I’ve been photographing live music regularly for quite a while now, and over the years I’ve used a variety of cameras and lenses. I’ve never really done a full breakdown of the gear that I’ve used, so I figured now might be a good time. I’ll try to be as comprehensive as possible. I want to preface this by saying that this is simply a list of the things I use, and is not a declaration of what is the best. These are just the things that I’ve used and have worked for me. The gear I’ve used has allowed me to get the results that you see in my portfolio, and you should use whatever you feel works best for you. You don’t always need to have the latest and greatest gear—pro gear is made to be used for long periods of time, after all. Perhaps you’ll see some things on my list and try them for yourself. I’ll include some examples as I go through, but I’d also like to recommend checking the camera finder on Flickr for additional examples of gear you may be curious about. This is probably going to be a long one.
When I first started looking into photographing music performances, I was using a Nikon D7000. It’s a 16-megapixel APS-C (crop) camera, and its max ISO was 6400. At the time, I was just going to local shows in my city; these shows didn’t require any special credentials and had challenging lighting situations. I was also incredibly new to taking photos in this kind of environment. I got my start as a street photographer, so a lot of my photos were taken during the day, using relatively low ISO. Moving from that to the challenge of incredibly dark music venues was a struggle, but practice made me more comfortable over time. In these dark spaces, it wasn’t uncommon for my camera to have to do a little bit of seeking when trying to lock focus. The results were photos that were never as sharp as anything that I’d take during the day, but they were acceptably sharp, and that was good enough for me.
In 2013, I’d have my first experience with a full-frame camera. I’ve already written about that experience, but the short version is that my D7000 was being repaired and I rented a Nikon D800. The difference in performance was so noticeable that I made a point to save up for a full-frame camera of my own. Eventually I picked up a D600. The D800 was a powerful camera, but aside from the prohibitive price tag, it was way more camera than I needed at the time. I wanted something that felt similar to my old D7000, and the D600 was a perfect fit. Not only was this camera way more capable in low-light scenarios, but I was becoming more capable as well, since I was getting more practice. By 2014, I’d start getting photo passes and experiencing a wider range of lighting quality. This showed in my work.
The same year would see me using a couple more cameras: the D610 and the D750. The D610 was, for all intents and purposes, identical to the D600, but it was a refresh to that model that had an improved shutter system, and the upgrade was offered to me after needing to have my D600 serviced. Shortly after I put in for that upgrade, the D750 launched, and I was drawn in by its swiveling screen, wi-fi capability, and better low-light focusing abilities. I loved the D750 so much that I eventually sold my D610 and got a second D750. That camera was my main driver all the way until 2022, and even now I use it as a second camera. The only other full-frame camera I used during this period was a D4 that I rented when I photographed my first music festival. I tried that mostly out of curiosity, and I enjoyed it but never had a need for its capabilities.
In 2019, I received a Nikon Z 50 from Nikon, making it my first mirrorless camera. It’s a 20-megapixel APS-C camera, and while it didn’t replace my D750s, I did occasionally bring it to shows to see what it could do. The technology has come a long way from the D7000, so even though the Z 50 has its shortcomings, it still held its own in some challenging situations. In fact, when I was nominated for a Music Photography Award in 2022, the photo that was chosen was taken with the Z 50. I use this camera often when I travel since it’s super lightweight.
That brings us up to my most recent camera acquisition: the Nikon Z 6II. I rented this camera for a photo assignment, with the intention being for it to be a backup camera to my D750. I ended up using it more than the D750, and shortly thereafter, I picked one up for myself in 2022. It’s the first time I’ve used a camera other than the D750 on a regular basis since I got it in 2014, and I have not been disappointed. I’ll probably keep using this for the foreseeable future. Something that’s been nice is that the D7000, D600/610, D750, and Z 6II can all use the same battery. That’s left me with a reasonably good stash of spare batteries.
These days, I only carry two lenses to shows: a 24-70mm f/2.8 and a 70-200mm f/2.8. These give me enough range for most shows that I go to, and on the off chance that I need something more, I’ll rent something longer. However, I didn’t always have those lenses. When I first began, I only owned prime lenses—fixed focal lengths with wide apertures. I had a 50mm f/1.4, a 24mm f/2.8, and a 105mm f/2. Only having prime lenses meant I had to be a little more careful about when I was going to make a lens change, but I made it work. The Alicia Keys photo in this post was shot with the 105mm, and the Donna Missal photo was taken with the 50mm. One of my favorite live music photos ever was taken with the 105mm.
When I use my Z 6II, I use it with the FTZ II adapter so I can continue using the two aforementioned F-mount lenses. While I’d love to eventually pick up Z-mount equivalents to what I currently use, the adapter has served me well and I haven’t found it getting in my way at all. The adapter’s performance was a concern when I first got a mirrorless, but it’s really been easy to use. When I first received the Z 50, it wasn’t compatible with the adapter, but that’s since been addressed in a firmware update. That’s nice in a pinch, but I tend to cut down on bulk when using that camera and just stick to the lenses that came with the kit: the 16-50mm f/3.5-6.3, and the 50-250mm f/4.5-6.3. They’re both “DX” lenses, so they’re intended for use with APS-C bodies and will operate in a cropped mode when attached to full-frame cameras, and their variable apertures make them much less versatile in low light, but they still managed to get images I was happy with. All the example images I shared (Eric Nam, Surf Gang, and Nas) were taken with one of the kit lenses.
That’s all for my camera and lenses, but I think I’ll keep this going and talk about accessories in the next post. That’ll cover things like memory cards, straps, bags, etc. Despite my gear changes over the years, the vast majority of my concert work was taken with one camera model and two lenses. I hope this helps to illustrate that you don’t need to have flagship gear to make images you can be proud of, and that you don’t need to keep up with every new release.
Just for the sake of completeness, here’s a list of the gear I currently own and use. I am not including film cameras in this list.
- Nikon D750
- Nikon Z 6II + FTZ II adapter
- Nikon Z 50
- AF DC-NIKKOR 105mm f/2D
- AF-S NIKKOR 50mm F1.4G
- AF-S NIKKOR 24-70mm F2.8G ED
- AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II
- NIKKOR Z DX 50-250mm f/4.5-6.3 VR
- NIKKOR Z DX 16-50mm f/3.5-6.3 VR