Don’t bring cameras to concerts, bring binoculars

2009-07-13

in Geek stuff, Photography, Rants

Landsdowne Stadium bleachers, Ottawa

Going to see Neko Case and Ani DiFranco at Bluesfest reminded me how, these days, 1/3 of the audience will be trying to capture everything on their cell phone cameras, while another 1/3 will be trying to do so with low-cost digital SLRs and cheap zoom lenses. It is only fair to point out that neither will produce photos of remotely comparable quality to concert images of the artist you could find using Google or Wikipedia in a couple of minutes.

Say you want to engage with the experience using hardware that will produce output of good optical quality. There are at least two routes open to you:

1) Still camera:

  1. Buy a crazy lens. Two options to consider are the Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM (US$1,575) and the Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS USM (US$$7,650).
  2. Buy a good quality filter to protect the expensive front element ($60-80).
  3. Buy a camera body that produces good images at high ISO. An excellent option would be the Canon 5D Mark II (US$3,900).
  4. Attach your 1.4kg lens to your 820g body.
  5. Get both past security people wary of commercial photographers.
  6. Worry a lot about the $5,000 to $10,000 worth of gear around your neck, as well as spinal damage from the 2kg weight.
  7. Get fairly close to the stage, and spend the concert concerned about AE correction for changing backdrops, flare from stage lights, etc. Worry also about the limited dynamic range of your digital sensor, white balance issues, and the fact that most photos of people singing come out looking awkward.

In short, unless you are being paid to document the concert, or happen to already own the appropriate gear, this isn’t a terribly appealing option.

2) Binoculars:

  1. Buy some moderately priced binoculars. Good options include Bushnell 8×25 Binoculars (C$50) or, even better, Pentax 8×21 UCF-R Mini Binoculars (C$58).
  2. Carry your 200g binoculars through security.
  3. Find a spot about a bus-length from the performer.
  4. Enjoy watching them in high resolution, full frame, full motion video.
  5. Note, also, that they will be in three dimensions, with an even more flattering depth of field effect than the monocular version offered by the best zoom lenses.

For less than the cost of a filter to protect a crazy lens, you can buy an optical instrument that can contribute more to engagement and enjoyment than the whole photo setup. Concert lighting is set up to look good to human eyes (the relevant sensor when using binoculars), not digital sensors (the ultimate target of photos flying through your expensive photo rig). Wearing your crazy photo rig, you will feel like part of the paparazzi. With good binoculars, you will feel like a falcon.

While you will probably never be able to take a better photo of a performer than you can readily find online, you can quite easily watch them with your own wonderful eyes at a much higher quality level.

P.S. Neko Case is a very strong live performer. Her on-stage renditions of songs are remarkably similar to her studio albums. I found that Ani DiFranco is really amazing on stage, even though I am less familiar with her music. She has wonderful spirit, lots of technical skill, and a notable ability to engage with the crowd.

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{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

BuddyRich July 13, 2009 at 7:02 am

I noticed this same thing on a few nights. I’m firmly in the enjoy it with your eyes camp, not through the eyepiece of a camera, but unless that person is constantly getting in your way obscuring your view, to each their own I say. The same can be said about the people that pay good money to stand and socialize with each other rather than watch the performer, which also has happened a lot this year, Ive found. I just don’t get it.

I saw someone walking around with a D3 on Friday and a gold-ring Nikkor, but oddly enough it wasn’t a telephoto, but the 24-70 F2.8 Pro standard Zoom. Maybe they were taking photos at the less packed side stage or crowd or festival shots? Or, more importantly, had a press pass to get front row access in front of the barricades for the first 3 songs of the set? Though I didn’t notice if she had a press pass or not…

I also saw someone walking around with a D300 that same night. The guy carrying this did have a decent telephoto lens on (the Nikkor 300mm F4 Prime) Given the crop factor of the camera and that the D300 is quite good up to 3200 and acceptable at 6400 ISO he might have got nice shots… still even that setup is somewhat pricey coming in just around $3000. You wouldn’t catch me there with it.

I do think one of the side stages might be doable for a budding amateur looking for practice, but the main stages get too rowdy come later at night. Practicing the craft might be the only reason why I’d bring my rig down, as $35 bucks isn’t that steep a price for practice. I’ve paid $9 to go watch the 67’s just to get the indoor arena practice in poor lighting myself.

Milan July 13, 2009 at 9:55 am

I actually saw the 600mm and 100-400mm lenses on 5D bodies yesterday, as well as one person using a 300mm f/2.8L lens with a 1.4X teleconverter on a Rebel XSi body.

There were lots of long Nikon lenses, also, but I don’t really know one from another.

Matt July 13, 2009 at 1:30 pm

I think you’ve missed the point (by a wide margin) of why people bring P&S cameras to concerts. I doubt anyone thinks they’re going to get a professional looking photograph with one, nor are they probably particular interested in seeing such photos on the internet. They bring cameras to document their own experience, take pictures of themselves with friends, and capture the evening. If this includes taking some videos or a few poor quality snaps of the performers, it doesn’t really matter. It’s not for the purpose of making art, it’s for the purpose of keeping memories.

I agree a cell phone camera is pretty useless for anything, and I probably wouldn’t bother. But I’ve used my Canon Elph to take video at a concert, and I wish I had taken more video than the one song. It turned out well enough that I enjoy watching and hearing it.

Milan July 13, 2009 at 1:58 pm

I don’t mean to say that it is always pointless to bring cameras to concerts. Rather, that people overestimate how compatible concerts and cameras are, while underestimating the usefulness of binoculars.

Matt July 13, 2009 at 2:30 pm

But people don’t bring cameras to see better, they bring them to take personalized pictures and video. A pair of binoculars doesn’t accomplish this.

On the other hand, it depends on what kind of concert, too. I was sort of picturing a standing room only, smaller venue affair where you’re reasonably close to the stage anyway. I’d much rather have a P&S camera in that setting. If I went to see U2 or something in a stadium, where I’m a mile away from the stage, I’d rather have the binoculars.

Milan July 13, 2009 at 3:37 pm

Even quite close to the stage (10-15 metres), I found that binoculars really improved the experience. They let you see individual performers in a great deal of detail, while obscuring the crowd and other irrelevancies.

That being said, other people will obviously find that their preferences differ. People might find the binocular view awkward or isolating, for instance.

. July 13, 2009 at 11:34 pm

“I didn’t want to miss Neko Case and Ani Difranco. I’m glad I came back. My BH and I found Milan and we all enjoyed some tunage until the festival finished. I loved Neko’s set – she’s really phenomenal. But Ani? Kicked such ass that I found myself transforming into a screaming 12-year-old girl again. Seeing her happy like that actually choked me up. Spoken like the rabid fan I am. Her new songs were great, too.”

R.K. July 14, 2009 at 10:32 am

If you want to look really classy, leave the binoculars at home and bring some opera glasses. Apparently, their optical quality isn’t that great, however.

. December 11, 2013 at 11:34 am

How photographing events stops us living them

In our visually sophisticated era, it can be hard to separate the ability to capture the moment from fully experiencing it

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