Using the Sony NEX-6 for concert photography
So, last year I decided to trade in all my Canon SLR gear and replace it with a compact mirrorless system. Due to recent health issues I was finding an SLR system far too heavy to carry around and to use for long periods of time and after a ton of research and some kind advice from the photographer Jesse Hildebrand (Http://jbhildebrand.com/), who had gone through virtually the same process as me, I finally settled on a Sony NEX-6. I was very tempted by the current Fuji offerings but in the end I found my money just went further with Sony and the NEX-6 seemed to have a noticeably better autofocus system, which was a big issue for me. Probably any mirrorless system would have been fine for just about everything I do…except live music. I thought it might be useful for other people in this position if I wrote up my first experience of shooting live music with the Sony.
It was about six months or so between getting the camera and being able to shoot a gig, and in between the NEX was great to use for everything else: landscapes, portraits, photoshoots and general snap-shotting. Eventually I was up to travelling again and got a press pass to cover the European leg of the Faderhead/Aesthetic Perfection joint tour at the Classic Grand in Glasgow and test it out properly.
So first off, that autofocus that’s so important when shooting live events. I had worried it wouldn’t be much use shooting in low-light environments but it turned out when reviewers talk about low-light, what they really mean is low contrast. If you have defined edges and areas of contrast for it to lock onto it works just fine, and any half-decently lit stage will provide those. It’s definitely not as snappy as my 50D was and it did struggle from time to time depending on what the lighting was doing but I was pleasantly surprised to find, when sorting through my images, I had the exact same keeper rate I got with the 50D. The way I shoot gigs is generally to pre-focus then wait for a moment to happen to click the shutter and the autofocus delivered just fine for that style of shooting.
This leads to my main issue, which was with the shutter button. It was just very, very sensitive. It had never been a problem with any other, more sedate, type of photography, but when trying to hold it halfway to lock focus in the photographers pit there were quite a few times I snapped a picture by accident. Sadly it turns out the NEX-6 doesn’t do rear-button focusing, which is a letdown as that would be the obvious solution and was the way I used to shoot with the Canon. I can only hope it’ll get added in a firmware update in the future.
The weight is the best thing for me. Being able to carry my entire kit – camera body, three prime lenses, four batteries, cards and cleaning equipment – in one small shoulder bag is fantastic. Even though I’m doing better than last year, a night of crouching and moving around in the photo pit is quite a strain so not having to deal with the weight of an SLR and a big lens on top of it is brilliant. Although I had to run for a train as soon as the show was finished, have a small, light kit would also be a great benefit if you want to hang around and enjoy the rest of the evening. I didn’t need to use it at that gig, but the flip-out screen should make it far more versatile to get low-angle shots or shoot over the heads of crowds too.
Finally, the image quality is superb. On the 50D I thought 1600ISO was pretty decent but 3200ISO was an emergency-only setting with a pretty noticeable degradation of the image quality. I had to shoot at 3200ISO for part of the support band, Terrolokaust’s set and the results were great (the three photos on this page were all shot at 3200ISO). There were a couple of times when shooting in pub basements I had to go into the High range on the 50D…the results weren’t too pretty, but it’s better than walking away with no results at all. I haven’t tried any higher settings on the NEX-6 yet, but I’m curious to see how far I can push the sensor and get useable shots.
I haven’t regretted making the change once and the gig was the final seal of approval for me. Although it may require an adjustment to your shooting style to accommodate the slower autofocus, it’s a very capable camera indeed and for me personally the benefits far outweigh any limitations compared to an SLR.