How to shoot a festival with no pass
Before I start, I have to say that all the photos used in this blog post were shot with no pass at music festivals.
What came first, the chicken or the egg? What to get a photo pass, you need a portfolio, to get a music portfolio, you need a pass. This is one of the things that is so difficult for new people that enter into the music photography world. To be completely honest, no one wants a complete newbie in the pit. That is our workplace and the last thing we want is some new guy, slowing us down because he has no idea what he is doing.
So what can you do to overcome this? Can you sneak into the pit? Possibly, depending on the security but if you are caught, it will be the last time you will be allowed into that venue, so it is not a good idea. The best option for a new photographer is to shoot some festivals with no pass. To do this, you will need some long lens, even the cheap kit zoom lens like the 70-300 will work here, but you need to be able to get to 300mm with your lens.
Before you try this, there are some things that I have got to warn you about. To shoot without a pass is really hard, because at that point you are basically just a fan with a camera, so you will not get any special privileges so you have to go into this with a certain level of expectation. So to start off with, you are going to mainly be shooting in the daytime, when the crowds are hopefully smaller and the light is good. Secondly, you are going to have to accept that you will not get the best photos of your career when doing this. For most people, this is simply building your portfolio. So I suggest that you try to get only 1 or 2 good keeper shots per band. And finally, you will be completely exhausted by the end of the day.
Most festivals will start early, around 1 pm and run until late in the evening. They usually include a couple of stages at the festival grounds which is going to work in your favor when shooting with no pass. So what you are going to do is treat the festival like you are only allowed to shoot the first 2 or 3 songs. You want to make sure you get to the stage as the previous band has just finished their set and everyone is leaving to go to the other stage. Some people may remain at the stage but the crowd should thin out. You want to worm your way through the crowd and get set up as close to the security barricade as possible. Don’t try to get to the middle of the stage, try to get to the barricade near the left or right-hand side of the stage. If you can get right up against the barricade, then it is almost like shooting in the pit, just right at the back. You will not be able to move through as you will have people all around you as the band starts to play. You want to shoot quickly and after 2 or 3 songs, you will want to leave as people behind you will start to get a little angry that you are swinging your camera around and blocking their view. NO ONE WILL CARE THAT YOU ARE SHOOTING PHOTOS, TO THEM YOUR PHOTOS ARE WORTHLESS. So don’t try to act important or arrogantly. Just shoot for 2 or 3 songs and then step out of the crowd and head towards another stage that should be ending soon.
It is possible to shoot a lot of bands like this, just shoot 3 songs and move to the next stage. Repeat until the sun goes down and then try again the next day. That is the basic formula. But there are things you should absolutely do when shooting with such tight angles and you cannot move around.
You will never be able to shoot 30 or 40 good photos per band, and trying to do so will be impossible. Trying to do that from the pit is difficult but shooting from the crowd will be impossible. But don’t forget that just because you are shooting from the crowd, does not mean that you cannot get some good crowd shots. You have got to use the angles that you have and shoot some good crowd photos as well. When the mosh pit forms, get right on the edge and shoot some photos that other people who are in the pit, cannot get.
When shooting from the crowd though, you want to get some shots that other people don’t have. You want unique photos so don’t shoot from your normal head height, either get down and shoot up or use live view on your camera and reach up over the crowd to get some good angles of the action going on. DON’T REACH IN THE PIT THOUGH OR SOMEONE WILL KICK YOUR ASS.
Now shooting like this will work for shooting in the daytime, but as soon as the sunsets, you will struggle to shoot. The light will become your enemy and you will need some fast glass to shoot with, which will be very expensive to get over the 300mm range. But the biggest problem is as the day goes on, the bigger bands will play and more fans will come and watch, making it almost impossible to get to the barricade. At that point, you will have to shoot over the crowd which will mean shooting with some very long lens, over 600mm or it will be time for you to put your camera away and just enjoys the music.
Shooting at night with no pass is extremely difficult as you have to deal with very low light, very little space to move around in and you cannot get good angles with the stage lights. I have had to do this a couple of times when my passes were taken away in China when the organizers found out I was not Chinese and they did not want a foreigner shooting their festival. These have always been my toughest shoots to do. If you are ever in the situation and have to shoot at night with no pass, a little trick I have found to work really nicely is this. I will pick one of my old passes that roughly looks like the passes the photographers are wearing and I will hang it around my neck. This will not get me into the pit but the crowd will usually make some space for me to get closer to the barricade.
Shooting with no pass can be difficult. It takes time and patience to get even a few good photos. It can be done and it is a good way to perfect your skills as a photographer. Once you have a good portfolio of photos, then you can use those to get a real pass. By that time, you will have enough experience that you should be able to work in the pit, not disturb other photographers and get good shots.
On a side note, what you want to do is upload some photos from the festival as soon as possible. Tag the organizers and maybe they may like your work enough to give you more freedom to shoot on the second day. This has worked for me once and I try to get at least 20 or 30 photos up on the first hour after the show ends for the day.