i had a minor triumph over white balance

carrboro music festival: grey mattercarrboro music festival: grey matter

White balance — the process of correcting for color in your light, basically — is something I’ve struggled with the whole time I’ve been shooting. I understand the concept of it, but it was rare that I could actually make it work. Sometimes I could sort of maybe get some red out of my shots in-camera, but completely? Nope.

So imagine my delight last Sunday when I, after having read like crazy for the past two weeks, actually adjusted my white balance correctly. The top image was my first shot; the bottom, my last.

BAM. Learned something in September.

review: epiphanie bags “sydney”

epiphanie camera bag

I have been engaged in a long battle to find the perfect camera bag / purse — and over the winter, I finally resigned myself to the fact that I really needed a camera bag, and I needed a purse, and those were separate things. A purse I could still shove my camera into if necessary, but primarily, I needed a dedicated camera bag, and all the ones I had tried (made for the purpose, altered by me for the purpose) weren’t exactly what I needed. The space was too small, the bags themselves were too bulky, they didn’t have pockets, they hurt my back to carry, whatever. Long story short: camera bags, troublesome.

So I found a purse — a Baggallini hobo bag I have treated abysmally and which has stood up to it — and I bought myself an Epiphanie Bags Sydney style bag as a late Christmas present.

I’m in love.

After a lot of flipping between the various bags Epiphanie makes, I settled on the Sydney for a few reasons: I liked the shape of the main space, I liked the pockets, I really liked the iPad pocket on the back. And I really, really liked the straps – you can carry the Sydney cross-body, on your shoulder, or as a backpack. And for festivals, especially ones like Hopscotch, where you’re slogging 20-30 pounds of gear back and forth across Raleigh, because eff you Five Star, on days that can run 14 hours? The idea that I could have all that weight distributed on both shoulders was a dream. I can’t wait to not hurt like crazy on the Sunday after Hopscotch. Or, well, hurt slightly less than crazy. My feet might hurt but my back won’t.

For me, the five front pockets are used for, separately, business cards and lens-cleaner type things, memory cards, various personal stuff (lip gloss, reusable shopping bag, tampons), and the top horizontal pocket holds my ear plugs, my pass holder, and when I get to a show most often my phone — the three things I need most working a job and they’re incredibly easy to access. All the pockets are deceptively large, too. I could squeeze a lot more into them if I wanted to. I’m trying to pack lighter, though, so.

The main compartment I have divided in three — one for a long lens & my 50mm, one of my camera with the Tamron 24-75mm attached, and one for anything else: another lens, my wallet, a notebook. My only complaint here was that, due to the Sydney’s narrow width (which I love; it sits really closely on my hip, which was another reason I picked it out) and its corresponding depth to make up for the width, the dividers were hellacious to place properly. It took me forever because they kept fastening to places I didn’t want them to, and it’s still not a perfect set up, but it works.

epiphanie camera bag

I got the bag and it was great for two shows locally. But the real test was when I went to Atlanta for Panic! — I needed the Sydney to double as a purse for travel, because I didn’t want to check my suitcase. Which meant it had to hold all my camera gear, but also a travel makeup bag, two Moleskines, my wallet, and my iPod. That’s what’s in the photo above — a lot of what I easily carried in my Sydney flying from Raleigh to the ATL, not including the Tamron 24-75mm I took the shot with. It was a little heavy, but I can deal with heavy if I don’t feel like the bag is going to collapse immediately. The Sydney doesn’t feel that way. It’s deeply sturdy, and that’s awesome.

And I just need it to hold that much when I’m hauling things and actually in the airport / on the plane — once I get where I’m going, I can pull Moleskines out, I don’t always need the makeup bag (though it’s nice to have), and it becomes again a thoroughly functional camera bag that isn’t a pain to haul to a show or through a festival.

