Looking for good (small?) cameras for dark concert photos
December 8, 2010 10:57 AM   Subscribe

DSLR vs Pro-Sumer camera quandary, live performance variation. I'm looking at upgrading to a better camera (specifically because my Point-n-Shoot does poorly capturing live shows in dark venues), but I'm not sure if I am ready for a DSLR. Details inside.

The long: this is something of a tangent from bristolcat's earlier question in looking for a small DSLR(like) camera, I'd like something better than my Canon PowerShot SD850 IS. Most of my shots are taken in full auto mode, or by modifying the exposure time. My night pictures come out blurry or grainy. I can fix the blur by using my tripod, but as I understand it, the graininess is inherent in smaller sensors.

I like the idea of Mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras, but don't know if I'd really swap out lenses enough. I often get annoyed by the fact that my dinky camera has such a meager optical zoom, but that's often outweighed by the fact I can stick it into a slim case and carry it in my pocket. My prior cameras were older Pro-Sumer Canon PowerShot G series (G1 and G5), which were great when I had them, but not convenient for carrying on my person.

But I really want to be able to take better quality pictures in dark conditions, and hand-held if possible. And I'd love some control over the built-in (or the option for an auxiliary) flash, when I want to provide some extra light in those dark conditions.

I went to a local camera shop, and mentioned an interest in DSLR and a desire to take pictures in dark concert conditions, and the shop rep focused on the Olympus Digital PEN, specifically the E-PL1. He said that the PowerShot G12 flopped in comparison based on their in-house high ISO comparison shots.

Looking at AskMe posts, I've seen the Lumix GF1 recommended, and this comparison between GF1 and E-P1 show that the earlier Olympus model tends to overexpose shots, and the GF2 is coming soon, though no US price mentioned yet. And if I'm nudging the pricepoint up, why not get an entry-level DSLR? Or shifting down, the Canon S95 looks fantastic for an easy pocket camera, but is rather noisy and the JPG setting blurs details. Will I be looking that closely? I don't know!

In short: what are my best options for shooting dark situations, by hand? Is a Micro four-thirds the best bet between Pro-sumer and full DSLR? But are the micros necessary for what I want to do?
posted by filthy light thief to Media & Arts (24 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
You're overthinking it. The S95's quality is more than enough for anyone and it's the most pocketable camera with the fastest glass.
posted by kcm at 11:01 AM on December 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

I've got the S90 and my pictures are just stunning. And the portability more than makes up for any tech slights.
posted by rileyray3000 at 11:03 AM on December 8, 2010

I've personally never found the micro four-thirds form factor to be small enough to provide a big advantage over the DSLR. They aren't really pocketable unless you've got damn big pockets.

So if you want the best quality high ISO images you're just not going to beat the entry level DSLR. It will provide a considerable advantage over the S95 in this regard, though the S95 is impressive given its size constraints. It's for you to decide if the added cost and size is worth the benefit in image quality of DSLR. But you should know that even if you get a used DSLR from the prior generation, you're still going to be opening a can of worms that can be considerably more expensive when you factor in the blood lust you may develop for decent glass.

Another thing to consider is what sort of things you'll be taking pictures of. Are they moving subjects or not? Then you start factoring the value of in-camera image stabilization vs lens stabilization. Also for still subjects, if you're pretty good with photoshop, and can overlay/average multiple images, and/or have access to noise reduction software, the S95 can go pretty damn far. I'm a big fan of this method, but again it only applies to still shots.
posted by drpynchon at 11:14 AM on December 8, 2010

And if I'm nudging the pricepoint up, why not get an entry-level DSLR?

As somebody who loves, loves, loves her Xsi DSLR, what kind of concerts are you going to?

Because having a camera the size of even a DSLR with a nifty-fifty is going to make it hard up front as most rock/indie/pop shows. Plus, most of the show venues that I know don't like cameras. They'll turn a blind eye towards a cameraphone or a small pocket camera, but an SLR is a no-go unless you have credentials or are with the band.
posted by joyceanmachine at 11:15 AM on December 8, 2010

Response by poster: Good point, joyceanmachine. Presently, I go to local shows where no one cares about cameras, and some bigger places where they seem pretty lax (though that could be because everyone who has a camera has something smaller than DSLR).

