Six months a Concert Photographer – Or my way of becoming one

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Guest Blog Friday featuring Concert Photographer Sebastian Scheele (Quinten Quist)

First of all: Music has always been around and marks the biggest passion of my entire life. It’s always been an emotional experience listening to music, be it the Pet Shop Boys when I was six years young in the middle of the 80s, Bad Religion and Biohazard in the early 90s when I decided to leave all this Eurodance-stuff behind (luckily) or when I decided to become a bass-player at the age of 15 with professional lessons and techniques (and I still play this instrument, two unique basses, one even with my signature in the fretboard of the neck) and founded my own band. I also entertain the people as a DJ in a small club in the center of my hometown. But there was one issue with music along this way which led to frustration. And this is where my story becoming a concert photographer begins…

“Terrible! What a crappy memory!” That’s what I thought in early 2016 when I flipped through my Google “Photos” App on my smartphone after searching “concerts” randomly. It didn’t matter which concert I had attended in the past years, the images looked all the same although the camera of my smartphones had improved and I was quite disappointed about this insufficient memory – often of bands I used to listen to for decades. The pictures – mostly of Hardcore-influenced or Metal-shows – were often shot from the back of the venue because I wasn’t willing to argue with those narrow-minded attendees hitting and kicking towards other people’s heads about the necessity of this stupid, dangerous behavior.

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One-time-only Reunion Show of Days In Grief, shot with a Samsung Galaxy Note 3

I felt completely saddened and reflected that after 21 years of visiting concerts I finally found myself in the farthest corner of the venues, seeing nothing and taking care of my (and others…I’m not good at seeing people suffering) health, waiting for it all to be over soon instead of enjoying the show as I did when it all started. Is this really all it is left?

Music has been around ever since and highly important for me. I remembered how cool it was to see pictures of shows I played as a musician taken by concert-photographers, even the first one my mother shot secretly hidden in the dark with a pocket-camera because I had forbidden her being there (when you’re 16 your mother is the last person you want to attend your first concert^^). I’ve been searching for a new impulse, a new motivation to visit concerts and opening the concert-photographer door seemed to be a feasible option. Getting in touch with artists, experiencing shows differently, standing in the front-row or even photo-pit, having clear images to keep as a memory and even offer them to others…that sounded like a good idea. By 2016 I started my own independent music blog to memorize music I love and separate these memories from social networks like Facebook which became more and more annoying for me (I work in the digital communications sector). This was the first step of refueling my passion for music again which I hardly recognized myself. This should become the first step of my “musical rebirth”.

So I started my research on Google and found several websites offering information and tutorials on concert-photography. One outstanding publication has been Matthias’ “How To Become A Rockstar Photographer”-project. At that time during daytime, I found myself in a new full-time-job unsure where it might lead me equal to Matthias’ situation when he decided to start something new. I needed a compensation (because quitting my job without further knowledge about photography except of some black and white-stuff with compact-cameras 15 years ago and playing around with a Nikon Coolpix in the early 2000s was no option) and read a lot of his articles. I felt confident that I could learn the basics and find my way into that new territory.

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My first Nikon from 2001 and the Nikon D750 purchased used 2016

A few chats later with friends who take photos on a semi-professional basis and who had already taken pictures of me on stage I found myself buying a used Nikon D750 full-frame camera and a 50mm f/1,8 Nikon lens – the legendary “nifty fifty”. Of course, you could start with cheaper equipment but I told myself “All or nothing!” having in mind that I might need this to force myself remain motivated (and in case of concert-photography is not my kind of thing the loss of value won’t be so high when reselling the equipment). Read more about gear for starters on a budget here. 

Ok, so it’s all lying in front of me on the table, settings basically adjusted with the help of Matthias’ articles (Must-Have settings for Concert Photography) and some Nikon D750-specific (but not concert-related) Youtube-tutorials, having basically understood the difference between aperture, shutter-speed, ISO and focal-length and I also read articles about the behaviour and etiquette of photographers at shows. I didn’t want to be a similar pain in the ass for the audience like those dudes who were responsible for my escape to the back of the venues. But what now?

