Photographing concerts

Unregistered nurse on stage. Photograph by Josh Sisk.
What’s it like being a concert photographer?

Surely, you’ve seen them – the guys and girls with their cameras, working in front of the stage or in the middle of the crowd. It looks like a glamorous job, doesn’t it, to make your living going to concerts and taking pictures. Have you ever wondered what it’s like? I have. I called Josh Sisk, who is a concert photographer from Baltimore, USA, for a conversation about the life of a professional concert photographer. We talked about his background, the lifestyle, funny anecdotes and Josh shared some tips for those wanting to get better photos from concerts with their phone cameras. He also gave some tips on how to get started as a concert photographer yourself if you’re ready for the challenge. Here’s the story:

Josh’s path as a concert photographer wasn’t planned out. He was producing shows and records for bands. Since he’s a schooled photographer, he would bring a camera to the gigs and take pictures for fun that he’d share with whoever was interested. Then one year, while he was at the South by southwest festival in Austin, Texas, he ran into a friend who was working as a reporter for the Washington Post. He told Josh he’d come without a photographer and asked Josh if he was interested in taking photos for the paper. Josh happily accepted and this was the opportunity that allowed him to shoot more concerts and get his photos published in newspapers, magazines and other publications. You can’t afford to be picky in this business, of course. Josh also shoots weddings, portraits, headshots and editorial assignments, but concerts is his passion. He owns a small studio but much of his work is done in other places.

Pentagam on stage, photographed by Josh Sisk

The drummer of Monotonix in concert. Photograph by Josh Sisk.

Life in the front crowd can of course get pretty wild. Josh will often be in the middle of the moshing crowd with his camera in one hand and sometimes a remote flash in the other. It can get messy. He’s had his gear sprayed with water, beer and even fake blood on occasions. Flashes are usually the most sensitive piece of equipment and he’s had several of them broken over the years. He told me one story of a gig with a very small crowd where two guys decided their friend needed to stage dive even though there wasn’t much of a crowd to catch him except from a poor photographer – Josh. This left Josh with a broken camera and a neck injury that took three months to fully recover from.

Crowd surfing. Photograph by Josh Sisk.
At many larger concerts, photographers are only allowed to shoot for the first three songs. There are several reasons for this. Artists want to make sure they look their best which of course is most likely when they’re fresh out of their dressing room. Also, security is a concern. With photographers working in the pit between the crowd barriers and the stage, it can get difficult for security to keep the front crowd safe. Josh says he doesn’t mind this rule. Unless these artist are someone he’s interested in, he usually leaves the venue after the first three songs to return home and edit his photos for delivery to publications during the night or in early morning after the show.

At other shows, the artist will have even more restricting requests. Josh told me a story of a show with an older country artist who instructed him he could take just one single photo. He thought a photographer would interfere with his concert. Josh argued he could hang back and work without bothering anyone. Still, the artist and his manager persisted in their request, so during the first song, Josh was ushered onto the stage in front of the crowd and the artist posed for one single photo and that was it. Job done.

It is very common that Josh is asked to double as a reporter at smaller shows, so he will often write a review of the show to go along with his photos. This is a part of his job that he’s developed over the years and enjoys doing.

Josh thinks concerts are just as much about the crowd as the band, so he always takes lots of photos of the crowd. He likes to capture the energy of the event and the crowd is an important part of that. At smaller concerts, there’s always a better chance to get close and personal with both the crowd and the artists. There will also often be an opportunity to visit the backstage area and hang out with the bands after smaller concerts.
Concert crowd. Photograph by Josh Sisk.

Apart from being sold to magazines and newspapers that Josh work with, some of his photos go on a wire service. This is a market where anyone can buy photos. He’s had his photos show up in the weirdest places, like in newspapers in Indonesia. He also sells prints of his photos on his web site. Some fans buy prints of their favorite band, but what he sells most of is crowd photos, where the person buying the print is usually in the photo moshing or stage diving.

Some of the greatest moments of Josh’s photography life include going on tour with bands. He once went on a European tour with a band called Pig destroyer. They played European festivals and He had an amazing time photographing the tour and all the festival acts and experiencing the European festival scene, which is different from in the US, because there usually isn’t any camping at American festivals and the vibe is totally different. Josh is hoping to get more opportunities to go to Europe.

How to get better concert photos with your smartphone

A modern smartphone usually has a pretty good camera and it’s always with you, which is good. I asked Josh for some tips about how to get the most out of a smartphone camera at concerts. He immediately replied by quoting famous war photographer Robert Capa: “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough”. Get as close as you can. Capture the mayhem in the front part of the crowd. A smartphone camera has a flash, but it’s pretty useless in these situations because it’s not powerful enough to light up anything more than a few feet away. Also, it can be pretty annoying for the artists and the others in the crowd, so always shut your flash off.

Your phone camera will often have a mode that lets you meter the light by touching the screen where the subject of your photo is. Learn how to use this function and your photos will be so much better. The stage will often have brightly lit areas and dark ones and a camera’s automatic light metering will get confused and screw up your photos.

Josh also gave some tips on phone photography etiquette: Don’t hold your phone high in the air for more than a few seconds. It’ll block the view for anyone behind you. And hey, if you own a selfie stick, leave it at home. Finally, if you’re shooting video with your phone – shoot horizontally. Unless it’s going on Snapchat, vertical video is a no-no.

Getting started as a concert photographer

I asked Josh to share some tips for someone who wants to get started in concert photography. He suggests you get an inexpensive used DSLR or mirrorless camera body with a fixed lens, like a 50 mm. You want a lens with as big maximum aperture as possible since you will often be taking pictures in low light. This is all you need to get started. Then get to know your camera really well. Go to concerts and get as much practice as you can and keep learning and improving. You will often get better photos if you learn to set the camera settings manually, since the lighting conditions at a concert are often far from what the automatic functions in a camera are made for.

If you want to check out Josh online, visit his site www.joshsisk.com or say hello to him on Twitter @joshsisk.

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This entry was posted in Assignments, Concerts, Equipment, Inspiration and tagged , .

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