Shooting a Symphony Orchestra

Concert photography is one of the fields which I soot for years and one of the most challenging and fun subject which I ever shoot. I have no control of almost any parameter in the picture. I can’t direct the object being photographed, I do not have control over the lighting, and I do not have access to most  angles.

Beach Cities Symphony Orchestra

Beach Cities Symphony Orchestra

Beside some common sense preparation like learning the music which they play, like and  if possible seeing them on the stage before shooting and joining some rehearsals every concert is different, every musician, band or in this case orchestra has different personality.

Conducting Orchestra

Photograph from concert shooting of Beach Cities Symphony Orchestra. Maestro Brisk and Violins.

I am shooting Beach Cities Symphony Orchestra for last 3 years. (Please visit their web sites and come to concerts. BCSO is a non-profit organisations and concerts are free http://www.beachcitiessymphony.org/ ) I can say that it is one of the most demanding, challenging and satisfying experience of my stage shooting experience.

Taking photos of a live classical concert while they are performing for audience is hard and a lot different  then shooting a rock band on the stage because there is lots of extra things you need to be careful. May be you can say it is similar to shoot a live theater or similar than a concert shot.

You need to be silent for not disturb the audience. You can not move a lot, even your camera must be very silent. (Technically with experience I can say say that Canon 5D Mark III was the best choice and D800 will follow it. )

Audience during concert

Audience during concert

You can not go on the stage, You can not be in front of the stage, you can not be inside the audience etc. Also light is set up for a classical music experience. Not so bright and usually not enough for fast exposures. If you think always changing lights of a rock stage is a problem then try to shoot at a classical music concert. And I am not talking about a concert at Hollywood Bowl. I am talking about a relatively small  auditorium or an old concert hall. 

Beach Cities Symphony Orchestra

Beach Cities Symphony Orchestra at Marsee Auditorium

As I said before because you can not be get close to the stage physically you need to get close to stage by lenses. I am using telephoto lenses like 400mm and 600mm. These kind of focal distance helps you get photos of individuals on the stage but It brings another problem: Exposure Speed. I knew you heard thousand times “ It’s not the camera that is important but the person behind it.” It is generally true but concert photography your equipment is very important

Steven Vanhauwaert, piano soloist

Steven Vanhauwaert, piano soloist performing Ludwig van Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 3 with Beach Cities Symphony Orchestra

By those focal distances you need to use really high exposure speeds  but light mostly not enough. So you need a really high ISO like over 1600. I suggest and prefer use a full frame digital camera with low noise/high ISO performance. Trust me it really helps a lot.

The following tips are about what gear to use, organization and how to use the available time in a most effective way as to get the best possible photographs and still have fun during the process.

Preparation:

  1. Meet with the Orchestra and Conductor. Try to learn what they want and don’t want.
  2. Listen compositions what they will play and take notes if there is a soloist play or not.
  3. Location scouting is very important, but very time consuming as well. If you couldn’t see the concert hall before try to be there as early as possible at concert day. Try to pick your spots for shooting. If you can find any spot higher then orchestra it will be great.
  4. Again be at the concert hall as early as possible. Take a program and plan your shooting. If there will be any speech or special event on the stage plan accordingly.
  5. Do not rush. It is not a five minute rock song (there is nothing wrong about 5 minute rock music just this one is different) Take your time for shooting what you want.
  6. It’s not a must but usually having some people there to help you with the coordination for the shoot
  7. Take whole orchestra photograph but try to take some individual photographs of musicians. Especially conductor, soloist, concertmaster and principals. So locate their places on the stage before concert.

Equipment and shooting:

  1. Use cameras that allows us to take photos at high ISO without noise.
  2. Prefer to use lenses with open aperture (f/2.8, f1.8, f/1.4)
  3. Bring your wide angle and telephoto lenses. In a concert I am using 16mm super wide angle to 600mmm super-telephoto
  4. Better to take a picture a bit noisy  than getting an image without noise but all blurred.
  5. Never use flash unless there is a lecture before or after concert. Even in that case ask before!
  6. Always shot RAW
  7. Try to shoot fast exposure speeds. If you are far even small movement on the stage or on your tripod cause blurry images.
  8. Use a good tripod and stay away from cheap ones. It helps you to get sharp images, and it carry your expensive camera. A wobbly cheap tripod will not do any good to you and If your camera falls down during concert will be end of the world.