This year was a busy one for me. I worked a second job and did a lot of freelance work that limited my concert photography a bit, but there were still plenty of highlights. As I mentioned in last year’s Year In Review post, my goal is to celebrate the year that was and to pull back the curtain a bit to share some information on concert photography.
In February of this year I received a message to my Facebook page from a fan of my work whose son is a member of the School Of Rock House Band. She asked for some tips on concert photography to help capture photos of her son at their Fountain Square show. If you’ve ever been interested in shooting music, read the excerpt below for some basic introductory tips:
A few tips on concert photography
There are a few axioms of photography that pretty much apply to any type of photography and plenty of tech tips available on the internet. But of those, the one that is particularly important in concert photography is composition. Composition eventually comes as second nature once you learn a few basic rules. The link below is a great primer on some rules for composition.
As for specific tips for photographing live music, I always try to have my photos really capture the live concert experience by focusing on “moments.” These moments can be a number of different things, but I usually focus on 3 things… emotion, action and uniqueness. Here are some examples of what to look for in each.
A contorted snarl during a solo, a smile after a big applause, eyes closed and introspective during a ballad, etc. Capturing emotion in a photograph is about freezing that moment in time. In the example below J. Tillman of Father John Misty gently rests his hand on his head, creating a look fraught with emotion.
Obviously if you can get a musician in mid-jump or head-banging those are no-brainers. However, also look for things as subtle as a foot tapping or the bending of a knee. It may seem subtle in real-time, but in a still image they often seem much larger. In the example below Peter Buck was simply stepping forward to the microphone to sing after a solo, but his left foot being raised off the ground created the feel of much more action.
This one is a bit more nebulous. There are certain things that happen at a show that make it unique to that specific show. Sometimes it’s great lighting, sometimes it’s a great crowd, sometimes it’s a beautiful stage set-up. Basically I keep my eye out for anything that sets the show apart from the one before it or after it. In the example below a few concert-goers started crowd surfing during the first few songs of a Walk The Moon show.
This look at my process forced me to see ways I can improve. One of my focuses this year was honing my editing process, from start to finish. The first part of the editing process is choosing when not to take a shot. In past years I felt that I needed to be shooting every second of the allotted time in the pit. I found myself taking photos with poor lighting, mics in faces, etc. that I knew I’d never use. These useless shots added to my importing and editing time as I still had to catalog and cull them all. Taking fewer shots doesn’t mean that I’m just standing around, far from it. I’m listening and watching (mostly through the viewfinder) for cues that a “moment” (as mentioned above) is coming. I’m constantly working to be as ready as possible to capture the emotion, action or uniqueness rather than just shooting with reckless abandon.
My second focus of this year was getting better at the last part of the editing process – deciding which photos to publish. It’s difficult sometimes to separate myself from the work enough to be choose and publish only the absolute best photos. This is probably the point I still struggle with the most. Here are a few guidelines I try to go by when deciding what to post:
- Don’t post similar shots… choose the best one
- Don’t post too many shots of one band member
- Don’t post too many of one type of shot (wide, close-up, crowd, etc.)
This helps me ensure that my galleries a are as interesting and diverse as possible, while not overflowing with filler and mediocre shots. I’m sure I’ll still be struggling with this next year as well, but hey, at least I’m trying!
Take a look below at some stats on my year and some of my favorite shots and why they made the list.
A FEW STATS FOR 2014
- 22 events (multi-day fests counted as one event). That’s about one every 16 days.
- 33 days this year with a music photography event (counting multi-day festivals). That’s about one every 11 days.
- 5 Music Festivals photographed.
- 21 venues photographed.
- Most photographed venue was Taft Theater (5 shows).
- 154 bands photographed.
- Most Photographed Band was Saintseneca (3 shows)
- 12,000+ photos taken and culled down to the best stuff.
- 1,489 photos posted on this website.
01.18.14 – Southgate House Revival
Why it’s on the list: As with last year, not all of these are going to necessarily be my best shots, but my favorites. Sometimes it’s a facial expression or lighting or just the concert as a whole that puts it on the list. For The Whigs, it’s the shot of guitarist/singer Parker Gispert on his knees playing a guitar solo. This was toward the end of the show, and I’m glad I was able to run up and snap the shot before the moment was over.
02.03.14 – Taft Theatre
Why it’s on the list: Jason Isbell‘s path to here is a bumpy one with addiction and turmoil. His 2013 album Southeastern is truly one of the most beautiful and heart-wrenching I’ve ever heard. That emotion carries perfectly in his live show, so much so that when one of the lyrics talks about swearing off drinking, the crowd roared in approval and support. It was a touching moment and as someone who struggled with addiction in the past, it’s one I hold dear.
