a guide to concert photography: the ugly bits

bombadil & you won't: soundcheck and backstage

There are lots of tutorials out there about how to take great concert photographs, thorough posts that cover pit etiquette and all the technical specs and hints you’ll ever need to know, but none of them ever seem to cover what I could have used most when I was starting out: how to get into those pits in the first place. How to be official, not just the person at the show with a camera. So here’s how I did it.

So how do you get press passes for arena shows, anyway?

You have the backing of a publication. Print press outlets are best, but a longstanding and well-established blog will do it for you, too, these days, especially with festivals. I haven’t shot many arena shows, but the ones I have shot, and the mainstage shows at Hopscotch, have been courtesy of Speakers In Code. Generally an editor will make the pitch for you, and all you have to do is show up with your camera and your zoom lens and behave well.

Without the backing of a press outlet, you aren’t going to get in to shoot the Red Hot Chili Peppers or the Black Keys or Clapton. That’s a fact.

red hot chili peppers @ pnc arena

So how do I get a press outlet?

Do good work on smaller shows. Showcase your work on your own blog; not just photos, but prove you can write about a show, too. If you’re in a smaller city or bigger town and there’s a local music blog, see if you can work with or for them. I hooked up with Speakers In Code when Matt saw me at the front of the 506 shooting the Smith Westerns, a show I’d gotten myself credentialed for, for this blog, just because I liked and had written about the album. He wanted to use my photos for his review, and I started shooting for him; I moved to shooting for all of SiC, and from there to writing a Jam of the Day regularly and posting show reviews. Small venues are a good place to develop relationships with publicists and venue owners and managers, not to mention networking with bands who might eventually pay you. Places you can take photos from up close, at small shows, and show off your best work without having to fight a sell-out general admission crowd.

kopecky family band @ local 506

So how do I get a list spot?


No, seriously, that’s it: ask the publicist. Ask the band. I was already taking my camera to shows, and when I started this blog to focus more on photography instead of just blathering about my life and my feelings, I posted the photos I took at shows to which I bought tickets to show them off. I wrote about albums. I showed off other kinds of photography I could do, too; time in studios with bands, random photo walks, anything that stretched my versatility and skills. And when I had about six months worth of posts, I started emailing publicists for bands playing shows at the 506 I would have paid for anyway.

I can write a pitch email in my sleep now, but plenty of my friends will tell you how I obsessed over them back in the day. I couldn’t send a pitch email without asking three people to give me a pep talk. (Michelle and Cee were my biggest cheerleaders.) You want to be short, sweet, and to the point. “Here is my work; here is the show I would like to cover; here is what I will give you in exchange for a list spot and a press pass.” I aimed for smaller bands who wouldn’t sell out places like the 506, rather than the bands that would sell out the Cradle, and I tried to put my passion in every email I sent.

So: ask, and then get used to being told no. And no. And no. And no. I still get told no. Once, in a story that I tell over and over again, and this was recently, too — I got an email where the entire response to my carefully constructed email was the single word “No”. Get told no to the point where no doesn’t hurt your feelings and send you weeping under your desk.

Eventually someone will say yes. If your work is good, someone will say yes. Once someone says yes, someone else will say yes. And someone else, and someone else, amidst all those “no”s.

first house show at the FARM!

Once I get a list spot, what do I do?

Show up. Show up early, especially for a GA show, because you don’t want to be the photographer getting there late and shoving your way, rudely, through the crowds at the front, and you don’t want to be taking mediocre photos from the back. I get there early, stake my space, and then, usually? Get my shots and give my space up to other fans. I’m old. My knees hurt. At the 506, I like to get my shots and then go sit at the bar and read. I can still hear the music. I know what the band looks like. If Brian Fallon isn’t sweating on me, my life isn’t ending. (It totally is, because it means Brian Fallon and I aren’t married and having … never mind.)

Take good photos. This is where you read those other tutorials, and know the value of white balance, or when to go black and white to avoid too-red shots. If your photos are good, you will get more list spots, and you will have more chances to get even better. Just because you’re at a show with a camera doesn’t make you a photographer.

After the show, edit fast — the next day. Post fast — the next day. And email a thank you to the publicist or manager or band member who hooked you up, with a link to your coverage — the next day. What your mama said about thank you notes? It’s true. I write a better thank you note than I do a pitch email, and I write a damn good pitch email.

every everything shoot, august 2012

What don’t I do?

Don’t get so drunk you fall over. (I try to take this advice from myself but even I fail.) Don’t blow off jobs if you can absolutely help it. Don’t be rude to the people around you; you don’t have to talk to the folks you’re sharing a pit with, but don’t be an asshole. (And honestly, you should talk to them. Exchange cards. Make connections.) Don’t fucking take photos with an iPad; taking photos with an iPad doesn’t make you a music photographer. It does make you someone I might punch, though. (That’s a lie. I talk a good punching game, but I lack follow through.)

It isn’t easy. It’s basically like having your ego stomped on for months and years at a time. For every victory, there are fourteen losses. But eventually, the victories start to pile up. Eventually, stuff you were proud of three years ago becomes a little embarrassing now. Work hard. Work smart. Sleep enough. Say thank you. Say you’re welcome. Shake hands, unless the person you’re meeting doesn’t shake hands. Know enough about the people you meet to know if they don’t shake hands. Do your research. Say please. Don’t say too much, but don’t say too little.

Let your work speak for you, but also know when to speak up for yourself.


the district attorneys @ local 506

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