Enter the adrenaline-laced adventure of rock concert photography.
As the concert begins, the average concertgoer pulls out his phone and clicks away. With the help of upgraded camera technology, he believes he’ll be able to capture the most definitive rock photos ever, and once in a great while it works out. For the most part, however, he ends up with 23 somewhat out-of-focus pictures, one shot of the floor and one shot that snags a lasting memory of the night.
When capturing that perfect shot is your job, though, the stakes become much higher. Concert photography has always been a complicated and challenging occupation. Lighting conditions and the artists’ constant movement require split-second decisions, knowledge of your equipment and exceptional hand-eye coordination.
Looking back to when photographers such as Jim Marshall, Henry Diltz, Mick Rock, Bob Gruen and so many others were working with film under considerably more difficult conditions, one can only stand in awe of what they were able to document. While the change from film to a digital process makes photography more financially accessible, taking extraordinary photos isn’t any easier.
Concert photography remains an arduous occupation even today. Venue access is increasingly limited, and the competition is greater. Photographers generally will be allowed to shoot from the pit in front of the stage for only the first three songs: Get your shots, and get out.
To find out what it’s like and how they do it, I spoke with three of today’s most interesting rock concert photographers: Pittsburgh-based Sarah Wilson of Sarah L. Wilson Photography; Brian Glass of Concert-Captures in the Cincinnati area; and Larry Philpot, photo editor at OnStage Magazine.
Getting that first break can take perseverance, luck and sometimes a set of big brass ones. Larry Philpot spoke of his first concert photography gig. “I wanted to shoot a John Mellencamp show, so I joined the fan club to get the first shot at buying tickets. There was something posted on johnmellencamp.com about if you were a professional photographer or wanted to shoot a show. So I sent an email and they let me in. I did that the very first time, and I had to send them all the pictures: the good ones and the bad ones. I couldn’t Photoshop them or anything because I didn’t know how, so I just went ahead and sent them. I didn’t hear anything back for months and months. Finally, I did and got into the next several shows and ended up shooting Farm Aid. It kind of went on from there. It’s kind of a Forrest Gump thing.”
So now you’re in, and if it’s a bigger-name performer, so are a lot of other photographers. All in front of the stage, all looking for the best shot they can get within three songs. Friendly competitiveness or cutthroat? “It really depends on the show,” said Brian Glass. “If you have a small number of photographers, I would say 99 times out of 100, the photographers are really respectful of each other. There’s a certain amount of camaraderie. We are all competing against each other in that we’re all there for the same reason. Generally speaking, we are a pretty respectful group. The larger the pit gets, like for festivals, with more photographers stacked in there, the harder it gets to navigate. My approach has changed drastically over the years. There will be times now when I won’t shoot a single picture during the first song; I may just get the timing and take it in first, because often if you’re in a rush to get a shot, you miss the shot you really want. My mental approach is if there is a large number of people in the pit I want to be far away from the other photographers. If you have 50 photographers getting the exact same shot, what’s going to differentiate your work from theirs? I’d rather have something different from that exact same moment.”
According to Sarah Wilson, “It’s hectic. Honestly, when you’re down there and you have only three songs, you’re usually ready for it and can anticipate what’s going to happen. Or you get to a point where you can, but there’s always something that’s going to throw you off. Maybe the lighting’s going to be weird or they’re going to be too far back on the stage, or you’re like me and you’re short and not be able to see. So it’s hectic, but it’s so much fun. Usually for the first three songs, I couldn’t even tell you what the songs were. I’m paying attention to lighting and the movement and the crowd response. It’s electric.”
Being familiar with the band or artists is always helpful, but shooting someone for the first time can make for an interesting night if you’re not prepared. Performance footage is a favorite source to get introduced to the style of an artist. “If you don’t know the band and you’re not familiar with them, a good thing to do is watch one of their concerts or watch a couple of their songs on YouTube, so you can get a feel for how they move around,” said Larry. “But I think the best thing you can do is to know the songs. That way you know if they are going to sing three lines of a song into the microphone; you know that maybe the fourth one they’re going to step away. I try not to shoot any pictures with a microphone in front of an artist’s face. Again, you can time it: usually every eight or every 16 beats, they’ll back away and take a breath. Even if it’s just an instant, that’s all you need.”
Brian also looks for help within the photographer’s community. “I’m in a couple of larger groups of photographers, a base of photographers all over the country. So just about any artist that’s coming through, I can reach and say, “Hey, what can I expect?” Getting the intel from others can help and we’ll share that information with each other.”
Getting “The Shot”
Each of the photographers said there’s really no perfect shot. Each is their worst critic and will see flaws that the untrained eye could never detect. But do they know when they’ve taken the photo they’ve been waiting for, or the one that will define the night in one frame?
Larry Philpot said, “Not always. I did about three years ago with Tom Petty. He actually leaned on the microphone stand and looked at me as if to say, ‘You’re gonna get fired,’ because I was all caught up in it. When he leaned on the microphone stand I had my camera up in the air, and I just sort of dropped it and fired off two quick frames. I knew that I had it, and I just enjoyed the rest of it after that. I did shoot some more of the band members, but I knew that was the shot.”
Sarah Wilson said it could be a matter of patience. “Sometimes I know, and sometimes I really hope it came through. I’ve shot The Wombats a bunch of times and Tord, their bass player, is incredibly bouncy. I’ve been trying to get the perfect jump shot of him for five years now. On their last tour I managed to actually get one where he was in the air. That was one of the ones where I shot it and was like, ‘That’s it!’ I went back to my chair and was like, ‘Yes, I finally got it.’ That took several years even with knowing when he was going to jump.”
While having the best view in the house on a nightly basis is an exciting incentive for the job, there can be downfalls as well. Credentials can’t be verified, contacts become unreachable, equipment can malfunction, and security can be less than understanding. Sarah recalled one event: “There’s a venue whose policy is you shoot your first three and then you have to take your camera out and put it in your car. I explained that I was shooting out of town, I didn’t have a car, and I was supposed to be reviewing the entire show. Eventually, after much begging and pleading, I was allowed to stay in but I was also shadowed the whole time to make sure I didn’t pull my camera out.”
At the end of the night, though, all the photographers I interviewed agreed the experience of concert photography is worth any trouble they encounter. Brian summed it up: “The best part of what I do in a lot of ways is the access and being in the front of the front row. It’s an insider look and it’s exciting to be in that kind of position.”