Live music photography (also known as concert photography) is one of the most exciting and gratifying genres of photography. Granted, it’s not for everyone and it requires a lot of work in not-so-ideal conditions. However, if you’re up for a challenge, you could find it rewarding and capture some rather unique and interesting shots. But behind every shot from the pit, there are some basic standards and sometimes unwritten codes of conduct that every photographer should adhere to.
David Bergman is one of the industry’s top live music photographers. He is currently working as the tour photographer for country superstar Luke Combs and was also Bon Jovi’s tour photographer. He offers a unique opportunity to learn how to shoot concerts in an exclusive workshop in which he covers everything from action photography, gear, and of course, pit etiquette.
After shooting several concerts, I’ve seen the best and the worst in photographer etiquette. You can tell from their behavior whether they practice common courtesy in the photo pit. Don’t get me wrong, I know a lot of photographers who do what it takes to get the shot even if it pushes the envelope on photo etiquette, myself included. However, there are some basic practices that all photographers should adhere to and be mindful of especially when shooting from the photo pit.
Whether you’re a seasoned pro or just starting off, everyone who shoots from the photo pit could benefit from reviewing and remembering some basic photo pit etiquette. In addition to the standard “three from the pit, no flash” (being allowed to cover three songs from the photographers’ area with no flash photography allowed), there are other standards that we as photographers should always keep in mind. I’ve compiled a few helpful tips based on my experience and from some industry professionals.
First and foremost, always remember to be respectful. By this I mean respect other photographers, respect the artist you are photographing, respect the audience who paid to see the performances, and respect the event staff, especially the security guards.
We all get anxious and try to position ourselves in the right spot hoping to get the perfect shot. However, you have to remember that the photo pit is a work area. You should always be mindful of your surroundings and who is around you. I’ve practiced the technique of shooting with both eyes open, especially when shooting sporting events or anything that is fast-actioned. No exception here. Shooting with both eyes open will give you a better sight of what’s going on onstage and off.
When in the photo pit, it’s worth repeating that you have to be aware of your surroundings at all times. It is helpful to walk around the pit area before the show if possible. Look through your viewfinder from different angles and areas so you have an idea of what you’re going to shoot. Take note of where the mic stands are because that is a good indicator of where a band member is going to be. When it comes time to shoot, you’ll have an idea of where you need to be and where to shoot from.
When the show starts, don’t get upset if your scouted spot is taken. It’ll most likely open up as other photographers start moving around. If it doesn’t open up, it’s okay to shoot near or next to the other photographer. Common courtesy usually prevails here and more often than not, the other photographer will move to let you in. It doesn’t hurt to ask either.
As you are moving around the pit, duck around so you aren’t in other photographers’ shots. If you see a photographer actively shooting, either go around them or duck when passing in front of them. A simple tap on their shoulder or a gentle hand on the back will help them know where you are and where you are going.
One thing that is often forgotten is that the photo pit is a working area. Steve Brazill, house photographer for Toyota Arena in Los Angeles, and live music photographer for Live Nation and KCAL radio, mentions, “That special area between the fans and the stage is a work area, and we should always remember that.” He adds, “The point is that you should be there to work, capture usable images (or video if your credentials allow), and respect the others there doing their job.”
I think the idea that people are working is lost once the music starts and photographers try to capture as many images as possible. If you get one thing out of this article, I hope that you remember the key concept of respect.
This relates to the first one, you have to keep moving. Just because you found the sweet spot for a shot doesn’t mean you have to park there and shoot for the duration of your allotted time. You should keep moving and shoot from different angles and different areas of the pit. Sure, center stage is probably the best area to shoot from, but you should give other photographers the opportunity to shoot from the prime location.
I’ve actually found several areas that are ideal to shoot from other than front and center. Moving back in the center alley is also a good place to shoot either wide angle or zoomed in to one of the performers.
Sometimes, the photo pit may be cramped and crowded, limiting your ability to move around. If that’s the case try to switch spots with other photographers to get different perspectives. Getting to know some of the photographers beforehand will be helpful in moving around the pit. Building a camaraderie with other photographers not only offers mutual respect for each other, but it also expands your network with other like-minded professionals.
If you aren’t able to move around much, you’ll be forced to keep a small footprint in the pit. David Bergman points out, “The pit can be very tight with a lot of people jockeying for position in a short amount of time. Don’t wear a backpack because none of your fellow photographers will be able to get past you. You also might take out a few fans when you try to turn around. Wear your cameras on your shoulders or hips and use a small waist bag if you need to carry an extra lens or other items.”
Steve Brazill adds, “If you want to have multiple lenses with you consider something like the Think Tank Belt System, which is what I use. You could also use a sling or messenger-style bag. With these types of bags you can change the position (front, behind, side) as you move.”
