Music Photographer’s Guide to Festival Photography

Photographing single concerts on a tour are hard enough. Add in to the mix unpredictable weather, multiple stages, multiple days, and more bands than you can count, and you have your typical summer festival. Even for one-day festival style tours like Warped Tour and Mayhem Fest in the US, festival photography can be as challenging as it is rewarding.

Are you a music photographer? Here’s your guide to photographing these annual summertime events to maximize your shooting.

escape-day2-edward-sharpe

Music Festivals 101

First, before we get to all the more photography-oriented aspects of covering a music festival, you still have to prepare for a festival just like any other festival-goer.

Drink Water

Duh.

Wear Sunscreen

Duh.

Wear Comfortable Shoes

Needless to say, you’re probably going to be on your feet for hours and hours at a music festival. Comfortable shoes are a necessity. Both in crowded photo pits and for trekking/running between stages, comfortable footwear is absolutely essential. Leave the flip flops at the beach.

Bring Snacks

A little sugar goes a long way. Don’t forget to take some time to eat throughout the day, and, if you can, pack snacks like energy bars so you can fuel up on the go.

Music Festival Photography Essentials

Scheduling The Day

When photographing music festivals, I always like to plan a schedule of the bands I want to photograph. As with most things, timing is everything with festival photography.

The schedules for music festivals are almost always posted at the event, if not well ahead of time. With often dozens of bands performing on any given day, it pays to take a few minutes to plan your angle of attack to maximize efficiency.

Start times, the distance between stages, and the anticipated popularity of the bands are the main factors for my planning. The latter point of popularity is especially important if the number of photographers is expected to be limited. Such was the case with Rage Against The Machine performing at Lollapalooza 2008, when only about 20 photographers were admitted to the photo pit out of 100+ shooters.

Take-away: Get to the pit early and secure your spot for your must-shoot bands, even if it means skipping other acts.

Pacing

With any extended shooting, pacing yourself is critical, especially if you’re limited on battery power or memory cards. The last thing you want is to be out of juice or card-space at the end of the day comes and the larger bands of the tour are rocking it. If you’re constrained by memory cards and aren’t downloading on-site to a drive or laptop, my advice is to save a memory card or two for your top-bands.

Of course, this advice of pacing goes not only for conserving your memory cards and your camera’s battery, but for your own energy as well. If you have the chance to take some downtime and grab some shade, do it. Taking small breaks may just mean the difference between being able to deliver your best work for the biggest bands and running out of gas before the headliners even take the stage.

Photo Pit etiquette

At large music festivals, the photo pits can quickly become crowded, so a little courtesy goes a long way. Basically, the golden rule applies here. Just be nice, because in all likelihood, you’re going to be sharing photo pits with same people all day/weekend long. No eye gouging, no hitting below the waist.

In general, best practices mean giving a little common courtesy to your fellow shooters, such as moving toward the back of the pack if you’re grabbing “hail mary” overhead shots and not stepping into someone’s shot.

Be sure to check out the Concert Photography Etiquette Guide as well; for festivals, all the same rules still apply.

Fans dancing on stage during Girl Talk's performance at The Bamb

Photography Gear for Music Festivals

Batteries

With a multiple full days of shooting, you’re going to want to have your camera’s batteries fully charged before the start of every day. The last thing you want is to have your camera die toward the end of the day, when many of the big guns come out.

To conserve battery power, you can minimize image review and shoot conservatively. Better yet, bring an extra battery. Extra batteries are going to be key if you have a power-hungry camera, and especially so if you are going to be reviewing images throughout the day, which quickly drains battery life.

Performing at Mayhem Fest 2012

Memory Cards & Image Storage

When photographing a music festival, image storage is of key importance. Music festivals are the marathons of live music photography, and ample amounts of storage are just as important as having the batteries to power your cameras. Needless to say, a full-day festival is going to require at least 2-4 times as much storage space as your normal 3-band concert, so it’s essential to have a game plan for handling on-site storage.

With a finite amount of memory cards and a huge number of bands playing any given day at large festivals, it’s very important to manage your data efficiently. To this end, there are three main approaches:

  1. Large capacity memory cards
  2. Mobile downloads (laptop or portable drive)
  3. In-camera editing (review & deleting on-site)

Large Capcity Memory Cards: These days, 16GB or 36GB memory cards are relatively cheap. You can grab a 32GB Transcend SD card for about $30, which makes going with large capacity cards pretty much a no-brainer. Even if you don’t use all the space allotted by these big cards, having multiple large-gig cards on hand will ensure that you’ll have plenty of space every day.

