Features

Photos by Tim Van Schmidt

The King Koncert Hall of Fame

Robert Plant plus Page

Fem Hall of Fame

Vault Photos

Intro to Concert Photography
(for the Fort Collins Digital Camera Club)

Rock and roll has always been an alluring and inspiring brand of music for me. But more than just a brand of music, it’s a whole culture in itself and being a rock and roll photographer gets you right in the thick of it. I did my first concert photo shoot for a Fort Collins newspaper in 1988 and since then have photographed hundreds of performers in all kinds of different situations.

I started with film- learning to conserve and focus because of the nature of the process- but
eventually turned to digital photography more for the lesser expense than anything else. Digital photography allowed for a much wider range of photo options and the ability to check out the frames before turning them, if ever, into prints. It changed how I size up shots and expanded the variety of what I am trying to go for in a particular shoot. It’s fun, easy and immediate.

I’m not a technical photographer- just about anyone can tell you much more about different kinds of cameras and what you can do with them than I can. I am more of an “activist” kind of photographer. Just give me a camera- just about any camera- and an event to cover and I will start thinking about how I can capture a presentable image no matter what the equipment is. I am not a fan of bells and whistles, but of the situations themselves and my aim is to come away from a shoot with images that reflect what was going on. I have always thought to myself that I am not particularly a great photographer, but I get myself into some great situations.

There are some rules to concert photography. Generally, once you have been credentialed to photograph a show, you are allowed or escorted into the security pit right at the very front of the stage. “Three songs, no flash” is the basic, but that can change depending on the show and who is on duty in the pit. An uninformed security boss may kick everybody out early. But that is one of the unspoken rules I’ll pass on- don’t argue with security. Their ears are stuffed, they have only limited information and it’s their job to watch the crowd, not to argue with you. In fact they are there in some cases to protect you. One time, at a Red Hot Chili Peppers show, a security guy told me just moments before the start of the show that he would protect me. I thought he was joking, but only seconds after the Chili Peppers came on stage, a body was hurtling at me out of the crowd feet first. The guard caught the crowd surfer just in time.

It helps to know a little something about the structure of pop music and pop showmanship in order to increase your chances of getting a good shot. The best shot of a singer, for instance, is not particularly when he is singing, especially not in the body of the song. Most pop music is structured with a verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-verse-chorus kind of set-up. The best time to catch a vocalist is right at the end of a chorus, when they are pulling away from the mike. That’s when you can get a sense of the vocalist at work, but without that mike blocking half their face. The best time to catch an instrumentalist is just about any time the vocalist is not singing. The best lighting is usually toward the very beginning of a song and during the choruses. The lighting almost always changes when the band hits the bridge part, then reverts when the next verse starts.

It is also helpful to observe the habits of the performers. Three songs sometimes isn’t very long, but even so, a little observation may tell you that a particular musician favors a particular side of the stage, or that they hold the mike in a particular way which may limit which angles you pursue. For quick moving subjects- like the king himself, Mick Jagger- it often works to find a space on the stage to narrow in on and wait for the performer to come into the space, rather than try to follow them with your eye and lens. For shooting most guitarists, you want to angle in from stage right. If they are right-handed, they will hold their guitar angled to the right and if you are going to capture a decent portrait, you will want to include as much of their guitar in the shot as you can. Angling in from stage left often gets you the back of the guitar, no strings and no fingers.

So how do you get to be a credentialed photographer? The trick at this point of the game- in the brave new world of electronic media- is to get a gig, some kind of publication or web site that will use your stuff. One way of doing that is to create your own outlet. The trouble here is that everybody else can do the same thing, so, unfortunately, this is not a friendly time in rock and roll history for photographers. Everybody has a camera now, everybody is a photographer and everybody can publish their stuff online. Getting your foot in the door with a more traditional outlet- a newspaper or a magazine- is still an important step to getting credentials.

A lot of the work I’ve done over the years has been arranged through the publicists for the producing concert promotion company- they present lists to the bands who say yes or no just prior to the show. Better than that is to do some research and go directly to the publicist for the bands. However, it seems the best contacts still seem to be record companies, who have a lot at stake in getting their artist into the public eye. Having a real gig creates the credibility that may get you that photo pass.

However, thanks to the proliferation of electronic technology, I have seen an increase in the number of concert photographers in recent years- and a corresponding deterioration in the attitude of publicists. As they have been apparently inundated with a new mass media- with emphasis on the “mass”- they have grown somewhat cynical and cold. Publicists aren’t what they used to be- some even seem to be “anti-publicists”- but you will have to deal with them anyhow.