A photographer’s guide to surviving a music festival

An extra set of earplugs is only the beginning.

Charles Bradley and the Extrodinaires at Northside Festival
Charles Bradley and the Extrodinaires at Northside Festival, 2014Photo: Gretchen Robinette

If you love music and photography, then the summer music festival season is a great time to get your fix of both. The music-filled gatherings offer plenty of interesting characters, both on stage and off, that will make for some truly awesome shots if you've come prepared.

“I’m a photographer, sure, but first and foremost, I’m just a fan,” says Matt Draper, a Los Angeles based photographer who photographed this years SXSW, Austin Psych Fest and is planning to cover FYF at the end of summer. “Some people go to concerts and buy T-shirts. I go to concerts and want to take photos.”

Although covering a music festival is a lot of fun, it can be a bit overwhelming if it's your first time.

“You have to be looking in every direction. Be able to capture something happening in the crowd and at the same time jumping over to shoot something on stage,” says music photographer Gretchen Robinette. “It’s kind of like shooting in a war zone, but with beer cans instead of bullets.”

Wearing comfortable shoes, staying hydrated, and bringing extra earplugs—in case one pops out of your ear on a late-night trip to the overcrowded portable bathrooms—are all a given, but there are plenty of other things to help you stay sane during a day at the festival grounds.

We spoke to three seasoned music photographers about the biggest lessons they’ve learned while spending time in the pit.

Securing a Photo Pass

Although a photo pass isn’t absolutely necessary to cover a music festival, it is the only way you’ll be able to get up-close shots of the performers. “You’re afforded a vantage point that fans don’t necessarily have,” Matt Draper says regarding the benefits of shooting with a photo pass.

Unlike shooting at a small club, at music festivals performers and crowds are separated by a metal barrier to create what is known as the photo pit. Only properly credentialed members of the press and festival staff can access this area and most of the time a festival wants a photographer to be shooting for a publication to be granted access. If you are pitching to a publication they will want to see a portfolio. Shooting at smaller, more intimate venues is a great way to try your hand at concert photography before going to the proverbial “big league” of festival photography.

“You really have to show that you know how to shoot things before a publication will send you out to a festival,” says Gretchen Robinette. “Start shooting a lot of bands, deal with all the horrible lighting and good lighting and different types of music so that you know what to expect and how to be prepared to shoot anything.”

If you are newer to music photography it’s usually best to direct your pitch to a more local blog or website. While a large festival may not credential an unknown photographer, they typically will give access to smaller websites.

According to Draper once you’ve made connections locally, it’s smart to keep a calendar of what is coming up and pitch your editors early. He adds that when you are just starting out it’s unlikely that you’ll get paid for your work, but you will be seeing music for free. “A lot of times with these entry-level [sites] they don’t pay you for the content and you don’t pay to deliver it,” he says.

Matt Draper

CaribouMatt Draper
Dandy Warhols
Dandy WarholsMatt Draper
FYF 2014
FYF 2014Matt Draper
Austin Psych Fest 2014
Austin Psych Fest 2014Matt Draper
BorisMatt Draper
Dead Meadow
Dead MeadowMatt Draper
HoaxMatt Draper
Murder City Devils
Murder City DevilsMatt Draper
RefusedMatt Draper
Desert Days Festival 2015
Desert Days Festival 2015Matt Draper

Picking Your Gear

Like any style of photography, the gear you chose to shoot with often comes down to personal preference, and when you are covering a festival you will see a variety of choices in the photo pit.

Draper actually shot the first music festival photo he ever had published with a simple Canon PowerShot ELPH. “I stood up on the scaffolding and took a photo of the singer crowd surfing,” he says. “This photo editor came up to me afterwards and he said ‘You were in a good place. I liked where you were standing. Can I see those photos?'” These days, though, Draper prefers to shoot with a Nikon D600, a 85mm prime, a “nifty 50” and a Contax point-and-shoot film camera that he keeps stashed in a pocket. “I just don’t need $10,000 worth of equipment around my neck for three songs,” he says.

Krista Schlueter prefers to carry two Canon bodies, one with a 24-105mm lens and a second with a 70-200mm lens and a flash—just incase. “Once I shot Julian Casablancas and the Voidz at SXSW under a tent and he completely shut off all the lights so you couldn’t see him at all,” she says. Although 99 percent of the time she would never use a flash to shoot a festival stage in that scenario it was unavoidable. “There was no way. No matter what fancy camera you had, it was just pitch black.”

