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so, you want to be a rock and roll concert photographer…

lately i keep hearing the same question in a lot of concert photography groups im in; how do i get started? well, concert photography is a niche, not cheap, and will take a lot of patience. to pile on, it seldom pays you, with money anyway. but the fascination is certainly there. i get that, so i thought i’d write up what it takes to get in the pit.

this will come from a “never done it before” viewpoint, but should cover a wide range of experience. also, i do hear a lot of people say they are a photographer so it shouldn’t be difficult. trust me, i don’t do wedding photography because i suck at it. that and i hate weddings. it’s an art form that takes a bit to get the hang of. however, if you understand basic photography, that helps a ton.

– Choosing your photo equipment –

first question is – what equipment do i need? well, lenses are probably most important. you can’t use a kit lens and expect the results many others get. base lenses will be a 24-70, 70-200 2.8. which you use when will be up to what you are looking to get out of the night. you don’t have to get OEM lenses and you can buy used if you pay attention to the seller and reputation. buying out of japan isn’t much of a risk because of the legal requirements to sell there. they can’t “fudge” the condition and often overstate issues. bought several this way.

sigma is one of my favorite non oem lenses. the 70-200 is a beast and can be had for around the $500 range. the tamron 28-75 2.8 is a solid, inexpensive choice. tokina for me is a total hit and miss. also a very heavy lens.

the big debate now is mirrorless vs dslr. in short, get what you want and don’t let others guide you into “the latest technology. the few debates i’ve gotten into here see a rabid MIRRORLESS crowd screaming at me for using a DSLR. great. let me put up some of my pics and asked them to put up their favorite mirrorless shots and tell me which one is better. suddenly the conversation diverts to buying a dinosaur vs. the latest.

and this is the key. people who want the latest tech usually want to show off their equipment. i’d rather show off my photos. don’t get me wrong, mirrorless is a solid choice, if it’s for you. but DSLR has a lot of life left. the big difference is no mirror, of course, and then, no prism. the rest is usually about the same “technology” wise. if you want a lighter camera, go for it. i tend to pay more attention to mpx (megapixels) because it gives me a bigger screen to “edit down”. a “latest technology” mirrorless with only 20 mpx is useless to me.

TO ME. you may love it. do what you want to do – but know why you’re doing it. the tool is right for you. not someone said YOU MUST BUY MIRRORLESS.

flash? don’t do it. please, don’t do it.

– Getting the experience – 

so, you’ve got some good lenses and a camera you’re happy with. now what? how do you get in the pit of your favorite national band coming into town soon? well, if you’ve never done it before, unless you know someone personally, it ain’t likely to happen. you got some work ahead of you, but trust me, it can be done.

start locally. your best bet. find a venue with solid lighting (not as easy as you’d think) and show up to shoot local bands and tributes. usually for these you don’t need permission but it can’t hurt to ask the band just to be sure. its also a courtesy to them and shows respect. once you meet a few and get into a groove, this becomes a given.

use these opportunities as your own “school”. i can’t tell you where to start with settings because it will change. you’ll likely be changing all through the night to adjust to lighting and end goal of a given shot. just know you got that 2.8 lens for a reason but also know there’s a depth of field price to pay. the lower the number, the more flat you need to be shooting.

unless you’re going for bokah. that can be VERY cool. i’ve got a sigma 85mm 1.4 for that.

when you get done shooting, that’s only half the battle. now its time to process and see how you did. look at exposure for example at 1600 / 3200 and if you want to have fun, 6400 iso. going higher “has a price to pay”. but test it. can’t hurt to learn and the iso speed can impact things like the background screen as well as noise factor.

in building your portfolio, look for good action shots. while a shot of a guitarist standing there strumming may be in perfect focus, it’s usually boring and doesn’t have a “wow” factor you’ll need. what can make a good action shot? well, action.  🙂  watch much of the concert through the lens and see what the musicians are doing on stage. look for their patterns in how they move and poses they make. look for something “different” and snap it.

also watch the lighting. do we have different colors moving all about? is there smoke coming up you can take advantage of as the blue light passes over it behind the artist. things like this will make a difference in the final shot.

processing is an art form also. i won’t get into that much here but use professional tools like lightroom / photoshop and experiment. find your own groove and “style” and work to perfect it every time out.

so, now you’ve got many shows under your belt and you feel you’re ready to look for a national band to shoot. where do you start?

