Summer is now officially over, and so is the festival season. Continuing my annual posts on how I’m learning to take decent pictures, I thought I might share some thoughts on festival photography. If you want to read my previous text on my process of learning how to shoot, please check out my posts on your first camera, club shooting and my rambling on outdoors night shooting with flash. But to the festival shooting [DISCLAIMER: This post is “as long as a year of famine” as we say in Swedish, so proceed at your own risk]:
1. How to get a photo pass?
If you are new to the game, this is the first and biggest hurdle. Without a big name in festival photography or the right connections, this may be tricky. Here are the steps and tricks you might take.
Get a system camera. Without one, you probably will not get access to the photo pit.
Find an outlet. Most festivals require you to register via a media outlet. If you don’t have one, check with these: local papers, student papers, music magazines, culture magazines, e-zines and websites. There are also dozens of festival photography websites around today.
Start a music blog. This is what I did. It might not get you access to the big ones, though, and it also requires a bit of journalism.
Get accreditation. Sometimes your newspaper/magazine/media will take care of this, but often it is up to you. Most festivals have an accred/media link on their websites, where you apply for a photo pass. Remember to check it out at least a month before the festival, some tend to close media accreditation quite early.
Start small. If you work on your own, don’t just try to get into the biggest festivals, seek out small ones that might accept small blogs and zines.
Good planning is half the work. If you show up out of the blue, it will be a mess. Plan everything in advance, all from when to arrive, what to shoot, when to take a break, when to do interviews, how to travel and sleep, what gear to bring, what clothes to wear and what additional props to bring.
Planning. On most festivals with multiple stages you won’t be able to shoot all bands, and you want to keep a lunch and coffee break at some point. Check out what you want to shoot in advance. Make a minute-by-minute timetable so you know when to be where. This makes life so much easier.
Clothing and stuff. Wear comfortable clothes. It’s well and nice to look cool in leather and stilettos, but it will take its toll on your feet, back and legs in the long run. Pack a rain poncho even if it looks sunny. Sandals are nice, but you might hurt your toes if someone steps on you in the photo pit. I always bring a small medical kit for headaches, blisters, rashes, cuts and undesired bowel reactions to festival grub, as well as some toilet paper, you never know with those portable loos. On small one-stage-festivals, I recommends some good reading material, like, you know, a book.
Transport and accommodation. Plan how you move about. Buy train or bus tickets early, and check out the layout of the city or area the festival is located in. If you decide to book a hotel, do so very early, they tend to fill up quickly. Jot down the local taxi number and keep an emergency cash stash somewhere on your person in case of pick-pockets. You don’t wanna get stranded.
Camera & lenses. You don’t need a full frame 6000 euro camera and top of the line lenses (although they do take better pictures). You will do fine for example with the Nikon 3000 series or the Canon 600 or 700 series. As for lenses I currently go with a three or four lens combo: 1: A good low light lens (I use a Canon 50 mm f/ 1.8, cheap and reliable). 2: A wide angle lens, great for dramatic close-ups. A fisheye can give wonderful shots, but a really wide fisheye can be very limiting in a concert situation. 3: A good tele zoom with a minimum range of 200 mm. Crucial for big stages and crowded photo pits. Currently I use two zoom lenses, one short (17-85) and one long (50-200). The shorter one I sometimes leave at home. All of the lenses I use are very affordable.
Other gear: Proper batteries, the ones that come with the cameras are often second grade. Keep spares. A battery grip is handy. Bring a battery charger. Also buy some heavy duty memory cards, you won’t get very far with 2 or 4 gigas. Always have camera cleaning and drying equipment with you; if it isn’t rainy, it will be dusty and sometimes the bands will throw or squirt or blow shit at you.
Extra: If you have a spare camera, bring it. My camera suddenly malfunctioned at Ilosaarirock this summer and I was very, very happy to have my old D400 as a backup. You can also use double cameras while shooting, so you don’t have to stop to change lenses. Don’t bring a laptop if you’re not sure you’re gonna need it. It’s a lot to carry around and internet reception is usually poor. Many festivals have computers you can use in the media area.
