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Guest Blog: Everything You Know About Concert Photography is Wrong

by Jacob Blickenstaff on June 10, 2010 · 210 comments

Soul Artist Lenis Guess taking the stage with peach

If you are a music photographer, I hope this post will agitate you a bit: Everything you know about concert photography is wrong.

1 – Shooting Big Bands in Big Arenas = Success

Shooting Coldplay or Jay-Z means you are a big deal, right?

I think that most concert shooters are in a very limited situation and don’t realize it. The bigger the show, the more restrictive the shooting conditions are. You might be stuck in the back of the room shooting from the exact same angle as 15 other photographers for 2 songs. On top of that, you might be pressured to sign legal restrictions to what you can do with your own photos. What fun is that? And what opportunity do you have to do something creative?

It’s a numbers game: the more popular the act, the more coverage already exists.  For every popular band on a national or international tour there are probably 15 photographers at each show on a tour of 20 cities. That means 300 sets of very similar images exist on stock sites and archives that are charging already low fees for usage. This oversupply further erodes the value of the work.

How do you differentiate yourself and make unique work that has a higher creative and commercial value?

Shoot shows, bands, scenes and people that on a gut level you find interesting. New York, LA and smaller towns like Memphis, Nashville, New Orleans, etc. all have great local scenes where it’s possible to photograph on a more intimate level. Finding a band and documenting it in their formative years can mean more unique, interesting, historically valuable and therefore commercially valuable images. It might take several years for images to emerge as unique, but you will be the only one with them.

Forget about Metallica and Wayne Coyne in his plastic bubble. It’s over. Buy a ticket, leave the camera at home and enjoy the show.

2 – Peak Action Shot = Best Image

The guitar jumpshot. The close up of a singer wailing into a microphone. The moody back-lit guitar shot filled colored light and smoke machine fog.  This is what makes good music images, right?

We’ve all seen it a hundred times, it’s cliché, and it doesn’t say much about what makes the music unique. Without context, nuance and a creative viewpoint of the unexpected moments, music photography becomes stylistically repetitive and boring.

Yes, shooting a 3-song window with stage lighting can be limiting and you have to cover the basics if you are shooting for a client. But keep an eye open for the revealing gestures that happen between the pyrotechnics. If the angle looks boring, move around, look at the crowd, go with your gut, experiment with exposure and push yourself to refine your images past ‘good enough’ towards exceptionally unique.

3 – Music Photographer = Music Fan + Camera

Obviously photographers who devote themselves to music have a great appreciation of it, but you can’t let being a fan come in the way of being a good photographer.

Respect for the subject is fundamental (ask the late Jim Marshall) but idolization can breed saccharine, sentimental and corny images. It also can take your concentration away from seeing the show.  I’ve watched many ‘photographers’ bopping around, singing along, cheering and partying while they miss great shots.  Sure, a show is fun and exciting, but be a professional and put the passion into the images.

If  you move into portraiture it is important to have the guts to be a creative peer to the subject and not a fawning acolyte. Fans are people that a musician will smile and take a snapshot with. A confident, respectful and appreciative photographer is someone a musician will open up to, collaborate and work with. That attitude can begin with how you approach a live show.

4 – The Photo Pit is the Alpha and Omega

In my experience (and as the name implies) the photo pit sucks and I try to do everything I can to get away from it.  To shoot a live show, it often can be the best seat in the house but with the 3-song rule, security and publicists breathing down your neck, and a dozen other knuckleheads in there with you, I feel more like livestock than a respected creative professional.

Music, being a musician, is a much bigger experience than the first 3 songs of a live show. It’s a shame how sterile and calculated the whole affair has become.

Other things to shoot:

  • Sound check
  • Dressing Room happenings
  • Back Stage hang-out
  • Recording sessions
  • Radio In-studios
  • Rehearsals
  • Everyday life at home
  • Life on tour
  • Portraits…

Access is about trust, relationships, reputation and creative skill combined with a tempered ego and hustle. You may think that getting this kind of access is difficult but it’s more about getting over the fear of asking for it, accepting a little rejection and being patient. There is no intimacy or connection with the subject when you are blasting away in an anonymous mob of ‘togs in a photo pit.

If you are driven to dig a little deeper, the creative rewards of these experiences will make the pit even more unpalatable. I promise its true, but I can’t promise it will be easy.

Jacob Blickenstaff is a music photographer in NYC and guest blogger at The Photoletariat. He works with Daptone Records, Norton Records, The Ponderosa Stomp, Lincoln Center, NPR Music, The Fretboard Journal among many others.  Follow him on twitter @jblickenstaff and @3313photo

This is part 3 of a 5 part series.

Part 1 – Intro – Why Music Photography Has Value

Part 2 – Estimating the Promotional Portrait

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{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

Adam Brimer June 10, 2010 at 4:23 pm

Great article. Your Metallica comment made me think of this : http://www.thebasementnashville.com/metallica.html

They played a secret show at the Basement in Nashville a couple of years ago. That would have been a nice take on a band we've seen over and over in photos.

Martha Hart June 10, 2010 at 4:49 pm

Really wonderful blog… a photographer's passion for telling the story is what drives us to make images that end up being unique. Sure, I've got shots along the lines of the cliches you mention. Because I'm intrigued about the creative process itself (not just the results), I also like to shoot the breath being taken just before the big note forced out of a sax, or hands poised over the keys ready to play, or the in-between moments. Finally putting a book together of some of the music portraits, after many years… I'll keep you posted. Thanks again – great comments. Cheers,

Nicole June 14, 2010 at 3:39 pm

Great post and oh so true!

