Music Photographers: Bigger Shows Aren’t Better Shows

KISS performs on the Alive/35 World Tour in Kansas City on December 15, 2009. (TODD OWYOUNG)

Almost every single music photographer has had the same thought at one point or another: “I want to shoot bigger shows.” In music photography, this desire to shoot bigger and bigger acts is a seemingly natural progression, especially for many photographers who start out shooting small indie acts in dives and club venues.

With larger names and venues come a lot of perceived benefits, including better production, brighter lights, road-tested performances and dedicated areas for photographers, not to mention the bragging rights of having photographed big name acts.

However, for all their allure, not the least of which is access to shoot well-known bands, bigger shows aren't always better shows.

The Allure of The Big Rock Show

For most music photographers, the allure of shooting bigger shows is one that's inescapable. After all, music photographers are almost universally music fans first, so the escalation to photograph one's favorite bands is a natural progression. At the very least, there are bragging rights to having bigs acts in one's book.

Aside from the star appeal of bigger shows, there's also the technical consideration that the bigger the show, the bigger the production. Better lighting, bigger effects, and bigger venues with guaranteed barricades – these are all perks of bigger shows.

The Trap

So, what's wrong with shooting rock shows? Nothing, inherently – but there are some considerations to understand.

Sure, big concerts often have the best and more elaborate production value, which translates into bright, photo-friendly lighting. But these same big shows are often designed and choreographed in such a way that photographers are presented with very limited access to the band.

Moreover, photographers shooting large tours are also the most likely to be limited with photography, both in terms of shooting time and unique stage moments.

The Paradox

The paradox of shooting larger shows is that they're they're the gigs that, arguably, need the least coverage. And by extension, they're the shows where photographers often have the least freedom to make unique images or capture moments of any significant value.

With multiple photographers for more each photographing any given date of a 20-50+ stop national tour, the number of images generated for the total run is enormous.

For the most unique opportunities with music photography, one might be well advised to run in the opposite direction of your city's arenas and amphitheaters.

 (Todd Owyoung)

Bright Lights, Big Crowds & The Trap of the Big Show

Arguably, the best music photography happening today isn't being done in the photo pits of 20,000-capacity arenas. It's certainly not being done from their soundboards.

There's nothing wrong with shooting big gigs (I know I appreciate shooting at lower than ISO 6400, and I'm sure you do, too), but for anyone who's really hungry to carve out something unique in the world of live music photography, shooting big shows shouldn't be your end goal, only a roadstop.

My advice to new photographers? The photo pit isn't the be-all & end-all of music photography. In fact, it might be the last place you want to be if you want to stand out.

My Camera DSLR and Lenses for Concert Photography

Nikon D750:
I use two Nikon D750 for my live music photography. Amazing high ISO performance in a compact body with tons of pro features.
nikon-24-70mm-f28-lens-squareNikon 24-70mm f/2.8:
For most gigs, the 24-70mm is my go-to lens. Exceptional image quality at wide apertures and super-functional range.
Nikon-70-200-squareNikon 70-200mm f/2.8 VR:
A perfect pair to the Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8, I can basically shoot any job with the midrange and this lens. Superb image quality.
nikon-14-24mm-f28-lens-squareNikon 14-24mm f/2.8:
Ultra-wide perspective, ridiculously sharp even wide open at f/2.8. I love using this lens up-close and personal, where it excels.
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There are 12 comments

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  1. Cameron

    Thanks for providing the perspective and dose of reality. It dovetails a bit with a blog I wrote about photographing as an amateur and ticket holding member of the audience, so it’s nice to hear certain notions confirmed.

  2. Priten Vora

    This is something I’ve definitely thought about as well. My biggest goal right now is not to shoot a bigger show, but rather to get out of the photo pit. I’ve thankfully worked my way toward having pretty good access to most of my local bands and such, and my next major goal is to get a touring artist to allow me some access and create unique images. It seems to be getting harder and harder because most touring artists seem to already have a tour photographer that they’re bringing with them. And if you already have a photographer with you who has all that access and it regularly doing portraits for you and taking care of all your photo needs, why would you need to give someone else that access for only one stop?

    I suppose what I’m asking is: if an artist already has a tour photographer with them but you still want to ask for access, how do you do so? The artist may understand the wish to create more unique images, but is there any guarantee that the publicist will? How would you phrase that email?

    • Todd Owyoung

      Hey Priten, I think your goal of “getting out of the photo pit” is definitely a step in the right direction. The recommendation to inquire about shooting portraits for the feature is a very good one, and I did this with good success. Getting a portrait shoot in with a band also connects you with their tour manager in most cases, which is an opportunity to pursue more access as well.

      If a band has a dedicated photographer, it’s not likely they need additional photos for their own use. But if the extra access is presented as more press, and they’re still at a level where they need/want that, then that’s something of a better angle. Good luck, Priten.

  3. anon

    To priten, if you’re open to doing an interview as well you can ask the publicist to get some portraits to accompany the interview, or just try saying youd love to get some portraits to add to the photo gallery you will be sharing, will the artists have any time for some quick portraits before the show. I’ve seen behind the scenes photo galleries in online outlets too so you could try to go for that as well.

  4. Patrick

    Just in time for my weekend gig shoot of local bands. Thanks so much for this, it helps to reinforce my commitment to shooting and supporting local acts. I get great access to bands that I shoot. Most small venue lighting is still a huge pain however, so 6400 is usually the norm (at least for fast moving guitarists). But I love it. Bands in the raw. Cheers.

  5. Chris Patmore

    Great to hear a respected pro confirm my own views on music photography. To be honest, I’m not even that bothered about shooting “big names” for the exact reasons you state (unless one wants to hire me for a tour, of course). I much prefer the unrestricted access of smaller venues with lesser-known acts that are on the rise because those shots will have more value in the long term than the same shots done by a stadium pit full of shooters. Think back to the iconic classic rock shots, and most of them were done before the artists became really famous. Of course, I would like better lighting at the venues, but a conversation with the lighting operator before the show, explaining what you need to shoot the show, will usually help, especially as they are often sound guys given two jobs to do. A camera upgrade would also help. When at gigs my motto is, shoot iconic photos rather than photos of icons.

  6. Tim Bugbee

    good point for consideration, Todd. I’d say that at least 60% of the shows I shoot are small clubs w/o a photo pit or what would be considered ‘good’ lighting. it’s tougher to get arresting shots, but as you said, you also have less restrictions… just curious, what percentage of your portfolio would be considered as from a small show? i just did a quick count and came up w/ about 16%… it definitely seems like having a ‘name’ performer in the portfolio takes on a bigger role, at least for my portfolio.

  7. 3songsbonn

    I agree about the limitations of big shows. In the pit at Alice Cooper I was allowed the usual 3 songs, during which absolutely nothing worth photographing happened. All those in the front row got the guillotine and snake shots with their cellphones later – we were frogmarched out the back after 3 songs and only allowed back in after leaving our cameras at the cloakroom tent!
    All the sweat and fun comes after the first three numbers…

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