Try to check out the festival area as soon as you arrive. If you don’t have to shoot the first band, skip it. You’re here on duty, so take advantage of everything the festival provides you with. Seek out the media center and check if you’re allowed in the VIP section. There will usually be a workspace, some sort of lounge, sometimes computers, internet access, coffee (for free if you’re lucky) and sometimes even free snacks. It also tends to mean shorter toilet and bar lines. Seek out the person responsible for media at the festival and get this person’s phone number and e-mail. Check out the layout of the festival area, where photo pit entrances are, is there an interview area, a media entrance and so on.
5. The photo pit
As a rule, photographers are allowed to shoot the three first songs of a gig from the pit. But there may be exceptions, so seek out the photo pit entrance at least five minutes before the shows starts. The entrance is usually on either side of the stage. Keep your photo pass and wristband visible for the security guards. If there are special rules, the security personnel will let you know. Obey the rules, they are often for your own safety, as some bands use pyros and other dangerous stuff.
6. Mind your manners!
There are some unwritten rules and good manners to go by in the photo pit. It can sometimes be crowded, but try and keep it civilized.
No flash. Flash photography is usually forbidden.
No climbing. Without special permission, don’t climb the stage or scaffolding. It may be OK to step onto the crowd fence at the back of the pit.
Don’t push and shove. It may be crowded and you may lose the money shot because someone stands in your way, but pushing will ruin the shot for the other guy, may be dangerous, and it is simply rude. A gentle tap on the shoulder will do the trick.
Keep your hands and elbows down. When standing in front of other photographers, don’t lift the camera above your head, and keep your elbows tucked in and pointing downwards. Otherwise you block everyone behind you (and it is actually better for your back and shoulders). If you need to shoot from above your head, do it from the back of the pit.
Crouch when moving. When walking sideways in the pit, crouch down so your head isn’t in the way of the other photographers.
Remove your photo bag. If it is crowded, please leave your photo bag beside the stage.
Don’t occupy the best space. If there is a very good space to shoot, don’t stay there for too long. A couple of minutes will do, then give other people a chance to get a good shot.
It’s not a competition. Yes, we all want to get the killer shot. But a nice, polite rotation will give everyone the chance to check out the best angles. We’re in this together.
7. You are the newbie
Showing up for your first festival with your cheap camera and lenses can be very intimidating. Trust me, I know, I still feel like the awkward cousin from the country with too short trousers. Everyone’s got cameras the size of footballs and lenses longer than your arm. They all know each other and chat away in little groups and look like this is just another day at the office. Someone asks about your camera and you feel a little ashamed of your small Canon 600 and don’t quite know the tech stuff, umm, it’s the … uh, the lens that came with the camera? Like 55 something?
Don’t worry. They all started out somewhere, too, and most of them tend to be pretty nice and helpful. Don’t be afraid to ask for advice if you need it, people like to be able to show off their knowledge a bit. Then there are those who like too make you feel small by pointing out that the lens you’re using really isn’t any good, but don’t mind them. Remember that it is the photographer that takes the pictures, not the gear. I have seen photographers with kits worth five times more than mine who take really boring pictures. Nice and sharp, yes, but really boring and unimaginative.
If you’re not sure of the drill, ask the other photographers or the personnel at the stage. Watch the other guys and learn, that’s what I still do to this day.
8. The glamour, the parties!
I’ve been shooting festivals for six years now, and there are a few reoccurring beliefs that I always have to debunk.
You do it to get free entrance to festivals. Wrong. I do it to get good photographs. Sure it’s nice to see great bands, but the truth is that I barely get to see more than the three songs I shoot, and when I shoot I don’t really concentrate on the music. When it comes to festivals that are not in Helsinki, I have to pay for train or bus tickets and accommodation, which sometimes means hotels. This is sometimes far more expensive than the festival ticket to some small festival in Kotka, that I would never ever go to see if it wasn’t for some band that is interesting for my blog.
