Rock Concert Photography Lessons Learned (So Far)

18 Jan 2017

Yesterday, I posted advice on how to become a rock & roll photographer. Today I'd like to discuss some observations about this photographic specialty. I'm absolutely still learning, here, so this article is as much for me as it is for anyone who happens across it and might be interested.

My first experience with rock concert photography happened at the 2015 Sasquatch event in central Washington. I really didn't know what in the hell I was doing, to be perfectly honest. That's largely because my #1 motivation for going, unlike basically all of the other photographers there, wasn't to do a job. Rather, it was to go hear live music. It was expected that I'd take photos, but I had no specific agenda or deadline like everyone else. So, I felt a bit like an outsider -- not quite any shared-pressure feeling along with my press colleagues, yet not quite like a normal attendee, either.

You notice some differences right away because of that. Eighty percent of the other photographers seem to be marginally pissed off much of the time. That's fair, I suppose. After all, festivals can be hectic for those truly working. And, the physical characteristics of the grounds come into play, too. Most festivals have numerous stages set pretty far apart (understandable, as each one needs to host a full-volume concert), and feature concerts happening at overlapping times. So, if you're getting paid to shoot them all, you're going to be running around like mad from about 11:30 a.m. until probably 2:00 a.m. I'd be stressed, too, money or no money!

At Sasquatch, they have pit areas for photography. All of these are on the ground well below the stage, between the stage and the crowd. So, it's an unobstructed view, but you wind up getting shots from well beneath the performer(s). There's nothing completely wrong with that, of course; it's just an observation. But you do wind up with equipment your blocking shots sometimes, such as stage monitors, etc. I'm not sure if that necessarily makes for a bad photo, though. Stage monitors are part of the natural environment, so they're bound to show up in photos. I do see photographers climbing around, standing on things, etc. Presumably, this is to try to gain a bit of a different perspective from the others. On the larger stages, there can be 20 or more photographers swarmed at the stagefront. Usually, the festival allots only three songs for you to be there (at least at Sasquatch, anyway). The larger the venue, and/or the larger the show, the more rules and so forth there will be about this.

There's also a healthy variance in the attitudes of the security staffers. At Sasquatch, I'm told that a local highschool football team comprises most of the staff. Most of those guys (nearly all male, come to think of it) aren't terribly strict about whatever they're doing. I think they're mainly there to prevent drug-crazed maniacs from rushing the stage -- relatively thankless work, most likely, although one assumes half-decent pay and maybe free beer or something. Others seem to be career security-types, some of whom are downright proactive when it comes to reining in anyone who pulls questionable maneuvers, and that includes overly-ambitious photographers climbing up on things they shouldn't.

At the main stage of Sasquatch, by the way, normal media aren't allowed in the pit area. (Festival venues have their own hired photographers who you'll meet, along with the press.) But, general press do have access to the VIP area on the mainstage floor, which is basically just as good. But, as you're in with what can seem a million screaming fans, you have to arrive early to get a front-row spot along the fence, usually. And, you'll likely have to settle for shots taken from a side perspective. It's said (and in my experience mostly true) that performances seem to favor stage-right (which is the left side of the stage if you're viewing from the audience). So, that area likely provides the best shots. I haven't been too good at securing shooting spots from that area, though -- at least, not at the Sasquatch main stage. The flow of coming and going from that stage prevents this a good bit. (At Pickathon, btw, there aren't any photography pits, so you generally need to arrive very early to get a shooting spot. This can make your attendance schedule kind of tough! It also means you're standing right in front of others who aren't there to take photos, so you should probably keep in mind not to be annoying.)

So far, I'm discussing limitations, I suppose -- limited windows of opportunity to visit the pit, limited variations in perspective, limited vantage points, inability to use your flash (which I didn't yet mention, but can make certain shots tough to get!), limited clear shot windows when there are 20 others crawling about, etc. Although, on that last point, most photographers are fairly courteous. The real pros are in and out in a flash, maybe a song or two, whereas the journalist types usually stay longer, and seem fairly aware that others want a turn, too. So, they'll gesture to you, as if to say, "Go ahead, go take the shot." I actually try to stay out of the way of most others -- not very pushy, although I suppose a bit of pushiness can sometimes translate into capturing a great shot.

Actually, as an amateur, my observation is that that the pro's quickness can also be his or her missed opportunity. As an amateur who stays the full time allotted (and who may well stay longer, if allowed, which sometimes happens), you might be one of very few around when something unusual happens. Maybe be a lead singer decides to crowd surf, a band member does something especially photo-worthy, guest singers or dancers come to the stage, or some other shenaigans transpire after most of the other press have gone.

