I am so happy to share with you an interview that I had with a music photographer, Radek Zawadzki. After reading the article I hope you’ll get some insight to the job from the perspective of a concert photographer. Radek shares with us his beginnings, talks about the job itself, what it takes to create great live music photography and finally shares some tips targeted at aspiring concert photographers.
Radek, tell us a little bit about your beginnings and actually what made you focus on concert photography?
Well, I always wanted to work as a photojournalist. As probably vast majority of young photographers, I really wanted to document all those most important events taking place in the world, even wars and riots. Well, I didn’t make it to photograph times of war (and to be honest I hope I won’t have to), however, I started to photograph public gatherings more often, such as demonstrations. Since I live in Warsaw, I couldn’t be closer to “hot” topics than in the capital city. I must really say that those were the times that I could call a decent school of photographing under the pressure of time, among big groups of people and even sometimes in not too secure environment. Then, I became more active in civic journalism services like Wiadomości24.pl. That paved my way to the internship I did in Polska The Times, at that moment one of the most important newspapers in Polish market.
Moreover, being a usual teenager, I felt that music became a very important part of my life. Later on, I thought to myself, “Why couldn’t I combine my two passions- photography and music?” I photographed my first concerts in small local clubs where I did not need any press accreditation. I finally got one in 2009 and photographed a gig in Stodoła, a concert club in Warsaw. After that experience there were two things I was sure of: that I had a long way ahead of me and that I wanted to do it more! From then on I started to attend more and more gigs just to get to the point I am right now when I photograph several dozen concerts a year.
Do you remember the beginnings? Was it tough?
Well, beginnings can be difficult, as with everything. At that time I did not have the gear I have right now. On the other hand, that taught me to be more sensitive to lighting conditions. I also lacked experience and I photographed bigger and bigger stars more often. You can imagine that for someone who is almost a novice this might be a bit overwhelming. It turned out with time that the stars out there are not gods, but normal people like you and me. It’s just that they are enormously talented. I had nobody to help me struggle to find and work on the contacts with concert organizers, which in turn helped me get accreditations for further concerts I was willing to photograph. After some time, I managed to change my gear to a better one, and with every new concert I become more and more experienced.
Another story is the fact that despite having all these pieces of equipment and being more experienced, not every concert is easy to photograph. Having a better camera does not mean that your pictures are automatically better. Most usually, I need to work up a sweat to bring good photographs from a concert – some bands keep pushing the limit of playing in the lowest possible light. Also, there are often harsher requirements, e.g. photographing only during one piece instead of usual three.
What does it actually mean to be a concert photographer, what does it involve?
Well, I guess it means to take the challenge of showing the spirit, character and the meaning of each and every gig you photograph. What’s more, you often do not have any impact on what is going on and your time for work is limited. What you are left with is hard work and your own experience. You know, photography is form of art, so you really need this artistic sensitivity. Last but not least, it is also about having the right equipment. But please, don’t get me wrong- it is not about having the top model of Canon or Nikon camera just to be a concert photographer, but obviously no one would treat you seriously if you enter the pit in the front of the stage with a smartphone or iPad.
For me being a concert photographer means also getting to know a lot of great people who actually create the world of music. The not-so-great as well, but I don’t really want to concentrate on them. Here, in Warsaw we have a really fantastic bunch of photographers. Each of us with their own music preferences but all of us share the love for music and good photography. This year, we had our own exhibition, which I must say, was really well-received. I do believe that the one we’re planning next year will be even better! I can call myself a lucky guy- to make the story short, I actually met my girlfriend in the pit!
What gear do you typically put to your bag when you head for a gig?
Ear plugs! Ridiculous as it may seem, trust me, it is a really essential piece of equipment for anyone who is so close to the wall of sound. Nobody should feel ashamed of using them since people really close to the stage or directly on the stage use ear plugs. They still let you enjoy the concert but most importantly, thanks to them you avoid the situation when your friends need to shout when trying to communicate with you.
As for the gear, my heart belongs to Nikon. In my bag you’ll find D700 and lenses: 24-70mm and 70-200mm. In hard times (meaning dark ones) I use my 50mm prime lens. I also take flash and even though I never use it during a concert, I may need it for backstage situations. There is also one more thing really useful. Maybe it doesn’t fit into my bug but I usually take my green ladder with me. Some stages are pretty high so it could be really tough to photograph without it. The ladder comes in handy when you want to take photos from the crowd as well.
