Shooting small shows
A recent trend that I have noticed with some of my assistants lately, is that they all want to be a music photographer but they only want to shoot the big shows. I recently shot two shows back to back, one was huge and one was very small.
The first show that I shot was Changjiang International music festival, headlined by the backstreet boys. The show had two stages and was attended by over 80,000. The second show was a small festival in Yangzhou that was hosted by a local livehouse and was attended by about 1000 people. When I went to shoot the large festival, I had tons of my assistants and ex-assistants calling me up and wanting to shoot the show, but the second festival, not one assistant wanted to work it and their excuse was the festival was beneath them.
Being a professional photographer is in many ways, like being a professional athlete. You have got spend time training and practicing if you want to be at the top. If you want to have a good eye, you got to train your eye, if you want to be good at shooting fast in difficult environments, you got to train. Being a pro photographer is more than buy an expensive camera and going to the front of the stage and shooting your favorite artists.
So I will start off by saying the shooting small shows is where you get your skills from. They are difficult to shoot but a great place to get experience and the muscle memory that you need to work under pressure.
Shooting a small show usually means you have no pit to work in, or you are dealing with a very low stage. It is extremely difficult to shoot and kills your body. But shooting a large festival is usually very easy, even if there are many photographers in the pit for the first three songs, you are still safe from the crowds.
Shooting a large show normally means that you have a large pit to shoot in and if you have an all-access pass, after the first three songs, you can shoot in peace as the pit will be empty. Big shows are much easier to shoot on your body and are much safer than the smaller shows.
Shooting smaller shows is where you are going to learn how to deal with fans, and how to develop a six sense of danger from fans. The smaller shows mean you are usually mixed in with fans and once they start to mosh, then you got to be careful. But at the bigger shows, it is so easy, you have security looking after you so you don’t have to worry about it. I have had a few assistants get hurt during a big show, and each time it was their own fault for not paying attention to their environment. They had no experience in dealing with crazy crowds and ignored all the danger signs. If they had more experience in dealing with crowds, then they could have avoided any problems that occurred.
I have never gotten hurt at a big show, I am always in the pit and jumping up on the security fences or even over them to get into the mosh pits. I am good at judging when something is safe and when I need to get out of harm’s way. But I cannot say the same thing about many of my colleagues that I shoot with. A lot of them get hit on the head with flags or get hit by someone thrashing away to their favorite band. If you shoot small shows, you will very quickly develop your intuition of what is safe and what is too dangerous because you are consistently worried about getting hit on the head by some crazy fans.
Shooting small shows requires good skills with your camera. Usually, the lighting at the small shows is terrible, either very low light or very uneven lighting with the center of the stage is extremely bright and the rest of the stage is very low light. Shooting in these terrible lighting conditions will force you to learn how to shoot manually, and how to adjust your exposure quickly. Most people have no idea how fast the lighting situation change on stage and your camera meter will be absolutely useless at night. You need to develop your eye and your intuition to set the exposure to what you feel is right and have the confidence to shoot without chimping every few shots.
Between the lead singer and the drummer, I guess there is a 3 stop of light difference that you got to deal with. Going from artist to artist on the stage means a lot of adjustments that you got to make. You got to think quick and make the adjustments while you are shooting or your exposures will be very wrong. Shooting in tough lighting conditions like this will give you great training for your eye and will teach you how to deal with difficult lighting situations. When shooting big shows, you are dealing with good lighting, usually, you will have some front lighting as well so it is very easy to shoot compared to smaller shows.
When you shoot a big show, you know what shots you want and what angles work, but at smaller shows, you cannot shoot all the angles you want, so you go to get creative and try new angles to shoot. This is great training for your eyes. You have got to work your way through the crowds and find some place to get the shots you want. At the smaller shows, the shots will not come to you, you have got to go out and find the shots yourself.
With the shot above, I decided to try out a camera onto a monopod and shoot with a remote trigger. I had no idea if this would work but being at a small show, it really did not matter. At big shows, I seriously doubt any stage manager would let me onto the stage with a monopod and hold it above the artists while they are playing.
One of the biggest problems for shooting small shows is that most artists are not used to performing to an audience so they really don’t put on a performance, they play well but lack the showmanship that some of the bigger bands will have. So your job as a photographer at these small shows is to make them seem much better than they really are. If you can make a small, really bad band seem good, then you are ready to shoot the bigger shows.
Exposure is another important reason to shoot smaller shows. When you shoot a show, you want to be friendly to people in the crowd, even if you are dog dead tired. Because I am one of the few foreigners working in the Chinese music season as a photographer, I get a lot of attention. I am consistently getting my photo taken, people want to talk to me, ask me questions but no matter how tired I am or how busy I am, I always make time for them. Each friend you make at a show is a long-term follower on your social media sites and sometimes these fans can be very helpful as well. I always take my time and take photos with all the fans that want one. I talk to as many fans as possible and try to be as sociable as possible. Being sociable is so important in this industry. No one wants to work with an idiot or jerk.
Now the single biggest reason why you should always shoot smaller shows is that you will meet a lot of bands. Meeting the bands, band managers, stage managers, sound engineers is so important. Let’s start off with the bands. Not every band will make it and become big, but everyone has got to make money, so many musicians will become bang managers, or work at festivals and if you know them, they will give you great access to shoot stuff that you would never be able to. I have lost count of the number of times I go to a big festival and the pit manager or the stage manager at the show is a musician that I have shot in the past. They always remember me because they don’t meet many foreign photographers in China and they always go out of their way to help me.
Never forget the crew at a festival, they work hard and they can help you so much if you know them. I have shot countless festivals in my career now but if I am free, I will always go to shoot any small festival I can find and if you are into your music photographer, I strongly suggest you go shoot all the possible shows you can get access to. Shoot, learn, shoot, learn. That is the cycle of a music photographer, and our schools are small shows.