Last year I had an amazing opportunity to shoot live music performances of some of my favorite bands ever. So this post is about what I learned shooting live music for the first time. I will share beginner tips and show the pictures of course!
I went to Open’er festival a few times before, but this time my friend who is a journalist was going to write about it, and she needed someone (me) to take pictures. It still all seems like a dream to me, that for my first time at such a big event I managed to shoot: Arctic Monkeys, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Years & Years, Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds etc.
For the background about me
Music has been my favorite thing since I was young (before photography!). I went to music school, listened to music all the time and going to gigs was literally the only time I felt pure intense joy. Unfortunately I never had a voice good/strong enough to make music my life, so I got into other arts which lead me to photography. I’ve only shot a few local Lithuanian festivals before this, but I mostly focused on the people attending them and not the musicians on the stage. Those stages weren’t as big, so it didn’t prepare me for the size and distance you get in the massive festivals which leads to the first point:
I didn’t have suitable photo equipment
All these pictures in the post have been shot with ONE prime lens, a Canon 50mm f/1.4! Looking back I didn’t fully understand what I’m getting myself into. You see, I saw this trip to the festival as a holiday. I wanted to somehow enjoy it as I always do, and just get an added bonus – shoot a couple of frames of my favorite bands from up close. It wasn’t like it was a job to me. So I thought I’ll just get my standard lens I use for travelling all the time and figure it out. I didn’t want to buy anything new and I only ever had a few prime lens that are best suited for my portrait/fashion work.
- It’s super difficult to get any varied or decent shots with only a 50mm (duh..). The stages were massive and really high up as well.
- There are multiple speakers in front of every musician. They’ll always be in the shot if you’re shooting close up, from below and straight at them. But with only a 50mm there aren’t many other options. If I shot on the side or farther, then the musicians are too far away, or a security guard is in the shot etc…
- The musicians are really far apart from each other, so it’s difficult to get a few of them in one shot.
- With only a 50mm, it’s a big challenge to get a good close up portraits. For the more closed up shots in this post I had to crop in a lot, and lost a lot of quality.
- A lot of music photographers carry small foldable steps to get a higher vantage point. That way you won’t shoot up to the musicians or have other distractions in the shots. I never even knew it’s a thing!
The most unreal dreamlike moments I had were shooting Arctic Monkeys. They’re probably in my number 5 favorite bands ever (it’s difficult to rate bands for me). Not going to lie, I was just staring at Alex and thinking I’ll never be any closer to him. ;D It was really difficult not to fangirl or dance to some of their best fast songs too. They were amazing!
The shooting conditions and rules are really challenging
If you’ve never shot a big gig – for me it was even more intense than I imagined.
- Normally you’ll get only 3 first songs to get your shoots, and no flash is allowed. I can also say, you get 3 first songs if you’re lucky! As unfortunately there were SO many more bands I wanted to shoot up close, but it was simply not allowed. Some acts didn’t allow photography at all, some only allowed photography from super far away on a podium, some bands only allowed photographers for the few biggest national magazines.
- The colourful lighting can be just magic and is what makes music shots the most exciting, but also really challenging. It changes almost every second. Which means I kept adjusting camera settings when it suddenly goes dark, or too bright etc… But I still would stick with the manual mode, I think on “auto” cameras would be too confused. That’s why it’s important to find those first good suitable settings and adjust it quickly by eye. It’s easier if you’re used to doing that anyway and know your light. One thing my prime was good for, is that I didn’t have to push my ISO/other settings too high, as at f/1.4 a lot more light is allowed in.
- All the other people in the photographers “pit”. There are SO MANY other photographers in the pit with you, all wanting to capture the best moments. But you have to stand your ground to get the shots you want (without being too rude/pushy of course!). There are also security guards who may get in your shots or not let you go to certain parts of the pit.
Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds live is like nothing else – I’ve heard them live before, but seeing it from the other side of the fence was even more intense. I could only describe it as a some sort of religious mystical experience. He was like a Jesus figure, walking on people’s hands instead of water. And the public were going crazy for sure.
It was also a difficult artist to shoot, as he only allowed one song AND they only allowed photographers in one small area on the side while Nick was walking and moving all the time, usually far away. There were cameras and hands everywhere in a complete hazy craze. And a lot of pushing in the pit. I feel lucky that I was nearest to the middle so there weren’t as many other photographers in front.
My outfit choices and approach were wrong
As I said my initial plan was to try to enjoy the festival as much as I can despite also shooting it, and I do LOVE my festival fashion.
- I should have worn more comfortable clothes. Honestly, I feel embarrassed now the way I rocked up to my first photo pit in front of Noel Gallagher, in shorts and a crop top with my tiny lens on. All photographers around me looked super serious, with huge lenses and bags. I looked ridiculous, unprofessional and out of place… But back then, I didn’t care much, because I was riding this weird high of it all feeling surreal, like a dream. I continued to wear my planned “fashionable” festival outfits, because I still wanted it to feel like on a holiday. Why should I be stuck in boring black jeans and jacket all week? (I actually didn’t even have any jeans, as I never wore trousers then ;D).
- If you agree to shoot something, that’s what you should concentrate on and do the best you can. Yes it wasn’t a job and I wasn’t paid for this. I only shot for a magazine’s online articles that needed a couple of shots for the story… BUT, I know I could have gotten a lot better shots for my portfolio and actually started doing this type of photography if I approached it differently. Only after doing it did I realize that I absolutely loved it, but because I didn’t take it seriously from the beginning, I didn’t do my best.
Draining long hours
One of the biggest tips is to eat before you get to the festival or before the first band starts. I’ve done so many festivals by now, that I was thinking this all is going to be easy and manageable. Shooting festivals is still something else. Normally I can miss a few songs to wait out a long queue, but not in this case. I had to be early to be let in to the pit and to get a good spot. So if the queue is taking longer than I thought, I needed to drop it and try again later. I’m also a vegan, and those queues were always unpredictable and long, which resulted in me running on an empty stomach a few times. (While my friends were just chilling drinking beer and eating however long they wanted.)
The darkest and emotional moment in the whole 4 (!) days of the festival for me was during Depeche Mode. I love them – they remind me of my childhood as they’re one of my mum’s favorite bands too. So I was beyond excited to be able to shoot them and see them so up close. I came to the pit already feeling weak from not eating anything the whole day and running around from one band to the other to the food queues and never making it to the front. And then – they tell me that I can’t come in to the pit, as they limited access to only a few biggest photographers.
Maybe I took it a lot harder than I normally would. But I was feeling hungry, tired, disheartened, feeling like by trying to do two things at once, I’m failing at both…. I couldn’t find any of my friends either and honestly, standing alone during their full set in that huge crowd, I cried out of all the emotions I was feeling. It helped that music was really beautiful, but I couldn’t help fixating that it all seemed to be going wrong.
The Best Experience
Despite of my many mistakes, this was still an incredible experience and it feels like a privilege that I got access so easily. It did made me realize how much I like this area of photography as well. I do want to get better at it and get much better pictures next time. I certainly learned SO much from my first time already.
Years & Years
They’re more pop than my usual bands, but I had so much fun shooting them! They had the best lights and the most entertaining show. Their crowd was super excited and nuts as well, so many emotions.
Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds
I know this is a very different type of post and was super long, but I wanted to share and maybe help someone else from doing the same mistakes. Have you done any live music photography and have any tips for my next time? Would you be interested in trying it yourself? Which band pictures are your favorite?
I’d love to hear from you if you’ve read until now or found any of it useful or interesting. I have another post coming from Open’er festival with pictures of the festival goers and festival style. Comments and feedback are always really appreciated, especially when I try something new!