One of the questions I am most frequently asked is what equipment I recommend for shooting classical music professionally in dark venues. This is a roundup of tools intended for those wanting to capture performances most effectively. I'll post a new article shortly for non-professional photographers who want to take better pictures of their kid's recital, friend's debut or favorite band.
I use Nikon D4's because they are the best choice for photographing classical music. This flagship professional camera is an excellent choice for its low light sensitivity, high frame rate, and durability. In order to capture a compelling image that says something about the performer beyond the fact that he or she was there, the photographer must be able to react quickly to moments of expression that come and go with the blink of an eye. The D4 autofocus system's ability to lock quickly and accurately in dark situations affords the flexibility to change compositions and focus points frequently without worrying about missing the shot. Furthermore, the sensor performance of the D4 supersedes that of competing offerings from Canon such as the 5D Mark III and 1D X both in terms of noise and dynamic range. Clients want clean images that will show well on the internet as well as blown up large for printing. The D4's dynamic range at higher sensitivities also keeps the often huge disparity between light and dark in check. At Alice Tully Hall for instance, orchestra musicians closest to the first row of concert goers are basically sitting in the dark while the center of the stage is quite bright. I need as much range as possible to correct for this in post.
I generally aim for 1/200th of a second at f/4 - f/5.6 so with luck this will lie somewhere around 3200iso. For archival images, clients want as much as possible to be sharp so I prefer not to shoot wide open. If I'm hired to produce images for promotional campaigns I'll be more inclined to use shallow depth of field effects. When in an environment that has dim or isn't a traditional performance space, sometimes I find myself at f/2.8 and 6400iso and that is where this camera earns its money. There is a picture of a president of one of the institutions I work for hanging in a hallway that's been blown up pretty big... looking back at the settings I see I was at 8,000iso and f/2.8. No matter how dark it is where you are shooting, you still have to deliver usable images because you never know how they're going to be used.
In terms of frame rate, the D4 maxes out around 11 frames per second. This is overkill for many situations -- but when a conductor who is generally reserved with movement suddenly raises the baton higher than he/she might have for the previous 2 hours, I want to lay down as many frames as possible. 5 frames per second is adequate but one of my biggest pet peeves is being left with an image that is just a smidgen off the peak of expression. It drives me crazy.
Finally, with a shutter rated at 300,000 actuations... this camera has a very low probability of crapping out mid performance when moving around to get backup gear may not be possible. Many venues don't like you to be carrying in a ton of stuff either so it's good to have reliable equipment with a small foot print.
A less expensive alternative to the D4 would be the nearly as capable D3s. Low light performance is actually just a hair better on this body - but this is a wash as Lightroom's noise reduction algorithms can make up for the small difference very nicely. A used Nikon D3s can be had for a song now. The drawbacks for me are lower resolution and somewhat reduced low light focusing performance and speed. It's a noticeable difference. I remember missing moments in dark situations because I couldn't find enough contrast to catch focus as quickly with the D3s. More often than not I want more reach so a few extra pixels on the D4 can be helpful for cropping as well. For the money I would recommend the D3s over Canon's latest offerings for shooting in performance situations.
Nikon 24-70 2.8G, Nikon 70-200 2.8G VRII, 1.7x teleconverter
I carry two camera bodies to almost all events so that I can have easy access to a wide angle lens as well as a telephoto. The two obvious choices for a Nikon user are the 24-70 and the 70-200. The VRII version of the 70-200 will give you better sharpness as you go out to the corners of the frame as well as improved vibration reduction when handholding. The current iterations of these focal lengths from Canon are excellent. 200mm is sufficient for many situations I am confronted with. For times when I need a bit of extra reach I'll reach for the 1.7x teleconverter. This is a good compromise between the 1.4x which I think isn't long enough and the 2.0x which can force a hit on sharpness. Low light performance again becomes very important here because with the teleconverter you lose a stop and a half of light in the lens. You'll quickly find yourself cranking up to 6400iso and it needs to look clean. Both of these lenses focus quickly and accurately. I never want to worry about missed focus in these situations so I almost never will reach for a prime.
Nikon 200-400 f/4
For the times where I really need to be reaching long distances, I'll rent a 200-400 from LensProToGo or CSI Rentals here in New York City. This lens is reasonably fast for the throw and allows you to zoom across Stern Auditorium like it's an elementary school classroom. If the light is good enough, you could put this on a crop body like the D7100 at f/4 and 1600 and get 600mm.
Camera Muzzle, Aquatech Sound Blimp, Felt Wrap
The one area where the Canon 5D Mark III just kills Nikon bodies is in the audible sound level of the shutter and mirror slap. In quiet mode, the D4 will slow down the motion of the mirror but it's nearly as loud as single shot mode. The one benefit here is you can wait to raise the mirror after taking a picture until an appropriate moment. I've seen 5D3 users shooting without any dampening in many situations which is pretty amazing. But, I'd rather put an unwieldy contraption on the camera and get cleaner images that aren't blown out.
The Nikon DF is a new retro styled body with a true quiet mode that rivals Canon's offerings and the sensor from the D4. The focus system is the same as on the D610 which is pretty good but not the same. I haven't pulled the trigger on these yet - but it would be a decent solution to the sound situation.
That being said, if I anticipate a moderately quiet environment I'll put the foam based Camera Muzzle around the D4 and lens which takes the loudest part of the clack down a bit. The camera is still audible at close range but if used along with quiet mode it's not disruptive. For very quiet situations or small spaces where I know I could be a major distraction, I'll use the Aquatech Sound Blimp which really I do not like but is pretty effective. The shutter button is stiff which can be tiring if you're holding focus and waiting for a moment. The lens tube doesn't hold up for very long and sometimes slips on the lens' zoom ring - leaving you at what might be a very unhelpful focal length, and you have no access to iso or aperture settings. For all the pain, there is a significant gain in a vastly reduced sound signature from the camera. You can fire off shots in all but silence without anyone really noticing. The Aquatech is very very expensive... more than many cameras out there once you add lens tubes. But, it works.
Gitzo tripod legs, Acra-Swiss ball tripod head
I like using a tripod if I'm not permitted to move from my shooting position as it keeps the camera at the ready while you rest your arms when nothing is happening. The Gitzos are made from carbon fiber and very light which is great for lugging around the subways and streets of NYC. I love the Arca-Swiss heads because they are built like tanks and keep the camera exactly where you leave them. My Gitzo legs feature a center tube that can be reversed for shooting upside down as well as hook for hanging weight for additional stability. You could go cheap on the legs but I always would recommend a quality head. You don't want to be fussing around with confusing levers and movements that aren't necessarily in the direction you want to move the camera. The Arca-Swiss ball heads allow for very precise adjustments and move in any direction easily.