When I left for the venue, my only plan was to take my 9 year-old daughter Chloe to see Ivan & Alyosha for the first time. A mere 10 minutes before we left I had purchased our tickets because with kids these things are always best left as game-time decisions. Chloe was excited to go, so green light. I shot Ryan a text, “Hey man. I’m headed to the show. You guys want photos?” By the time I parked the car, there was an all access pass waiting for me with a +1 for Chloe. We now had a mission. Good thing I had thrown my camera bag in the car.
Confession: I have never shot a concert before.
I have this habit of getting myself into situations that are a bit over my head. There was the time I booked a show before I had a band. There was the time I quit my job with nothing else lined up. There’s a handful of others, some successful, others not. But I felt ok about this time because I’m friends with the band, they know I tote my camera around everywhere I go, and I’ve spent a lot of time as a musician on stage. I’m familiar with how these things go, and I was thinking it’d be really fun to be on the other side of the camera for once.
I only took two lenses with me. A Rokinon 12mm f/2.0 and a Fujinon 56mm f/1.2. I shoot a Fuji XT-2, a crop sensor body. If you know anything about photography you know that means that I gave myself two options on the extreme ends of the photographic spectrum: super wide angle and telephoto.
You may say to yourself “MY GOD! WHAT HAVE I DONE!?” -Talking Heads
I’m a believer in intentional constraints. Having a never ending palette of things to chose from only ever leads me to decision paralysis. I don’t have a huge collection of lenses, but even if I brought all of them, the bag would be too heavy and I’d have too many decisions to make during a live event. That means I’d be slow. I don’t want to be slow. I had a few thoughts:
- Don’t do the easy thing. I don’t know why, but I often start here with most things in my life. Just ask my wife. In this case it meant taking the 35mm equivalent (Fujinon 23mm f/2.0) out of my bag. Check.
- Optimize for low light. f/1.2 is about as low-light friendly you can get out of any lens. The 56mm (or 84mm equivalent) is in. Check.
- Make sure the lenses aren’t at all similar. If I already have an 85mm equivalent, I don’t need anything longer, sooo…SUPER WIDE! I reached for the 12mm (18mm equivalent). Check.
I had my gear sorted, but you know what? Good gear in the hands of the inexperienced isn’t going to guarantee good results. At this point I began to wonder whether or not I could actually make photos that anybody would connect with. I wondered if the band would like them. I wondered if I would make anything that I thought was interesting and good. There was only one way to find out and the show was starting. First up, Zach Bolen.
I spent their first few songs working around the venue to try to find interesting shots and angles. I learned a few things right away:
- The light was awesome. This was super encouraging. With good light, creative possibilities expand.
- Getting close to the front of the stage was going to be impossible. I’d have to get the front/center up close shot some other way.
- I was glad I had brought the 12mm. Not quite sure about the 56mm. (Why did I not do the easy thing?!)
Between sets I stopped and talked with Matt Kenelly, Cam Tomisser, and Rob McCarty, all photographer friends of mine who were there. Rob was also shooting, we showed each other what we had done so far. It’s awesome to have friends to talk stuff out with.
Did I mention I had Chloe with me this whole time? She tagged along EVERYWHERE I went like a champ and did not complain once. Get that girl some ice cream!
I was back stage with the band when their walk-on music started playing. “Hey Jeff!” Jeff is the band’s tour manager. “Do you mind if I go out with the band? I’d like to get some behind the band shots with the crowd in the background.”
“Uhm…sure? Just stay out of their way.”
“Got it. Thanks!”
I started wide, 12mm, right behind Cole (drummer). Looking through the frame and seeing the full house behind the band, the phrase I’m not a member of the band was running through my mind. Though I wanted to tell the story of how the band starts their set, I also wanted to not be added stage clutter. It’s important to let the band be in their moment and not disrupt that. Plus, Chloe had to wait side stage while I was out there. So, I got the shots and got off stage and headed for a different angle.
Crisp shots are boring. Once the 56mm was on, I made sure to slow down my shutter speed. To me, one of the most captivating storytelling elements in a photograph is motion. I moved to the center of the floor.
Man, the light was good. Grant Greer was the one responsible for that. Well done, Grant. Time to head stage left.
At one point, Chloe just leaned her head against me and sighed. She was really tired. Duly noted. We’re almost done, sweetie. Let’s head up stairs.
Every now and then you get lucky and capture a moment. This moment in the next shot says a lot about the band. These guys play with passion and joy. When I showed it to Pete (bass) on Sunday, he smiled big, “For Ryan to be smiling, someone must have hit a wrong note.” Ha!
I really dig the two different perspectives the two lenses give with the balcony shots. The wide angle puts you in the theater as part of the crowd and focuses your attention on the action. The telephoto pulls you closer to the stage. You can see facial expressions. There’s a connection happening.
Chloe is fading fast, time to head back downstairs.
I love how natural barriers can focus a shot. I shot this through the side stage curtain and loved how it felt in black & white. Matt & I were chatting about how monochrome concert photography invites the viewer’s imagination into the story. There’s something to that.
Though I wanted to stay, Chloe needed to get home and go to sleep. I expected her to crash the moment we got into the car. Instead, a sweet little voice said “Daaaaaaad…can I put some music on?”
“Sure sweetie.” I handed her my phone.
The music came on. It was Dove Cameron. The Descendant’s soundtrack has been a favorite among the 9 year-old girl demographic in my house as of late. So, we rocked out to Dove Cameron the rest of the way. Because that’s what dad’s do.
Overall, I think the photos turned out ok. Both bands were stoked with the results, which was encouraging. Still I see areas I can improve. But the one thing I keep coming back to has caught me a bit off guard. The more I’m on the go, and the more I’m trying to be in a moment, I want the ability to not think about the camera. I want to immerse in the present moment, I don’t want to be fiddling with my thumb joystick to set an exposure point. Also, I worry about AF not getting it right. These little things introduce latency and take me out of the moment. What I think I’ll do next time is take a manual lens, zone focus, and just go. In my dreams I’m shooting the next one on a Leica M10 with a Summilux 35mm f/1.4. Or even the Leica M Monochrom to just go all-in on black & white.
In the end, this was a ton of fun. I know how I’ll approach the next time and am really looking forward to it.