Concert photography can be tough.
Taking pictures in a dark environment is already a challenge on its own, but the moving subjects make it even more difficult.
If you’ve ever taken photographs in a concert before, especially with a phone, you’ve probably seen one of the following; bad focus, too dark shots, or everything is blurry.
What do you need for concert photography?
A big, bright lens. That’s it.
You need a lens that can bring in so much light that you can easily shoot with a shutter speed that’s fast enough to freeze movement. Period.
Once you’ve got that, it’s all about experimenting and your positioning.
Because there are so many different expensive lenses out there, we decided to make this list to help you choose the right one (or a few for that matter).
We checked out a ton of lenses from Canon, Sigma and Tamron and below is what we ultimately feel will give you the most for your money. The best combination of price, image quality, sharpness, bokeh and versatility is what we were after.
Best Canon Zoom Lenses for Concerts:
Best Canon Prime Lenses for Concerts:
Technically speaking you could photograph a concert with just about any lens, but our 7 picks will have you covered. If you own something different, it doesn’t mean it’s bad, it’s just what we and many other photographers find to be working the best. Plus, your kit lens is probably not bright enough to get solid results.
How to Choose a Lens for Concerts?
1. Zoom or Prime?
If you’re new to concerts or photography in general, we recommend a zoom lens. They give you much more flexibility, especially if you don’t know how big the venue is and where you’ll be shooting.
The drawback to zoom lenses is that in order to get one with a big aperture (a must for concerts), you’ll need to spend a little bit more. How much? Zooms with big apertures tend to go from $400 upwards.
A prime lens on the other hand, can offer a 2-3x bigger aperture to let in more light cost less and is also lighter. The downside is that you’re “stuck” with one focal length and there’s no way to get closer to your subject other than to be physically closer. That’s not always possible!
The best combination is 1-2 good zoom lenses for versatility, and 1-2 prime lenses for extreme low light situations, fast shutter speeds and even shallower depth of field (more background blur).
2. Big Aperture & Image Stabilization
There’s no way around this; you need a lens with a big aperture. Anything bigger than f/2.8 (f/2, f/1.8, f/1.4 or even f/1.2) is a must.
Having a big aperture not only allows you to shoot with fast shutter speeds which results in no blur, it also nicely isolates your main subject from the background. If shooting with f/4 or something smaller, you’ll probably have to raise the ISO by a lot, and certain cameras start showing a lot of noise. A difference between an f/2.8 and f/2 aperture is 1 f-stop, which would mean you can shoot with ISO 1600 instead of 3200. To see a detailed list of what settings are recommended for concert photography, check out this article from PetaPixel.
Image Stabilization will not help if your subject is even slightly moving. It’ll work if they are completely still, but for the majority of concerts that’s not true.
3. What Focal Length?
- 16 to 35mm – Best for getting the entire stage, group scenes etc.
- 35 to 85mm – Best for individual shots, closer subject shots, details
- 85mm to 200mm – Best if you’re shooting further away, close ups, tight shots
Being able to cover all of these ranges would be perfect, but not really cheap.
The 35 to 85mm is usually the most common, so it’s wise to get a lens that can cover it. There’s a good article about what length to use and some other tips on Nikon’s page here (different brand but same rules).
Best Canon Zoom Concert Lenses 2017
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1. Tamron 15-30mm f/2.8 Di VC USD
Wide zooms from third-party companies that would challenge more expensive Canon zooms are hard to find, but the Tamron 15-30mm f/2.8 Di VC USD does just that.
Sitting at less than $1,200, it gives you an extremely wide view with f/2.8 aperture and Vibration Compensation (IS on Canon). None of Canon’s f/2.8 16-35mm lenses offer IS, neither does the Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 (which the Tamron is also competing with). How much does the VC help? Around 3 stops (you can see it in TDP’s review here), which means you can shoot with 1/8 where you’d normally have to choose 1/60.
Image quality at f/2.8 is excellent although in the corners you might find it too soft so you’ll have to stop down to f/4-f/5.6 in situations where you absolutely need the sharpest corners (usually not concern. Vignetting is also very well controlled for such a wide zoom, which means you will have less to fix (if you decide to) when shooting on a bright day.
Why would one go with the Tamron? If you absolutely need f/2.8 and VC. Thanks to USD (Ultrasonic Silent Drive) it focuses quietly and accurately, but the more expensive 16-35mm below tends to be more accurate, at least when shooting in more difficult conditions. So if you absolutely require having the fastest and most accurate AF, the Tamron does not win here. Everything else is pretty much the same.
The 16-35mm length is best for capturing the crowd, group shots, environments, interiors in the church and such.
2. Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L III USM
Until the announcement of the Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L III USM, we would have only recommended the Tamron above.