For me, if I like a band, I'll usually try to hang out for the entire show, even if the press have to leave the pit. These are the shows I like best. The shows I like least are when I don't like the band. Fortunately, it's maybe a bit easier to politely leave when you're carrying a camera. Not that the bands care or are paying attention, but at least it may not make them feel as though they suck. Rather, they may think you're working just like them, and need to go shoot something else. I've seen and shot some of my favorite bands, but man ... I sometimes wonder how bands must feel when few people attend and/or a lot of people are leaving mid-set. (Fortunately, at least here in the Pacific Northwest, most attendees seem encouraging when such awkwardness encroaches.)

Anyway... when a band's worth staying for (which is quite often), and I do hang out in the crowd for the duration, doing this makes me realize that great shots can also happen from the crowd perspective. (Often, I like to photograph the crowd, too, as evidenced by the pic atop this article.) I'm an average-height guy, but can still get clear shots from the crowd -- and, I might add, without being an annoyance to those standing beside or behind me. The zoom lens makes all the difference, of course. To me, it's essential to have *something* that zooms at least a decent bit, for framing purposes.

The first event I shot, I had a modest zoom -- can't recall what it was... just a stock Fuji camera from Office Depot. Nowadays, I use our Canon with a 75-200mm lens. Even that seems fairly inadequate when compared with what most "average"-looking press photographers seem to carry. I'm not sure what they use, though. My guess is a bit larger, maybe 300mm zoom lenses to have the most flexibility and capability to get the most shots. The camera does tend to matter, I think, although I seem to have done okay with the $99 Office Depot camera that first time out. I mean, even way off to the side on the main stage, at night, I'd luck out from time to time. But, whatever you do, I think there's a point at which you have "too much" camera to enjoy yourself. The Canon w/ the 200mm lens is manageable, as would be a 300mm. I think those guys that run around w/ the lenses more appropriate for small bird photography in Africa just seem tired all the time. And, usually, those guys have *multiple* camera on them!

The best news of all is that this is 2017 and memory cards are painfully cheap. So, that translates into: If you want to get great shots, and you're still learning, the best thing to do is simply take a ton of photos. I think that's the #1 thing, really. When you snap off 5 or 6 shots right in a row, there's often one or two that are just better -- maybe a facial expression changes slightly or something. Whatever it is, you get the option of more shots to pick from if you take a zillion of them. Later on, you can delete the junk, if you want. This is a massive advantage over all of the photographers back in the day who shot film. (Of course, bring tons of batteries!) I suspect pros follow the zillion-shot advice, as well. I recall one of the festival photographers mentioning in the press room one night how many pics he'd taken that day. I can't remember the number, but remember thinking it was outrageously ridiculous. So... yeah, get the shots while you can.

From here out, I want to try to discuss some of the items that are particular to rock venue photography -- esp. at festivals. Clearly, these will not be *all* of the considerations one must make as a photographer in general. So, I'm not going to discuss things like shot composition too generally, as that's a basic skill covered by other instructional articles. But, rock & roll, in particular, has some opportunities and challenges, including:

