Concert Photography, Part I

by Steve Mirarchi
Dave Grohl of Foo Fighters with a shirt on his head

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Capturing compelling images of people in low light--whether it be musicians in concert, thespians onstage, or your kid in an indoor karate tournament--is a great challenge for any photographer. If you are allowed to use flash you still have to worry about focusing on rapidly-moving subjects and utilizing lenses that bring you close enough to your subjects. Without flash, you suddenly have to worry a lot more about motion, exact exposure, and color temperature. And all this is even before you've thought about composition.
A lot to think about?
Absolutely--especially when you're only allowed to shoot for a few minutes, as is often the case with concerts. A majority of the time you'll have to push your film to 1600, and at that speed even C-41 shows discernible variances between half-stop exposure differences. There are always a few other photographers around you, jockeying for position, and just when you settle in, the performer jumps to another part of the stage. You manage to achieve focus, and then the stage lights change, darkening your subject's face by two full stops. And just when you think you're getting the hang of it, security pulls you out.

It can be a dizzying array of variables to contend with, even for veterans. I intend this article as a primer of sorts, for everyone from those who simply want the best photos they can take of their son or daughter in their first school play to those music photographers who aspire to international fame. Though a lot of what I explain will use my concert photos as reference material, understand that the lessons easily apply to just about any low-light situation involving people.

So You Want To Photograph A Concert?

Before you even begin dreaming about meeting U2 backstage for a private photo session, you have to obtain what used to be termed "credentials." Today that means a photo pass: a sticky piece of cloth you slap on your shirt that allows you to get past security and into the area in front of the stage reserved for photographers. Photo passes are printed by the band's publicity machine, whether it be the record company's publicity department or a private P.R. firm. You will have to convince the person assigning the passes to give you one. The easiest and often only way to do this is to have an assignment from a newspaper or magazine. Why are photo passes given out in the first place? The more publicity the better, and that will work to your advantage with smaller acts and against you with larger ones. Whereas a band just getting started will actually call established writers and photographers and offer them photo passes to guarantee the band some publicity, veteran acts will choose among whom they want to shoot the show and will only hand out a specific number of passes, despite the number of requests. High profile national magazines and widely subscribed newspapers get first priority, followed by smaller mags and newspapers, and finally, if there's any room, web sites.

Let's take an example. Let's say that They Might Be Giants are coming in concert to your town, and you've been a fan since their very first hit back in 1986, "Don't Let's Start." You'd love to photograph them in concert. You've done your research; you know they're an underground band, mostly out of the public spotlight, and you surmise they'll take any publicity they can get. You do some more research and discover they have a huge college following. So the first thing you do is call the college newspapers in your area one by one and offer to photograph the concert for them. It's a 50/50 chance: college kids do love the Giants after all, and unless they're understaffed or cramming for finals they're likely to send their own photographer, but it's worth a shot.
If that doesn't work you head down to your local music store and check out the small alternative magazines that are published in your area. After checking the content of each one to make sure you don't call a heavy metal magazine (imagine that call: you'd be laughed right off the phone), you again make calls one by one and offer to photograph the concert for them. You have somewhat less of a chance this time around, as magazines, even small ones, will have their own photography staff. But if you speak intelligently, proving to the Photo Editor that you know your stuff and are committed to music photography, you might get the call the next time the magazine's in a pinch.
John Flansburgh staring into my lensIf that doesn't work, you can still contact your local newspapers. In the case of They Might Be Giants, the newsworthiness of the concert is up for debate. Yes, they've sold millions of albums, but are they getting airplay on any of the local stations? Will they be passing through on any of the summer tours or radio festivals that hit your town? Do they have any special significance in relation to your town, city, or state? These are the questions that when answered "Yes" push the newsworthiness of the concert way up. When the Giants came to Brandeis University in late 1997, for example, I phoned the paper that's published in Waltham--the city where Brandeis is located--and I pitched a story to them about the Giants. The paper was immediately interested, and after they heard my qualifications I received the assignment on the spot. I got to interview one of the members, photograph the show, and write the review, all for which I was paid about $60. Not bad for a half-day's work for a local paper.
Above right: John Flansburgh of They Might Be Giants, 4/97. I was near the stage but had my back to it as I was photographing the crowd, and when I turned back I found him towering over me like this. Good thing I had been in shutter priority mode at 1/60 for the crowd shots: that set the aperture for this shot at f/8 (based on a 1-stop overcompensated spot meter reading of the facial tones), which at this close distance kept his head in focus but not much else.

But wait, what was that about "hearing my qualifications"? Ah. Even the most local of magazines and newspapers will want to know that you can handle a camera. It's the infamous Catch-22: how are you supposed to be a qualified concert photographer if you need to prove qualifications to get assignments? There are many ways, but first, and most importantly, Don't Fake It. If you tell an editor you've done work for Pearl Jam and No Doubt because you managed some quick shots with your point and shoot from a few rows back, and you consequently turn in mediocre photos of a show, that's the end of it: you're done; the editor will not call you again, and s/he may even blackball you, for this is a very small, very tight industry. Give yourself some time to get established. Many local editors will be happy to watch your work progress; remember that local magazines and papers are the watersheds for most of those who move on to national publications. Just be honest about your ability and you have nothing to worry about except improving.