Julian Casablancas and the Voidz
Julian Casablancas and the VoidzKrista Schlueter

Gretchen Robinette likes to travel with a variety of zoom lenses for her Canon 5D Mark II—a 24-70mm, a 70-200mm and her personal favorite a 16-35mm. “It forces me to get up closer to a crowd or a stage,” she says. “I like the way you feel like you’re jumping in on somebody, but it’s not too distorted. It’s also really easy to focus in low light.”

Extra batteries, fast cards, and earplugs are also all crucial items for your bag.

“Always wear earplugs when you’re standing next to stage monitors,” says Robinette. “I see a lot of people not wearing them. You probably came because you love the music—when I’m older, in case I lose my vision, I want to at least still be able to hear the band.”

Making a Schedule

If you are shooting with a team of photographers, making a schedule and sticking to it is crucial. But it’s also important to be flexible. Sometimes bands cancel, start a set early, or a photo pit will fill up. Have a plan A, but keep a plan B handy too, incase things don’t work out as you expected.

Google Bands

Both Robinette and Draper say that Googling bands before they go is a great way to anticipate what a band might look like before trying to capture their on-stage essence.

Watching videos of live sets on Youtube can help determine member’s positions on stage or if anyone in the group has a bad habit of hiding behind their instruments.

Getting the Lay of the Land

If Matt Draper is shooting somewhere new he says he likes to spend the first hour or so walking the festival grounds to figure out exactly where the stages are.

“You are going to have to run at night and after kids have been drinking beer in the sun all day it’s hard to navigate with a bunch of gear on your shoulder,” he says.

The vibe of a music festival can also change once the sun sets and having a solid grasp on where everything is makes it easier to bounce from stage to stage once the bigger bands start playing.

Krista Schlueter

Afro Punk Fest 2014
Afro Punk Fest 2014Krista Schlueter
Jenny Lewis
Jenny LewisKrista Schlueter
Travis Scott
Travis ScottKrista Schlueter
SZAKrista Schlueter
The Strokes
The StrokesKrista Schlueter
Le1fKrista Schlueter
Ty Dolla Sign
Ty Dolla SignKrista Schlueter
Chloe Howl
Chloe HowlKrista Schlueter
Ian Isiah
Ian IsiahKrista Schlueter
Run the Jewels
Run the JewelsKrista Schlueter

Photo Pit Etiquette

Although access to the photo pit isn’t totally necessary, being able to get close to the stage will give you a very different perspective than the majority of festival-goers.

Pit access does come with rules though, some which are set by the band and others that are set by festival organizers.

A recent rule that Schlueter has run into when covering festivals is musicians who ask photographers to sign waivers that give the artists on stage full ownership of any images produced. “I strongly suggest a photographer never sign something like this,” she says. “It is horrible that these artists are asking us to sign away our creative work … but it is what it is. It's the photographer’s responsibility not to sign.”

A more generally encountered restriction is the “three-song rule.” The three song rule gives photographers the ability to shoot during the first three songs of a set, although sometimes if there are enough photographers you’ll only be able to stay for a single song. Flash is almost never allowed in a photo pit and make sure you pay attention to anything the security guards tells you.

If a photo pit is particularly crowded it’s smart to be aware of the space you and your gear are occupying.

4knotsGretchen Robinette

“I always believe in trying to be nice and communicate with each other to share the space,” says Robinette. “Switch sides and move around, not be in each other's way or blocking shots.”

Schlueter agrees that while it is important to be courteous in the photo pit, it’s also important to know when to stand your ground. “There are photographers who are pretty ruthless and kind of push people around,” she says. “Get the shots and move along. Don't stand in one spot, but don't take shit from other photographers.”

Draper typically tries to hang back from the pack in a photo pit as a way to keep things friendly. “Once you get a little more comfortable in the photo pit you start to realize that there is a formula,” he says. “There are times I go to the photo pit and I don’t take pictures during the first two songs at all.”

Unless a band has been playing together for a long time those first three songs serve as a bit of a warm-up, which means it isn’t always the best time to grab a killer shot.

While it is important to be mindful of other photographers in the pit, it may be more important to be aware of the fans standing directly behind you who have paid to see these bands perform. “Be careful of crowd surfers and things flying at your camera,” says Schlueter. Draper will typically try to talk to the fans who are standing in the front row before the band starts, while Robinette usually uses some of her time in the pit to snap images of the crowd reacting to the band on stage.