I usually use a backpack to carry all my gear. Once I’m in the pit, I leave it in front of the stage off either side or behind one of the speakers. This is where getting to know the security guards is useful. I’ve mentioned to security guards that I’m leaving my bag there and will grab it on my way out. This is helpful since they know it’s there and who it belongs to.
This one goes without saying. Some events actually have signs that state No Flash. If there isn’t a sign, shoot under the assumption that flash photography is restricted. Shooting with a flash can be distracting to the performers and the audience.
Before the show starts, it’s usually okay to take some shots of the crowd and to use a flash. However, once the show starts, turn it off or put it away. Some venues will actually kick out a photographer who uses their flash. Don’t be that person. Even if your credentials allow it and both the venue and artist allows it, common courtesy should prevail here and refrain from using flash.
With today’s mirrorless cameras, you should be able to shoot with a relatively high ISO setting without adding too much noise or grain. Additionally, most photo editors do a decent job of reducing noise to an acceptable level that doesn’t degrade image quality. If you are shooting with an older DLSR, you can still get good photos with high ISO. I surprised myself when I shot with a Canon 5DMiii using a 24-70mm f/2.8 lens and the ISO set at 6400. The image quality was not as bad as I thought it would be after a little post-editing in Lightroom.
In addition to using higher ISO settings, it’s helpful to use a fast lens. Lenses with lower aperture numbers (f/1.2 to f/2.8) are almost a must when shooting in low-light conditions like concerts. Their ability to open up wider will allow more light into the lens and help compensate for the dark environment.
Most live music photographers will use fast lenses and some also use versatile lenses such as the 24-105mm f/4. This is a go-to lens for many professionals due to its range in focal length. Even at f/4, it can let in sufficient amounts of light, especially when paired with the right ISO setting. It’s helpful to know your exposure triangle for these situations.
Don’t be a Fan
It can be easy to get caught up in the moment of being in the photo pit. After all, you are up close and personal with the performers and have one of the best seats in the house. It makes it harder if you’re a fan of the band or musician because you can get overwhelmed with excitement. However, you have to remind yourself that you have a job to do.
As I mentioned earlier, the pit is a work area. Maintaining good work ethics and professionalism will speak volumes for your character and earn you respect from other photographers and event staff.
With a limited time to shoot, you should be constantly shooting and moving, you shouldn’t be dancing in the pit because they’re playing one of your favorite songs. Besides, dancing around in the pit could interfere with other photographers and event staff. The last thing you want is to bump into a photographer and mess up his or her shot. Now you have a colleague upset at you.
At one event, there was a fan with a child holding a sign asking for a set list from the band. One of the band members threw it toward him but it fell into the pit. Another photographer picked it up and handed it to the waiting fan. That photographer handled it as a true professional.
I’ve seen photographers hand guitar picks, scarves, and other items to the fans when they landed in the photo pit. It would be too easy to keep these souvenirs but remember, you’re there to work and not be a fan. If you find yourself in a situation like this, make a lasting impression on a fan and pay it forward. You may not get to keep a souvenir but you will walk away with some amazing shots that the fans won’t have. It’s a good trade-off in my opinion.
At most events, you may have noticed the stagehands usually wear black. This helps minimize their visibility as they move around the stage. As a live music photographer, you should wear stage black or dark colors. This should be the case in both indoor and outdoor venues. Of course, you should wear weather-appropriate clothing but they should be dark colored for all situations. You should never wear bright-colored shirts or pants, nor should you wear anything that stands out or calls for attention. The goal is to blend in and not cause a distraction to performers or the audience.
One thing I see many people take for granted is the use of good-quality earplugs. Most of the event staff in front of the stage wear earplugs. Although I have seen some security staff not wear them. My advice is to buy a good quality pair that has a high decibel rating. Even though you’re shooting for only three songs, you will be subjected to some loud music that can damage your hearing.
I’ve taken shots while standing in front of a stage speaker and I could feel my body pulse and shake with each beat. If I didn’t have my earplugs, I probably would have caused some serious damage to my hearing. I make it a point to not stay in front of speakers too long. It’s good practice to have a couple of sets just in case you lose one in between shooting.
Most of these tips could be summed up with one word. Respect. I can’t stress it enough that being respectful in the photo pit will make your job easier. Get to know the other photographers. There’s a good chance that you will be shooting alongside them at other events. They can be an asset by sharing their tips and tricks for other venues and pointing out highlights for certain acts.
About the author: Mario Supnet is a photographer and grant writer based in Las Vegas, Nevada. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can find more of his work on his website and Instagram.
Image credits: Photographs by Mario Supnet