How do you position yourself in a concert? What is the best place?
During a typical gig I try to find my place in the pit closer to the middle of the stage. Then I simply react to what is going on and sometimes change places even a couple of times during one song. You know, I do try to get the best possible spot but it is also vital to respect other photographers. All of us wish to come back home with the best photos but no one should do it at the expense of others. It is polite if you avoid occupying one spot throughout the whole photographing time. And what is important- don’t ignore the concert security. It is really worth getting on well with them, especially when it gets hot close to the stage! However, not always is it possible to choose my spot. For instance, during the concert of Metallica, I had no choice but to take place either on the right or left from the center of the stage with no possibility of movement or changing spots. Some bands don’t even let photographers anywhere near the stage so you’re left with photographing from the so-called “foh” (Front of the House), in other words- the auditorium. As you probably imagine, this is not the photographers’ dream spots.
Can you offer any tips for our readers who wish to take up concert photography? Any advice on technique, exposition, lighting and how to look for those special moments?
First of all, I need to stress that I don’t want to put anyone off, but I do believe that photography journey should not start from concert photography. I know that it can be tempting to be around music stars, to be so close to them, but actually getting to that stage requires longer way. Practising basic skills is a lot easier in other types of photography, such as portrait or reportage. I can guess that a lot of readers of the blog actually already covered the basics so in this case I recommend observing local music industry first. I am sure that in your city there is at least one, small music club where it is not required to have a photo pass to be able to photograph. That is a great place to start building your portfolio. Maybe there is a band you know personally that is giving a concert? Practice makes perfect so try to photograph as many concerts as possible. There is no better way to improve your skills. And don’t limit yourself only to the bands you like. The concerts of performers you don’t really know or like are usually more challenging. It is also a good idea to watch other photographers’ works, their images. You can compare but don’t let it get you down if your photos are not as good. Everyone had their beginnings. And then go to another concert. And another. Next, try to get in touch with your local newspaper or magazine or internet media just to get photo accreditations to bigger gigs.
As for technical tips, well, I don’t have good news.There are no perfect settings you can use with each and every concert. Every photographer will tell you the same- everything depends on the situation and the amount of light you have during the gig. However, if you want me to advise, let me stress that manual mode is a must. The scenes are very dynamic so you virtually cannot let your camera do your job. Otherwise your exposure will go all over the place since the lights on the stage change rapidly. With manual settings you need to know what you can possibly do and what things you can improve thanks to them. And shooting RAW. I’m sure the readers know the benefits of raws over jpegs.
Forget your flash. Before almost each concert you’ll hear the essence of every concert photographer’s job: “three songs, no flash”. Most people don’t feel comfortable with the flashlight and the musicians are no exception whatsoever. Just before a couple of concerts I attended, the photographers were informed that using flash may result in stopping the performance. I imagine no one would wish to have a crowd of thousands on their conscience.
Bright lenses are fantastic in concert photography, however, they have one disadvantage- the price. But no worries, 50mm lens will not ruin your budget and it will do the great job during a concert. Whichever lens you’ll use, hold the aperture as wide open as possible. You’ll get more light and at the same time it will be better to isolate the object from the background. Additionally, you will be able to use a shorter shutter speed. I won’t say that it should be shorter than e.g. 1/125s. It should be as short as to get the image sharp and bright enough. Well, of course if you want to photograph e.g. a musician making a jump, then you’ll need to use much shorter shutter speed than e.g. when photographing a musician sitting on a chair and not making too many expressive movements. As for ISO, I can just say that one should know their camera and their limits to which the quality of a picture is sufficient. Today, even the most basic models of Canon or Nikon DSLRs give fantastic results with ISO 3200, or even more. Don’t be discouraged by the noise on your images. Noise is much better than blurred pictures.
When it comes to white balance, I always set it to auto mode. In concert photography, the possibility of using any presettings are limited to a minimum. After all, thanks to RAW format, you can correct it during editing. What’s more, I personally use the AF-C (continuous) mode, but if you feel more comfortable with AF-S (single), then go ahead.
Could you tell us how to cope with concert lighting and how to make best use of it?
