Alley in Pisa, Italy

by Lars Kotthoff

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I'm looking at upgrading my kit for a music photojournalism internship over the summer and I was wondering what the best way to spend $600 was.

My current setup is a d7000, a kit lens, a manual focus 1.4/50mm and a speedlight. I'm looking at the 1.4/50mm AF, but I figure my money could be better spent, and I've gotten used to manual focus: http://minus.com/mW9z07wnQ#1

I'll be shooting small, dark 1,500-person venues -- so a 2.8/80-200mm is out of the question.

Ideas? Maybe get a diffuser for my speedlight? A fast 35mm? I've been looking at that Nikon prime fish-eye, but I'm skeptical about its use in photojournalism... Ken Rockwell recommends the Hemi plugin -- any thoughts?

Thanks for the help!

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7 Answers 7

A 1500 person venue isn't small. At least, it's not small enough to light it with a speedlight, unless you're using it to illuminate a spot using a Flash Extender, or you're triggering it remotely.

Talk to the people you will be working with/for. Ask them what they use. They may even have some equipment you can make use of. Find out what kind of access you can have. If you can move around freely and get very close to the stage, you can do some good stuff with wider lenses and use your proximity to give a more intimate feel to your concert photography. On the other hand, if you're stuck on a balcony only, you may have little choice but to use a telephoto lens. These matters (your mobility and possible need for a longer lens) may dictate that you need to use a monopod to steady the camera.

Check out concert photography groups on Flickr. Decide what photos you like stylistically, and why. Look at the EXIF data to figure out how the photo was made.

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Nice generalized advice –  dpollitt Mar 13 '12 at 22:13

The Nikon 85mm f/1.8 D is a fantastic lens for the money. I use it for about 65% of my music shots in venues from pubs right up to concert halls.

There's a Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 that might be useful if you can get really close up. I actually bought the Nikon 10-24mm f/3.5-4.5, but it's not really fast enough in low light. The D7000 has a better ISO6400 than my D90 though, so your milage may vary.

For 1500 capacity venues, I carry something a bit longer. Currently, I have a 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 which is a good lens for the money and usually works, given that those sorts of venues tend to have quite strong light. I'm not sure I would have it if my only use for it was concert photography though. I'm considering a 135mm f/2 DC, but that's far more expensive. The 70-200mm f/2.8 is the standard workhorse for that size of gig, but it's expensive and it draws a bit too much attention for my taste, not to mention it weights a ton.

For smaller venues (~200 capacity), I carry a 35mm f/1.8 G DX. It's wide enough to get the whole band in from a reasonable distance (a boring but usually necessary shot), and it gets good detail shots from close in.

Another option might be a 24-70mm f/2.8 (non-Nikon since money is a concern), but I found I took quite boring photos with my 24-70mm. It was too easy to stand in a spot and zoom.

I would be surprised if 1500 capacity venues allowed you to use flash. It's generally frowned upon in music photography ("three songs, no flash"), and that size of venue generally has someone who's job it is to throw you out if you're annoying. e.g. blinding the talent.

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Really appreciate the recommendations; I'll start reading reviews of the 1.8/85mm. I should mention... These are going to be mainly club shows, as in, the artists will be DJs. I'll have very close access to the artists -- That's why I was considering the fish-eye. The 50mm is already a little too close for the types of shots I'll be getting. –  Joseph Mar 15 '12 at 0:50
    
You're going to be /really/ close up to get a good shot of a DJ with a fisheye. Even if you've been invited by the DJ to take shots for his promo he's going to get fed up with you pretty fast. I wouldn't dare get that close more than once or twice per set. You can get really cool environmental shots when you're there though. I just think you'd get more use out of a more general purpose lens. –  Scott Carroll Mar 15 '12 at 18:15

It's going to be very difficult to get good results if all you have to work with is $600. The 85 f1.8 is probably the best overall lens choice for the situation and budget. But if this is going to become a passion or career you'll need to invest in long and fast lenses. As was said, 1500 person venues are not small -- unless you have access to get up to the front.

If you haven't asked to do pictures, though, that's absolutely the first thing to do. Since you did some music photography, bring your portfolio with you. Show them examples and explain what you're wanting to do. Offer them royalty-free images from what you take. You need to show them why they should allow you to shoot.

Lastly, I'd take a look at tips from concert photographers like Alan Hess. You can do a lot with 85mm but you have to be pretty close to do it.

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Thanks for the name, I'll look into Alan Hess. 50mmm is already a close crop for the types of shows I'm shooting (clubs where I'm very close to the DJs). I thought Nikon's fish-eye might be a good lens to help me capture more of the scene. Any experience? –  Joseph Mar 15 '12 at 4:12

Iv been using a 17-55 2.8 Tamron lens it works great in low light and is fast. you can also rent lenses from your local camera shop. It's a good way to try different lenses out to see what you like the best. Your kit lens is not too bad if your just starting out. The best I can say is try different lenses and see what works for you.

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Personally when I do these types of shows I normally stick to my Nikon AF Nikkor 50mm f/1.4D. It was really great low-light performance without having the need to jump to ISO above 1000. The downside typically for venues this size and using a SpeedLight is you can only really illuminate subject within 5 to 10 feet. I make it a rule to not use my SpeedLight without a diffuser like one from Gary Fong. Cheaper ones can be bought but I've seen some ugly results from knock-offs. I've heard that the 35mm lens do well but are pricey for nice fast 35mm lens.