I remembered that a friend of mine wanted to shoot a local band-contest and she asked the promoter if it’s okay to bring another camera. The promoter had no problem with two photographers and so my first challenge was set. This contest with 400-500 attendees, no photo-pit, and seven bands has been a completely new and massively exciting experience and I had never expected the pictures to be so sharp and personally satisfying. I caught people jumping, screaming, crowd surfing, laughing and having fun. That’s what I was looking for! Today I have another opinion about the results of course but they had been exactly the motivation I needed. A new passion was born.

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Stephan of Isaac Vacuum with his Touch Guitar, a guitar-/bass-hybrid, at the “Best Of Unsigned”-contest in Oberhausen, my first show, picture is unedited, Germany, April 2016

Now, around half a year later, about 26 full concerts and one 3-day festival later I’m shooting shows of international Rockstars just like The Amity Affliction, Pennywise, Beartooth, Agent Fresco or Veil Of Maya. I wouldn’t use the Hollywood-phrase that you can “achieve anything you like” – I faced a lot of closed doors and refusals of promoters as well as I struggled with post-processing a lot – but having confidence, constant improvement and not losing focus are three essentials when you’re targeting bigger shows and finding your way as concert-photographer, developing your personal style of portraying artists. Start small, think big. And don’t forget your roots. Small shows are fun as well, challenging and help to improve your skills.

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Josh of the Australian Progressive Metalcore-outfit Northlane in Cologne, Germany, December 2016

Maybe you’re in a similar situation like I was at the beginning of 2016 or just curious how quickly the passion can take over. So I’d like to share my personal experiences of the past six months with you, maybe as motivation, inspiration or whatever it could give you. Nothing’s set in stone, it’s just what I discovered, learned and experienced. I hope you find it interesting. Please let me know your thoughts afterward.

Assuming that you found a local show of a band you like (it’s easier for you creating the “perfect” shots which fit the artists when you can relate to the music, believe me) and you’ve got your gear ready. For an easier understanding of what a concert photographer’s “job” consists of I thought the following structure might be helpful and mainly reflects what I experienced.

 

Preparation

Are batteries all fully loaded? Lens(es) are cleaned? Earplugs in the pocket (because we all want to enjoy music as long as we live, right? Read my review about the best earplugs for concert photography here)? Got your ticket if the promoter or band could just offer a photo-pass (make sure you have your HTBARP Lanyard with you, eMail as backup always helps if issues occur at the door)? How about the traffic-situation (always try being earlier than too late)? Is the concert sold out and you’d have to wait in a long queue (sometimes photographers can sneak in easier but sometimes you are just part of the regular crowd)?

I usually try to wear black. Always remember: The artist is the person people have paid for and not you jumping up and down in a white or pinkish shirt in front of the stage. And out of my personal experience as a musician on stage, it’s irritating when someone is always visible and pointing with a camera at you. Be invisible. This helps the artist to act naturally. If you like to self-advertise you can print your logo or Instagram-ID or whatever on the neck of your shirt or just put a piece of Gaffa-tape with readable information written on it on your clothes or camera-bag. Or get an HTBARP T-Shirt.

Check if a photographer is touring with the band and look out for his pictures. This helps you identify how the band interacts with each other and the audience and which perspectives they like or offer you for a great shot. If you’re aiming at e.g. being regrammed on Instagram the chance is low if they’ve got a tour-photographer so don’t be disappointed. Could be contract-related or it’s just a fair move by the band. If they don’t have one check which pictures of themselves they seem to like. Instagram and Facebook, as well as promotional pictures on the band’s website, help you find out if the guitarists and the bassist are all right-handed. Why you might wonder. Headstocks of guitars and basses often attract the camera’s auto-focus or hide the musicians face. This is interesting once but in the end, you want the artist’s face sharp :). On the other hand, professional musicians are often endorsed by guitar-manufacturers. Both want to see the – often beautiful – instruments as well as some die-hard fans especially in Tech- or Prog-Metal for example. And: Why take close-up portraits when the person on stage is interacting with an instrument? For 60 or more minutes they’re a unit and essential for the band. Most important in the end: Do your thing.