You get to meet all the bands backstage and drink free booze. Wrong. With a few exceptions, the media is not allowed backstage. Sometimes there is a VIP section, but drinks are mostly the same price as any other bar at the festival. You can sometimes hook up with some artists there (Tuska is one example), but it is mostly other media types and VIP:s such as sponsors, music biz employees and minor celebrities who get freebies.
You just take some pictures and have a good time. Wrong. I am mostly on my own at small festivals that none of my friends go to. It can be tedious as hell. I’m overweight, have bad ankles and flat feet, which means sore feet, blisters and an aching back – it can be grueling sometimes. Sometimes it is blazingly hot and I get sweaty and gooey and sun-burnt, other times freezing, windy, muddy and rainy. And extremely boring at small festivals with only one stage – listening to one bland metal band after the other, just waiting and waiting for the next one to start. On big festivals I mostly run from stage to stage, as the concerts tend to start 15 or 30 minutes apart. Since there is seldom any place to sit, it is a lot of just walking and standing.
8. The good part.
Of course it isn’t just all pain, or I wouldn’t do it. Music and photography are two of my passions, and music photography maybe my number one passion. It is all about the pictures and the process. It is exciting to try and find new ways to shoot bands, to try and capture the energy of the artists onstage and hopefully be able to convey the feeling of the festival situation. It is magical to me. And for me in particular, it is about following the bands I write about in my blog – that is why I started taking music pics in the first place.
And of course it is nice to see friends and colleagues from time to time. The festival photography circle is a pretty closely knit one, and there are photographers I have gotten to know quite well over the years. It’s always nice to catch up and have a chat. I sometimes bump into other colleagues from the world of media or music, and we might have a beer or two – and it might even lead to wet after parties or backstage boozing, but that is certainly the exception rather than the rule. It is fun when it happens, though. But these are people I drink with anyway, so I don’t really need to go to a festival to do it.
9. The pictures
I haven’t written much about the actual photography, since it is pretty well covered in my previous blog posts. But the festival situation is a bit different from club shooting, due to the three song limit. So a few words on that as well.
Don’t shoot at random. It is tempting to try to use every single second of the three song slot. But firing off like a machine gun at everything that moves means you don’t have time to think the shots through, and will leave you with tons of bad pics to go through. Be patient with the trigger.
Catch the moments. A guy and a guitar or a head with a microphone isn’t really that fun. Watch the lights, wait for that moment when an artist does something unusual or powerful, and that’s when you pull the trigger. Explosions, energy, laughter, rage, impressive stances, facial expressions, dramatic lights, interesting angles, all these are stuff to look for.
Get to know the artists. If you have never seen the band before, take a few minutes at the beginning of the first song and try to work out what you should be focusing on. How do they move, which one of them has the charisma that registers on camera? What are the stances and mannerisms you want to catch? What makes this artist special? How does this artist make you feel? That is what you should ultimately try to capture.
Be systematic. Although you should always keep an open eye to what is happening, it is good to have a certain pattern to what you do. I tend to try and start out with the wide shots, since it gives me time to observe the artists, the stage and the lighting. That’s about half of the first song. Then I focus on the individual artists to see how they render in the shots. Now we’re halfway through. During the second half I try to catch the most interesting one of the artists on stage and really squeeze out that killer shot. Of course this system never works one hundred percent. Crowded pits and tall stages that obscures much of the band leaves you shooting whatever you can get – and so you try and make the best of the situation. But at least it is good to have some sort of system in the back of your mind.
Don’t spam. If you shoot for a magazine or newspaper, you probably get one or two shots published. But most of us tend to publish online. And here the rule of thumb is (sorry Krista Siegfrids): less is more. Whether you post to Facebook, a webzine, a photo page like Flickr or Tumblr, a blog or something else, choose a few good ones. Otherwise the good pics will drown in all the mediocre ones.
No identical doubles. If you have the guitar player in whole figure on five good shots: choose one and discard the rest. You have nine good face shots of the singer? Choose the best.
Don’t publish. You haven’t a single good picture of a certain band? Don’t publish any. You have no good pictures of a band, and that band is Metallica? Well … choose the least bad one and do some cropping and editing magic and publish that one. But really, no picture is better than a bad picture, unless you are especially assigned to shoot that band.