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As a fan of both music and photography, the well-executed combination of the two is like the union of chocolate and peanut butter. Concert photography can capture the intensity of a performance, the beauty of the lighting, the essence of the performer, and it can plain just look cool. But all this is often easier said than done. Shooting usually occurs under difficult conditions, with little control of limited light and sporadic movement of subjects.
I've long admired the work of local concert photographer Kyle Gustafson. You've probably seen his photos on websites such as DCist, the Washington Post, or Pitchfork. His keeps his website interesting, posting mini-show reviews and shooting conditions along with his concert pics. I finally caught up with him to discuss his love of Oasis, shooting DC shows, and handling moshpits. You can check where Kyle's shooting next on his twitter page.
So what initially drew you to taking pictures at concerts? Do you have a musical background?
Not in an "I play an instrument" way. I became obsessed with music in high school. Nirvana blew up my senior year of high school and it opened up a whole new world for me. When I went to college, I DJ'ed at a club and also became music director of the campus radio station. Through that job I was able to score an internship in the college department at Epic Records (Oasis was - and still is - my favorite band so I wanted to intern at their label) in New York City. That was an incredible summer. I saw 100 concerts in 3 months. I was in heaven, so naturally I wanted to work in the music industry when I graduated school, which I did. I moved to NYC 2 days after graduating and I worked in the music industry for seven years. I've been going to 2 or 3 concerts a week for most of my adult life. I always tried to take photos at these concerts, but it wasn't until I moved to D.C. that I could actually afford a decent camera and started working at getting good results. Originally I wanted good photos to go with the concert reviews I was doing on my blog, Information Leafblower, and also DCist. It just kind of snowballed from there.
What are the primary factors that make shooting at a concert challenging?
There's not much about taking photos at concerts that isn't challenging. Generally, credentialed photographers are only allowed to shoot the first three songs of a concert. You basically have about 10 minutes to work. Lighting is the other main issue. It varies from club to club and different artists have different approaches to lighting. Rappers tend to like their lighting really, really low and when you combine that a hat and a hand with a mic, it's almost impossible to get a clean shot of their face. Photo pits are also an issue. The 9:30 Club and Verizon Center are the only two venues in town that generally offer a photo pit. If there's no pit then I have to get to the club when it opens and get a good spot up front. That can mean standing there for three hours in order to take 10 minutes worth of photos. And then I have to fight the crowd depending on the artist. I need that space in front of the stage because if I end up in the 2nd or 3rd row and the people in front of me like to jump around and hold their hands up the whole time, it means I can't get my shot.
Another challenge that is becoming more and more common is artists making photographers sign a contract, called a photo release, which depending on the language can take the copyrights of the photos taken during the concert and transfer them to the artist without compensation to the photographer. It's a sleazy tactic, especially from bands that speak out against people stealing their music via p2p. Not every band has them, and some are more restrictive than others. You don't have to sign a release to shoot U2, Springsteen or Metallica, but you do to shoot Taylor Swift, Cheap Trick or AFI. Pearl Jam had my favorite release ever. It basically said "Don't sell the photos you are about to take commercially, stay out of our crew's way while they are working and HAVE FUN." I can get behind that.
Are you constantly doing trial and error with different settings while you're shooting during a show?
When I go to a show, I generally set my ISO at 2000 and aperture at 2.8 and adjust my shutter speed from there. Once the show starts I adjust ISO, shutter speed and aperture as necessary. I check out Flickr and YouTube before every gig to try and get an idea of lighting and stage spacing. Flickr groups and Twitter have become invaluable resources as other photographers share the lighting conditions and stage setup as the tours come through their town. A friend may tell me that of the 3 songs I get to shoot for Kings of Leon, only the second one really has good light, so then I can spend the first song finding the best angle to get the shot I need during the second song.
Do you ever miss being able to just sit back and watch a show without having to snap pictures?
Occasionally. Although generally I only get the first three songs to shoot and then I have to put my camera away. So if I am shooting a show at the 9:30 Club, I shoot the first three and then take another song or two to pack up my gear and work my way to the back of the club. At that point I can either stay for the gig if I like the band or head home and start editing. Lately it's been more of the latter, but I try and stay for a bit of the show so I can get a feel for what the artist is doing on stage. The longer I stay the more I am punishing myself because I have to edit all the photos I just took and get it filed by the next morning.
What are your favorite concert venues to shoot at in the area, and why?
The 9:30 Club, obviously. It's a world-class venue with a world-class staff. A really great group of people work there and they are very, very accommodating to me and I am very appreciative of that. Same for the Black Cat (although obviously their lighting capabilities are much different than the 9:30 Club). I love going to both venues to see and shoot shows.
Any preference shooting acts that you’re familiar with versus acts that you’re not?
It depends on the act really, but I have no problems shooting bands multiple times. Obviously I'd rather shoot bands that move around on stage and actually perform for the audience, but I'll go wherever they send me.
That said, It's always nice to go see and shoot a band that I've never heard of before and be blown away. I shot a band called Dawes at Iota a week or so ago and Cory Chisel opened for them and he was AMAZING. He won me over as a fan that night.
Can you recall any instances of getting your camera broken or confiscated by angry bouncers or performers...or audience members?