  • Backgrounds. I like to pay attention to what the background will be. Some stages seem to understand this more than others (Pickathon better than Sasquatch, by the way). On some, at least from many vantage points in the press pit, it's just the bare sky behind the artist, which makes for an uninteresting photo much of the time (e.g., on bright cloudless days when you're just getting a huge field of white to surround your subject). Other stages have solid black backdrops, which can also be boring during day shots, especially if it's a well-worn dark cloth or something. But, other aspects of an on-stage background can play well into a shot, as a music set might have any number of interesting things going on -- from unusual equipment to uniquely customized speakers or gear that might lend a bit to the ambiance you're capturing. At evening and night, the lights and shadows usually improve all of these things. Of course, at all times, there's always a chance of getting various non-band people in your backgrounds. In general, I dislike that... I don't like to see other press people, roadies, techs, or security people in a band shot, if I can help it. Videographers are *always* in the way!
  • Fans. Fans, on the other hand, can be great in the background, especially if they're clearly enjoying themselves and/or really concentrating on the artists. Frankly, if you're shooting something like EDM, I think maybe either the gear or the crowd would make the shots more interesting. (I only marginally count EDM as "rock & roll" as these acts are at the festivals I attend. It's just not my cup of tea, although I'm glad to have attended a few of those shows. Mostly, though ... just a bunch of kids on Molly jumping around.) But, yeah, the fans can really add to things. Sometimes if a concert is especially emotional or chaotic, it's worth shooting fans, as well.
  • Facial expressions. I have to admit: I'm a person who hates being in photos. I always think my facial expressions don't match up with whatever I maybe thought I looked like. It's tough to describe that phenomenon. There are artists I've shot who may not feel that way, but I can tell you: There are people out there who, like me, simply aren't photogenic. Fortunately, if they're on a huge stage performing for thousands, I guess being photogenic isn't mandatory for success. But, damn, it can make it tough to take a decent photo. I think this could be an area worth exploring sometime -- to pay a bit more attention to the facial expression being made and to capture the ones you think are best. I would like to think that I naturally do this already but, looking through ALL of my pics (not just the better ones I show people), I don't know how I could have clicked the shutter on many of them. Out of respect for the artists, I'll hold off on showing examples. I think, also, that it's tough to pay attention to the *entire* shot on this line item. While your main subject may be holding a satisfactory expression, the shot could be ruined by the expression on someone else. And, finally, not to blame the equipment, but there may well be a small lag between your finger hitting the shutter button and the exposure actually happening. That might be doubly-true if your shot requires a further moment to refine the focus or something. One hopes that, in time, one would learn to get better at all of the nuanced contributing factors that improve the hand-camera coordination required to get the shot at the exact time it's desired.
  • Eyes. Not a mandatory aspect of a good photo, but an interesting subject matter. You know, they say eyes are windows to the soul, so how can you go wrong if you can get a good shot of a performer that includes the eyes? I'd say this one ties in with the above item, though, as eyes are both singularly expressive and also expressive as a primary feature of a larger facial expression. So, the two work together when eyes are involved. (Of course, eyes are not always involved! The subject might have them closed or squinted, obstructed by hair, covered by sunglasses, etc.) Eyes showing or not (e.g., sunglasses), I also tend to like a shot when the subject is looking directly at the camera. That can be a tough shot to get -- not just looking at the camera, but while also bearing all of the other qualities of a good photograph. But, when it all happens and the performer is gazing directly at the lens, people always react to photos like that with "Wow, that's a great photo!"
  • Smiles. Essentially, the observations I'd assert for teeth would be the same as eyes (well, aside from their being the windows to the soul, but perhaps there is some similar psychology we could explore sometime). I do think it's always welcome to see a full smile, teeth and all, no matter what type of act you're shooting. Such a shot can be elusive for some performers.
  • Other body language. I suppose we don't need a bullet item for each body part. But, you get the idea. Some performers are more impassioned than others. They wind up writhing on the stage floor, squatting, climbing on things, holding fists in the air, etc. Many have selected clothing to further the intended mood. All of these things (everything in this article, really) can combine for a spectacular photo. For me, a good photo is more than just any visual image of an artist. A person standing there isn't a good photo. There has to be something more to it, and that's what I'm working to define, at least to some extent.
