“You can tell everyone has missed it during the pandemic—the performers, the audience, even the staff. We’ve missed the energy, and it makes gathering together even more powerful, which leads to powerful images.”
In the fall, she attended Rolling Loud in New York on assignment from Rolling Stone. “I was backstage and introduced myself to her manager,” she remembers. “He asked if I wanted an artist’s pass and to enter the artist lounge to photograph her portrait. I follow him, and I find myself in the car with six people, including Young M.A. herself. High off her energising performance, she shouted in celebration of a successful comeback.”
Following months of lockdowns and closures, it was an experience Eva will never forget, and perhaps it’s also one that deepened her passion for what she does. “It was such a private moment of celebration that I, a complete stranger, felt so lucky to witness,” she says.
In honour of the return of live music, we interviewed four pro photographers: Eva Woolridge, Deneka Peniston, Natalie Perez, and Lucy Foster, to get their tips for capturing the beauty and joy of concerts.
1. Start small
“I find that new photographers entering the music scene expect that the best shows to photograph are the biggest shows—that you’ll get more recognition only concentrating on getting access to the shows at, let’s say, Madison Square Garden,” Eva explains. “But that’s a misconception. I started my career covering smaller venues, and I had endless opportunities to capture raw energy in a more intimate space.
“And there’s a higher chance of building relationships at smaller venues. I’d get access to jump on stage and capture up close and personal shots of the performers interacting with their audience.” One of her favourite memories is from Afro-punk’s Battle of the Bands in Brooklyn, where she connected with Tank and The Bangas. “I proposed an impromptu photoshoot in my Harlem apartment,” she remembers now. “They were down, and a week later, we spent about three hours shooting, singing, and collaborating visually. Three years later, they became GRAMMY-nominated for Best New Artist.”
2. Put yourself out there
Local publications and radio stations are key for gaining access to bands and concert venues, so it’s important for emerging photographers to reach out and connect with industry leaders in their communities. “I began shooting for WRXP and then Hot 97, and that put me in the space with the artists and, more importantly, their teams,” Deneka Peniston, a genre-defying photographer based in New York, tells us. Feel free to advocate for yourself and ask about going backstage; it’s something she wishes she’d done more of early in her career.
“Shooting in local venues also posed an opportunity to meet up-and-coming new artists and their managers face to face,” Deneka continues. “After the show, I’d upload the images to social media and tag the artists. That’s the most organic way to build your profile, but it requires a bit of an A&R or talent scouting sensibility. Predicting the success of an artist can be tricky, but I wasn’t really thinking in those terms when I started. I just loved what I loved and followed the bands and artists that I enjoyed.”
3. Find a community
Natalie Perez, a photographer based in Dallas, got her start working for music publications, which allowed her to build connections with PR and press contacts for artists. This was the beginning, but connecting with other photographers also proved invaluable in the early days. “I always encourage creatives to get involved in their own respective communities,” she says. “Introduce yourself to fellow photographers in the photo pit and connect online. You’ll learn so much; plus, I’ve landed plenty of gigs and opportunities through fellow music photographers and vice versa.”
4. Be patient and persistent
Connecting with a publication or radio station is easier said than done, so look at it as a marathon rather than a sprint. “My biggest tip for up-and-coming music photographers is to celebrate the little wins along the way,” Lucy Foster, a music and portrait photographer based in Dublin, says. “It can take a really long time to build up a strong portfolio and get people to pay attention to your work.
“I sent off so many emails when I started out, asking if I could shoot for different bands, and most of the time, I never heard anything back. I remember, after a while, I started getting more responses. Even if they were turning me down, I always felt like it was a good thing that they were taking the time to respond to me, rather than just ignoring my email. Being able to celebrate the small progressions along the way was so helpful.”
5. Do your research
This one’s another tip from Deneka. “Look at the band/Artist/musician’s live performances on YouTube beforehand,” she suggests. “Specifically, for vocalists, take note of which hand they tend to hold the mic in, and make sure to be on the opposite side when arriving in the pit or stage front so that their hand isn’t blocking their mouth in your shots. There’s nothing worse than being on the wrong side and having to work your way through the crowd or waiting for them to turn your way.”
6. Boost your ISO
Low light is always an issue when shooting in concert venues, so feel free to crank up your ISO. “It’s a known fact that high ISO produces grainy images, but newer cameras have great low-light tolerance and create clear images even with ISO set at 4,000 and above,” Natalie says. “Especially in smaller, dimly lit venues, high ISO is going to allow you to use a faster shutter speed and freeze action to produce sharper images.”
7. Know your light
Speaking of light, colour can also be an issue, so study the light in your local venues and learn to work with its quirks. “I started this journey by shooting in local venues to learn how to manage low light situations, and since most of the clubs didn’t really change their lighting too much, I created my own user presets per venue and then per colour,” Deneka explains. “So, for example, I made a preset labeled “Arlene’s Red” for Arlene’s Grocery’s red stage lighting so that processing photos from that venue would be easier in the future.”
While post-production does help, Deneka also suggests getting it right in camera, as much as possible. “On the technical side, I like to create a Picture Style specifically for indoor venues in my camera: increase the sharpness by (1) and reduce the contrast, saturation, and tone by (2),” Deneka says. “Shooting flat allows you to control those saturated stage light colours, especially the dreaded reds, in post. You can always add colour, but taking it away can be problematic.”
8. Memorise your shot list
After researching the artist and scouting the venue, come up with a shot list to follow. You can always improvise and add to the list in the moment, but these shots will form the foundation of your set. When Deneka was shooting concerts regularly, she’d aim for hero shots of each individual band member; a shot of the entire band (“get high if possible for this one,” she advises); a shot of the band and audience; shots of the audience individually and with the band (a 16-35mm is best for these); a shot with creative light; and, her favourite, shots of the artists connecting with each other on stage.
9. Forge lasting friendships
The first step is always showing up. “I think the best way to build up contacts in the industry is to actively go to shows, meet other photographers, and get in touch with bands and managers,” Lucy says. “Find out who’s playing in your local venues, and send an email to the band asking if you can shoot to build up your portfolio.
“After the gig, show them your photos. If they like them, you’ve made that contact, and more opportunities can come from that. It’s important to be respectful too, obviously. No one is going to respond well to being hounded, and not every contact you make is going to lead to a job. It’s a pretty solitary career anyway, so it’s important to make friends with people in the industry and not view everyone as a potential client.”
In the end, it’s those friendships that have sustained her. “The best part of concerts coming back, for me, has been getting to see friends again that I hadn’t seen since before lockdown,” Lucy tells us. “It’s been great to see other music photographer friends posting current work again. I feel like there’s a renewed sense of excitement and enthusiasm within the community. It’s been a much slower comeback here in Ireland, so I’ve only been to a handful of gigs, but I’m looking forward to getting back in the pit more in 2022.”
About the contributor
Feature Shoot showcases the work of international emerging and established photographers who are transforming the medium through compelling, cutting-edge projects, with contributing writers from all over the world.