Expect the Unexpected: Thoughts from the Budding Concert Photographer

Wow, it's been awhile. I've never been good at keeping up with these kinds of things... I also wasn't quite sure what else to write about after my first post. The last two months have been fairly busy, however, and I thought I'd center this entry on something I've become even more immersed in during the months of February and March... Concert photography! (insert thumbs up emoji here). Also, bear with me, this is going to be a bit of a long post since there's a lot to recap...

Have to give yet another shout out to The Wiltern... All of the shows that I've had the opportunity to shoot have been in that wonderful building and I am still in awe and so grateful that they've allowed a complete newbie photographer like myself to step in and do such a thing. So incredibly cool. The three shows that I was was able to shoot in February not only helped me to grow as a photographer - as I was presented with a handful of new challenges - but they also helped me to further decide what route I wish to take in this profession.

It has taken me a long time to figure out exactly what kind of photographer I desire to be... I had written a few paragraphs here describing that process in a little more detail, but it got to be a bit too long, so I decided I will save those thoughts for my next post. For now though, I will say that I have come to love doing concert photography and I would ultimately like to pursue it with more force. It's definitely a hard field to break in to, but I've already got a start, and I know I have the skills, the potential, and the determination to make it work. I was unsure at first if I could truly see myself as a concert photographer... But the shows I am about to recap made me believe otherwise. It was ultimately after shooting the awesome band that is Dr. Dog that the decision was made. I have found an arena where my two greatest passions can intermingle. And honestly, I couldn't ask for anything better than that. It's been a long and winding road trying to decide where to plant my feet in life but I think I've finally found it... Will it be sustainable? Who knows. I may be the sort that has to work two jobs at a time my entire life. I'm ok with that. I've come to realize that you don't always have to follow the traditional route... I'm ok with straying the path if it means doing something I love. Of course I will also continue doing street photography and documentary projects on the side - as I mentioned in my last post, I am greatly interested in using my photography for social change as well.

So without further adieu, here is a brief review of each show from February and what it was like to photograph them:

1) Logic - 2.12.15

The most complex, but still thrilling, show to capture... If you are not familiar with Logic, and you're into hip-hop, then you should go and check him out. Right now. One of the most underrated rappers at the moment in my opinion. Twenty five years old and from Maryland, he's a phenomenal lyricist with a flow that will blow your mind. He's clever, honest, and upfront about his harsh past and his hardships in life, along with his thoughts on the music industry. His beats are quite captivating as well (while I think his most recent album, Under Pressure, is his best work, his older stuff is cool too, as it has a bit of that old-school, 90s hip-hop vibe). I am by no means a connoisseur of the genre, but I believe his style to be that of true hip-hop - he doesn't hide poor lyricism under catchy beats and mainstream fads.

I was already anticipating something more lively and energetic - hip-hop shows almost always are. I was not prepared, however, for the constant changing of lights that was included in his performance. The light show was definitely commendable and it added to the overall high energy and entrancing aesthetic. However, it was not pleasing for my camera and me... As you may or may not know, working with concert lighting can be tricky - the fact that the environment is dark is a major factor that already works against getting a great shot. As a concert photographer, you must use whatever light is available so as to capture your subject(s) as best as possible. Working with colored lighting is not always the most fun either, for oftentimes, if it is very intense and bright, it will mess with the skin tones and overall quality of the photos in post-editing. So not only were the lights changing direction and color every 5 seconds or so, but the young rapper was also continuously moving back and forth across the stage, engaging with his audience on all sides of the theater - he was the first musical act I had photographed that literally would not stop moving! He would be on stage left for a couple seconds in yellow/whitish lighting, and then a few seconds later, would be at stage right in blue/green lighting... I was constantly having to adjust my camera settings to match the changing conditions. To add on to that, at most concert venues, photographers are only allowed to shoot for the first three songs (to avoid blocking fans behind them) - while that's not the most ideal amount of time, it usually is enough time to capture a few stunning moments. In the case of Logic, however, I felt the pressure of time even more so than usual. It was a slightly chaotic night!

This was definitely my most challenging show to date. I managed to get a few decent shots but the majority of them were pretty weak; definitely not up to the par of some of my photos from other shows. I felt like a complete beginner all over again. Despite the difficulties, however, it was still a fun show to shoot and I was proud of myself for sticking with the challenge and managing to produce even a few photos that weren't all bad. I realized from this experience how far I have come as a photographer, but also how much further I still have to go.

I learned some valuable lessons as well... For example, that it would probably help if I do more research on the actual show (not just the artist) prior to shooting. Oftentimes you can find footage from other legs of an artist or band's tour up on Youtube; it would benefit me to take a look at those so I have an idea of what types of lighting and movement to anticipate (although, if I'm being honest, I kind of like the surprise element of not knowing ahead of time - it's exciting and kind of keeps you on your toes). I was also forced out of the expectations that I had already accumulated from photographing shows up until that point... I can't assume that a performer is ever going to stay in one spot long enough for me to get a good shot. I always have to keep in mind that I may have to change my settings more often than I am used to. I have to expect the unexpected. 

Thanks for pushing my boundaries, Logic.

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2) Dr. Dog - 2.13.15

I had heard of Dr. Dog prior to photographing this show, but I had never really listened to their music up until that point. I was already familiar with the guitar-filled, indie rock music of the opening act, Hanni El-Khatib, so I was anticipating a similar, upbeat kind of feel. After checking out a few of their songs on Spotify, I have to admit that I wasn't all the way feeling their sound - it made me unsure of what kind of show to expect. I listened to some tunes from their latest album, Live At a Flamingo Hotel, and it turned out to be quite mellow, with a California, beach-y vibe infused into indie folk sounding vocals and instrumentals. 