  • Stage lights, smoke, wind, and other effects. All acts large and small benefit from stage lights. True, the lights often don't come into photographic play much during an outdoor, bright-afternoon performance. But, indoor and evening shows can make for some great shots when the lighting is interesting. Quite often on small stages, you only get those huge spotlights that wash the stage in one color at a time. But, the lighting gets crazy on other sets. I'm not sure how other photographers feel about stage lighting, but I really like how it plays out photographically. To me, it helps capture some more of what it's like to actually be there, and I think he way that light tends to wash over everything (e.g., a red light atop the stage appears red, but also reddens an otherwise black stage monitor at the bottom of the photo) helps provide some natural balance to a photo. Maybe the coloring is somewhat of a mental association that doesn't come through to the non-attendee viewer later on. But, certainly other aspects like wind and pyrotechnics do inform the view with action and excitement. Sometimes the wind is natural (common for outdoor venues); other times they have fans on the stage (not uncommon for larger productions). I should mention here that the large productions can be fun to photograph. Some rock concerts these days are as much theater as they are music. Admittedly, I skip out on some of that, though; I really do need to like a band. If it's just theater, I can easily view the whole thing as pathetic and not care to document it at all, except maybe to poke fun at it later. If I like it, though, and it's theatrical, that's a-okay. And smoke, by the way, is usually pretty neat looking. But, I have to admit that, later on when reviewing your pics, smoke also does add a certain haze to a pic, in a slightly negative way. I suppose that's the cost of having smoke -- nice general feel and intensity, but at a slight cost of clarity.
  • Projected Imagery. Many acts, especially larger ones or ones for whom a certain presentation style is important, elect to project imagery onto the backdrop. Sometimes, this imagery is quite large, yet not especially high-res. To the eye, and especially from a distance, this looks fine -- even in photos when you can capture a whole-band shot. But, when you're zoomed in on an individual band member and the backdrop contains this, there's a funny pixelation effect you'll sometimes see along the edges of things in front of the projected imagery. It can make your photos appear to be considerably more zoomed-in than they are because most people are used to seeing pixelation only when enlarging graphics on a computer screen. It's a strange effect, and usually strikes me as a bit of a negative, although other times it's an interesting stylistic element. I guess you never know for sure whether the end result will be pleasant. But, the tricky part is that, on a small camera preview screen, it's not very noticeable. You only really notice it when you get a full-screen look later. Just something to think about, as you may want to take considerably more photos than usual if there is imagery projected in the background. (Don't worry; the effect is usually subtle, so it's not the end of the world...)
  • Too much mic. Performers need microphones, so you'e going to get mics in your photos all the time. Personally, though, one item I've noticed upon reviewing my own photos is that it's easy to get a bit *too* much mic in a shot. Specifically, if you're shooting at an angle where the mic blocs most of an artist's face, I think that's a sub-optimal shot. Maybe occasionally it looks decent this way, but more often than not, I'm leaving those ones out of any sets I publish.
  • Blur. Shooting Sasquatch can make you feel like an accomplished photographer pretty quickly. The air is crisp and clean there, and it's such a bright venue on all stages. (They do have an EDM tent that I guess you could describe as indoor, but as EDM isn't an area of much interest for me, I largely stay in the open-air venues there.) But, Pickathon, on the other hand... I haven't yet described that venue much, but this is the perfect point at which to introduce it. You see, Pickathon is, comparatively speaking, filled with dark corners and crevices. A couple of the stages are entirely indoors, and another is deep in the woods. Completely different photography style required at this festival -- and considerably more challenging with the low- or color-only lighting. It might not be so bad if we weren't discussing rock & roll here, which tends to be energetic and, thus, full of people literally jumping around on stage. In low or maybe just pale red light, and without a flash, that's challenging to capture, and sometimes (at least for me at present) downright impossible to get the shot desired (esp. when zoom is needed, which I think effectively lowers the light even more). I've actually had some better luck with my phone at times, which I think is because the phones have more artificial intelligence built in than high-end cameras do. But, I'm sure better photos will be had with more experience. Also, sometimes the blur itself makes for what are, to me, really fetching shots that a pro might not get. (Whether it matters that the result might be purely accidental is a matter for debate, I suppose.)
  • Individuals, groups, and whole-band shots. As I don't do this for a living, I can't tell you what pays more. I suspect a good shot of an individual (likely the lead singer) is often *the* money shot of rock & roll photography. But, that's completely uninformed opinion based only on old truisms from other areas of the press. I once heard a sports reporter mention that the story is always about some hero of the game, some way to individualize it all, I suppose. Maybe that's true; maybe it isn't. Or, maybe that's just a crutch that helps make something otherwise boring kind of interesting. Personally, though, having played in many bands, I like to get shots of each individual (if possible from my vantage point), plus a few whole-band shots. I'm not always sure which I'll like best. There are certainly times when a single shot dominates the lot, but it's not always an individual.
  • Drummer shots. Not sure what to say about these, other than their being the toughest to capture. Drummers are nearly always set in the back, buried behind tons of gear, and constantly in motion. So, right off the bat, it's going to be a tough shot, especially from a photo pit, and doubly-tough in low light.
  • Big acts vs emergent acts. Unless you're one of the above-mentioned pros who has to shoot ALL of the concerts, you'll probably find yourself having to choose concerts to go to -- just like basically everyone else at the festival. It's often tempting to go with a larger act you might be familiar with, but that can be a missed opportunity. Of course, there's no way to know for sure, so the larger act might be a safer bet among two bands you don't know. A little research beforehand can go a long way here, though. Again, my personal #1 motivation is music and discovering new bands. The photos are somewhat secondary, although I definitely try to get great shots (as I hope is evident by my caring to write all of this down for others). So, for me, it's not as big of a risk to select one over another. I've taken some of my favorite shots at bands no one reading this will ever have heard of. I suppose research is the take-home point here. Take time to at least familiarize yourself with the bands and go to what you like more. It'll show through in your photos, I'd bet.
