How to shoot a music festival

I had such a great time shooting the Beaches Jazz Festival I thought I should share some insights I gathered during the event.

These suggestions apply to street-type festivals where your access to the musicians is pretty much unlimited.

So rule one is wear black. I didn’t think this up on my own. It comes from the master of street photography Jay Maisel who says if you wear black you tend to fade into the background and are essentially invisible to the people around you. He’s right. I tried on 35-plus-degree days to wear as much black as I could and I was universally ignored even though I was working the street pretty hard.

Rule two is don’t carry too much equipment. Look you take what you’ve got but if you’ve got a choice you need to make some decisions. For example, based on my experience at the Beaches Jazz Festival all you need for lenses is a fast portrait-type lens (50mm f/1.8 or better yet 85mm f/1.8 or even better yet 105mm f/2.5) for shooting headshots and a wide angle fast lens like 24mm f/2.8 or better). BTW all the lens here are stated in 35mm terms. Make allowances for DX format cameras (1.5 or so magnification factor) or micro four-thirds (2X magnification).

Now not all of us own fast wide lenses so a wide zoom will do (12-24mm Nikon or 9-18mm Olympus micro four-thirds). The problem is these lenses are slow lenses. In other words they don’t let in as much light as a fast prime lens and this gets important around dusk at a street festival.

If you’ve got a Nikon or Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 zoom (the wedding photographer’s friend) that will do the trick but these guys get heavy after being carried around for a couple of hours in the hot sun.

Here’s what I used on Thursday night at the Beaches festival: Olympus EPL-2 with 17mm f/2.8 pancake lens and 40-150mm telephoto zoom. I didn’t use the standard 14-42mm lens or the 9-18mm super wide much at all. If they were available I would have loved the new 12mm f/2 fast wide (24mm in 35-mm terms…confusing what?) and the very fast f/1.8 45mm (90mm in 35mm terms) portrait lens.

These two alone would be killer lenses for street photography of all types as they’re fast as heck and work the two major angles of view I shoot from 90 per cent of the time which are real wide for groups and headshots of individuals. These two lenses alone make the Olympus micro four-thirds format a killer when it comes to shooting on the streets.

On Friday night I took the Nikon D-300 with battery grip and two SB-900 flashes plus a big Nikon 105mm macro f/2.8 with vibration reduction (VR) and the 35mm f/1.8 wide. I did use the 12-24mm wide zoom a little but 90 per cent of Friday night was with the 105 which performed superbly.

Why the switch? 

The very best time to shoot during a street festival is an hour before sunset and an hour after sunset if it’s a cloudless evening. You’ve got lots of golden horizontal light to play with and your faster lenses will excel and you can get away with your slower lenses (remember you’re handholding the camera and you need sufficient shutter speed to overcome the shaking of your own body and stop the action of the singer and band members on stage). Don’t count on there being sufficient (or any) stage lighting at some of these street events after dark.

I saw a lot of guys carrying mono (or tripods which is really unproductive in crowd situations and could even be dangerous) pods of steady their shots during the evening hours. This works for about half an hour at dusk and then it gets too dark to shoot without flash. Yes you can steady the image but you can’t stop the action. If you’re not using fast lenses you’re going to have issues getting the camera to focus in the dark.

So I don’t carry a monopod anymore to street festivals. I take a flash.

Now even the nicest performer is going to get annoyed if you’re continually firing off a flash. If I have to go to flash I shoot a few frames and then move on. This doesn’t yield great photography. If you get lucky or if you’re persistent you can get a great shot but it’s not like shooting when there’s enough light to use a fast lens and you’re firing off a lot of frames.

Okay back in the old days when we were shooting film we tried to hold off firing until we saw “the shot” in the viewfinder but in today’s digital world the percentage of great shots goes way up when you wait for that special moment and then you fire off a burst of frames. Be careful though. This works with loud amplified music but if you’r covering a folk or baroque festival firing off strings of shots is going to annoy the festival audience.

You do not want to upset a crowd.

Having said that it’s been my experience that if (a) you’re dressed in black and (b) you look like a pro (This is one of the few times that wearing a dark photo vest isn’t such a bad idea) and (c) you move with confidence when you step in front of everyone (including Uncle Fred who brought his new digital video camera and has positioned himself back at the edge of the crowd so there’s no way to get around him without getting into his frame) nobody is going to complain or even comment.

Now if it appears that you’re shooting beside someone who is a pro I tend to yield the best shot to them as they’re working for a living and I’m not. Having said that, when I am being paid, don’t step in front of me when I’m shooting. I’ve been known to physically move other photographers out of the frame when they’ve been really unconcsious and inconsiderate. Pros do everything they can to respect the other shooters including amateurs but that doesn’t mean it’s okay to get in the way.

When I do step in front of a crowd or in front of people who have sat themselves down on lawn chairs (as is typical at smaller festivals) I do what I can to either sit below their line of sight or shoot from the edge of the stage walking in front only when I see a potential photo.

Shooting video is entirely different. Now you need to be front and centre and you will benefit from stabilizing the camera with a monopod or other form of stabilizer. And you will annoy folks.

One way around this is to get a black t-shirt or two made with the words EVENT PHOTO and if you’ve got some cash have your the URL of your website or gallery printed on the front. Just because you’ve got a t-shirt that says EVENT PHOTO doesn’t mean you’re the official photographer but it will be what everyone will assume and they’ll likely leave you alone.

One of the other things I do is after the musicians finish their set  and if I think I’ve got some really good images I offer them my business card and invite them to use any images they wish with the only proviso that give me a photo credit.

I look at this way. These musicians didn’t ask me to shoot them. They probably don’t have a budget for this type of spontaneous offer. And, I want the photo credit.

Festivals are what I call a photo-rich environment. They are a great place to get exceptional opportunities to shoot amazingly good images.


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