You know, there are no rules about that and I must say every concert gives a brand new possibility of taking advantage of the lighting. I photographed a couple of concerts that actually was like taking pictures on a very bright sunny day. Also a couple of ones that are literally from a concert photographers’ nightmares: so dark, so many people in the pit, the band behind clouds of freezing ice and additionally lit by a low, red light hated by the image sensors. In such case, you need to be immensely careful not to come back home with red splashes instead of images.
Although as a photographer I don’t like it, I am aware of lighting producers’ work and their job to build drama during the concert. So, for this reason, they will not use all the tools available straight at the beginning. That’s why, even if for 90% of time the lighting is not sufficient, use the remaining 10% maximum.
Is there any trick when shooting or post-processing that you would want to share with the readers?
Frankly speaking, it is so hard to use any tricks in a situation when you have no impact on how the artists react and perform on stage and the producers of lighting have their own ideas. When it comes to editing, it usually must be fast. I can only recommend getting to know Lightroom or any other editing software you use more than just the basic panel.
There is, however, one thing that you can do before the concert. Most artists throughout their tour perform the same pieces. So you can use setlist.fm just to check what was performed by the band yesterday- the chances are high that they will perform the same on your concert. Then you’ll be able to estimate the time for you in the pit. The lighting, of course, depends on the venue, but you can always check YouTube and at least know what you may expect- most often people record the beginning of a concert with their smartphones.
How do your images get published or presented to a wider audience? What is the process?
After each concert, I come back home, copy the images to my computer and edit them in Lightroom. I wouldn’t say I use any sophisticated type of editing. I just focus on showing the atmosphere of a concert in the best possible way. Then I make a selection to choose the best images. I try to think of a concert as of a story and so I limit the number of pictures to show. The biggest mistake, in my opinion, is that beginning concert photographers want to show as many pictures as possible.
Then, I prepare separate photos for the editor and separate for my blog. Next part is about networking and publishing in social media.
Do you at any time get more personal with the artists during a concert?
No, I strongly believe that an artist is there for their fans, not for the photographers. Then again, it is always nice when an artist looks into your camera or even strikes a pose, especially when it’s not too typical of them. That is an opportunity to get a really unique image. Or maybe you’re asking about a situation when an artist does not want the photographers to take pictures at some particular moment. It actually happened to me during a concert given by in icelandic artist Ólafur Arnalds. At that moment he was recording the public and then he used that sound as a loop in the piece so he obviously didn’t want to record any additional sounds of camera shutters. Fortunately, it isn’t too common in my case as you can often meet me at very loud concerts (laugh).
Come to think of it, I guess the most personal relations can happen actually after the concert. You can imagine how nice it is to get a message from a musician that they really liked your pictures. That is a real boost!
During a concert, do you actually have any time to just enjoy the music?
When I am in the pit the answer is no. At that time I need to be focused 110%. Sometimes, there are concerts that so much is going on that after leaving the pit I am even not able to say which pieces were played. Afterwards it varies. If I am allowed to photograph longer, I basically concentrate on my work still trying to enjoy the concert. As I said before, it happens that the band does not allow to be photographed for more than 3 songs (it is common for the big names). In such case, I just enjoy the performance as a regular member of the audience. Very often it is connected with leaving your camera in a security box if this is the requirement from the artist.
Tell us about your most memorable concert you ever photographed.
I hope it is still going to happen soon! But I can surely tell you that it was awesome to photograph such famous bands as Metallica, Green Day or Florence and the Machine. However, it is not about being in the venue with thousands of people just to say that the concert was unforgettable. This fantastic and memorable concert may happen in a small club and may be given by a local artist. I truly recommend these as a start point for aspiring concert photographers.
I also love the moments when when you can work directly for an artist and you get more contact with them than a regular accredited photographer. I will remember for a long time this one and only concert by Maciek Werk promoting the album “Songs That Make Sense”. He invited a lot of guests to the concert including Mark Lanegan. (by the way, I do recommend Maciek as an artist, fantastic example of Polish music scene). At that time I spent a really wonderful day with the whole crew.
What I do hope is to go on world tour with one of my favourite bands, so Nine Inch Nails, Depeche Mode and Muse, I address this to you guys! (laughing)
So Radek, may it be! Thank you so much for talking.
Radek Zawadzki is a freelance photographer, based in Warsaw, Poland. He specializes in concert photography. Graduated from Warsaw School of Photography, in the pit of the stage since 2009. Loves good music, chocolade and jogging. You can visit his website here.