– Importance of Networking –

hopefully by now you’ve met other photographers at these shows and they’ve been helpful to you. hint – not all will be. some are very protective of their “secrets”. but you should be able to meet people who run local websites / music news sites and see what they want from you to put your name in to shoot for their site. network network network. i got to shoot disturbed at the american airlines center for KEGL (radio station now gone) only because of networking.

when starting out, you’ll need someone else to shoot for. it’s a rare photographer who gets approved on their name alone so this is key. follow the bands you love on social media and look at who’s shooting them and how these photographers do it. i wish i could say “do XYZ and 123” and that’s it but it varies. sometimes, a lot. in the end it is up to the venue at times but more often, whoever is running PR for the band. knowing this contact is critical.

when starting, you’ll again need to work with a local media outlet and they can usually help get that pass for you if you shoot for them. they will go through whatever the process is for the band / venue and let you know. in the end, you will talk to the bands PR most of the time to request a pass. if a huge concert with a lot of bands, i’d ask both the bands PR as well as whoever is putting the event together.

most approvals will have a set of rules to follow. FOLLOW THEM. do not get cute and do not try to get around it for a shot from the crowd if they say “don’t do it”. again, is there an XYZ and 123 set of rules? no. every band / concert / tour may be different. get used to it and learn to roll with it.

in time, if you focus on your skills (as well as your pictures) bigger names and opportunities will come along. when im in the pit for say 5 finger death punch, poison, judas priest and so forth, there is never a time i don’t put the camera down for a bit and think ‘wow – look where i am’. then get back to shooting cause you only got 3 songs.  🙂

– Quick Summary –

and that’s really it. it may seem a lot at first but the first thing to understand what i just said – the requirements for shooting in the pit can and will change.  but you will need

  1. a strong portfolio of proven work
  2. someone to shoot for who has the audience the bands want their pics in front of
  3. strong networking skills. this is for other photographers, media outlets, PR firms and so forth. find some on facebook and dive in. it is critical you do this as you are shooting the locals.
  4. thick skin on critiques to your work. if someone is an ass about it, ignore them. they’re everywhere. but if someone is making suggestions, listen. they’re trying to help.
  5. thick skin. again. you’ll be told no often. WAY too often. but one day that “you’ve been approved” reply comes in e-mail and suddenly you find yourself in the pit with rick neilson throwing a guitar pic at you.
  6. continue building that portfolio and keep it up to date.

you can find me here on facebook and i’ll be glad to help. the most important thing you can do is never stop learning. don’t be afraid to hit a show for no other reason than to experiment with settings. you’ll in time develop your own style.

FAQ

Q: I hear you must wear all black when shooting bands – is this true?
A: No. Yes. Maybe. there is no hard and fast rule and whoever is running the show will tell you before you get there. if you’re only in the pit, no one cares. if you’re going to be on stage, probably. it helps be a bit more stealth.

Q: Why can’t i use a flash?
A: because they don’t allow it. in the pit anyway. in local venues its anyones game. some local venues are so poorly lit you have no choice. well, other than to simply not shoot that venue. there are a lot of venues i go to see my friends perform and i leave the camera at home. but don’t get used to using one if your goal is to shoot a national act. the techniques used in both methods are different.

Q: can i make money at this?
A: probably not. most people will shoot for the “fun and experience” like you are about to do. i never charge when i shoot the local scene because its how i am a part of it and my contribution back into it. that does make it difficult for others to charge for services but if a band wants a specific performance photographed, they may hire someone vs. hope a dude like me shows up.

Q: what camera do you use?
A: im an oddball. i use a pentax K1. lenses are an old pentax autozoom 80-200 and about (3) different wide angle lenses. tamron the most cost effective. i’ll get an old pentax 28-70 autozoom one day. these lenses are tanks and have incredible results.

Q: if you were buying a camera today, would you buy a mirrorless?
A: no. yes. maybe. my K1 recently was doing way too many “soft focuses” and i wondered if it were time to upgrade. i looked around and didn’t see anything that from a technical standpoint would beat my K1. its a heavy mofo with the 80-200 on it and i feel it at times, but i’d likely just get another one. garland camera in garland, tx cleaned my sensor and calibrated my 2 main lenses and wow – what a difference.

Q: what software do you use?
A: photoshop. many use lightroom and that’s good too. i just have my process down for photoshop and can process a nights shoot in 2-3 hours usually.

Q: is a watermark necessary?
A: depends. for your own work i’d say yes. if you’re shooting for a venue, you’d not likely be able to put it on because they will put their own on. some bands may also request a set w/o one. now, where you put it and how much attention you bring to it is up to you. but it does help establish brand recognition.

Q: is there a PR firm you’d recommend?
A: TAG Publicity. Here is the FB community and i’d say join it. Tom is a hell of a guy and has always been there to help me out. keep in mind its a symbiotic relationship as he has bands he WANTS you to help promote. this is why working with a media outlet is key. the PR firms are trying to push their bands to these sites and get exposure for the bands they represent. you help them, they will help you. AFTER you get some experience in.  🙂

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