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Aaron Marshall of Intervals with his Aristides 060 SSS Aqua Green in Bochum, Germany, July 2016

Find out more about the typical light situation by checking previously published pictures of shows. Some bands like hiding in the dark or prefer tough back-lights (you might only shoot silhouettes then if all post-production attempts fail :/). This helps you choose your lenses, camera-settings, and position in front of the stage or at the venue somewhere.

 

At the venue

No photo-pit? In the best case, you were lucky and could get in with the first fans. Usually, this is the last moment when you might be told at the entrance the “First three songs, no flash”-rule. Sometimes security-guards repeat that or tell you about that procedure directly at the photo-pit. Usually, if no one mentions the rule during the application-processor at the entrance I keep shooting during the whole concert. Bands save the most interesting show-elements often until the end of the concert so the three song-rule is not always the guarantee for the best shots – unless you’re the band’s own photographer with special rights.

If there’s no photo-pit try to find a good spot. Sometimes in front of the stage with a slight move to the left seems to be a good position (remember the question if guitarists are left- or right-handed and how they carry their instrument?). If you start left or in the middle of the stage the chances are high that you get a good picture of the instrument AND the person playing it. Check who’s standing next to you although that might change quickly when everything starts. If it’s some drunken guy with a beer pouring it already over himself you might want to change the location…But keep in mind that at smaller shows stagediver usually jump off of the stage exactly there. If you want to be safe (as safe as you can get at a rock-concert ☺️), choose the left or right corner in front of the stage. Overexcited? Last chance to go to the toilet unless you don’t want to cross the whole club again during the show.

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Happy security-guard at Euroblast Festival 2016 in Cologne, Germany

Check the stage. Where are the musicians supposed to stand? Sometimes little markers made of tape let you identify the position of a drumset, mic-stand or pedal-/effect-board after the change-over of band 1 and 2 and so on. Some bands bring their own additional lights. I’ve experienced that these lights are often blinders or back-lights (logically when they’re standing on stage). You’ll hate them :D. White harsh light from behind the artists…Maybe you can see the setlist and make assumptions what could happen at song X or Y or you even know that the singer will jump into the crowd during song Z because your research has shown this behavior.

If you’re standing directly next to a speaker (consider those on stage as well) make sure you’ve got your earplugs (I use some earplugs from Alpine for 20 years now during concerts and parties and never had ringings in my ear) already put in your ears for the soundcheck. The weirdest noises appear during soundchecks ;).

If there’s a photo-pit find a spot where you can put your bag and other stuff like your jacket at without disturbing anyone or having to fear that someone might grab and steal your stuff. I’ve experienced photographers with bags in the pit and this is just rude and disturbing everyone. Don’t be like them. If there are other photographers around talk to them. It’s like in this early computer-game “Maniac Mansion” – the more you talk to people the more you learn and improve :). Maybe you know some people already from Instagram or Flickr but never knew how they look like. In the photo-pit it often becomes hectic and you might push others accidentally or you will be pushed. So it’s advantageous to know each other up front. I’ve met really nice people in the past few months and with a few, I chat sometimes about upcoming concerts, photo-editing, and other things. You can make new friends indeed. But just like in the usual human interaction you won’t harmonize with everyone and some could even consider you as rivals. That’s life, accept it and don’t stress yourself.

When the stage-manager appears on stage, flashes his mag-lite a few times pointing at the FOH and the music silences… breath deep, pick your camera which should be hanging around your shoulders (learn more about the best camera straps for concert photography here). It’s on!