I happened to talk to a music photographer at a recent show in LA, and he talked to me about becoming a music photographer and getting a photographer pass for shows. I don't plan on becoming a professional photographer, but that talk clicked, and I loved the idea of getting that access with a proper camera.

I've thought about getting something smaller like the S95, but if it won't be much better than my SD850 IS in terms of capturing live shows, why spend the money? Thus the quandary.
posted by filthy light thief at 11:40 AM on December 8, 2010

FYI, these were taken with the S90 hand held at ISO 1600. Aperture was anywhere from 2.0 to 6.3 and shutter speed was normally at 1/60th of a second.

If you go with the S95, know that the Canon Software that comes with the camera is essential for getting the best noise reduction/sharpness in pics when shooting RAW.

You should always be shooting RAW if your camera has that capability.
posted by inviolable at 11:45 AM on December 8, 2010

What kind of clubs? You say 'dark conditions', and my experience is that small point-and-shoot cameras just can't cut it in dark clubs. Bigger places with big lighting rigs, maybe. But for a dark club you need fast lenses (f/1.8 or faster, ideally) and a camera that's going to take pictures, not pointellist paintings, at ISOs higher than 1600. Usually low-noise means bigger sensors, which means DSLR.

But it also depends on what kinds of photos you want. If you're happy with blurry, or want to use flash for a slow-curtain flash effect (bleh), then something in the lower end will suffice. If you want those crisp, sharp photos of performers with real colors (i.e. not flash), then higher-end is recommended.

And I suppose it varies from place to place, but I've never had a problem with my DSLR in big clubs or small ones. It can get annoying actually, b/c so many people go to shows around here with them, so that the front row is all people with big cameras (I tend to stick to the sides of the stage, to not be rude, plus the best angles are on the sides anyway).
posted by statolith at 12:08 PM on December 8, 2010

Oh, and yes, RAW is best. Most of my concert photos were taken in dark clubs, shot RAW, and with some form of Nikon DSLR -- starting with a D70, then upgraded to a D300, then D7000. Mostly with the 50/1.8 lens, sometimes with a 30/1.4. (I hope it's okay to self-link that here, as an example?) I'm not a pro, though I do occasionally shoot for local publications for a modest fee, but around here, there is almost never a photo pit or any photographer area, it's just a free-for-all.
posted by statolith at 12:20 PM on December 8, 2010

Oops, sorry. Managed to hit tab by mistake, then the spacebar posted my comment by mistake.

Anyway - i was saying.

You will not get adequate performance from anything other than a DSLR with fast glass. Everything else is getting by. I've been doing this for several years now. An S95 will probably be a bit better than your current camera, but we're talking about a few percent. A cropped-sensor DSLR will be a lot better, and a high-ISO full-frame DSLR like the Nikon D3S will just blow every expectation away. But they're way beyond your price range.

I would strongly recommend a Canon or Nikon entry-level DSLR and a 50mm 1.8 lens (both have one, and they're fairly good. Be aware that the Nikon one won't autofocus on entry-level bodies.) Get up close. Then you just need to be a good photographer, and you're set.

Two extra reasons to suggest it, beyond general image quality.
  1. You're mostly going to local shows. They will probably have mediocre lighting. Many small shows in London are very dark indeed, and I often find myself hitting the technical limits of the camera.
  2. You're looking through the lens. Not at a screen. Not only does this let you compose a picture more elegantly, you also won't be one of those incredibly annoying idiots shoving a super-bright screen in front of your fellow concert-goers faces.

posted by Magnakai at 12:22 PM on December 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

I bought my first DSLR in large part because I wanted better low-light performance. It did the job, but it was too bulky and I found I wasn't using it much, so I bought an s90 this summer. I'm quite happy with the low-light image quality with the s90. It's no DSLR, but I still find it surprising how good the lower light pics I get from it are. The only real issue is that the automatic white-balance can be really off in low-light conditions.

