Live Music From A Different Perspective
Here is a look at live audio from a different perspective – the photographer’s!
Recently Focal published Concert and Live Music Photography: Pro Tips from the Pit by acclaimed photographer J. Dennis Thomas, whose work has been featured in Rolling Stone and Spin – just to name a few. The book is packed full of tips, tricks and advice for both the casual and professional concert photographer and features over 160 photographs from today’s top concerts.
Below is an excerpt from chapter 4 of the book which focuses on outdoor concerts and festivals. Click on the “Read More” link below to read the rest of the chapter and see more examples of J. Dennis Thomas’ work.
OUTDOOR CONCERTS AND FESTIVALS
Covering a festival is unlike any other event you’ll ever shoot. Photographing a festival such as Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza, Austin City Limits, or any of the hundreds of other festivals that have cropped up over the past ten years is an exercise in maintaining your stamina.
When shooting a festival you will need to cover all of the bases of concert photography, from small stages that are poorly lit (similar to bar lighting) all the way up to huge stadium-sized stages. Most festivals have a variety of stages depending on what career level a band is at. The newer bands usually play the smaller stages, often called side stages, while the main stages are generally reserved for headliners. The lighting covers all the bases as well, because you will be required to shoot throughout the day at different stages in constantly changing lighting situations. Shooting a festival really keeps you on your toes.
The other thing you really need to be on top of when shooting a festival are your post-processing skills. You need to get the images edited and available right away to maximize sale potential. Even if you don’t need to get the images up right away, editing on the fly allows you to avoid spending hours upon hours editing thousands of images down the line.
The key to successfully surviving a festival is planning. Yes, I said surviving, because without the proper planning you will run yourself ragged and in the end you won’t have any fun. And let’s face it, we all started in this field of photography because we love music and photography and ultimately want to have fun.
Planning for a festival comes in stages and starts weeks before the festival actually begins. Most festivals these days have dropped the “touring” business model and have opted for a once-a-year multiday event at a certain location, however there are still a few touring festivals out there such as the Warped Tour and the Mayhem Festival.
First and foremost in the planning process is getting credentialed and securing a photo pass. In theory, it’s a simple process, but actually getting credentialed is the real trouble. To start off, you need to find an outlet to shoot for. Festival promoters aren’t interested in filling up the press areas and photo pits with photographers looking to add to their portfolio, so you will need an assignment. Your local newspaper, a magazine, or a webzine are all good places to start. Particularly successful blogs are often accepted as well. For the most part, approaching an outlet that is music-based is going to be your best bet when looking for an entity to shoot for.
Go to the festival website and find the press area; there will be a link to a press application. Have a letter of assignment on hand to attach to the form. The PR agencies will check for the validity of your assignment, so don’t even think about trying to make something up. If they find out you’ve submitted a fraudulent form, your name will likely be red-flagged and you’ll be blacklisted from this and any other festival the PR firm handles.
This is no joke.
Once you’ve been credentialed the next thing on the planning list is scheduling. You need to decide which bands are important for you to shoot and cross-reference them with the time they’re playing and at which stage they’ll be performing. Scheduling is like choreography. If you don’t get it just right you’ll trip and fall.
The first step is taking a look at the lineup to see who’s performing. Selecting which bands to shoot is very subjective. There’s a few ways to look at it depending on the scope of your assignment. If you’ve got carte blanche to shoot whatever you want, you can go through and pick your favorite bands. Since I shoot for an agency, I depend on sales to make money, so I select bands or performers that I know have the potential to sell images. Headliners, hot up and-comers, and established acts that may be doing a reunion are all good candidates.
If you’re on assignment you may be need to cover specific bands, so that makes it a little easier to set your schedule, although there may be conflicts in scheduling times. Some photographers on assignment shoot only what they have been asked to shoot, some shoot other things as well if they have ample time.
Once you’ve decided which performers you want to cover the next thing to do is look at the scheduling times. Most festivals have online schedules that make it pretty easy to make a layout of your schedule. Obviously you can’t be two places at once, and there will be a lot of times where there are overlaps where two bands you want to shoot are playing at the same time. You have to make a decision about which performer is more important to you.
One of the main problems that you run into is setting up a realistic schedule. As with most concerts you can only shoot the first three songs on most of the stages, and if you have two bands that start 5 or 10 minutes apart, it’s unlikely you will be able to shoot them both. You must also remember to factor in travel time between stages, and don’t forget you will have to deal with the crowd, which can add quite a few minutes to your travel.
The first time you schedule for a festival it’s easy to overbook yourself. Don’t get frustrated if you can’t get to everything you want to get. The best thing to do is to schedule the things you want to shoot, and set priorities for what you have to shoot. As you shoot more festivals and shoot the same festivals over again, scheduling gets easier, as you have a better idea of how much time it takes to travel back and forth to the different stages.
Once you’ve finished setting your schedule be sure that you have a copy of it when you’re on site. You don’t want to have to recheck the schedule and decide from memory. Most festivals offer an online scheduling application that shows you the lineup and set times and lets you select the bands that you want to shoot, and then builds a personalized schedule for you. Most festivals now have smartphone apps that allow you to do your scheduling right on your phone, and some of the websites allow you to export your personalized schedule to smartphone apps such as Apple iCal.
I have come to rely on my iPhone as an integral piece of my gear when shooting a festival. Having quick access to your personal schedule right at your fingertips is key to keeping your schedule running smoothly. Of course, I always print out a hard copy and keep it in my bag just in case.
J. Dennis Thomas is a professional photographer and author based in the “Live Music Capital of the World”, Austin, TX. Dennis writes the popular J. Dennis Thomas Digital Field Guide Companion blog (http://deadsailorproductions.com) as well as the equally popular Austin Live! (http://austin-live-music.com), and Capturing Better Photos and Video with your iPhone (http://betteriphonephotos.blogspot.com/). J. Dennis Thomas has been photographing bands and concerts since the early 90’s. He is represented by Corbis Images and his live music work has been featured in print in such magazines as Rolling Stone, SPIN, Country Music Weekly, among others. He has also contributed photography to many books such as Thomas H. Greer’s Rock Shrines and Photos That Inspire: Photo Workshop by Lynne Eodice. Dennis’ entertainment and celebrity photos have also been featured all over the web, including rollingstone.com, MSN Wonderwall, Spinner.com, and AOL.