So that’s my conclusion: Epiphanie’s bags are expensive — and for the quality, not that expensive at all, really — but so far I’ve found the Sydney to be exactly what I needed, and well above it for the cost.

photos: then and now (blitzen trapper and langhorne slim)

langhorne slim & the law @ haw river ballroom

I was emailing with Adam last week — as I often am — and I realized, after pulling that 2009 photo of Hayes Carll for comparison to this year’s photo of Hayes Carll, that all of last week’s shows were bands that I shot very early on in my concert photography career. And, for the record, both in smaller venues than the Haw River Ballroom. So for the sake of navel-gazing, below are photos of Blitzen Trapper from the Cat’s Cradle (2009, 2011) and Haw River Ballroom (2013), as well as Langhorne Slim at the Cradle (2008, 2009, 2010) and the Casbah (2012) and Haw River Ballroom (2013, above). 2008, that Langhorne show, I shot that one on film.

blitzen trapper @ cat's cradle

blitzen trapper @ cat's cradle

blitzen trapper @ haw river ballroom

I’ve never made any effort to hide the fact that I’m self-taught, as a photographer — I mean, aren’t most of us? You can take classes, but you really learn by doing it, and that’s teaching yourself — but it’s hard to see progress sometimes, or be happy with my current work, because I’m too close to it. And I love seeing new bands, or new-to-me bands — I like getting shots that don’t feel like the same photos over and over again. But there’s also something comforting in shooting the same bands repeatedly — why do you think I’ve seen American Aquarium and Holy Ghost Tent Revival close to a hundred times, combined? Because I love them, but also because I am comfortable photographing them — because when you stand things several years apart, you can genuinely see how your work has grown.

langhorne slim @ the cat's cradle, 07.11.08

langhorne slim @ the cat's cradle

langhorne slim @ cat's cradle

langhorne slim & the law @ the casbah

I can see how, even between early 2009 (Langhorne) and late 2009 (Blitzen Trapper), I got better at finding the light. I can see that I got better at framing, but also better at using dark space available to me. There are the bones of my current work in all my past work — I have always been fond of odd angles and shoes and hands and so on — but my current work has so much more to it. Meat on the bones, excuse the bad analogy. The work I’ve done between 2008 and now, when I put these photos together, it’s all worth it. All of it, even the parts that are exhausting. Maybe especially the parts that are exhausting.

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

that was then, this is now

frightened rabbit @ cat's cradle

I shot Frightened Rabbit in 2010. The above is one of the shots from that show; I was very proud of it at the time. I still am, in its own way, in my own way. It marks a time. I wrote about that show here. What I didn’t write about was that show was one of the first times I tried to contact a publicist, because I wanted to do portraits of Scott and Grant for Brothers In Arms. I remember their publicist, because Storme still has the perfect lovely UK publicist name: Storme Whitby-Grubb. I don’t think I even heard back from her in 2010; I don’t blame her one bit, because in 2010, I was nobody. I hadn’t earned the time yet. It was a great show, as that blog post — very early in the life of this blog — demonstrates. But I’d never been credentialed for anything in 2010. I was a baby in terms of the work I had to do to get where I am.

frightened rabbit @ cat's cradle

I shot Frightened Rabbit in 2013. They are two albums and Capitol Records from the last time I saw them; I am hundreds of thousands of photos from it. I am hundreds of blog posts, a year of Friday Jams of the Day at Speakers In Code, dozens of beers with Matt and Tracey, dozens of list spots and dozens of photo passes pressed into journals. I have worked until my feet blistered and peeled. And a few weeks ago, when Matt said, hey, you want to do something with Frightened Rabbit? They’re buddies with Admiral Fallow. Of course. Of course. I have a project to revive.

Storme still works with them. Matt corresponded with a lovely woman at Capital Records. When we got to the Cradle on Monday, I didn’t hesitate to walk in the open stage door and ask until we found Ian, FR’s cheerful ginger tour manager.

Four years is a long time. Four years is broken hearts and blisters and tears and terrible, terrible photos. Four years is good photos. Four years is trusting yourself, and knowing how to make your subjects trust you.

Four years ago was then. Now is now.

I am not trying to brag. One of the reasons I started this blog was to look at my process, as I stumbled through becoming a rock photographer on my own, and with loads upon loads of help, scraped knees and bruised hearts and all. I’m working on a post about the ugly bits of concert photography; not aperture and first three no flash, but how to get publicists to trust you, how to establish relationships, how to get so adorable Scottish boys sit out back the Cradle while you ask dumb questions.

Dreams aren’t unreachable things. Just because someone said no once doesn’t mean they’ll say no again. The more things change, the more they change.