I entertained some sort of micro-4/3rds, and while they are impressively compact for what they are, they are still chunky. I wanted something I could carry in my pants pocket at all times.
posted by Good Brain at 12:27 PM on December 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

I've been taking a few concert photos with my GF1, mostly at smaller concerts where no one cares if you're taking pictures. The GF1's f/1.7 20mm lens is pretty great if you can get really close to the band (example, where I was literally standing front stage center) but is too wide if you're in the crowd. I got a manual adapter for the Canon FD lenses, and use my parents' 50mm f/1.8 which really fun, either despite or because of the need to constantly focus manually (example).

The biggest thing I've learned is that you need to shoot RAW and do at least a bit of post-processing. The GF1 can be pretty noisy at 1600 but with a bit of Lightroom tweaking it cleans up really well (especially with the new 2010 process engine). It also helps a lot with crap concert lighting (our local club uses almost exclusively red lights on stage).

Composing on the screen can be good (easier to get different angles) and bad (you can feel like a dork composing like a point-and-shoot user while all the college kids with their huge SLRs jockey for prime space).

If I was going to upgrade I might look at a more expensive DSLR (along with an expensive lens) that's less noisy, but I like that I can slip the GF1 into my coat pocket and not have to get a camera bag past the bouncers. And it's a great carry-around camera for all those times you're NOT going to concerts.
posted by Gortuk at 12:53 PM on December 8, 2010

I have an S-90 (older version of the S-95) and also a 5D with fast primes. For a rock concert (very dark) or children (very fast) -- nothing beats an SLR with a fast lens. For everything else, the S-90 does does just fine.

The greatest thing about the S-90 (and the S-95) is the additional control ring around the lens. I have mine set up so the ring around the lens controls the white balance (WB) and the little dial on the back is for exposure compensation. Having that immediate access to WB has taken me to a new level.
posted by phliar at 1:11 PM on December 8, 2010

Completely different tack: Consider a camera with a flexible/tilt LCD screen. It will allow you to hold the camera overhead, and still frame the shot you want.
posted by IAmBroom at 2:23 PM on December 8, 2010

Dark interiors: you want a fast lens, you want a stabilized lens, and you want a wide lens. For pocketable options, the Canon S95 is a great option. It is the smallest viable camera for what you need. I own the Panasonic DMC-LX5 - it fits the bill: fast lens (2.0 - 3.3), wide (24mm at the widest, which is better than the S95), and it's stabilized - you can shoot RAW. It's infinitely adjustable, and it's about at the outer limit of pocketability. Someone mentioned lilt screen - ever so slightly bigger than the LX5 is the Samsung TL500, which has an ever faster lens (1.8 at 24mm), and a flex OLED screen.

Here's a nifty comparison review by dpreview of the LX5, the S95 and the Nikon P7000.
posted by VikingSword at 3:20 PM on December 8, 2010

I have an S90, and got it specifically because I do a lot of shooting in low light and hate using a flash. It is fabulous, and the auto modes are great. Yesterday, I took a nighttime photo of my friends in front of a Christmas light display, just a point and shoot, and you can see both their faces and the lights in a good balance. It's also small, and the best camera is the one you have on you, as they say. I've never noticed it making any noise, either.

Since you're doing a lot of shooting in auto mode, I'd roll with an advanced point and shoot. The S90 has a bunch of options to play with settings and learn how to use them, without forcing you to do so for every single shot.

I'd also consider what you're doing with these photos. Fine art? Posters? Share on the web? That affects how much camera you need a lot. I have friends who get a lot of press passes for their blog without a DSLR, so I wouldn't stress that point.
posted by momus_window at 4:38 PM on December 8, 2010

One real advantage of a DSLR is that many of the lenses have image stabilization in them, which allows you to shoot with longer shutter speeds handheld. It makes a significant difference, and definitely worth factoring into your decision.
posted by markblasco at 11:33 PM on December 8, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks for all the comments so far, and also huge thanks for the personal shots.