 

During the show

Be kind. Always. To everybody. Photographers, audience, musicians. Securities are just doing their job and they even protect you from getting hit by crowd surfers shoes. Other photographers are just like you seeking for the best picture of the show and maybe they’re professionals and earn money with it. Understanding and respect are always good and you might even learn from what they do. Don’t disturb others but don’t be afraid of touching others.

Check your first pictures on the camera’s screen if you have to adjust certain settings. But from then on don’t flip through your shots again! I’ve missed some really cool moments because of my impatience. After the show, there’s much time to check them all.

Some musicians love interacting with photographers. Use it but keep your professional distance and don’t become part of the show or push your camera into the singer’s face just for “a funny picture”. He’s concentrating just like you and every mistake he makes because of you will be recognized by the audience, the management, the band and everyone who’s there to enjoy the show. Some people hate it when photographers point the lens towards them. If you’ve got the feeling they’re hiding or seem to feel uncomfortable take only a few shots and leave them alone. You won’t get the best pictures of your career then and what is more important the artist can do what he likes peacefully. Remember: You’re not part of the show.

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Timfy of Hacktivist motivating me to sing along with them in Cologne, Germany, November 2016

A band usually consists of more than one person. As cute as the singer might be or as damn beardy the guitarist never forget about the other members. You’ll be surprised how some people turn from calm personalities to raging storms on stage :). If there’s a photo-pit use it and change locations. Maybe take some classical shots e.g. directly in the middle of the stage when the singer bows down but also try new perspectives all the time. Turn around and watch the audience. Sometimes crowd-surfers make a good snap as well ;).

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Crowdsurfer at the The Amity Affliction-show in Cologne, December 2016

If the band uses a lot of back-light try to shoot the artist from the side. Some light rays will hit his or her face and you’ll have a nice profile instead of black front-silhouettes and weird blinding lights in your lens when shooting from the front. When there’s the three-song-rule try to count the songs so you can structure your plans of what or how to shoot the band. If the securities signalize you to leave the pit and you’ve just shot the drummer until then you’ll undoubtedly be disappointed.Most western music follows the 4/4 scheme try using it. In Melodic Hardcore or other related musical styles the so-called breakdown-parts have the most intense moments at their beginnings, so starting on 4 with a break or more often with a smashing part on 1. Usually, some members jump up or whirl their instruments around or do other things which look cool and exciting in the photo. Make sure your shutter-time is set to 1/320 or higher for sharp images.

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Kurt Travis, formerly of Dance Gavin Dance at their Anniversary show in Cologne, throwing his microphone surprisingly up in the air, November 2016

 

Are there other things on stage which deserve a photo? Artfully written setlist, the bass drum head with the band’s logo, special drinks of the singer…and if possible try taking a picture of the whole stage including the audience. In the end, it’s not a fake promo-shooting in an empty venue with close-ups but a boiling venue with hundreds or thousands of people jumping, screaming and having a good time. Worth a memory. And with a pro-camera, these pictures also look better than with smartphones.

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Video-art supporting the show of solo-artist Syndrome, Cologne, Germany, October 2016

In the age of DSLR’s, it doesn’t matter if you take 400 or 2.000 pictures. For critical moments e.g. of people jumping or headbanging with long hair I push the shutter button continuously for six or seven pictures in a row (whatever your gear offers). One or two good ones are the result. But: You should avoid loading dozens of memory cards with thousands of pictures. Choose your scenes/motifs with determination instead of wild and uncontrolled continuous shots during the whole show. It’s annoying for everybody, you won’t remember special moments and nobody wants to review 4378 pictures of one band to find the best ones for editing. I usually take between 250 and 500 pictures per band, depending on the artist’s show. Saves memory and time and with 15-40 pictures (publishing usually less than 10) I always had enough so-called “keepers” :).