A few weeks before my birthday, I decided to give up. Not to stop working, not to stop pursuing, but to — release my control over things. I do what I can do. I don’t worry about the rest. What I can do is send the email. What I can do is do good work, and put it out there, and speak about it eloquently, and the rest will happen. On Monday, I shot Frightened Rabbit. On Tuesday, I got a long overdue payment for some photos. I haven’t been stressed at work in nearly 48 hours. I am working hard, and doing what I can, and the rest will happen.

That was then. This is now.

book review: the polaroid book (taschen 25th anniversary edition)

and i dreamt of a camera

I have a Polaroid. It was my maternal grandmother’s, and it came with two packs of expired, unusable film. I haven’t bought any film from the Impossible Project yet, because I never have any money, but I love Polaroid cameras, and photos. I love the instance of it; the whole point of it, really. I take photos for moments, and Polaroids are the most moment of all cameras.

I bought Taschen’s 25th anniversary edition of The Polaroid Book, a thick collection of photos from Polaroid’s collection of images made over the years of producing its film, with Christmas Amazon gift cards, and have browsed through it at my desk as I edit and review albums for hours ever since. It’s a hefty hardback, hundreds of pages, with a single image on each page, no captions, tiny annotations of photographer on the margins, just images upon images made on Polaroid film. There’s no organization to the images; there’s no overarching theme. It’s just a book full of beautiful images that were all made on instant film.

I am fascinated by the curation of this book; who picked the images, how were they picked? I picture Taschen and Polaroid employees surrounded by hundreds of thousands of fading white-bordered images, handling them all so carefully, putting them into piles of yes and no and maybe, rearranging the drifts and narrowing them down to what appears in the book. The opening essay by Barbara Hitchcock gives a lovely, thoughtful history of Polaroid, rife with cultural significance, and is worth reading before opening the book.

And when you open the book, it is beautiful: single images on white pages, centered carefully, and it is a book that is devoted to nothing but the images. I found myself held captive by single surprising images over and over again, stopped by the page I had turned to, and that is the sign of a great, not good, photo book: the captivation of one image, on white, that stops your breath. The Polaroid Book stops your breath over and over again. I recommend it whole-heartedly for anyone who loves instant photography.

Celebrate Polaroids and good music (two things I love) with this amazing stop-motion video, made by Walker Lukens (singer/songwriter) and the Impossible Project folks out of thousands of Polaroids. It’s amazing. It’s the coolest thing I’ve seen this year. “Dear Someone” is from Lukens’ upcoming record Devoted, out April 2, and I’m really looking forward to that, too.

in search of: an art director / art intern

promo: sinful savage tigers

I am a pretty good photographer; I’m not a terrible designer, either, because I did spend four years getting a degree in scenic design, a long time and a lot of student loans ago. What I am bad at, however, is starting a design; I was in college, too. I have big ideas, but then no clue how to initially get them off the ground. So what I’m looking for is someone who can take my big ideas and jump start them, particularly in the area of costume design — and then, hopefully, someone who can help me execute them while I take photos.

For example: I would like to recreate Pre-Raphaelite paintings in modern dress. I have the paintings picked out; I have willing models. What I’m looking for is someone who would be interested and capable of doing the following things:

  • Initial concept sketches of costuming
  • Detailed sketches after production conversations
  • Acquisition and / or collaboration in transitions sketches to life
  • Costume management and general art direction on shoot locations
  • Location scouting, if interested

Other projects I’d like to tackle in 2013 / 2014 are an Alice In Wonderland shoot, and a shoot involving women in fluffy vintage tulle prom dresses, preferably musicians, preferably set in a thrift store. There are also some plans involving bathtubs filled with things.

In all likelihood, I cannot pay much for these jobs, but I could pay something small for each job, and if you are (or are not, I’ll feed anybody, frankly, but college students are usually hungrier than grownups) a college student interested in this, I would also happily take you out for meals and (if you are of age) buy you beer.

If you’re interested in working with me, or simply chatting to see if you might be interested in working with me, please email me at asdonkar AT gmail with a subject line of Art Direction.

I have really cool stuff in my head, but I need some help translating it. You could be that help!