Jeannie (I)

Photographing Concerts with a Leica Rangefinder

I do a fair amount of con­cert pho­tog­ra­phy with the Leica M9-P dig­i­tal rangefinder cam­era. [Sidenote: Since this arti­cle posted, I’ve switched to the Fuji XT-1 for per­for­mance, action, and low-light dig­i­tal pho­tog­ra­phy. I also use a Rolleiflex 2.8c, a Hasslblad 503CX, and a Leica MP Classic, cou­pled with a pow­er­ful Sunpak 622 Pro strobe for some con­cert pho­tog­ra­phy.] This presents cer­tain chal­lenges not affect­ing the typ­i­cal DSLRshooter.


Chiefly, there’s the lim­i­ta­tion on focal length. Although M-mount lenses are made up to 135mm in size, the longest prac­ti­cal length is 90mm. That’s because above that length, the image inside the viewfinder bright­lines is so small that it’s very dif­fi­cult to focus accurately.

Backstage (II)
Backstage (II), Crystal Theatre, , 15th Annual Woody Guthrie Festival, 2012

In larger venues where it’s hard to get close to the stage, I pre­fer a Leica Tele-Elmarit-M 90mm lens. It’s small, fast, and sharp, and cheaper to buy used than the cur­rent 90mm lens in Leica’s lineup. On a Leica M3, with its high viewfinder mag­ni­fi­ca­tion, it’s even better.

If I can get closer, I might use any­thing from a 21mm to a 50mm lens; it depends on the size of the stage and my dis­tance from it. If I know I’m not going to be repro­duc­ing the images at a very large size, I might even use the 50mm at some con­sid­er­able dis­tance and crop the images in post, since it’s a much faster lens than the 90mm.


Then there’s the mat­ter of light­ing: to use flash, or not to use flash. Since many very fast lenses are avail­able for the Leica, I don’t use flash — since I can’t always get right up to the stage, this works out for the best, any­way. No sense in illu­mi­nat­ing the backs of the crowd’s heads instead of your sub­ject, and many venues pro­hibit flash pho­tog­ra­phy anyway.

Since most stage lights are tung­sten, even with col­ored gels, I either set my white bal­ance (WB) to 3200° Kelvin, or, if I can get close enough to the stage, I set it man­u­ally with a WhiBal card. [Sidenote: Since this arti­cle posted, most venues have updated their lights to LEDs. Therefore, it’s bet­ter to set the WB to between 5000º – 5600ºK.] Even though I often process con­cert pho­tos in black and white, this saves a step in Adobe Lightroom.

John Fullbright (II)
John Fullbright (II), Bob Childers Tribute, Brick Street Café, 15th Annual Woody Guthrie Festival, 2012

Exposure & ISO

I set the shut­ter speed to “aper­ture pri­or­ity” and open the lens to its fastest set­ting. Using the TTL meter, I aim for a part of the scene that is nei­ther too bright nor too dark and “lock” expo­sure by depress­ing the shut­ter release to the first stop. [Sidenote: My cur­rent prac­tice is to change to expo­sure pri­or­ity mode after I’ve deter­mined the cor­rect expo­sure, so long as the light­ing is con­sis­tent.] If there’s room, I use a tri­pod to steady the shot, com­pose, and shoot. I’ll “chimp” on the  first shot to check the expo­sure; if it’s okay, I stop pre­view­ing and just take pic­tures (I set pre­views to “off” in the camera’s settings).

Outdoors dur­ing day­light hours, set ISO to 160 and use an ND filter [Sidenote: A neu­tral den­sity fil­ter reduces or mod­i­fies the inten­sity of all wave­lengths (col­ors) of light equally, giv­ing no hue change, but reduc­ing lumi­nos­ity.] if nec­es­sary. After dark or indoors, bump that to ISO 800 or 1200. Anything above ISO 1200 may pro­duce unac­cept­able noise. These set­tings assume a fairly fast lens (ƒ/2.8 and below).

Don’t worry about the shots you don’t get: expo­sure, com­po­si­tion, focus are all likely “gotchas” that will ruin most of your shots. You’ll prob­a­bly shoot a lot of pic­tures, and from those you’ll pick the best ones when it’s over.

Gaining Access

For a posi­tion close to the stage or in other restricted areas, you will need cre­den­tials. If you are cov­er­ing the event for a pub­li­ca­tion or web­site, they may issue a you a press ID; be aware, how­ever, that many venues require a pass pro­duced and issued by the pro­moter, venue, or band man­age­ment. Contact the appro­pri­ate per­son and request cre­den­tials: try the musician’s web­site (look for a “Press” link), or con­tact the venue itself. You many find the venue has a gen­eral “non-flash pho­tos allowed with a cam­era phone or point-and-shoot in non-restricted areas,” or pho­tog­ra­phy may be pro­hib­ited alto­gether unless they’ve issued you cre­den­tials. Find out in advance.


Remember, other peo­ple are try­ing to see the stage. Others are also pho­tograph­ing. Don’t stand at the front chimp­ing; [Sidenote: Chimping is the habit of check­ing every photo on a cam­era dis­play imme­di­ately after cap­ture. It by was first writ­ten about by Robert Deutsch, a USA Today staff pho­tog­ra­pher, in September 1999. He did not invent the term but heard it passed down by word of mouth.] move out of the way if you are review­ing your pics. Don’t block the view in any case; stay low, watch where you cast shad­ows, and be aware of what’s hap­pen­ing around you.

Under no cir­cum­stances should you dis­tract the per­former. Don’t yell, wave your hands, or do any­thing to get a per­former to look your way; they have enough on their minds with­out you being a jerk.

Be Generous

I usu­ally offer the per­former a pick of the best images after­ward, with the under­stand­ing that I retain full rights to the image, and that they need my per­mis­sion to use them for com­mer­cial pur­poses, e.g., on a CD cover or a con­cert poster.

Have Fun

A stage show is an oppor­tu­nity to enjoy your­self. You’ll take bet­ter pic­tures if you use your  ears; sci­en­tific fact! [Sidenote: According to Professor Baloney of the Hogwash Institute.] Relax, enjoy the show, and take pictures.

About Chris J. Zähller

International Man of Mystery. Cocktail Nerd. Occasionally designs websites. Sometimes snaps a picture or two.

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