You can hear the cheers from the arena behind closed doors as a tag gets handed by you from a lovely lady wearing an earpiece, brandishing a clipboard while dressed, from what it seems, in the band's entire line of merchandise. She appears to be in charge, so you better listen to her. Behind you are about ten other photographers nervously checking their gear, anxious to get started. You can feel your hands starting to get clammy as you hold your camera. The crowd's thunderous cheer only growing louder and you start to wonder when they'll let you into the arena.
The same lady, now holding a clipboard approaches you and the rest of the photographers behind you a few minutes later and starts telling you what you're allowed to do in the pit and what you can't do. "Three songs and that's it, you're not allowed to shoot another frame after that. As soon as that song finishes you're out. Do not lean over the stage, and do not try and touch the talent". With a nervous feeling rushing straight up your gut you think "Right, so I have about fifteen minutes to get the best shots I can get." You look down and notice your camera and single lens choice slung around your neck as you glance over to the fellow photographers about to join you in the pit. Most, if not all of them have at least two cameras with different lenses fitted. How are you going to get the shot with only one camera and lens?
As soon as the cold sweat starts to run over your forehead, the doors in front of you swing open and the crowd's cheers become instantly overwhelming. The parallels between you as a band photographer and the band itself can be quite strange, but anyway, this is the moment you've been waiting for...
I've been shooting bands both locally and internationally for the last decade and every time I stand in front of those doors, I feel the same nervousness overwhelm me. It never goes away, but you do tend to get used to it a bit more over time. The stomping of feet, the chanting of the band's name, the lack of lighting before the show starts, and that smell of spilled beer and sweat. as weird as that sounds, it'ss what keeps me going as a concert photographer. It's all in the anticipation. But how did it all start? How does one leave the crowd to join the few in the pits to shoot bands?
First off, you'll need gear. That's a given. But the correct gear can make your life a lot easier in the long run. For my band photography, I have a basic set up. A Canon 5D, a 16-35 f2.8 L II, 50mm f1.8 and 100mm f2.8 Macro. Ideally, you'd want something with a bit more range, in that case, a 70-200 f2.8 would be perfect. I shot a festival with a Canon 300mm 1.8 once and almost had a broken wrist by the end of the weekend, so a 200mm would be perfect, weightwise. Concerts are generally low light environments, so investing in lenses with an f-stop of 2.8 or lower is recommended. If you don't own any lenses in the f2.8 range, but already own a camera with a decent sensor, you'll be able to push the ISO into the 1600 and above range with relatively minimal noise and get away with it. If you're thinking that you'll just be able to use flash, forget that thought immediately. Photographers are generally not allowed to use flash at concerts, especially stadium or arena concerts. If your camera has a pop-up flash, disable it or put some gaffer tape over it. Another note on camera bodies, if you own two, it'll make the lens swopping a lot easier. The last thing you'd want to do is swop a lens in the pit and a member of the crowd throws beer over your open camera body. Time in the pit is limited, rather spend it shooting than fussing over which lens to use.
On to the second point - getting access. This could be a tricky one if you're just starting out. The likelihood of you starting off, shooting arena concerts is quite small. Usually, concert promoters require you to shoot for a magazine, website or some form of media in order to grant you a media pass. They need to know the publication and amount of annual/monthly viewers. The bigger the publication, the higher your chances of getting access. If you don't have this option, start out small. Shoot local bands at a venue close by and use this opportunity to start building your portfolio. Once you've got a portfolio of around 3-5 bands, you can approach a publication to shoot a bigger venue or become the local photographer at the venue you've been frequenting. Don't expect to make a million just yet. Consider shooting for free in the beginning and once you've joined a reputable publication you'll usually get a small sum of money in return for the evening's shoot. Smaller venues or publications might give you free tickets to shoot the bands or a bar tab in return for the images. You'll find yourself breaking even a lot during the beginning and even well into your career. If you're not interested in shooting for a publication, you can always approach the bands themselves. If they're a relatively new band, needing images or a local well-known band, you can approach them and ask if they'd be happy for you to shoot. They would probably be more welcoming than an A-list band. Again, you'll probably be given a free ticket to the show in return for your work. But the possibility of return work here is increased if they like your work. Down the line, you could be shooting music videos or album covers. This is where you'll start seeing a return in your initial investment.
If you manage to shoot often for a few years, you'll start building up a reputation. Try and cover as many events and festivals as you can in order to build up contacts in the industry. Networking is a key factor in band photography. Over time, you'll find more and more people recognizing your work and you might even be asked to be an official photographer for an event because of this. Once again, this is where the initial investment of shooting for little to nothing will pay off.
Shooting a concert recently reminded me just how important it is to be mindful of what you're doing. Respect the fellow photographer and attend the pre-shoot briefing, usually held by the stage manager or artist's PR. Never cross the stage manager. If you have any doubts about anything, speak to him/her first. Recently, I observed another photographer shooting in a pit, using his pop-up flash to light the musicians on stage. Along with the fellow photographers, the organizers and stage managers were getting annoyed and almost got to the point of kicking him out. Stage lighting was in place and one could easily get away not using any flash. Risking your pit access for a bit of extra light is definitely not the way to go.
Some concerts also have something in place called the three-song-rule. This rule usually applies to big name, A-list bands but I've seen it in place with smaller local bands as well. But what this means is you'll have three songs to shoot all the images you need and then get out of the pits as fast as you can.
During the three songs, it's important to remain mindful of the other photographers also shooting. Don't stick around in one spot the entire time as other photographers also need the angle you're standing at. Work your way from one side of the stage to the other. Not only will you give others the chance to shoot there and avoid annoyed photographers, but you'll also cover all the band members this way. Stick to a spot for no longer than 30 seconds before moving on. You can always come back to it in a minute or two. If you do see a photographer hogging a spot, kindly tap his/her shoulder and ask if you can have a chance to shoot there. We all want the best images, but don't think you're above the rest when you're all sharing a pit. If the official photographer for the band or event is in the pit, always give them first choice. If they need your spot, move. Don't reach out, or signal the artist or try to touch their feet. That's just weird. You'll sometimes find the lead singer jump (or even fall) down into the pit. Help them back up and let them resume the show. If they've fallen, don't stand there just mindlessly shooting while they could be hurt. If they purposefully jumped down to sing to the crowd it's fine to snap away until they might need help to get back up on stage.
POST - SHOOT
Once you've got all the images in the bag, return home and start copying all your cards. I know a lot of photographers use Lightroom extensively for their workflow as it comes down to a lot of batch processing work. Make sure you create backups of the images before proceeding to work on it. If you work for a publication, they might need it as soon as possible. This might mean a late night/early morning for you, but get it done sooner rather than later.
Once you're happy with the images, use Wetransfer/Dropbox to send them to the client. If the client's the band, ask them if you can personally drop it off. It leaves a good impression and might cause them to call you up again in the future.
If you have any interesting stories about your experience with band photography or any tips of your own, be sure to share them in the comments.