There's still the issue of proving yourself. A lot of people bring their cameras to clubs they know they can shoot at and just go for it, photographing shows until they've got a bunch of frames they're happy enough with to put in a portfolio. With a solid portfolio of 20 or so 8x10 prints in hand you can schedule an interview with the photo editor of a local publication and at minimum get yourself on the list of photographers to call. Be aware that this represents a significant investment. The tickets, film, processing, printing, and enlargements alone for the scenario I just described will run at least $750, unless you happen to know someone at the club or happen to work at a photo lab, which many up-and-coming photographers do. It's a nice way to get discounts on your basic costs and also to control your own printing.
So where are these clubs that allow photography without photo passes? For the most part they're small venues, and they host local or relatively unknown national acts. The Middle East in Boston is a good example, though big names come through that club from time to time, and in those situations I almost always see the band's Road Manager warning fans without photo passes to put their cameras away. But for the most part The Middle East allows photography, even with flash. There's bound to be a club or two like that in your town; the best way to find them is to go to a lot of concerts. (You should be doing that already. Remember, research is one of your best tools.) Free benefit concerts showcasing all kinds of music pop up everywhere; check your papers to see where you might be able to shoot a few rolls.
Another way to build up a portfolio is to practice on a band in which you know one of the members: a good friend, a sibling, whoever. These people will usually be delighted to see photos of themselves playing, and you'll gain the invaluable experience of hearing people raving about the photos you hate and downplaying the ones you love (it's inevitable). You can't build a portfolio off a single band, but if you collect two great frames of each member in addition to one posed and one live group shot, and then you do this for three bands, all of a sudden you have a nice collection that shows off your skills in photographing everyone from the singer to the drummer. Any editor would be impressed by such depth.
Finally, if you're already good at one type of photography--portraits, landscapes, abstract, macro--a diverse selection of your best work will allow you to speak intelligently about your competence in handling a music-related assignment. Again, don't fake it, but do be ready to flaunt your strengths.
To the left: A typical stage between set changes. This one happened to be between Garbage's and Hole's set. Fans just couldn't wait to see Shirley Manson and Courtney Love duke it out, but of course it never happened. At least they got a pretty set change.

A stage suffering a set change, with many purple lightsNewspapers and magazines are only the beginning. Where do all the live shots in guitar catalogs, product advertisements, and album sleeves come from? Quick answer: the majority come from the same thirty photographers. It's that small an industry--and that hard a business to break into. Consider Mark Seliger, chief photographer for Rolling Stone, who's primarily a portrait guy. He does eight or nine covers a year, plus four or five photos inside each issue. Does that sustain his business? Hardly. In fact, it's only a stepping stone for his lucrative commercial accounts for Mamiya and Fuji, to name just two. In that sense, then, no one makes a living off concert photography. You can use your superb live shots to break into music photography, but that's a whole other level, one that involves self-marketing, public relations skills, and an insatiable desire to pursue the latest musical trends. If you enjoy shooting live shows and eventually make it a somewhat profitable hobby, you'll be farther ahead than most. But if you're intent on making a living off it, do realize that concert photos are only the beginning; you'll have to become adept at studio, location, and portrait work, and you'll have to maintain those facilities and faculties. It's a great challenge that will require all your time and effort, and if that excites you, you probably have what it takes to get going.

Twenty Questions Time

Now that you have your assignment, someone must phone the record company, ask for the publicity department, and request a photo pass. Your editor will do this most of the time, but if you're working a small act or know someone in the band, it might be just as easy to do it yourself. Discuss it with your editor if you're not sure. Some acts will sign you up over the phone, but some will require a faxed request. In that case you need to have your editor fax it on official letterhead. Don't forge the fax. There's no quicker way to get yourself in a lot of trouble, and it won't work anyway, since publicists get hundreds of faxes a month and can spot a forge in half a second.
If you get the photo pass, sit back and rejoice. Then head out to the venue. Most times you'll have to pick up the pass there at the Will Call window. You'll have to show ID, and you might have to sign a release form, which you should read carefully before signing. Most releases simply prohibit you from turning your images into posters or other merchandise from which you will be the sole profiteer. Other releases, like one I had to sign for Pearl Jam in 1998, state that after one specific editorial publication, you agree that your images cannot be used for anything else--ever. Always get a copy of the release in cases like this; stories of photographers being sued by artists' managements just for exhibiting such work are rampant and, unfortunately, true.
As you might have guessed, a million different things can go wrong. So save yourself some heartache by asking these questions of your editor or of the publicist before she answers one of the other 5 lines that are ringing off the hook:

Ethics; or, How Would You Like It If...