I'm generally a post-production newbie - I know my way around Photoshop, but I usually try tweaking different color balances and levels without a deeper understanding of which settings are best to tweak in different settings. With that said, looking at the examples from Gortuk and statolith, there seems to be more tonal range, whereas inviolable's S90 photos look great, but seem to have more drastic difference between the light and dark, with less middle-ground. Maybe it was what they each did for post-production, maybe it was that Gortuk and statolith got closer, so there's less of the darkness to overwhelm the light figures, but it seems to match with what I've shot. For example, here is a recent photo shot with my SD850 IS. I took the photo in JPG and didn't process it at all, but the singer was washed out a bit, while the rest of the stage had deeper color.

Is the shortcoming my laziness with auto-settings? My camera tends to fault on the bright side, which I try to take into consideration, but I don't do more than adjust the exposure setting down. Is it post-production that brings out the color in images like these, or is it a larger sensors that aren't found in compact cameras?
posted by filthy light thief at 7:22 AM on December 9, 2010

I don't really consider a prosumer slr and a 50mm 1.8 to be a cumbersome setup. You aren't going to get nice professional photos using a point and shoot and I don't think that the micro 4/3rds cameras are up to snuff either but I don't know enough about them. And shooting raw or not isn't going to matter that much.

There is a reason why professionals use an SLR and shoot in manual. It is because the meter in the camera is just a guide. If you let it choose how to shoot for you then you won't get the results you are looking for and then waste way too much time trying to fix it in photoshop. So my vote is get a prosumer get a nice fast lens and learn the shit out of your camera.

Also being a working photog at a concert, at least a bigger concert, is not as glamorous as it sounds. Most artists have a limit on where you can shoot from and for how long you can shoot for. Sometimes that spot is behind the soundboard. Standard shooting time is usually 30seconds of the first three songs, then a security person escorts you out, all the way to the street. Good times. Smaller shows tend to be a little more liberal but not always. Oh and then there are the ones that require you to sign away your copyright just for the privilege of shooting them.
posted by WickedPissah at 9:48 AM on December 9, 2010

The photos I posted as examples were tweaked in Lightroom before uploading... I enjoy the post-processing more than the actual shooting part. I like taking a ton of pictures, then picking the handful that have potential, and adjusting them to make an image I like. (Not saying I'm particularly good at this, just that I like to do it). As I said, I think shooting raw makes a big difference, especially if the lighting is weird (and you can recover from exposure errors more easily).

The picture you have above has potential - even though it's from further back, the stage lights are dramatic and the audience's head help frame the stage. Some basic post-processing would help - you could reduce noise and maybe bump up the blacks to bring the focus on the singer. But you won't get a lot of good photos unless you get closer - there's a reason photographers are always pushing into the crowd at concerts.

Some people mentioned image stabilization, which doesn't matter as much with concert shots, but if you want it it's a feature on the Olympus EPL-1 (not on the GF1/2). For concerts, it's a question of shooting at high enough speed to get a clear shot, which usually means wide aperture + high ISO. You can get the aperture fairly easily (the S95 is f/2.0), but ISO on point and shoots sucks, it's a bit better on the m43 cameras, and much better as you spend more $$$ on a DSLR.

It sounds like you're an enthusiastic amateur like me, and a micro 4/3rds is a great balance between the convenience of a point and shoot and the picture quality and heft of an SLR. But there's not a lot of fast lenses available for the m4/3 system - as I mentioned above, the 20mm f/1.7 is a great lens but a bit too wide if you're not going to get right up next to the stage. So you might want to keep that in mind - an entry-level SLR + $99 50mm f/1.8 lens isn't that much more expensive than the GF1 + 20mm.

