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I have been invited to take some photos from an ensemble in a conservatory. I do photography a lot, but mostly outdoors and this is going to be my first experience.

I have a Canon 50D with 2 lenses: 50mm and 17-55mm IS (which is horrible). However, I am able to rent some lenses for that night. What do you think I should get: a telephoto, a wide, or both, and which model is preferable?

Because this is going to be a classical concert, flashes are not welcome, so the lens must be able to handle the lights there (I think the lights are sufficient).

However, if there is any special flashes for this scenario, which would not be really annoying, please let me know.

Please give me a few options of each.

  • While not an exact duplicate, this other question also talks about lenses. Please have a look. – Guillaume Jan 21 '11 at 11:43
  • @Guillaume other question? – Rowland Shaw Jan 21 '11 at 18:44
  • The 17-55mm is horrible? If it's the Canon 17-55mm IS then I can assure you it is not! :P – Nick Bedford Jan 22 '11 at 8:19
  • And this is the other question : photo.stackexchange.com/questions/1888/… – Guillaume Jan 24 '11 at 9:17
  • Always take your 1-50mm lens! ;-) – Dr.Elch May 26 '11 at 22:07
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I think you should go for a 70-200 f/2.8 or if too pricey the f/4.0 will do too. Wide Lens can be cool too, if you're able to get near the artists, if not you can save on that. I'd prefer not to use a flash, if its to dark you have to go up to ISO800-ISO1600, at least the pictures should be okay (don't know how the 50D performs on such levels) if you're not going above ISO2000.

Depends on how close you can get but the 70-200 will work well here I think.

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    +1 a 70-200 will serve you well, esp if you can get f/2.8, a tripod would be very useful too to steady the camera when shooting at 200mm – Matt Grum Jan 21 '11 at 11:08
  • Also having a wider lens wouldn't be useful? – t3mujin Jan 21 '11 at 14:14
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    If you can get near the artists, yes. If it fits your budget a wide lens is always good for a nice overview if you want that effect. – m_sc Jan 23 '11 at 11:22
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Unless things have changed an enormous amount since I was a kid, you'll find that the mirror slap (and perhaps even the shutter, depending on the camera) are unwelcome noises and will severely distract from the enjoyment of concert attendees. Back in the day, we'd use something called a blimp -- a soundproofing housing -- around the camera body, or opt for a rangefinder (Leica, Minolta or Mamiya 7) or TLR. We photographers often seem to forget that we're not the stars of the show.

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    +1 - Excellent point. A classical concert definitely isn't the same atmosphere as a rock concert! – D. Lambert Jan 21 '11 at 22:09
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    Sounds like a great niche for mirrorless cameras. – che Jan 21 '11 at 23:54
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    Even most mirrorless cameras with sensors large enough to do concert photography have mechanical shutters. Trying to use an EVF for concert photography can be a nightmare with exactly timing performer's motions i.e. catching them in the split second between when their strumming hand transitions from going up to going down. – Michael C Aug 1 '16 at 16:45
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here's some hints from someone who's been photographing orchestral performance for 12 years.

Know the music beforehand. Don't let the pauses, or quiet moments take you by surprise.

Tripod well get in the way. Maybe a monopod.

Don't shoot below 125th/sec. NEVER use flash. It will momentarily blind musicians who are reading music. Always wear stage black. Shows professionalism.

I've only used 24-70 and 70-200, unless it's been a rehearsal where I can move between musicians onstage. Then I can use 14-24. That won't happen in live performance.

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If you can get to the venue ahead of time and scout it out, you'd probably have a better feel for what focal lengths you might need. As others have indicated, a 2.8 or better lens will give you the best shot at maximizing available light, but if you can know ahead of time that you can get most of your shots with a 50, or 85, or 100, or whatever, you can probably rent a prime f/1.8 lens vs. an f/2.8 zoom.