Mobile Downloads & Editing: The ability to download on-site to a laptop essentially eliminates all storage concerns. Moreover, the ability to edit throughout the day makes festival work much more efficient, especially when there are daily filing deadlines. The downside to laptops is the added weight and security issues. However, using something like the ultra-portable Apple Macbook Air 11″ is a great option.

Aside from a laptop, using a portable drive like a Nexto DI allows one to use smaller cards and download throughout the day, giving the storage benefits of  laptop without the option of editing.

In-Camera Editing: In-camera editing simply means reviewing images on your camera’s LCD screen and deleting on-site. If there’s ample downtime between sets, this is a nice option, as it requires no more hardware than what you already have – your camera. What it does require is sufficient total storage of photographer selects for the complete event, enough extra capacity for the last headlining act, and the battery to power extended use of the LCD. The downside to this approach is that you don’t have the benefit of a large display for critical editing, so there is a real chance of imprudent decisions and accidental deletions.

Paramore

Lenses For Festival Photography

My general music photography kit includes three zoom lenses: an ultra-wide, a midrange, and a telephoto. Shooting music festivals, this is no exception. One interesting aspect of festivals is that with the exception of the headliners, most of the daytime acts are totally shootable with nothing fancier than a kit lens and slower, variable aperture lenses.

That said, I still always recommend f/2.8 zooms, because when the sun goes down and the headliners do come out, those slow lenses will be crippling for normal stage lighting.

Telephoto Lenses

For the main stages with the headlining acts, a telephoto zoom is going to serve you well at music festivals (I use the Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8). The telephoto’s utility for large festivals is in part due to the height of the stages (which can be considerable for events like Coachella or Lollapalooza), but also due of the volume of photographers. Having a telephoto at your disposal lets you shoot from farther back in the pack or from the sides, where it’s generally easier to move around and also where you will get a more flattering perspective.

Midrange Lenses

For stage-front photography of smaller stages, a midrange zoom like the Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8 or Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 is a great option. Due to the bigger scale of most music festivals, the midrange zoom can serve a “wider” role than it does at smaller shows, and may offer all the wide-angle coverage you need on a full-frame camera.

Wide-Angle Lenses

An ultra-wide lens like the Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 I use is great for capturing the atmosphere of festivals, and especially nice if performers leave the stage and get up close and personal with fans. Additionally, wide-angle lenses are fantastic for performers with more theatrical stage productions, like the Flaming Lips or Girl Talk.

However, for general live music shooting at festivals, an ultra-wide is going to have limited utility due to the high stages, so keep this in mind when making your festival photography kit. Due to the extra height of large stages at festivals, an ultra-wide angle lens isn’t necessary for most kinds of shooting.

The exception to this fact is touring festivals like Vans Warped Tour, where the large number of small stages with lower heights can make an ultra-wide lens a great option for performers.

Check out my Lens Guide for Concert Photography for more general suggestions on equipment. Want to know what I bring to music festivals? Check out the Gear Guide.

The main stage of the first annual Pulse Festival in St. Louis on June 9, 2012.

Photography Tips For Music Festivals

First Three Songs

Like most tours, the “first three songs” rule is in effect for music festivals. What this means is that you’ll be able to photograph the first three songs of a band’s performance from the photo pit, located between the stage and the barricade at the front of the crowd. For regular gig photographers, this should be no surprise.

For larger tour dates and for popular bands, it’s advised to get to the photo pit early if you want to scope out a prime shooting position. If you get to the stage at the start of the set time, you may well get stuck at the edges of a packed pit.

Zone Defense

With such packed photo pits, it’s simply not practical to move around at festivals as one might at a concert on a national tour. Constant movement is going to be a losing battle in a crowded pit, so one approach is to play “zone defense” and photograph musicians from a single area as opportunities present themselves.

White Balance

For all-day festivals, most often the majority of the bands play with daylight as the main lightsource, rather than stage lighting. Depending on the orientation of the stages and time of day, open shade can the be dominating treatment for most bands.

Pre-setting your white balance for stages that are in shade can help warm up scenes that might otherwise come off as a little cool with auto WB. Using the “Cloudy” daylight preset or manually dialing in a K rating of between 5000-7000 should work in most instances. This small trick can be enough to keep performers under shaded stages from looking too blue. In addition, having a set WB can also make processing easier and more consistent.

30 Seconds To Mars performs at the Bamboozle Music

End Notes:

If you’re photographing a music festival, have fun. I hope these tips and suggestions have helped. Oh – and one last thing: If you happen to be shooting Glastonbury, bring your Wellies.

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