Lighting & Composition

Music Photography – Shooting the Big Stage

I recently wrote about the pros and cons of shooting from the hallowed photographers pit at gigs. Of course, the main benefit of shooting from the pit is to get close. But what do you do when you have a pass to the photo pit, but upon arrival, you find you’re still not very close? This happened to me recently when I went to shoot The Who in Hyde Park as part of the British Summer Time festival. My usual music photography habitat is very different to the scene that greeted me as I was ushered into the “pit” at the foot of the towering Hyde Park stage to shoot the first support act. The night before I had been shooting The Gaslamp Killer Experience at KOKO in London (a reasonably-sized venue with capacity of about 1,500) with a pass that allowed me to shoot at a distance of about 2 metres from the GKE’s charismatic leader, William Benjamin Bensussen (photo below).

When you can’t get this close.

I gazed up at the stage, much (I imagine) as a mountaineer does before climbing a particularly daunting peak. And many of my fellow photographers were equipped not unlike mountaineers. None of them had actual crampons, but many were carrying seriously big ladders. I had brought a modest fold-up stool, raising me perhaps one foot off the ground. These guys were getting an extra four, perhaps five, feet. The advantage given by these ladders is twofold: they allow the photographer to reduce the up-nose angle and they minimise the frame-presence of much of the equipment at the front of the stage. One leading agency photographer was complaining quite vociferously to the organisers about a moving video camera (and cameraman) that had been installed on a rail that morning, giving us yet another obstacle (this one a moving one) to a clear shot. Without a ladder, a workaround to avoid up-nose angle and stage clutter is to move further back. But then to do that you need a long lens, which in turn creates its own problems. I had a 400mm lens, which I used from further back than most of the other photographers, but it meant I had to shoot at a fast shutter speed to avoid shake and also it meant those shots looked slightly “flat”.

A photographer not used to shooting music on a large stage might think their creative options are a lot more limited than on a smaller stage. But rather than finding excuses, the situation demands different skills and greater resourcefulness. On any sized stage, the photographer has to watch what’s going on and be ready to capture something interesting. But on a big stage, there’s less flexibility to vary focal length and composition so those little moments of interest have added importance – these can be the smallest gesture or a particular look from the artist and you have to be patient to capture those moments.

The smallest gesture: Johnny Marr.

But the big stage does also require a particular approach. When I got home and compared my shots with the images filed by some of the more seasoned big-stage photographers, I realised one or two tricks that I’d missed. One of these photographers was Ian West and you can see a selection of his photos from the day here. Ian made really good use of the changing imagery on the big screen behind the artists. Two shots in particular suggested he was keeping a keen eye on the variety of images flashing up behind the band: one where the classic Who logo appeared behind Roger Daltrey and the other where a huge headshot of the late Keith Moon provided a massive backdrop for both Daltrey and Pete Townsend. I had been aware of using the background at the beginning of The Who’s set (I got a shot of the whole band with the logo for their 50th anniversary tour behind them) but had forgotten about it later.

Watch that big screen.

Another clever thing Ian did was to capture some blur around Pete Townsend’s classic windmill guitar action. To do this, he must have slowed his shutter speed, but that would only have been possible if he’d managed to get closer with a shorter lens (thanks to his ladder). Using my 400mm lens with a shutter speed slower than 1/200 would have probably caused camera shake. I got the arm action but without the suggestion of movement.

The classic windmill Townsend shot (without blur).

The downside to shooting from a ladder is a lack of mobility. And this can mean missing a shot if you’re unable to move quickly. Being in the right place at the right time can be more a case of luck than judgement, but when you sense an artist is about to go roaming (as Ricky Wilson did below), it might be a good idea to descend the ladder so you can move into place.

Be ready for when the artist goes roaming.

If you’re lucky enough to get a pass for a big stage, congratulations! You’re probably in a position to sell the photos you take – after all, those artists are on the big stage because the world wants to see them (in pictures as well as in real life). But if you look around at the forty or so other photographers taking the same photos in the same pit and wonder why anyone would buy your photos over theirs, especially when your creative possibilities are so limited, remember you just have to use a different set of skills to those you use in smaller venues.

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