However, this 3rd version of Canon’s 16-35mm f/2.8 that was announced in 2016, offers excellent optical performance and very accurate, fast AF. Like with the previous 2 versions, it does not feature Image Stabilization so if that’s important to you, get the Tamron above.
This 16-35mm costs twice as much as the Tamron, and the biggest benefit is the auto focus accuracy in all sorts of conditions. Image quality alone, while slightly better in corners (they are both sharp), is not worth the extra $1000 unless you want huge prints and spend less time correcting in post process. The Canon lens can also accept 82mm filters, whereas the Tamron’s front element is too big for that.
Because of its AF accuracy and f/2.8, it’s just as good as the Tamron for everything we mentioned above, but you can rely more on it in low light conditions. If you already have a wide prime and don’t need f/2.8, then the much more affordable 16-35mm f/4 would be a better choice if you’re looking for a versatile wide zoom. It’s not as weather-sealed as this one though.
3. Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM
The Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM is a lens used by all sorts of photographers; concerts, weddings, journalism, traveling, indoors, all-around, portraits, you name it.
This is the lens we recommend to everyone interested in concert photography. Most of your shots will be captured at around 24 to 70mm anyways, so why not get a high quality zoom that provides this length and saves you a lot of time switching between different lenses. Optically, it’s superb and can match many more expensive primes.
It’s very versatile as you can instantly switch between photographing groups, scenes, to head/shoulder portraits. It’s great for both FF and APS-C systems (on APS-C it’s equivalent to a 38-112mm lens).
It is quite expensive though, but that’s expected from an L zoom that goes to f/2.8. Images are really sharp, auto focus is extremely fast and accurate and the lens is weather sealed.
Compared to its predecessor it shows less problems such as vignetting and aberration and is noticeably sharper at f/2.8. Unfortunately, none of them have Image Stabilization. There’s a Tamron 24-70mm with IS yet AF is not always as reliable as with Canon’s USM lenses.
If you only want one concert lens, this is what you should get and then expand as you see what kind of other styles you like. It’s perfect for many different types of photography as well so it’s something you’ll never have to sell.
4. Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM
If you’re shooting in bigger venues, you’ll need the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM. It was released in 2010 and is the best and most expensive Canon 70-200mm available.
The length alone makes it great for many types of photography, ranging from portraits, sports, wildlife, indoor action, concerts, events, weddings. Besides having f/2.8 to work with in low light situations, the lens is also equipped with Image Stabilization that helps you up to 4 stops.
Build quality is top notch, you can safely use it in tough weather conditions. It’s also the heaviest of 70-200mm lenses, here’s the breakdown:
70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM – 52.6 oz (1490g)
70-200mm f/2.8L USM – 46.2 oz (1310g)
70-200mm f/4L IS USM – 26.8 oz (760g)
70-200mm f/4L USM – 24.9 oz (705g)
If you’re only after the best and need IS, obviously get the f/2.8L IS II USM. However, if you know you won’t need IS or even f/2.8, and want a lighter lens, you’d be better off with any of the f/4L versions. They’re all worth the price and deliver great quality images. IS it not so important for concerts, but if you plan on using it elsewhere then it should definitely be a factor to consider.
On a side note, this is not a lens you should bring to smaller concerts/clubs. It’s too long, distracting and won’t allow you to get normal shots since you’ll be so close to everything. Luckily you can shoot at 70mm, but even that might be too long for super tight spaces.
Best Canon Concert Prime Lenses 2017
1. Sigma 30mm f/1.4 DC HSM
The Sigma 30mm f/1.4 DC HSM is an extremely sharp lens with a big f/1.4 aperture, which makes it an ideal choice for concerts, events, portraits and everyday stuff.
While you’ll rarely see any difference between f/1.4 and f/1.8, you’ll definitely appreciate the f/1.4 if you often shoot in really dark places or want to achieve super shallow depth of field. The extra third-stop also allows you to use slightly faster shutter speeds at night and it can make a difference when photographing moving subjects.
The DC in its name states that it can only be mounted on an APS-C camera where its field of view becomes equivalent to a 50mm lens. As we mentioned above, this is the best length for photography where you never know what you’re going to capture. It’s not too wide or too long, but can easily become whatever you want just by taking a few steps forwards or backwards. This is why standard range lenses are so useful.
You might be tempted between this one and the Canon EF 50mm f/1.8. The Sigma costs quite a lot more, but you get a slightly bigger aperture, much better results at f/1.8 (less chromatic aberration and more contrast) and a noticeably wider view. It’s up to you to decide which one you need the most, but if you spend a lot of time shooting indoors/at night then the extra aperture stop can make a big difference, especially if you’re trying to freeze motion. Be careful about the depth of field though, as at at f/1.4 you’ll have to be very precise with focusing!
Many people have both 30mm and 50mm primes, so if your budget allows you this is also a good way to go.
2. Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 STM
You will find the Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 STM in almost all of our lens guides. Because of its large aperture and 50mm focal length, it’s perfect for both APS-C and FF portrait shooters. Plus, it’s so damn cheap.
Why the 50mm? It was released in 2013 and replaces the old, also cheap 50mm f/1.8 II, but comes with improved build quality, quieter AF and less optical issues. It costs around $125 yet the quality of this prime is far beyond how little you pay for it. There’s also a Canon 50mm f/1.4 that costs 3x more, but with the new f/1.8 we don’t find the extra price to be worth it (same focus speed, same quality).
With an aperture of f/1.8, you can really blur the background and make your subject pop. The longer your focal length, the further away from your subject you need to be, which also makes the depth of field even shallower.
In most of our shots the lens performed really good completely wide open, with little to no chromatic aberration. Stopping down to f/2.2-f/2.8 makes everything even better, but you can easily use it at f/1.8 for low light situations, or blurring the background. Concerts, weddings, everyday stuff, indoor action, you name it.
If you ever plan on recording videos as well, you’ll be happy to know that the STM technology, combined with a DSLR that has Dual Pixel AF technology, makes videos look awesome thanks to accurate AF.
Just like its predecessor, the new 50mm is extremely light and small; 5.6 oz (159g) and 2.7 x 1.5″ (69.2 x 39.3mm). Hands down the best bang for the buck from Canon.
3. Sigma 50mm f/1.4 Art DG HSM
We thought about Canon’s 50mm f/1.4, but if you really need f/1.4 then the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 Art DG HSM outperforms it. It does cost more indeed, but at $899 it’s again a great deal for the money.
At f/1.4, it’s got better contrast and sharpness than all Canon 50mm lenses (f/1.8, f/1.4 and f/1.2L). It’s more or less expected as it costs $500 more than the f/1.4 version, and is also newer than all of them (2014). If size and weight are important to you, do note that it’s also bigger than all of them at 3.4 x 3.9″ (85.4x x 99.9mm) and 28.7oz (815g). It’s by no means a compact 50mm lens, but then again it’s what comes with excellent optical quality.
With 13 elements in 8 groups, it’s no surprise it’s that big. The minimum focusing distance is 40cm, 5cm shorter than Canon’s 50mm f/1.4 and f/1.2L at 45cm.
Bokeh looks good thanks to a 9 blade aperture, but you could hardly tell the difference compared to a non-f/1.2 50mm. You will hardly see any haze, chromatic aberration or ghosting, it’s miles ahead of most other 50mm’s. If you’re looking for a 50mm that gives you the best of all worlds for weddings, concerts, portraits and casual stuff, this is the one.
4. Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 USM
The Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 USM has a focal length that most people consider to be the sweet spot for portraits, and it’s true. You’re not getting any distortion as it’s not too wide, yet you’re not too far away from your subject.
Such a long (short for a telephoto though) length easily throws the background out of focus, and when you combine it with the aperture f/1.8 and 85mm’s great looking bokeh, you’ve got a portrait winner.
What’s special about the Canon 85mm?
It’s sharp and optically superb so if you’re looking for a lens to really take your shots to the next level, this is one of those. Bokeh also looks beautiful and quite often the background is just as important as the subject, so you’ll want smooth, creamy bokeh that doesn’t steal any attention.
Auto focus is fast and accurate thanks to its Ultra Sonic Motor (USM). For both outdoors and indoors it’s fantastic and it rarely hunts in low light situations.
It’s light, compact and feels very well designed, far from cheap.
The 85mm focal length is great on both FF and APS-C cameras. You can take pictures of your subject without being extremely close. Besides weddings and portraits, this makes it a good choice for smaller indoor sports, animal portraits, concerts and much more. Because the focal length is so long, you’re even going to get a shallow depth of field when shooting at smaller apertures.
There’s also an f/1.2 version but it costs four times as much and doesn’t focus anywhere as fast due to its big elements that move slowly. This puts the 85mm f/1.8 on top as for the price, you won’t get anything better.
Our Recommended Concert Lenses
Consider this a shorter, more direct version of this entire guide. Simply what we think gives you the absolute most for your money and what we’d go with personally.
Even though all lenses above are awesome, sometimes less options makes it easier to decide.
- Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM – You will use this most of the time for bigger and smaller events, not to mention for other types of photography. Sharp, versatile and f/2.8!
- Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM – For bigger venues/stages, this is a must! Super fast auto focus, f/2.8, great optics and Image Stabilization.
- Sigma 30mm f/1.4 DC Art HSM – Expensive but the beautiful colors and bokeh, combined with f/1.4 make this a perfect lens for APS-C
- Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 STM – Affordable, great length, f/1.8 and good image quality. Great if you’re starting out and want great yet cheap.
- Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 USM – Best for close ups, portraits, details and beautiful bokeh. Also sharp, cheap and lightweight! You can shoot from quite far away.