long enough so when trying to stick to primes I'd have to buy the 75mm f/1.8 as well.

I also want to have a good amount of depth of field so when multiple players are in the frame you can still recognize the ones who are not in focus. I'm not sure whether f/1.4 or f/1.7 gives that.

For example, this photo was taken on a G80 at 85mm, f/2.8, 1/60s, ISO 800:
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I think the depth of field works nicely, and ISO 800 still looks perfectly fine to me (even with the noise reduction turned all the way down).

For now I'm concluding: lesson learned; reading stuff on the internet sometimes leads you to believe that you need certain equipment, but it's not until you try it out yourself that you get to know what works for you. (I'm still using the PL25 and P42.5 by the way; just not for these types of concerts.)

But do you guys have any thoughts on this? Would you still use primes and crop to remove any clutter? Or do zooms work better for you too?
 

ac12

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All depends.
I normally use zooms. Been a zoomie since my early film days.

But when I shoot gym sports, I go with the fast f/1.8 primes (35 and 50) and shoot at f/2. ISO=3200, 1/800 sec, f/2. I'm fighting a bad combination of low light and fast moving subjects, so it is a compromise. I give up DoF for a higher shutter speed and lower ISO. I would love to use a f/2.8 zoom, but until late last year, I did not find one in my price range. Even at f/2.8 I loose a stop of light vs. the f/1.8 primes, so I would be at ISO 6400 (which on the D7200 is OK with min cropping).

When I shoot a concert, I shoot wide open on whatever lens I am using.
DoF is not a concern, getting a decent exposure of the subject is. Yes focusing on the front row, and the back row of players are out of focus.
 

Canonista

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As you've pointed out, unless you are at a rehearsal, it's not possible to be moving around during a performance. That makes the zoom lens indispensable. A fast aperture lens is also meaningless if you need sufficient DOF. That having been said, if you're taking images of wood instrument players, you'll need a sufficiently fast shutter speed to freeze their bow movements. I generally found the two f/2.8 zooms (12-35, 35-100) fast enough without having to push the ISO excessively high. The wonderful advantage of mirrorless cameras is the silent e-shutter. One no longer has to cringe every time the shutter is released.
 
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It's all about the amount of light that is available when shooting. I wouldn't hesitate to shoot with that camera right up to iso 3200. Having shot many indoor concerts, I find choosing and shooting at the correct WB is critical if shooting jpeg's only, and also using a high enough shutter speed, usually 125 at the least, so reduce movement of the players is most helpful.

BTW, these were all shot with a couple of GX7's and liberal use of a first version 100-300 and 35-100 among other lenses and iso's up to 3200: 101014 Kaleidoscope Concert - montclairstateuniversity
 

ac12

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The wonderful advantage of mirrorless cameras is the silent e-shutter. One no longer has to cringe every time the shutter is released.
Agree.
I advise the yearbook photographers of the local high school.

One evening after shooting a student concert, a parent came up to us, QUITE UPSET. He said the camera NOISE (the mirror+shutter sound) was interfering with the enjoyment of the music.
  • This is a student concert, not a professional concert where the seats are $100+. But point taken.
  • The school has the cameras that it has, Canon T7 dSLRs. No mirrorless or pro dSLR with quiet mode. So except for using a blimp, nothing much can be done with the equipment to reduce the noise.
  • I am trying to get the kids to shoot at the dress rehearsals, where they can move around the theater and shoot without an audience to worry about. And it does make it a LOT easier to shoot.
  • During a concert, we switched to shooting just one or two shots at a time, with more wait time between shots. That seems to be less bothersome than the continuous firing of the shutter.
  • And I switched to the EM1, and shoot in silent mode. :D
 

ac12

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It's all about the amount of light that is available when shooting. I wouldn't hesitate to shoot with that camera right up to iso 3200. Having shot many indoor concerts, I find choosing and shooting at the correct WB is critical if shooting jpeg's only, and also using a high enough shutter speed, usually 125 at the least, so reduce movement of the players is most helpful.

