For larger shows pocket a superzoom compact but if you're going to a smaller venue you'll probably be able to take a DSLR in with no issues but do check the venue's rules on camera equipment as some are stricter on what size camera you can take in than others. Whatever camera you take you'll want it to have a good ISO range as you'll be working in very low light situations. When it comes to lens choices, a prime lens around the 50mm mark will serve you well.
One of the biggest challenges you'll face at a gig is getting the exposure right under stage lights, as different coloured lights and often harsh back lighting and smoke will all pose problems. You will need to set your camera to its maximum aperture if you can and set the ISO as low as you can while still maintaining a suitable shutter speed under the conditions. Smaller venues where conditions tend to be darker than in arenas will demand higher ISO levels to reduce motion blur and camera shake as using a support is out of the question.
Another point to remember is that autofocus may struggle in low light conditions but to be honest, it will generally be more reliable than focusing manually if your subject is moving and the light levels are low. Spot metering can be useful, particularly if you're shooting a strongly backlit subject, as you'll find at many gigs. Just make sure you adjust your camera's exposure compensation setting to achieve the correct exposure if you choose to work this way.
Photo by Gary Wolstenholme
When you're shooting from the crowd, you will often be too far away for flash to be of any use. Also, many people believe that they shouldn't use flash because 'it spoils the atmosphere' but this is a common misconception as if you can get close enough for it to be useful, you can achieve some good results. The key is to ensure that the flash exposure is well-balanced with the ambient light. This will result in exposures with bags of atmosphere, colour and it will also allow you to freeze the action. Of course, it will depend on how appropriate using flash is too. A quiet gig with an acoustic performer may not be the right kind of atmosphere to start blitzing away with flash, plus the venue you're at may have rules on not using flash during performances so it's always worth checking.
If you're photographing an acoustic performer sat on a stool, or stood at a microphone, you will be able to get away with shutter speeds that are quite slow. However, try using a shutter speed that equals the focal length of your lens if you don't have image stabilisation, or of at least half the focal length if you do. If the performers are more lively, you will need much faster shutter speeds to freeze the action.
One final point: Arrive early, get a good spot and don't move. Also, remember that you're supposed to be there to enjoy yourself too!
Photo by Gary Wolstenholme
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