By the way, if you want get inspired, I highly recommend this blog by an Italian photographer in London. Not only does he put up great pictures regularly, he always has a 'photo tip' either about the mechanics of shooting concerts, or the politics involved in getting a photo pass. Very eye-opening and maybe a little sobering if you have dreams of being a professional concert photographer.
posted by Gortuk at 3:42 PM on December 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I'm not looking at becoming a full-time (or even often paid) music photographer. I'd like to get free passes every now and again, and a chance to hang out with bands to shoot them while they're hanging out or whatnot. "Enthusiastic amateur" is me. I'd love to sell photos or show them in a local coffee shop, but my concern for details has held me back at having a hard drive full of photos.
posted by filthy light thief at 3:58 PM on December 9, 2010

Overall I think the issue with your Andreya Triana photo is being too far away, and relying on the camera's metering, which is trying to turn the entire scene into 18% Gray. It sees all the dark elements of the photo and tries to meter so that it averages gray overall. The details on her face and dress are blown out as a result. Digital SLRs have the ability to spot meter whereas a lot of point and shoots don't, which can help. You can try to reclaim the blown out highlights in post production (as well as deepen the shadows) and adjust the colors, but it works best if you're shooting in RAW. For your photo, messing around in post-production will only go so far. The image quality of a point and shoot sensor isn't that great.

> I'd like to get free passes every now and again, and a chance to hang out with bands to shoot them while they're hanging out or whatnot.

FYI, this is happening less and less these days (at least in NYC). Overall, publicists are savvy about granting photo passes only to publications that can guarantee a certain amount of exposure. They're going to "spend" their passes in the way that maximizes exposure for their clients: music magazines, then the daily publications, then the major blogs, then the smaller online magazines, and then maybe the enthusiastic amateurs without publications (there are lot more these days).

And what WickedPissah said is true: your photo pass is often separate from actually getting a free ticket to the show. It might actually be easier to approach artist PR for a pass saying that you've already got a ticket in some instances.

And it's difficult to get into the green room before the show (unless you're interviewing the artist) without having already built a long term relationship with an artist or having a prestigious publication behind you. Artists and publicists rarely grant the kind of access music photographers used to have, especially just to "hang out."

BTW, I struggle with capturing live shows in dark environments. And I've got a selection of fast glass (24 f/1.4, 50 f/1.5, 85 f/1.8) and a Canon 5D Mark II. Best of luck.
posted by kathryn at 4:44 PM on December 9, 2010

You will not get adequate performance from anything other than a DSLR with fast glass. Everything else is getting by. I've been doing this for several years now. An S95 will probably be a bit better than your current camera, but we're talking about a few percent.

The S95 is f/2.0. The SD850 is f/2.8. The SLR probably is f/1.8 unless they want to spend more on the lens than on the camera. So it's not really a few percent, and the S95 is pretty close to the SLR.
posted by smackfu at 12:19 PM on December 22, 2010

smackfu: "The S95 is f/2.0. The SD850 is f/2.8. The SLR probably is f/1.8 unless they want to spend more on the lens than on the camera. So it's not really a few percent, and the S95 is pretty close to the SLR"

Yeah, it's a whole stop, which is double the light, which is great. But completely missing the point. I don't want to get into a big argument, but while the difference in general image quality might not be important for a casual fan, the difference in noise between ISO 1600 on an entry-level APS-C sensored camera and on a compact camera is extremely substantial. There's also the functionality. Whilst compacts have made great strides in recent years, the difference in autofocus between that and an SLR is night and day. Look, I'm not saying that the S95 is anything but great for it's size. But it's not close to an SLR, not by miles.
posted by Magnakai at 5:15 PM on December 24, 2010

Response by poster: I've marked the question as Resolved, because I picked up a Nikon D3100 with the standard 18-55mm lens. I haven't really given it a good run-through yet, as I realize I am quite reliant on the point'n'shoot modes. I've taken some shots in p'n's mode, as well as a few through the in-camera guide mode (I felt so cheezy at first, but it allows you to change some settings with ease, through on-screen menus). Thanks to all who provided insight and input, I'll post some pictures soon.
posted by filthy light thief at 12:26 PM on January 7, 2011

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