“The photo pit is a great place. It’s very functional,” says Draper. “Go in there and take a photo, and then I’d say really just keep shooting outside.”

The Atmosphere

Capturing the fans at music festivals is just as important as shooting the bands on stage. According to the photographers we spoke with many of the best shots are made outside of the photo pit.

“The festival environment is always a little strange, it’s kind of this separate world,” says Draper. He likes to capture this environment by finding where the fans are hanging out between sets to make pictures. “See people playing hacky sack, people sleeping, or people shirtless,” he says. “That photo is so much more evocative of the community and the atmosphere.“

Robinette almost always tries to stay until the very end of the day to capture empty festival grounds and the trash that is left behind. “There's just stuff everywhere to shoot that you don't need a press pass for,” she says.

But you can also take a more insider-view of the festival. Schlueter always tries to set up portrait sessions with artists before arriving to a festival. “If you can get backstage and shoot candids, that is awesome too,” she says.

Gretchen Robinette

Guided by Voices
Guided by VoicesGretchen Robinette
Cage the Elephant
Cage the ElephantGretchen Robinette
Afro Punk Fest 2013
Afro Punk Fest 2013Gretchen Robinette
Jessica Lea Mayfield
Jessica Lea MayfieldGretchen Robinette
Afro Punk Fest 2013
Afro Punk Fest 2013Gretchen Robinette
Afro Punk Fest 2013
Afro Punk Fest 2013Gretchen Robinette
MIAGretchen Robinette
Fucked Up
Fucked UpGretchen Robinette
Afro Punk Fest 2013
Afro Punk Fest 2013Gretchen Robinette

Don't Write Off the Little Guys

While it’s pretty much a given that you will encounter packed photo pits for a festival’s headliners the real joy of a music festival is that there are bands playing all day long.

Catching a band whose playing a set at 2 p.m. may lead to more amazing photos than only shooting the headliners. “Because no one has heard of them there might only be one or two other photographers in the pit or nobody in the pit,” says Draper.

Security are more likely to be loose with the three song rule, and if no one is crowding the pit even without a photo pass you’ll have a good view of the performers on stage.

Running the Gauntlet

At most music festivals as the night progresses set times get a lot closer together and you’ll likely be running from stage to stage. “You really have to pay attention to the time,” says Robinette. “You don't have time to pee a lot of the time, or eat. You just kind of have to deal with it.”

DJ Harvey
DJ HarveyMatt Draper

Draper adds that at most festivals he covers he just keeps running from stage to stage. “I have not seen a full set by anybody,” he says. “If you really want to get a well-rounded gallery from a festival, just keep moving.”

Practice (Some) Photo Frugality

“There’s nothing worse than coming out of a music festival and having 5,000 images and you need to deliver 50,” says Draper. To avoid six hour editing sessions Draper says he tries to shoot less and shoot more focused.

He says he will delete from cards as he goes and if he can’t nail the shot he has in his mind he’ll stop shooting. “You’ve got to give up if you can’t get one,” he says. “There is nothing worse than a forced attempt.”

Schlueter added that it’s important to stop when you know you have something and to avoid the pray and spray. “Instead of just rapidly shooting take your time and look for things and don’t rush,” she says. “I think that’s where a lot of photographers go wrong, they just go in and rush.”

Draper adds that it is okay to avoid the cliché festival photograph—shots of a lead singer with microphone to face and pointing at the crowd. “Those are great photos, but they’re also photos that everybody’s seen,” he says. “It’s a lot of keeping your eyes open—apart from your camera.”

Managing Files and Editing Your Work

A lot of how you choose to manage your files will depend on the publication you are shooting for. Some publications want images transmitted a few hours after they’ve been shot. If that is the case you’ll likely be traveling with a laptop and want to take advantage of the media tent and its wi-fi connection—another bonus of having a press credential.

“I try to always bring a lot of memory cards because I don’t want to be limited by not having enough memory space,” says Robinette, who adds that she is always shooting RAW, which eats up even more card space.

For Draper it is a matter of editing from his camera throughout the day, deleting the photos that don't quite work as he goes. “Half of being a good photographer is being a good editor,” he says.

Schlueter says that most days after shooting a festival she ends up staying up late and editing through the night. Her next step is to back everything up to a portable hard drive, which she will always back up a second time when she returns home.