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Another option could be renting a couple of prime lenses (specially if you're able to find another body), you'de loose the flexibility of a zoom but gain a lot in low light posibility. Probably a longer lens like an 85mm or 100mm would be a good choice.

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I would support renting a 70-200/2.8 (IS or non-IS) lens. But more than that you'll need to keep your expectations of the images in check. You will be able to capture expression and emotion quite well in this scenario. Less likely though is the success at capturing action. The lighting in such a place is probably enough to get you a shutter speed of about 1/60 and any substantial movement (bowing a violin quickly, director's baton moving in an exaggerated fashion) will likely be a blur.

But, there's a benefit to that. Using your tripod, you'll be able to make an image with the musicians in total blur from action while the stage and its props are stationary. Make the best of the opportunity. Look for some unique angles and let the blur happen, artistically.

If the stage is of any substance, you'll need a 200mm or better to get any close-up images.

Don't use a flash. The light coming from the stage lighting is, for all intents and purposes, orange. Your flash is a blue-ish color in comparison and will create a sickly color in the shadow areas. Additionally, if you're using a long lens with an on-camera flash you're prone to get red-eye.

Regardless, try to have a good time. Don't get too worried about your limitations or lack of experience in this specific arena. They invited you for a reason...

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I know I'm replying to an ancient question here, but as somebody who does a lot of this, I wanted to throw in my perspective anyway for anybody who might be reading this looking for advice.

The short answer is that you can do it on a crop body, but you'll get a lot more keepers with a full-frame body because you can crank the ISO higher and still get usable shots (albeit at a cost in terms of having to use a bigger, heavier lens to get the same f-stop on a larger sensor).

If you're on a crop body, unless you have a fairly fast lens, you're likely to be in a world of hurt. Stage lighting isn't really particularly bright. It just looks bright because you're in the dark. With an f/4 lens, you should expect to choose between a slow shutter speed and four-digit ISO levels.

For example, on the stage at the university where I regularly do this sort of thing, with a full-frame camera shooting 35mm shots at ISO 400 and f/4, the shutter speed is about 1/40th of a second, which is okay for a wind band concert if you don't care about the conductor's arm being a blur, less so for an orchestra concert, and probably useless for a percussion ensemble concert. Stopping motion much more completely at 1/250th of a second requires ISO 2500, which is fine on a full-frame, but probably dicey on a crop.

For closeups, with my 70–300L and no teleconverter, getting 1/250th means shooting at ISO 10,000+ even at f/5, which is barely even possible on a crop. Out near the end of the range where it gets into f/5.6 territory, you'd be at ISO 12,800 just to get 1/100th of a second.

I used to use a crop body on that same stage. I have full-stage shots from back then that are excessively soft because at ISO 800, I sometimes had to shoot as slow as 1/25th of a second at f/4.

Regarding focal length for a zoom, I would tend to say "longer is better". Unless the slope of the hall makes the photos look awkward from the back of the room, you should try to sit there. That way, your mirror slapping is less likely to disturb people (who will tend to sit closer).

I never need anything wider than my 24–105 for capturing the entire stage even if I'm in the middle of the audience. At the back, I'm not even near the wide end of that. On a crop body, I had a 10–22, but realistically I could have gotten away with my 17–85 and moving a little further back. I just preferred the sharpness I got from the 10–22 in the middle of its range over the 17–85 at the widest, most distorted end of its range.

And for close-ups, I sometimes end up putting a third-party 1.4x teleconverter on my 70–300L (on a full-frame body), depending on the hall.

Obviously your mileage may vary. There's a wide range of lighting levels, depending on the hall. I feel like ours is on the dimmer side of the halls that I've seen, which is nice for the performers, but bad for photographers. I've seen other halls that are considerably brighter. But if I had it all to do over again, I'd probably have bought a full-frame camera for my first DSLR and skipped the entire crop body line in spite of the much higher cost. Particularly for photos in our hall, it has made a world of difference.

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