So on my last shoot, I got into a quick chat with a bassist buddy of mine, who actually did me a major solid mid-show. I crept up by the gear cases near the stage to try and get a nice clean shot of the keyboardist, and, with absolutely no obligation on his part, the bassist stepped aside and waved me a bit forward to stand by his amp for a cleaner shot. I’m very grateful for that favor (and yes, the shots were fabulous), and as a result we got to talking about photographer etiquette at concerts.
I think it’s high time I did a comprehensive post about it.
Make no mistake, guys: being a photographer is a job. If you think that all it is is someone “taking pictures for a few hours”, you’re deluding yourself by even formulating that thought. Pictures require processing, which takes hours. And Photoshop? Not a cheap software at the best of times. Lightroom, if that’s all you need? Not free either. Photographers who are at the top of their game also invest thousands of thousands of dollars into their equipment, which has to be the best on the market. I recently bought a lens the price tag of which still makes me cringe – that’s after a discount – and it’s only one of three such lenses that I will need to invest in to have the gear bag that I require. I’m not even talking about the cam body that I am thinking about investing into; that alone is making my wallet ache. All of this adds up to a ton of money. It would, honest-to-all, add up to $20,000 if I want to buy the gear and software that would complete my “best of” gear bag, and that’s half my annual salary. This is what it takes to be a pro photographer, so next time your photog gives you a bill, you pay it and be glad it’s not double the amount.
And the thing about concert photography is that you have no idea what you’re walking into, far as lighting conditions go. So when you’re shooting a concert, if you’re lucky enough to have a vantage point that lets you capture all the good angles easily, you’re ahead of the game. But, if you’re like I was at my regular shoot, maneuvering around a stage, then you would need to get a little creative.
But, regardless of whether or not you’re front row at a theater or floating around on a boat-concert gig, here are some do’s and don’ts for my fellow concert photogs:
- Use flash. Regardless of whether or not the venue allows it, it’s always distracting to the musicians. No one likes a flash going off in their faces. You know how everyone complains about someone blinking right at the shutter click? Well, this is what happens when the flash goes off; your brain wants to move to protect the retinas from flash burn. Because, as someone who had a flash of someone else’s camera go off right into my own eyes one time too many, I can tell you, flash burn is no picnic. Worse in dim lighting. So how do the musicians feel when that flash goes off?
Remember: if you go into Program (P on your camera) and tweak your flash compensation and ISO a little, you won’t need the flash in a concert shoot. If you worry about grain, then there’s an Exposure control adjustment in Photoshop where the Gamma slider will eliminate a lot of that grain. Or, conversely, you can go overboard on the grain and do a stylistic little thing with it. In my experience, in a well-lit stage (Blue Note as an example), grain is at a minimum even if my ISO is set to 6400 and I’m shooting with my f4 rather than my f2.8.
- Block someone’s view. Never, ever, ever get in people’s way. To be blunt, your ass isn’t transparent. The audience paid to watch the musicians play, not your behind trying to maneuver for a good angle. Mind the people around you. It’s plain and basic courtesy. If you want a closeup, pop on a telephoto lens; otherwise, down in front.
If you want to change positions, do so quickly. Dodge out of the way of the audience, get to a spot that will let you have your angle with the least amount of hassle from the people sitting close to where you want to be, get the frames you want, and vamoose. But under no circumstances are you to block people’s way.
- Cop an attitude with the musicians. The musicians are the one earning the money for everyone, including themselves, and indirectly, that includes you. They come first. Respect what they’re doing. As a courtesy, before the show, ask them if they’d like any particular frames shot of themselves. Don’t act like you’re all that and a bag of spicy Doritos because you have a camera. You’re working too, but so are the musicians: they’re the ones giving you material for the production, for your portfolio, for your practice, etc. They come first. Never forget that.
- Cop an attitude with the production. If they hired you, this goes triple. Never bite the hand that feeds you, under absolutely no circumstances. Productions, artists, fellow photographers – each and every one of them has a blacklist. You don’t want to find yourself on it, and the fastest way to find yourself blacklisted is to act like a jerk.
- Cop an attitude, period. You may be good, but there’s always room to improve. Never forget that photography is a learning process, like all art forms inevitably are. If you walk around like you’re all that and a bag of chips, then you better show that you have the portfolio that backs the attitude – and you still better take that down a notch.