So you're now at the venue, you've finally secured your photo pass, and you're ready to start shooting. There are some guidelines to keep in mind, and they all revolve around that Golden Rule of "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."
To the right: The photo pass for the 1997-98 Pat Metheny world tour. It's one of my favorites. The large blue imprint across the bottom reads "Photographer."

Pat Metheny photo passFirst, remember that nearly everyone else at the concert has paid to get in; they're there to enjoy the show. If there's a barricade set up in front of the stage, you can go behind it to shoot for your designated number of songs. But there are fans right up front too, and if you stand directly in front of them they won't be too happy. Kneeling down a bit or resting your elbows on the stage won't alter your perspective too much and will help keep you from getting in the way of the fans who've waited all day or paid top dollar just to get in the front row. Move around a bit, too; not only will this help you get different kinds of shots, but it will give the fans you've been standing in front of a respite.

If there is no barricade, you will have to find a place to stand. I usually work my way through the crowd as far as possible and then just start explaining my situation to the fans. Someone eventually lets me through. I'll then work my way across the front row, telling people I'll only be moving around the first few songs, asking for their indulgence. Most people are nice about it--some will be genuinely intrigued--but some will be asses. Don't let them bother you--after all, you have a job to do--but certainly don't get in the way of their reasonable enjoyment of the show. That's a fine line, that "reasonable." Just don't block any one person's view for too long, and you should be fine. If someone accosts you (it will happen eventually), calmly tell them you're only there for three songs and that if they have a problem they should take it up with security.

After you're finished with your three songs, put your camera away. Nothing gives photographers a bad name like papparozzi tactics. If the moment of a lifetime occurs onstage, you should definitely do your duty as a photographer and capture it, but do so discreetly, or get additional permission. One time I happened to be at a concert that was the last date for a few bands that'd been touring together for awhile. In a surprise move they all hopped onstage together for an impromptu number. I vaulted over to the Road Manager and asked him to let me shoot it. He let me do so for a minute or two, then he pulled me out. One of those shots ended up being bought by the record company for their end-of-tour publicity. And all because I asked, not because I went sneaking around. If I'd tried to do it covertly, there's no way I would have been able to rip through an entire roll; I would have missed the shot, and I would likely have been stopped and interrogated by security. If there's a good reason for you to shoot something and you can relate those reasons to the Road Manager cogently, she will usually let you shoot, since she has the authority to do so. Go the way of the guerilla tactics and not only do you have almost no chance of getting the shot, but you could also end up with images that security might demand that you surrender.

I'm a strong believer in recycling, and when I see photographers dropping their film canisters on the ground, I get peeved. Sure, you have limited time in which to shoot, but come on, how much time does tossing them aside save? Take the canister for its protection, and recycle it as a chance to help out the Earth.

Security personnel can be your best friends or your arch-enemies. If you establish yourself as a rule-breaker, security will give you a hard time. Even in a city as big as Boston, I see only one of two security teams at most concerts, and it wasn't long before we were recognizing each other. Follow their direction and you'll gain a solid reputation, one that might earn you some leeway. But don't be afraid to take up differences if you were told three songs and security all of a sudden says two songs. It's no use arguing with security since they're simply acting on orders; go directly to the Road Manager and get clarification.
To the left: The Boss himself during his 1999 tour. 1/180 at f/2.8 at ISO 640.

Bruce Springsteen gets into itI mentioned above that some people shoot concerts without photo passes where such photography is allowed. I have an issue with this, mainly that of taking the musicians into consideration. If someone doesn't have a photo pass and hasn't asked the band for permission to shoot, I don't consider that ethical. Though that part of my stance is conservative, there are basic tenets of ethics that apply to many types of photography which you should consider:

On top of that, my position is that musicians do not put themselves on a stage for just anyone to come along and photograph them without their knowledge. Think of the analogies: could you walk into a theatre production and just start photographing for your own purposes? Or onto the sidelines of a professional football game? Absolutely not.
Musicians tour to support themselves, to publicize their name and their music, and to get the word out on their project. If someone photographs them without any intent to at least try to help publicize them in one way or another, that's exploitation, and in my eyes unethical. Just ask the band for permission; they'll likely be pleased, if not excited, that a photographer is taking interest in them.

One photographer, after reading a draft of this section, wrote me to relate a story about a particularly relevant situation. He'd been assigned to shoot a show, and in walking around afterwards he found one of the performers relaxing in a public area. He was about to take a few pictures of her, but a friend of his noticed that the man sitting next to her looked extremely uncomfortable. When the photographer inquired, the man stated that he did not like to be photographed.
It all goes back to the subtitle of this particular subsection: "How Would You Like It If...". Put yourself in that position and see what you think of the prospects.

On to Part II: Equipment and Basics.

Or back to the Concert Photography index.


Top Image: Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters with a shirt on his head. Taken at the Wallace Civic Center, Fitchburgh, MA, 10/97.
All Text and Images Copyright 1996-2000 Steve Mirarchi. All rights reserved.

Steve Mirarchi

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