02.15.14 – Madison Theater
Why it’s on the list: Choreographed showmanship is something that is pretty rare these days, and when overdone can be incredibly cheesy. Mayer Hawthorne carefully walks that line with coordinated moves with the rest of the band, but not so much that there was no spontaneity. Like nearly all shows at the Madison Theater, there was no photo pit, so I was left to fend for myself in the crowd to find sightlines between peoples heads and raised hands while in the middle of an all-out dance party. It was a challenge and I was left with fewer shots than I’d have liked, but the above two are my favorite.
02.26.14 – Taft Theater Ballroom
Why it’s on the list: Alejandro Escovedo is simultaneously punk and alt-country royalty. His refusal to be bound to a genre of music leads to some great sounds and unique collaborations. For example, in his current band is REM guitarist Peter Buck. Talk about two legendary birds with one stone. I usually don’t do so much black and white photography unless there are white balance issues caused by strange stage lighting, but for some reason I just felt that this show deserved more monochrome than others. Also, I have a fascination with road cases and bass drum heads. One of these days I’m going to do a show just of those.
03.03.14 – US Bank Arena
Why it’s on the list: Soundboard shoots are always a challenge to get dynamic photos. Alas, these are not my most exciting photos, but there is another reason this was a special one for me. In 1994 I was 11 years old and a bit of a pain in the ass, my dad and I, like most father and son, had our fair share of differences. That year the Eagles reunited and released Hell Freezes over and my dad and I found common ground while watching the DVD over and over again. It’s funny how insignificant it seemed at the time, but how fondly I remember it today.
03.06.14 – KFC Yum! Center
Why it’s on the list: Arcade Fire have been one of my favorite artists of the past decade. I don’t think they’ve released anything short of spectacular. In fact I’m such a fan that I drove 2 hours to Louisville, KY to photograph 3 songs then get back in my car to head home. I know, pretty insane, right? I was actually really bummed when they announced that the tour dates didn’t include Cincinnati. At that point I thought I’d have to wait another year to try to photograph them. A few days before the Louisville show I got a message from my friend Keith (also an amazing photographer) that his wife had gone into labor and he could no longer shoot the show. And just like that, less than 48 hrs before the show, I was in.
The band began their first song on a secondary stage in the middle of the floor area of the arena. Once the song ended the band ran through a corridor and through the photo pit to access the main stage. I definitely geeked out a bit when they all ran by just inches away. It takes a lot for me to get starstruck, but my inner 21-year-old was excited. The show was actually somewhat difficult to shoot. There was a catwalk in the middle of the pit, forcing all photographers into a pretty small area on stage-left that was clogged with lighting and confetti canons. This was definitely one I had to work for.
03.21.14-03.22.14 – Cincinnati Music Hall
Why it’s on the list: MusicNOW is one of the most unique multidisciplinary events all year and this year was no different. Bryce Dessner certainly knows how to put together a beautiful event. Traditionally the fest has been at the beautiful Memorial Hall, however this year there was a change of venue to Music Hall in order to accommodate this year’s collaboration with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. Music Hall has had a tumultuous year with an unsuccessful campaign to gain funding for restoration. For more information on the efforts to revive Music Hall visit SaveOurIcons.org.
Shooting in Music Hall was a unique challenge because of the architecture and the silence usually surrounding orchestral performances. Every time my shutter went off it sounded like a shotgun blast piercing the quiet. One of the more unique moments was when Bryce and Aaron Dessner were joined by fellow The National member Bryan Devendorf to play a surprise instrumental set in the lobby. Just before the set I took a funny shot of Bryan using his phone directly in front of a sign to turn of all electronics, haha!
THE WAR ON DRUGS
04.11.14 – 20th Century Theater
Why it’s on the list: When I photographed The War On Drugs in April I said that their album Lost In The Dream was more than likely going to be in my top albums at the end of the year. Well, big surprise, it is actually my favorite album of 2014. Their show at 20th Century Theater has been one of the best shows I’ve seen in years. It was a difficult shoot with no photo pit and a packed house, but thankfully I was able to squeeze my way to the front and get some great shots and also manage to get access to the balcony for some higher angle shots.
NELSONVILLE MUSIC FESTIVAL
05.29.14-06.01.14 – Hocking College Campus
Why it’s on the list: Every time I talk about Nelsonville Music Festival I can’t help but mention that it is one of favorite festival each year. The consistently superb lineup and the amazing setting create an atmosphere that is second to none. Some highlights for me this year were St. Paul & The Broken Bones delivering a set of unbridled soul passion, seeing Jason Isbell once again and being in exactly the right place at the right time to snap a shot of Wesley Bright doing the splits. I can’t wait for next year!