BTW, these were all shot with a couple of GX7's and liberal use of a first version 100-300 and 35-100 among other lenses and iso's up to 3200: 101014 Kaleidoscope Concert - montclairstateuniversity
The WB at my schools theater STINKS.
They have red, blue and white lights. And the lights are not even, so there are places on stage where the students are in a magenta colored light. Move a bit and they are under white lights. ARGHH. It is a post processing PiA.
 

Steven

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most people photographing concerts photograph faster moving rock bands in more dim venues. So, that’s probably why you got the answers you did.
I would love to be able to use one bright zoom instead of switching lenses all the time. But since I routinely have to use ISO 3200 with with the bright primes, a dimmer zoom is not an option.
I
 

oldracer

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Perfect application for a monopod, used in the very conventional way; a vertical stick to support the camera. A monopod won't solve all problems, like subject movement, but it will give you a stable camera. You can still benefit from whatever in-camera stabilization you get but you won't have to hope it is adequate.
 
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It's all about the amount of light that is available when shooting. I wouldn't hesitate to shoot with that camera right up to iso 3200. Having shot many indoor concerts, I find choosing and shooting at the correct WB is critical if shooting jpeg's only, and also using a high enough shutter speed, usually 125 at the least, so reduce movement of the players is most helpful.

BTW, these were all shot with a couple of GX7's and liberal use of a first version 100-300 and 35-100 among other lenses and iso's up to 3200: 101014 Kaleidoscope Concert - montclairstateuniversity
Thanks for the examples! I wouldn't even have considered using a 100-300 indoors; but apparently it can work!

As for the minimum shutter speed: I've found I can get away with shooting at 1/60s most of the time. This does require some good timing and I sometimes have to delete images that have too much motion blur (but sometimes the motion blur actually improves the picture).

most people photographing concerts photograph faster moving rock bands in more dim venues. So, that’s probably why you got the answers you did.
I would love to be able to use one bright zoom instead of switching lenses all the time. But since I routinely have to use ISO 3200 with with the bright primes, a dimmer zoom is not an option.
Good point! As others said, it's about the amount of light that you have (combined with the minimum shutter speed that you can get away with, and your tolerance for noise).

Now what do you do when you're in a fixed position and you're not happy with the framing of your image? Do you just crop it in post (which introduces more noise again...)?
 

PakkyT

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I did some research on what lenses to get, and was pretty certain that fast primes like the PL25 f/1.4 and P42.5 f/1.7 would be most suitable for this purpose: larger aperture = lower ISO = better pictures. Some people were actually arguing that zooms are "unusable" because they lead to "unacceptably high ISOs".
As you point out indirectly it has nothing to do with prime vs. zoom but simply a matter of how large an aperture you can use with the tradeoff of how high your ISO has to go to support that. If you find f2.8 works for your purposes then you have a large selection of both primes and zooms to work with. If on the other hand you found that you needed f1.8 or faster, then you end up a lot more limited in lens choices, almost all of them primes.

By the way, a tip for this sort of shooting from your seat, bring a monopod. You can adjust the height so it sits between your legs with the camera at eye level. You can then worry less about slower shutter speeds since you are not completely hand holding it. Also it allows you to sit there and take your time waiting for the right moment without having to hold the camera up the whole time. But important tip #2 is turn off the back LCD display completely (this includes the option to NOT have it show the shot right after you take it) as the bright back LCD might bother people around you.

An example from my daughters 5th grade recital shot from my seat. I actually used the old OM 135mm f2.8 lens so all manual focus. Monopod allowed me to shoot at 1/15th of a second and my auto ISO only went up to 250, but the kids were still enough to not really need the higher shutter speed. The monopod was a big help with the manual focus lens since I could prefocus then shoot at will with the monopod making sure I wasn't moving the camera out of the focus...
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2019.03.05-20.13.59 by Patrick, on Flickr

Edit: I see while I was typing this @oldracer has the same monopod idea.
 