I've never had a problem with bouncers. If I am not approved to shoot the show I just don't pull my camera out. It's not worth it. And as I mentioned earlier, it's a give and take thing with the crowd. They are there to see the show and not watch me take photos, and I totally get that. I try and stay as incognito as possible but at the same time I have to get my shot (or shots). I try and do my work and get out of there. But there definitely have been some instances when crowd members take offense to what I am doing, and it generally happens when they are drunk. That happened at an Eric Church show at the Sate Theater last year. Some drunk lady got all mad at me and started yelling at me and bumping in to me while I was shooting. She kept trying to convince her boyfriend to kick my ass. I just kept shooting and got out of there after the third song.
I don't do many hardcore shows, but you always have to be mindful of your gear when there are moshpits, but those shows can also be a lot of fun. Those crowds are generally very respectful of everyone else at the show but you always have to have your head on a swivel and keep a look out for the errant swinging limb or crowdsurfer.
I heard you recently changed your gear. What are you using now?
After shooting Canon for four years I switched to a Nikon D3 in January. I had six different Canon bodies over the course of those four years and I just could not find a body I was totally happy with. I worked my way up from a G6 point and shoot to a Rebel XT, 30D, 40D, 5D and 1Ds Mk II. All of them more or less did a lot of things right but were ultimately missing that final something. I generally lost faith in Canon the last few years because they weren't releasing the cameras that their customers wanted. The 5D Mk II was four years in the making but had the same focusing systen as the original 5D. The video options on that camera are amazing, but that's not why I buy a DSLR. I had read a bunch of things about how great the D3 was, and when my buddy offered me his at a very attractive price, I jumped at it. I was about to sink a lot of money into some expensive Canon prime lenses (so I could get better low light performance) but I took that money and switched systems instead. Nikon's D3/D3s and D700 are the kings of low light shooting right now and after I thought about it, I decided that there wasn't any reason to stay with an inferior product (for my needs). So I'm about 8 weeks in to my time with my D3 and I couldn't be happier. I definitely feel like I made the right decision. I'm getting shots that I never would have gotten before with my Canon bodies. I should note that I never owned a 1D Mk III, which was the Canon flagship camera. I might have been happy with that camera (or the new 1D Mk IV) but I ultimately decided that I wanted a full frame body and Canon does not offer a full frame body with a pro focusing system and 9 frames per second.
I get asked about gear constantly and what I tell people is to start with a starter or mid level body and work your way up. I wouldn't recommend starting out with a Nikon D3 or a Canon 1D Mk IV. It'll be too much camera for you. Buy a lower model and learn that camera inside and out until you reach the point that you've mastered it and it's holding you back. Bodies are disposable. Invest in good lenses. You'll have those forever and they hold their value much better. Start out with a 50mm/1.8 and work your way up from there.
Any particular favorite photo shoots where everything turned out just right?
Two that immediately come to mind are with two of my favorite artists. The first time I got the chance to shoot Morrissey was a huge treat. The show at D.A.R. in November of 2007 was a sort of make up from a string of dates he canceled earlier in the year. I had wrangled photopasses to shoot him at Wolftrap, at Ram's Head in Baltimore and PNC Arts Center in Holmdel, NJ (all with different publications) and the latter two got cancelled and Morrissey didn't let anyone shoot the Wolf Trap show because he was sick. I was gutted. But he came back and the show at D.A.R. was the best show I've ever seen him do and I took some of the best photos I have ever taken, including my favorite shot ever. I was walking on air when I left the venue that night. The best part of all was Morrissey (unknowingly) hit me in the face with his mic cord when he was whipping it around on stage. The cord was duct taped right in front of me on the lip of the stage and when he cracked it, it smacked me righ tbetween the eyes just as I was changing cameras. I'm a huge Morrissey fan and to see and shoot him was a huge treat.
The other show that comes to mind is Oasis at the Patriot Center at the end of 2008. As I said before, Oasis is my favorite band and back when Britpop was big, I would buy any and every magazine with Liam or Noel on the cover and obsess over the photos. Most of those shots were from Jill Furmonovsky, probably my favorite photographer ever. Her photos were a big influence on me. So to finally get to shoot them really was a dream come true. I think every concert photographer hopes to one day shoot their favorite band and really cherishes that experience. I was so nervous. I never drink when I'm working but I had a beer during the openers to calm my nerves a bit. And when the time came, I just buckled down and concentrated on my work and not the music that was being played or the Gallaghers that were 3 feet in front of me.
I thought I would get to shoot Oasis earlier in 2008 at the Virgin Festival in Toronto but it was not to be. I went up there specifically to shoot them but they turned away most of the photographers before their set, only a select few got access to the photo pit to shoot them. Again, I was gutted. But the Virgin staff told us we could shoot them from the crowd, so after I had a few gin and tonics, I jumped up on a picnic table and broke out my long zoom lens just to get a few photos for me. It just so happened that while I was doing that, some punter rushed onstage and attacked Noel. I was the only photog there that got the shot. I was able to sell that photo to newspapers and magazines all over the world. And if the band had approved me to shoot their set I never would have had my camera out. That just proves you have to be ready at all times. And no matter how good a photographer you are, a little luck certainly doesn't hurt.
Scroll over above images for info / Kyle Gustafson portrait shot by Brandon Wu