When you’re in the photo-pit and it’s time to leave you might be confronted with a strange procedure which seems quite common and paranoid somehow: Another photographer told me that sometimes you have to hand over your gear after three songs or after the third song of the final band to the security guys. Giving away your stuff that might cost a few thousand dollars isn’t a good feeling after all. Luckily at that one show which was quite huge, we were even allowed to keep shooting from the audience. Not sure if it’s allowed but I would’ve even asked if I could take the memory cards out of the camera. In case the gear gets stolen I would’ve saved the images at least.

Something new I try to remember: Keep both eyes open. With one eye I focus on stuff through the viewfinder, with the other I try to recognize other things happening or guessing special moments. It’s not as easy but sometimes it helps to switch from shooting one not so interesting gesture of one artist to sudden moves of another.

 

Post-processing/Editing/Publishing

To be honest I didn’t edit the pictures of my first show. I thought I could be a photo-artist who either shoots great pictures or none at all. The editing seemed a bit like cheating. I had sent way too many of those “awesome” pictures to the bands. They looked great in my eyes and I was over-enthusiastic. But let’s be honest: We’re at concerts and not outside shooting in daylight. With every show, I gladly became pickier and tried a few tools for editing because the light-situations weren’t always as good as at my first show.

Starting with Apple’s “Preview” MacApp I edited the pictures slightly and cropped them when necessary. But the options were limited and the whole process took too much time. So I switched to Adobe’s “Camera Raw” and discovered many new options and chances of even rescuing pictures which appeared to be completely miserable. The process of saving images was also much smoother. Still, I didn’t want to add watermarks manually (I’m not a big fan of watermarks though because they often ruin the composition but for thievery-kingdoms like Facebook it seemed inevitable). I couldn’t find an easy and cheap software for the Mac so I transferred the pictures to my iPad and added the watermark in an app called “One Edit Pro” which is available for a low price. It’s quite easy for batch image processing and works with cloud-services such as Google Drive. Looking back at this now I can only shake my head that I had lost so many hours with this process. Edit every single image from scratch with no presets saved, add watermark to a new device…weird.

So I decided to purchase the standalone-version of “Adobe Lightroom” (because I don’t need Photoshop or the other services of Adobe’s Creative Cloud) which pays off after one year compared to the price of Adobe’s “Creative Cloud” solution. Finally, I could use Matthias’ Black and White-Lightroom Presets and get more out of those pictures which were bloodred-soaked or had other light-”accidents”.

After some hardware-incapabilities, angry fights and swearing while setting up Lightroom it finally worked and new horizons were in sight. Playing around with all those sliders and knobs seemed like an army of magical wands making a lot of wishes come true. Usually, I edited 2-3 pictures of a show manually then, saved the settings and used them for the rest of the pictures with slight adaptions. After a few shows, I had a collection of presets which I could use for the majority of new shows although the light has always been different. Maybe there won’t be the essential preset-collection for every occasion (which would bore me btw because I like the pictures to be unique for every concert or band) but it helps to start off with a solid foundation which inspires as well. Adding watermarks, also for another online-magazine I write and shoot for, became easy and with this new process, I saved about 60% of my time I had previously wasted.

To have the edited pictures at hand when I need them I save them to Google Drive. All RAW-files and the edited states are saved to an external HDD to keep the computer clean, fast and working properly (short notice: Nowadays I’m using external HDDs, a Synology NAS and Amazon Drive which offers free unlimited space for Prime customers for images even in RAW).

 

The edited material is worth nothing when nobody has the chance to see it. So when it comes to publishing I currently run four preferred channels:

  1. Online-magazine

As mentioned I started working for an online-magazine (www.time-for-metal.eu) with writing reviews for CDs (which I did ten years ago as well but had no serious plans) and concerts as well as doing interviews. It’s a quite reliable way for receiving accreditations and you reach a lot of people with your work. And you can build a cool network. Here I write reviews and upload a selection of the edited photos.

  1. Instagram

Quick posts, a short story behind the picture and with hashtags and tagging the involved parties artists, labels, venues…they’re all addressed easily and often see your work and respond with a like, share or comment. Direct communication and quick (but mostly superficial) feedback.

