Real World Concert Photography at Photoshop World

Admit it.  You see the concert photos that someone else took and you wish you could do it.  You wish you had the access.  You want to get the shots that other people can't get because the only camera they can sneak inside a show is a little point & shoot or an iPhone.  Neither one of those is going to get the shot you want.  It's more almost an exercise in frustration. You want to be closer.  I know how you feel because I've been there.  Here's an example of my best shot at a Billy Joel concert.

Breathtaking, isn't it?  I can't imagine why magazine editors aren't knocking on my door asking for more shots of the backs of people's heads. All of that grain just adds to the atmosphere, too.  That's what I had to tell myself.  I never expected that I'd get a chance to shoot at a concert because I didn't know how to get access.

Thanks to Alan Hess and Scott Diussa, I now have a bit of information to help get over that hurdle and start getting some shots.  Alan and Scott were the instructors at the Real World Concert Photography pre-conference session at Photoshop World.  We spent half a day learning the Do's and Don'ts of photographing live music, getting some practical hands-on experience with a live band, and following up on post-processing.  I didn't quite know what to expect, but the day exceeded anything I could've made-up.

About 40 of us filled the class with a pretty mix of people. Alan and Scott took us through the motions and we learned:

  • Who to ask for access
  • Where to look to find those people to ask
  • How to make the request (keep it simple)
  • Know that there needs to be something in it for them, too
  • What kind of pass to request
  • What kind of shows may be better for a beginner to get access
  • What kind of gear you need (think High ISO sensor and fast glass)
  • How to meter and expose for low-light/fast action conditions of a concert
  • What to do before the show
  • Where to go when you get there
  • What to do just before the show begins
  • How much time do you have to shoot?
  • How do you compose your shots?

All of that, and more, got pumped into our brains before we headed downstairs to the show floor.  I know what you're thinking.  You're wondering why I don't share all of that information here, right?  Mostly because it took us a few hours to go through it all and it would take a lot of time to share here.  Also, to give you some incentive to learn this information the right way from Alan & Scott at the next Photoshop World in Las Vegas.  If my experience is any indication, this is a pre-conference that NAPP will repeat a few times.  Better you learn from the guys who do this for a living than me, someone who still needs to put it into practice.

I'll tell you this little tidbit, though.  Before we left the classroom, Alan was telling us that he always sets his gear at home before he heads to the show.  I should've picked up on that tip, because I didn't set my gear in the class.  I assumed we'd be there ahead of the show start.  Yeah, I got that wrong.  As we approached the stage from a l-o-n-g way back, they kicked off the first song.  The 40 of us started running to the stage to get our shots.  Some people had their camera in hand, but not all of us.  I had to park near an empty chair and put my 70-200 lens on my Nikon D700 while other folks were already shooting.

It's no fun coming up at the tail-end of a group effort, but things evened out quickly.  The band, Big Electric Cat, played three songs to give us some practice shooting in the standard format for concerts.  Three songs and you're out.  Blame Bruce Springsteen for starting that nonsense.

Remember some of those great concert shots from the 60's and 70's?  You're not going to see that kind of history anymore because of the three-song rule. Sometimes you won't get three songs.  You may get two.  You may get one.  You may show up and discover they've changed their mind and you can't shoot anything at all.  Up yours, Bruce.

During Photoshop World, one of the pioneers of concert photography – Jim Marshall – passed away.  Some of the guys there looked up to Jim, and some knew him. He's the guy who caught those iconic moments like Jimi Hendrix lighting his Strat on fire.  Like I said, that kind of history is dead. John Mayer posted something on his blog about Jim's passing. The publicists don't want to see sweaty shots of their acts and they don't trust the photographers anymore. I guess there are some people you can't trust, but I try not to post anything that makes someone look bad.  I don't see the point of doing that.

I digress.

After cussing Bruce Springsteen's name and getting my camera gear ready, I launched myself into the pit with 40 of my new BFF's and started shooting.  It seems like three songs can go pretty quick.  Something else I noticed is that I wasn't listening to the music the same way as if I were just enjoying the show. Instead of singing along or just grooving out, I'm listening to the beat for queues to signal a musician may be about to change up, or hold a pose while a note plays out. Something like that.  The music ceased being entertainment and instead became a tool for me to time my shots. At the end of three songs, it was almost as I didn't hear them. I felt them and used them, but it was a strange switch in the mental process between being a spectator and now being a kind of participant in the performance.

The band took a brief break and that gave us a chance to gather our thoughts.  Without the brisk pace of keeping up with the show, we could then think about what we'd like to do different, how to visualize shots we wanted and line up to get them, and maybe change gear.  At this point, I should've changed my CF card.

I was shooting with a Hoodman RAW 16GB 300x card.  That thing usually lasts me for a whole shoot at other activities.  Not this time.  I'd filled it up by the middle of the fourth song and, once again, missed shooting part of the show while I switched to another card.  While figuring out what to do on the next three songs, I didn't check my card space.  I should have, though.  Sadly, my other cards were Kingston 8 GB 133x cards and I could feel the slow-down while shooting.  That's why I bought another Hoodman RAW 16GB card (now at 675x speed).

I walked out of there with about 675 shots. We went back to class and talked about the experience, but also to learn what happens after the shoot. Alan told us that real concert photographers have real deadlines. To simulate that, we had to pick ONE shot to submit for a contest to win a brand new Nikon D300s and lens.  The instructors and Scott Kelby would pick their best three, and then the audience for the Photoshop World Keynote would choose the winner by applause. I'll save you any suspense and say that my shot wasn't one of the final three, but I did really like the ones that were selected.

Sooner or later, it had to come up.  Someone asked about the kind of money you make as a concert shooter. Alan answered honestly – not much. This is something you do for the love of it, not to get rich.  You may shoot for a wire service, a news/magazine outlet, or maybe a publicist.  None of them are going to pay you outrageous sums of money for the shots, though.  You need to stalk Tiger Woods for that kind of money.

I can't cover everything in this blog post.  Well, I suppose I could, but I'm not going to do that because I want to go to bed.  I have a day job that requires I wake-up at OMG:30 and it's getting late.  What I can say in closing is that I had a blast.  I learned quite a bit, both from the lessons and the practical experience.  Now I'm psyched to go try this at some local venues.  I've been warned to expect to hear “no” a lot, but sometimes, I'll get the photo pass.  Then it's up to me to make it happen.  What more can you ask?

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