06.22.14 – Riverbend Music Center
Why it’s on the list: As a kid my parents used to listen to Lionel Richie all the time. I distinctly remember dancing to Dancing On The Ceiling in my parents family room. Lionel is decades into his career and has honed his showmanship so well that it almost seems effortless as he commanded the stage and held the crowd in a frenzy. The man hasn’t lost a step.
07.04.14 – Red, White & Blue Ash
Why it’s on the list: Cheap Trick is world renowned for their live show, dating back to their Live At Budokan album from 1978. I have a bit of a personal connection to the band as well. My close friends often sing backup for Cheap Trick. When I heard that they were playing Red White and Blue Ash this year we all planned to go to the show and see them. Through my friends I was able to meet the band and photograph the entire set. Shooting the whole set was great because as the sun went down and the lights came up the photos turned out amazing. Some of my favorite shots also came from when I was allowed to shoot from backstage.
BUNBURY MUSIC FESTIVAL
07.11.14-07.13.14 – Sawyer Point
Why it’s on the list: As the first festival to really give me a break by hiring me for their inaugural year, Bunbury holds a special place in my heart. The biggest highlight for me this year was having the opportunity to shoot The Flaming Lips. Wayne Coyne and co. have a penchant for crazy stage setups and amazing lights. After the first three songs only staff were left in the photo pit. During that time Wayne was swinging around streamers and accidentally hit a few of us in the face. I managed to snap a shot right before I was hit. My favorite part of the shot is the look of pure joy on his face.
BUCKLE UP MUSIC FESTIVAL
07.18.14-07.20.14 – Sawyer Point
Why it’s on the list: Buckle Up Music Festival is the country cousin of Bunbury Music Festival. I’m not so up-to-date on modern country but Buckle Up had a great mixture of modern, classic and alt country including Amanda Shires, Drive-By Truckers, Sturgill Simpson and Willie Nelson. Sturgill Simpson’s new album is in my top 10 of the year and seeing him live was a treat. Despite a mostly rainy weekend the crowd was undeterred and the first year festival went great, with Miranda Lambert even making a surprise cameo with Willie Nelson.
08.12.14 – Taft Theatre
Why it’s on the list: Steely Dan consistently has one of the most insanely talented groups of musicians. I’ve been a huge fan for a longtime. This one was a soundboard shoot and one I didn’t get to stay for the whole show, but it was great to be able to see and photograph them.
MIDPOINT MUSIC FESTIVAL
09.25.14-09.28.14 – Over the Rhine and Downtown Cincinnati
Why it’s on the list: I’ve had the privilege to partake in MPMF as a musician, volunteer, attendee and a photographer through the years. I’m not sure which capacity I’ve enjoyed the most, but I certainly look forward to it every year. This year was fantastic with highlights being Wussy, Saintseneca, The Ridges, and Automagik. If you have the chance to see Automagik you absolutely must. They were the big surprise for me this year. So much unbridled energy and fun.
11.08.14 – Palace Theater
Why it’s on the list: There’s a theme to this year’s retrospective. Quite a few of these highlights also landed on my top 10 albums of the year list. Ryan Adams has released some of my favorite albums of all time and I’ve been a huge fan for over a decade. Adams went on an indefinite hiatus in 2009 before I had the chance to see him live. I had thought that my chance was gone, but after two years of silence Adams returned in 2011 with a surprise album of mellow acoustic songs called Ashes and Fire. Another three years later brings us to now, with a new album and his first tour with a full band since 2009. Needless to say I was pretty excited to see my current favorite artist and have the chance to photograph the show. I was unaware that this was going to be a soundboard shoot so I wasn’t prepared with long enough glass to get very close, but I think the results turned out pretty well.
As if this post wasn’t long enough!
Lastly, I’d like to thank a few people who have been integral to all I’ve accomplished this year.
- Ian, Kelly, Courtney and the rest of the Cincymusic.com crew.
- The Cincymusic.com photographer team.
- Bill Donabedian and Michael Kearns with Bunbury and Buckle Up Festivals
- Jonathan Newsome at Unsung Melody.
- Keith Klenowski for letting me borrow a lens (for a loooong time) and for asking me to pinch hit for the Arcade Fire show.
- Rick McCarty at the Taft Theater.
- Morella Raleigh at the Southgate House Revival.
- Rosemarie Moerhing at Riverbend/PNC.
- Hal Barkan at Dodd Camera.
- David McClain for letting me borrow lenses over and over again.
- The members of the Alliance of Music Photographers Facebook group.
Without all of you I couldn’t do this. I’m proud to be a part of the Cincymusic team and to have so many in the Cincinnati music scene that I count as friends. Thanks for a great 2014 and I look forward to working alongside you all next year and after!