Getting a good exposure when shooting live events, well, all events, is a balancing act between shutter speed, aperture and ISO. Because I have no control over the lighting, and because I can’t ask the performer to stand still for a minute, I need to get it right the first time. That’s why I shoot most of my concerts with my camera set to the manual mode.
To understand why I choose manual mode, we have to think about how the other modes function. It doesn’t matter if you shoot in Shutter Priority, Aperture Priority or Program mode. All those modes give the camera some control over your exposure. The camera reads the scene with its built-in light meter and calculates the best shutter speed / aperture or both for the given scene. Fast moving concert lights can really play havoc with the built-in light meter.
When you look at the stage shot of Widespread Panic, you can see that there are a group of lights along the back of the stage. As these lights move, the light meter in the camera keeps adjusting and when the scene gets brighter the camera will start to underexpose the rest of the scene. As the lights go down the scene gets darker and when the camera adjusts and the scene gets overexposed. Shooting in manual mode allows me to keep the shutter speed / aperture and ISO settings I want and the camera won’t adjust anything as the light changes.
So when the lighting is tricky, remember: Manual Mode Rocks!
The top image was shot with a Nikon D2X and 17-55mm f/2.8 Nikkor lens at 1/60 of second at f/2.8 at ISO 200 while the bottom shot was taken with a Nikon D700 and 70-200mm f/2.8 Nikkor lens at 1/160 of a second at f/2.8 at ISO 1600. Both were taken using Lexar Professional media.