- Expect anything”extra” as part of your photo gig. Usually, most hired photogs are treated as part of the band – discount drinks, food, comped admission, etc. – but this is definitely not the case universally. Many clubs or festivals will just give you an okay to shoot, but they’d expect you to pay your own admission, food, drink, etc. Bands can guest-list you, or photo-list you, but there’s no guarantee that you’ll be allowed to partake in the band discount on food and drink if they do so. Or that there even is a band discount. The important thing is: do not expect special treatment. Ever. If you get it, great, but never lose sight that unless you have a Staff lanyard, you’re another audience member with a camera.
- Get judgmental of other photographers, whether aspiring or seasoned. Fastest way to make a fool of yourself. Don’t ever get judgey of someone else’s gear. Don’t get snippy if someone else asks you about yours. See above about copping an attitude. Don’t do it. You will be the one looking like an ass at the end of the day.
Now that we got that out of the way…
- Ask in advance about clearance. Never assume that just because you’ve shot somewhere once, twice, three times, you’d be allowed to keep going as you are. I made that mistake before; a club changed its management without me being aware of it, and the new manager wasn’t so keen on photos, even if the musician didn’t necessarily care either way. Awkward? Very. Since I’m a regular there for smooth-jazz gigs, the manager did relent on me shooting, after a point, but the lesson has been learned: ask ahead. You don’t want egg on your face later.
- Case your location and arrive early to do so. If you have the good luck of getting into the venue earlier than showtime, or even earlier than door time, you have the benefit of scoping our your vantage points in advance. This can make all the difference between a bad shoot and a good one. If you’re lucky enough to walk into the venue while they’re also testing out their lighting, and the house lights are down, it’s the perfect chance to tune your camera settings to the show’s lighting setup. If you have never been there before, you can ask politely to see if you can check it out. Whether they’d let you is another matter, of course, but preparation is a great advantage.
- Make friends with the “official” photographers if you, yourself, are not hired for a shoot gig. I cannot tell you how important that is. The best and easiest way to get your chops, grow your skills, or to later get your own gig, is to start out shooting as someone’s B-Reel. In other words, assist someone. They’ll teach you a few things. And the best recommendations and references will always come from the people for whom you’ve shot B-Reel in the past, especially if your B-Reel is as good as or better than their master reel. I’m always glad to tweak the settings on someone’s rig, lend them a lens, etc. Why? It pays it forward, because I had people teach me all of those things. No one ever got anywhere without a little encouragement. If I tweak the ISO and program settings on a guy’s rig and he gets the best photos possible as a result, then I can promise you that he’ll remember that when someone asks him to tune up their cameras too, some years down the line. Pay it forward.
One of the best experiences I had was in San Diego and once before on Capital Jazz’s cruise, when I let fellow photogs borrow my 70-300 f4 lens. Why? It was the first time they shot with that sort of a range on a lens. It changed their perspective, and made them think more about what they could get out of their rigs. I consider it a job well done on my part.
- Make friends with the musicians whom you shoot, and their management, if that’s possible. They will become your clients later. They will remember the way you treat them, and your professionalism. Key word is professionalism. How you present yourself is how you will be referenced.
- Make friends with the promoters, if possible. Same reason as musicians. Always be professional, courteous, and maintain your connections. You never know what may pan out later.
- Keep an eye on what’s behind the scenes. It’s actually pretty important to know the blow-by-blow of how a gig comes about, from a business perspective. Some musicians’ contracts may require that photos of a show are contained to only certain mediums – and if you’re shooting, then you really need to know what those mediums are. Never lose sight that showbiz is 1% show, 99% biz. When you get a contract to shoot a gig, ask ahead what happens to the photos: do you get to watermark them when you distribute? Does the artist want a hi-rez set before you make it public? Does their management? How do first-publication rights play? You need to know that.
- Always have a sense of ethics. I can’t put enough of an emphasis on that. How you conduct yourself and your business is how people know you. The grapevine is very real, very swift, and above all, merciless. If your business ethics are beyond reproach, believe me, it is worth the reward. Integrity does pay in this business.
- Own up to your mistakes. You will make them. It’s called being human. But what marks you is how you deal with them. You own up and own them, and their consequences. Yes, it’ll suck, but know what? Welcome to being a businessperson. Welcome to being an adult. You made the mistake, deal with the fallout.
- Always be courteous. See all of above that I said about perception, professionalism, and presentation. Courtesy plays in a LOT of that.
I won’t lie, it took me a long while to get used to, well, everything that being a concert photog entails. And again: it’s still a learning process. I’m still figuring a lot of stuff out. I made quite a lot of behind-the-scenes connections, and learned about the business side of the music world the old-school way – trial and error – but never would I get so presumptuous as to say I know everything. I don’t. I don’t think I ever will.
But what I do know, I try to make the best of, and to pass some along to the next shutterbug ahead.