Kimberly June 14, 2010 at 3:44 pm

Love this post. Great food for thought.

guest June 14, 2010 at 4:04 pm

Music photography, music videos and the music industry as a whole are in the shit. Look at the majority of band shots that make it into albums and you'll see that, like the music, the photos used are just “good enough” and that is what makes it.

So shit music, shit photos = shit pay.

lal_tree June 14, 2010 at 4:10 pm

“Forget about…Wayne Coyne in his plastic bubble. It’s over.”

Ha ha, THANK YOU for saying this. So tired of that one.

These are great tips, even though you'd think (wrongly, of course) that some of them would come with common sense and a little experience. But I don't totally agree on #3 — because for me, it's more personal, though of course it's different for others. I “bop around, sing along, cheer”, etc. when I shoot a show, because I believe strongly in your #1: “Shoot shows, bands, scenes and people that on a gut level you find interesting.” For me, it's a worthwhile trade-off to miss a shot or two to enjoy a great song. But again, that's just me. I don't want to be “that guy” taking up someone's spot in a small club who's there to experience the show.

PhotoGuyofAI June 14, 2010 at 6:14 pm

I loved this post. I consider myself a music photographer, but it's more important to me to be at shows where I can appreciate the music. A friend once told me that I'm good at this because I feel the music so deeply. So, I don't think being a fan is necessarily a bad thing. You can be a fan and be able to professionally photograph the show too. If it's not music I like thought, I'd rather not be there, no matter what the chances are for that one in a million shot. Let someone else have my spot if they can get the shot they want of an artist they like. I'd rather be somewhere where I can shoot someone I enjoy. I have had a blast shooting little known artists or local bands, and hated the constraints of photographing larger acts who I don't really care that much about.

The pit is another thing. I HATE shooting from the pit! In a concert situation, I'd rather be sitting in a third row center seat than tripping over several other photogs, looking up the nose of an artist hanging over the stage. Most of my best shots have been from outside the pit, especially when the artist is doing something that you just can't capture within the constraints of the pit. And they're shots that the other guys in the pit can't get. Sure, I'll try to catch the jumps and the distorted faces and the signature moves, but I'll try to capture them in a different way if I can. I don't want all the same shots that other photogs have already captured, unless I can bring a different twist to it. I just want to have fun with what I do and with the bands that I'm shooting.

Music photography is about capturing the spirit and energy of the artist and telling their story in a positive way. Having an artist tell me that I “got them” in a portrait or in concert is the ultimate compliment. That is really all it is about for me.

Jacob Blickenstaff June 14, 2010 at 7:58 pm

Thanks everyone for the great response, it's very encouraging for me that other people were feeling something similar.

re: PhotoGuyofAI and lal_tree – I agree that there is a lot of gray area of being a fan AND a photographer. I agree completely that photographing what you love is a powerful creative force, one that you should follow. As you pointed out when you get good feedback from the artists, you need to have a point of view: partially love, appreciation, but also critical awareness and honest assessment.

Passion is always great, but passion blinding judgment is a problem.

John Slaytor June 15, 2010 at 9:48 pm

I am a Sydney based photographer and was engaged to photograph the hip hop artist Ja Rule when he came to Sydney. I found the key to taking decent photographs of Ja Rule was to befriend his personal bodyguard. This meant that I didn't bother taking photos in the first three songs which would have been a waste of time as Ja Rule hadn't yet warmed up. Instead, when he had warmed up, taken off his shirt, and the girls came on stage, I was able to get great shots and was able to keep the security goons at bay but referring them to Ja Rule's personal bodyguard on stage.

To see my images http://www.johnslaytor.com.au/slideshows/malepo…

Picsjb5 June 16, 2010 at 3:51 pm

On the money comments- the 3 song thing is a waste of time, most bands wam up so the best shots are later – definitely more interesting shots backstage – and that unknown band could be huge in 3 years time

TotallySweetPhotos June 17, 2010 at 3:28 am

Good points. I think the overall theme here is that if you really want to get ahead, you need to challenge anything that is commonly excepted and do things that no one else is doing in order to set yourself apart.

Joanie June 28, 2010 at 10:26 am

I'm very fortunate to photograph bands, both on and off stage. It's a privilege and a joy.

While I wish paying gigs were more frequent, the simple fact is that I continue to shoot for myself even when pay isn't there. Every moment spent photographing a concert or an artist is my personal homework assignment.

As for the three song rule and some of the ridiculous restrictions placed on photographers, what are these people thinking? It'd be like telling the performers they could only sing three notes every song and play with one hand tied behind their back. It makes no sense at all to me.

Fishcamp June 28, 2010 at 1:59 pm

I do smaller shows and usually older performers. Catch the pause away from the mic is a good shot. At the end of the day they are what they are and unfortunately the best concert shots are…well..concert shots.

Joanie June 28, 2010 at 2:26 pm

Many of my subjects are also older, Fishcamp. There's something inherently interesting in their faces and their ease onstage, don't you think?

Maggie March 22, 2011 at 4:22 pm

glad to see someone else 'gets' it :-)

thank you for posting this – seems to surprise people that not all of us are groupies. For me it's about authentic connection and sharing, as cheesy as I know that sounds :-)
If I don't feel it on an intuitive level then the resulting photos come across flat and lazy. Anyway, absolutely fantastic post!

ralph lauren shirts April 18, 2011 at 3:26 pm

They played a secret show at the Basement in Nashville a couple of years ago.

M.Young December 14, 2011 at 6:04 am

AMEN!!

Maggie December 14, 2011 at 6:07 am

who did?

Concert Photographers August 30, 2012 at 7:46 pm

Haha! Great shot of Lenis eating the peach; totally his style. Very true what you said about the pit, it’s definitely gotten bad. Great tips for concert photographers!

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