For better lighting you'll need to invest some serious cash into Studio lighting and remote triggers (like a pocketwizard) that can be hung from the concert light rig above the crowd. Of course all of this would require you talking with the event organizers and gain permission for this.

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Tokina 11-16mm f:2.8

Nikon 35mm f:1.8

Samyang 8mm fisheye f:3.5

FX tele for closeups

EDIT: Fisheyes and wide-angles are good for throwing you into these situations. A cheap 35mm on DX works for 90% of all situations, and it's a lens you can carry with you when you don't want to carry too much stuff. Tele is obvious for big festivals and when you're distant from the subject.

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I think this would be much better with some explanation as to why these would be good choices. –  John Cavan Jan 16 '13 at 21:32
    
Edited the answer a bit –  thevangelist Jan 16 '13 at 21:48

I'm probably waaaaay too late in answering to help you out with your decision (which I'm sure you've made already) but maybe my answer will help others who have a similar question. My own situation is similar. I've recently made some connections in my local music scene which has resulted in me shooting some small venue gigs where I am allowed to get up close to the stage and the performers (including DJs, like you) and shoot from a variety of positions (as opposed to shooting from the pit at an arena show for 3 songs, with no flash). I occasionally use my SB-700 speedlight (and am allowed to use a flash), but prefer not to overdo it. When I do, I use a diffuser and/or bounce off the ceiling. The light in these clubs is often VERY low and the majority of the stage lights used seem to be orange or red and so are really tricky to work with. Get used to correcting white balance in post.

I have a D7000 and a recently acquired D600 and shoot mostly with the full frame D600 but will still use the D7000 as a back-up. It's important to take into account the reduced field of view of the APS-C sensor on the D7000 because it makes a huge difference to your choice of lens. Be careful reading other's recommendations because they may be using the lens they recommend on a full frame camera. The low light sensitivity of both these cameras is fantastic and I often have to push the ISO up to 3200 or even 6400 with a pro 2.8 zoom (I own the holy trinity of 14-24mm, 24-70mm, and 70-200mm) in order to shoot at a shutter speed of 1/125 or 1/160 so that I can freeze action somewhat. In venues like these, faster shutter speeds result in really dark photos, but going much slower than 1/125 runs you the risk of less than sharp shots, especially if you're being jostled in the crowd. In clubs like this I'm finding that you have to be quick and be aware of your surroundings and rarely have the opportunity to rest your camera on something to steady your shot. So you're probably going to be shooting faster than 1/100th.

So, after all that intro, here's what I'm finding and what I recommend:

Make sure you are shooting in RAW and are using Lightroom for post (I have no experience with Apple's Aperture but I'm sure it's great too). This will save a number of your shots (both in correcting exposure levels and white balance and for doing some noise reduction on those high-ISO shots, of which you'll have plenty if you're using a 2.8 or slower lens). Some of the best shots I've taken have been with my cheapy 50mm f/1.8g (and you've already got a fast 50mm) and my 85mm f/1.4D, both wide open. BUT those shots were crops (in camera) of, say, a guitarist or singer or drummer and have a very shallow DOF. In other words, they're great for shooting a single performer and getting their expressions and part of their instruments, but will not get other performers on the stage beside them or in the background (due to narrow angle of view and the shallow DOF). Sure, you can zoom out with your feet, as they say, but then you're going to have audience member heads in the way. Some of my other most treasured shots have been with the very expensive 14-24mm where at its widest, I could get the whole of a 5 piece band pretty easily and can produce some interesting effects if I'm up close and don't correct the distortion in post.

Since you already have the 50mm and can get up quite close, I would either look for a fast 24mm or 28mm prime used, or if you can stretch a bit and can get a good deal, get the 28mm f/1.8g new. Or perhaps even better, get the Tokina 11-16mm (which will give you results on your D7000 similar to the results I get from the 14-24mm on my D600). The 11-16mm is a fantastic, sharp DX lens which I used to own and sold when I traded up to the full frame D600. Even though I don't really need this lens anymore, it was so great that I still regret selling it. It's an f/2.8 and so not as fast as many primes, but it has a fantastic angle of view for getting the whole stage, or audience members up front dancing, or if you can shoot from the side, you can get the band or DJ and people dancing in the audience all in one shot. If the lighting is as poor in the clubs you'll be shooting at, you'll have to do some serious adjustments in Lightroom afterwards, but you'll get some amazing shots with this lens. I bought mine (with caps, but no box or receipt) in excellent condition for $500. I later sold it for exactly the same price and that's within your budget.

I have the Nikon 16mm fisheye as well and so can answer your question about that -- it's not nearly as useful and adaptable as the Tokina 11-16mm. Don't misunderstand, with practice and after getting to know its limitations, you can get some really cool shots from it, but it has a very limited range of uses. Friends warned me of this when I bought it and they were right -- I don't use it nearly as much as I thought I would. And if you're hoping to use some of your shots for print or online live music reviews, you'll find that it really doesn't produce that many suitable images.

Hope this (really long) answer helps somewhat!! Have fun!! Shooting live gigs is an amazing experience!!

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