  1. Facebook

If you’re not on Facebook you’re not existing. Sounds disgusting but some people think that way. During the daytime, I work in the digital communications field and know about the relevance of this network. Nonetheless, I hate it because their algorithms decide whether you’re a part of the user’s timeline or not. Or you can pay to optimize your chances of being recognized. Music or culture, in general, should be available for everybody, unfiltered by revenue-seeking companies who dictate today’s topics. Similar to Instagram (which is adapting the algorithms of the parent company Facebook more and more) a fan-page on Facebook allows immediate reactions and a broader media penetration. Another advantage is the possibility to create folders for the shows unlike to Instagram where all pictures are displayed only structured by the date of publication.

  1. My own website

Don’t rely on third party-services and maybe give away the rights to your pictures. An own website or blog is essential to remain independent and to build a unique portfolio. I’m currently using WordPress with a free theme running on my own webspace. There’s no need to have coding-skills. WordPress is a convenient way of creating and managing a website following the WYSIWYG-principle (what you see is what you get). And you can write or edit posts while you’re on the road. Most important thing: A mobile-friendly theme so visitors can check your work everytime and everywhere. It’s 2016/2017 and people don’t want to zoom on mobile devices. And Google ranks you lower when your website isn’t mobile-optimized.

If a free theme doesn’t follow your needs websites like Theme Forest offer customizable themes for 50$. Currently, I find myself putting my photos-section of my blog in second place but this has to be changed soon for I’ve got enough material for building a versatile portfolio now. It’s always nice and even important when you apply for e.g. accreditations to have a proper portfolio to show.

As mentioned earlier nothing you’ve read so far is set in stone. It’s a conclusion of what I had experienced and learned in the past few months. It’s been a wild ride with a lot of challenges, personally and professionally. But I’m glad I took the chances, met new people, made new friends, learned new things, even about myself. All of this may sound stressful and inflexible. But being organized offers you the widest range of flexibility during the concert itself. And you’ll win time for chats in the park with friends instead of sitting in the dark in front of your monitor ;).

If there’s one thing of which I’d say counts the most I think it would be “Be passionate!”. I know this may sound like a dumb human resources department-phrase during a job interview, but this time YOU decide the what, where and when in contrary to a company offering workspaces. Concert photography is fun as it is work at the same time. Concentration is a big part of it but the result of all stress is overwhelming.

Don’t be disappointed. Never, about anything. Passion opens new doors, inspires you, prevents from getting bored. You can’t go wrong. If a picture doesn’t turn out the way you had expected it re-adjust the settings or choose a new one – or shoot a new show. The possibilities are unlimited and no one can tell you if your work is wrong or right because you’re the artist and had a specific idea in mind. Check other photographers work to become inspired – but never copy!

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Me captured by André Symann (www.sieben48.de) at Euroblast 2016 chatting with a fan, Cologne, Germany October 2016

With concert photography, I retrieved my passion for live music and added some new, interesting and challenging aspects. It’s the best thing that had happened to me in 2017 and I’m curious what’s up next.

 

Closing words:

Now, in January 2018, I can look back on 46 concerts of around 123 single shows and six festivals in six countries in 2017. So you see the passion is still there although it’s tough sometimes. But it gives back so much that I wouldn’t trade for anything. I’ve received positive feedback from friends, photographers, fans, management, agencies, and bands and reached new goals like doing a stage-shot for one of my favorite bands and I even got published in Matthias’ #HTBARP Werkschau No. 2. It feels as if it’s developing as I dreamed of.

If my story has inspired you to start your passion for concert photography or enhances your skills check out Matthias’ “Shooting the Rockstars” Academy and tutorials.

Follow Sebastian:

Homepage: www.quintenquist.com

Facebook: www.facebook.com/konzertphotographie

Instagram: www.instagram.com/quintenquistcom

Twitter: www.twitter.com/quintenquistcom