Hanni El-Khatib and his band opened with his melodies that are reminiscent of Dan Auerbach and the Black Keys. While his music itself is pretty good, the show was not much like the music. There were not many eye-popping movements or gestures - it was overall a fairly "chill" performance. This surprised me a bit considering how "foot-thumping" and guitar-heavy the music is... Once again though, I am learning to let go of any and all expectations - every artist is unique unto themselves and performs in his or her own way - thus a performance may not necessarily match the sound of the music. I managed to snap a handful of what I thought were good photos, but overall the shots were not too exciting and they evidenced a slightly lackluster performance.

When Dr. Dog came on the stage, however, the mood of the entire place shifted. Not only was their colorful, tropical-looking background eye-catching and perfect for their sound, but they also opened with a subtle, yet mesmerizing, energy that allowed for no one in the room to remain still. Their songs sounded better in live form to me - something about the rustic instrumentals and skilled guitar-playing immediately reeled me in. And they were so lively! Particularly vocalist + bass guitarist, Toby Leaman, and vocalist + guitarist, Scott McMicken. They were jumping and moving and all around creating an atmosphere of genuine joviality (which once again defied my expectations, as I did not initially get this type of feel from listening to their songs). All of the band members interactions with one another made for an exciting show and some arousing photos. It must have been their one-of-a-kind spirit and, "in their own world," kind of performance that made this one of the most fun shows I have ever shot. As previously mentioned, the rush that I got from capturing these passionate individuals is what made me want to further explore concert photography.

I was on such a high after shooting the first three songs that I stayed and watched a good deal of the remainder of the show. The band alternated between their up-tempo jams and moody ballads (which definitely got all of "the feels" rolling). No matter the type of song playing though, everyone in the crowd was loving it and having the best time. There were friends and couples with arms around one another and people dancing all over the theater. As a concert and overall music lover, it was one of the most incredible things to witness. An artist has most certainly done his or her job when they can elicit that type of reaction out of their audience. A++++ to Dr. Dog.

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3) BILLY IDOL! - 2.18.15

Where do I even begin with this performance... I still can't believe that I had the opportunity to photograph such an iconic musician. I was already so excited going into this performance that it was especially hard for me to let go of expectations. I was assuming it would be a phenomenal show for obvious reasons... And I was not let down.

Probably the most challenging aspect of shooting this show was the fact that there were so many photographers - many more than usual. At the Wiltern, we shoot from a ramp right behind the pit and I felt like I was almost fighting for space amongst all the tripods and cameras. I also like to move up and down the ramp so that I can get shots from multiple angles... But this time I was pretty much forced to remain put.

The anticipation leading up to Billy's entrance was one of the greatest I've ever felt. The sentiment of the entire room was that of almost childlike wonder and excitement. This guy is clearly a legend. And many of his greatest fans have been singing along to his music for over 20 years nows. You could feel that sense of love and respect, from the floor all the way up to the mezzanine levels at the top. 

As soon as the house lights went down to signal the band's entrance, a wave of screams and applause erupted through the house. As I eagerly lifted my DSLR and heavy lens to my eye, I prayed to the "lighting gods" for light that would churn out quality photos. Each member of the band strutted out to their positions on stage first, further building the already high-level anticipation. And then, bam! Just like that, the lights went up and Billy thundered onto the stage, belting out the lyrics of one of his newer songs. From that point on it was nothing but clicking.

The lighting of the show turned out to be better than any concert photographer could hope for - while there was a range of colors, they weren't overly harsh and they did not change too quickly. And Billy, my goodness... You certainly cannot tell that he's a man approaching 60 years of age; he was moving around the stage and flashing those signature facial expressions the same way he did back in the 80s. His band members were also so energized and spunky - they were moving all over the stage, interacting with one another, and just so into the music they were playing. Guitarist, Steve Stevens, stood out to me the most - he was so much fun to take photos of. Wearing the most eye-catching and "rocker-chic" outfit - which consisted of a sheer, leopard-print button-up and black leather bell bottoms - and strumming along passionately on his sparkling, red guitar... He added some serious flair to the animated show.  It all made for some fantastic photos ops and a few sporadic chills down the spine (another plus: Idol's songs are a bit longer which meant more time for shooting). All in all, the conditions of the show were perfect and it was a pivotal experience for me. I could have stayed there shooting all night. I loved it. This was hands down the show that so far I am most grateful to have had the opportunity to photograph.

*Side note: I met a super awesome and super talented concert photographer by the name of Samantha during this show! She shared some of her stories and work with me and gave me so much helpful advice on getting started in this field. She will be heading on tour with a band for Vans Warped Tour this summer (how freaking cool, right??). She's amazing at what she does; phenomenal angles and composition. Check out her website here :)

As you may very well know, I am a music lover through and through, and that is probably the main reason why I have come to enjoy concert photography so much. Being in that incredible, live music environment, but also getting to take photos at the same time (something I already instinctively desire to do) provides me with such a thrill. There's also something about capturing people in their "zones" that really inspires me. I love seeing people, especially musicians, being completely themselves, without any fear or hesitation. For most artists, the stage seems to be the place where they truly come alive. And that energy, that zest, is almost always so infectious. Being able to freeze such authentic and passionate moments in time is an amazingly cool thing. And while I am not always able to enjoy the music as much when shooting - because I am so focused on my camera and the angles and getting a good shot - these shows have still been some of the most unique experiences of my life. I am very excited for the journey ahead.

In the next few months, I aim to work on capturing shows from new and unique angles, plus capturing more artist emotion and crowd interaction. In the long term I would like to work more on my portrait photography as well, and hopefully branch out to doing head shots and artist promotional work. 

Photos from the latest show I photographed - Mat Kearney on 3/11 - will be up in my concert photography section soon! Keep your eyes peeled :)