  • Crop-later opportunities. As with any fast-moving photography target shot with today's high-megapixel cameras, I suspect there's some merit in remembering that shots can be cropped later if needed. I don't personally spend a lot of time post-processing; I like to just see what I can get and then immediately publish. But, in the press room, I certainly see a lot of people firing up Photoshop. My own camera shoots pics at 5184px x 3456 px. That sure gives a lot of wiggle-room, if needed. I only mention this because, sometimes in a fast-paced scenario, you might actually be able to get a pretty good shot if you're a bit further out than you'd like, or if some stagehand is visible in the periphery, or whatever. If there's a choice of taking a shot or waiting fo the perfect shot, it may well be better to shoot anyway. Again, as this is the digital age, there's little reason not to (aside from the time it'll take to review more photos, and also to Photoshop / crop anything you want to).
  • Instagram possibilities. As there is often so much action in a rock shot, especially a whole-stage shot, there could be some great Instagram opportunities lurking in otherwise unusable shots. This is because Instagram is a pretty easy / handy app for zooming in and applying effects on a small portion of a larger pic. Of course, you'd probably need to transfer your pics to your phone before Instagramming, which is a bit of a pain. Still, it could be fruitful if you're big into this platform.
  • Camera checks. The previous point reminded me of another rock & roll-specific challenge that I've become more aware of thanks to a mishap. When you're running around a lot with a camera, especially at a concert venue where you're bumping into others sometimes, it can be a good idea to do a quick setting check prior to shooting. Again, I'm clearly not a pro, so I suppose more experienced people know this better, or may notice quicker if a setting is off. But, I had a thing happen where I bumped into something and it completely changed the settings of my camera. I shot two entire concerts on some very strange setting that basically washed out alll of my shots from those concerts -- not a single useable one! If I hadn't specifically went to look at a photo I'd shot, I may have gone on without noticing that. Super-bad mistake! (I guess there are many similar mistakes one could make, but this one relates to the concert / festival atmosphere, so I figured I'd mention it. Another mistake I've made a couple of times, by the way, had to to with my camera not taking pictures when the viewfinder was being used. I found out that on my Canon that sort of things needs to be enabled. Screwed up a lot of shots that way, too! Oh, and the manual focus / autofocus switch -- another thing to check occasionally. Our Canon lens has this in the most easily-bumpable locaiton possible; I've loused up many shots because of that.)
  • Alternate vantage points. I've noticed this with a few stages and scenarios, both at Pickathon and Sasquatch. While the stage front is usually best, there may well be other vantage points at a given stage that wind up being surprisingly good. Could be a chair in the back of the room, or a spot on a nearby hillside ... you never know unless you look.
  • Portraits. One thing I started doing, and plan to continue more of, at Pickathon is the off-stage portrait. I think I've done this with 4 or 5 bands to date, and really didn't even know it was much of a possibility until Pickathon. Sasquatch segregates the artists much more from the press and the general rabble. You mainly get to meet artists by chance there, unless you're fortunate enough to get your credentials early and maybe set up some interviews. But, at Pickathon, if you're press, it's basically a 100% possibility that you can meet and chat with the artists, if you want to. (If you're an attendee, it's also probably pretty easy to meet the bands you love. Not quite as easy as press, but definitely doable.) Anyway, I was shooting a band one day called Mount Mariah, and it occurred to me that some off-stage photos would make a neat collection. I had a great time chatting with them, and that started me off on further similar shots. Just mentioning it here because it's something else available that probably many photographers don't think of.
  • Selfies. And... of course, if you're doing the portrait and get to know them, you can do the nowadays-obligatory selfie as well. Why not?
  • Always on / always powered up. I remember back when I did my college internship, the newspaper editor encouraged everyone to carry a camera at all times. If anything newsworthy happened, and you shot it, you'd get paid for it. I've noticed that, at festivals, there's generally a few instances like this... something interesting will happen and few will be there to shoot it. At these big events, there's enough of that to guarantee you some unique opportunities, if you're prepared. Admittedly, I should take this advice more myself. But, it's something that belongs on this list, anyway.

Finally, one more tangential tip -- about recordkeeping. All things at a festival seem unforgettable -- like band names. But, when you see 60 or 70 performances over 3 days, it can get a bit blurry as time passes. So, what happens when you get home and can't recall who the hell you're looking at in your photos? For me, whether I know a band or not, I always take out a notebook, write down the band name, and photograph the page, just to have a nice, easily-findable beginning marker in the list of files on the SD card. Makes life very easy afterward! Similarly, when I get to a festival, I always photograph the lineup (which often changes from whatever was on the web site a few days prior), and spend some time planning my route. At least, those are things that I personally do.

Link to a portfolio of my favorite pics, so far: