I have been shooting concerts for many years. These are mostly bands in small, dark, and obscure venues with not much light to work with. But eventually a lot of bands started to use lasers as a part of their show. That resulted once in a damaged sensor. I believe today there is a greater risk with mirrorless cameras and lasers.
I started photographing concerts back in the nineties, with an analog camera and mostly black and white film. It was so much fun, often being the only one with a camera. I was even allowed to shoot on stage sometimes, like during a concert of the band Tool and stood up front with the band Smashing Pumpkins, which is something that is nearly impossible today. I love shooting in small venues, with a relaxed public behind me, or a moshing pit in front of me, drinking a beer while shooting the artist on stage and enjoying the music.
Back in those days it was difficult shooting under these conditions, with one or two high sensitivity films, only being able to see the result a few days later. Then came the digital camera and the possibility to use even a higher ISO than ever before, and switching between different ISO values if necessary. But the best thing is being able to see the result right after taking the picture and adjusting the exposure right at the spot if necessary. And then came the laser as part of the light shows.
A laser is an intense beam of light, that can damage your eyes if you look into it for too long. A swift beam of low intensity does not really do any harm. The intensity of the lasers during concerts is not that high, due to safety. I always used the camera without thinking about it because it supposed to be safe, also for a sensor. I mostly used a shutter speed that is just a fraction of a second, too short for a laser to do any harm.
But then it happened. During a concert I decided to experiment a bit with longer shutter speeds to catch the patterns produced by a couple of lasers on stage, with a dancing audience in front. The result wasn't that thrilling, but it was something I liked to try. In the weeks after the concert I looked at some landscape pictures I took and noticed a couple of strange spots in every single picture. And then it hit me; the laser beam I was shooting with a longer exposure did get enough time to burn into the sensor.
A bit of research on the net showed me more examples of the damage a laser can produce, but they were always during the filming of a laser show. I became clear how dangerous a laser can be for a sensor when its exposed to light for a longer period of time. After bringing it to a Canon repair center the conclusion was clear: the complete sensor of my Canon EOS 5D mark III had to be replaced. The financial damage was almost €500. Fortunately that was payed by the insurance company.
Today we see the rise of the mirrorless cameras and I believe these modern cameras will find their way to the concert photographer also, if they haven't already. But now I realize there is one important thing to be aware of. With a DSLR the mirror and shutter is protecting the sensor when you are finding a composition, only exposing the sensor during the extreme short time when you take the photo. The change a laser will burn into the sensor is very slim. But with a mirrorless camera the sensor is used constantly, exposing the sensor during a long period. The laser will have much more change of burning into the sensor.
Of course there is no reason not to use a modern mirrorless camera for concerts and parties where lasers are used, but I think it is good to be aware of the increased danger a mirrorless camera has. It would be a real shame when you realize the sensor is destroyed during that wonderful show you attended.
Have any of your cameras ever been affected by lasers? What steps do you take to avoid damage?