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Perfect application for a monopod, used in the very conventional way; a vertical stick to support the camera. A monopod won't solve all problems, like subject movement, but it will give you a stable camera. You can still benefit from whatever in-camera stabilization you get but you won't have to hope it is adequate.
Thanks for the tip. So far the G80's stabilization has proven to be very reliable for me. At shutter speeds ≥1/60s I never have problems with camera shake (even at 100mm). And I'm not even trying hard.
 
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But important tip #2 is turn off the back LCD display completely (this includes the option to NOT have it show the shot right after you take it) as the bright back LCD might bother people around you.
Yes! I actually flip the screen around so it's not visible at all. :)

Cool example shot; nice to see that even 1/15s can work with human subjects. And I had never thought of using a monopod for keeping the same distance to subject after prefocusing; good idea. :)
 

oldracer

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Thanks for the tip. So far the G80's stabilization has proven to be very reliable for me. At shutter speeds ≥1/60s I never have problems with camera shake (even at 100mm). And I'm not even trying hard.
No problem. I have this funny idea that there is no such thing as a camera that is too stable. Also, if you think about it you can see (I think) that for stabilization to work there has to be motion of the image. No motion detected, no stabilization correction. So while the motion may have been reduced to a small amount by the stabilization signal, it is still not zero. (This is for random motion; periodic motion -- which we don't have -- can be corrected 100%.)
 
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My current combo is the 12-60 and 50-200 PL lenses. They give me all the range I need. Monopods impede my movement, and generally it's the performers movements that needs to be stopped. The IBIS takes care of the camera end of it.

I do a fair amount of theater work with lots of movement: 120418 CART Mystery of Edwin Drood - montclairstateuniversity

And musical theater: 030119 CART Guys and Dolls - montclairstateuniversity

And a bit of opera too: 020119 CART Tamerlano - montclairstateuniversity

And these were dance shows, shot with either a GH3 for the 2014 gallery or GX8 in 2016, and iso's ranging up to 12800!
042616 Dance Collage - montclairstateuniversity
021814 Dance Collage - montclairstateuniversity

Thanks for the examples! I wouldn't even have considered using a 100-300 indoors; but apparently it can work!

As for the minimum shutter speed: I've found I can get away with shooting at 1/60s most of the time. This does require some good timing and I sometimes have to delete images that have too much motion blur (but sometimes the motion blur actually improves the picture).


Good point! As others said, it's about the amount of light that you have (combined with the minimum shutter speed that you can get away with, and your tolerance for noise).

Now what do you do when you're in a fixed position and you're not happy with the framing of your image? Do you just crop it in post (which introduces more noise again...)?
 

NCV

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The 35-100 is a nice concert lens if you are quite close to the stage or do groups. A zoom is the way to go as you can frame in camera reducing the need to crop.
Here is a Carl Palmer concert. I was right under the stage.

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exakta

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The WB at my schools theater STINKS.They have red, blue and white lights. And the lights are not even, so there are places on stage where the students are in a magenta colored light. Move a bit and they are under white lights. ARGHH. It is a post processing PiA.
That's why I set the WB manually once and leave it. Since I seldom have the luxury of being able to jump on stage with a white card, I just tweak it to taste in the finder. If the subject is under a red light, it should look red.

As far as using a zoom, if I owned an f2.8 zoom, I'd probably use it. But I don't so I use primes. When it was still possible to bring cameras into arena shows, I used to shoot with a zoom at f5.6 all the time...but arena lighting is a lot brighter.
 

bassman

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I occasionally shoot music at a dinner theater-type venue where I can move around during the show as long as I don’t block the paying customers. I shoot with primes on two bodies: the 75/1.8 and 45/1.8 get the most use, and the 12/2 and 17/1.8 a bit of use. I value the extra 1+ stop of light to keep the shutter speed up and ISO down as much as possible.

The acts are usually guitar-based vocalists, so the key compositional challenge is getting shots clear of microphones, music stands, etc.
 

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