Concert Photography with Arkells
It’s been two years since I last saw and photographed the Arkells on stage in Saskatoon and two years since I began photographing bands I’m not friends with (tbt to high school days shooting my friends’ unlit gigs on my Canon Rebel). It was a blast to get back inside the media pit at SaskTel Centre and so fun to watch these talented musicians warm up such a big room on a frigid Friday night.
I get asked a lot what my favourite kind of photography is and it’s always the most difficult question. My favourite thing about photography is the variety that comes with it - no two shoots or projects are the same because no two people are the same. Though I love telling people’s stories the most, that’s a pretty broad brush to try and fit into a small “favourite” box. Wedding and brand work allow me to interact with amazing people and capture their unique stories, but if I need to get super specific, there’s something about concert photography that just gets me amped. I love the challenge that comes with documenting the story of a band in such a high pressure situation.
We all know the feeling you get standing in a crowd waiting for your favourite artist to take the stage. When I’m photographing a show this anticipation is only multiplied. I eye up the venue, planning out potential shots and angles even though I have no idea what songs are going to be played, how and where the musicians are going to move, and what the lighting's going to look like. I make a feeble attempt at setting my camera’s exposure, knowing I will need to reassess as soon as the band comes out and lights get going. I create a check list in my head of the variety of shots I want and pick a main goal for the show, telling myself that if I can only produce that one image, I’ll be happy.
The typical rule regarding concert photographers is that unless you are hired directly by the band, you get 3 songs to shoot in the media pit before turning off your camera. Is it frustrating to stand in the audience the rest of the night picking out perfect photo ops and framing ideal images in your head? Absolutely. Did I eye up the Arkells tour photographer, Rob Loud, wishing I had the luxury of knowing the set list and each choreographed moment like he did? For sure. But I also understand the purpose of the rule and to be honest, the limitation only ads to the thrill.
As soon as the first song starts, the countdown is on. I’m racing against the clock to get the perfect combination of lighting, composition, and emotion. And then again as I move on to a different band member. And then wides with the whole group. And backlit. And a profile. And something with some crowd interaction. And omg Tony has his foot up on the piano I need to get this. And make sure to include the cool LED band sign. Ooh and look at how perfectly those ribbons on Max’s jacket move when he dances. Is that a literal payphone? Can’t miss that. This light right now would be perfect for a wide. Oh and that facial expression, gotta get in close. My mind is everywhere, trying not to miss a moment while also anticipating the bands next move and planning my own. It’s a literal rush and as quick as it starts the stage goes black as the third song ends, my cameras drop to my hips, and I’m escorted away.
The three song rule has its origins back in the 80’s, when many film photographers resorted to flash to better light up the musicians and make the most of their roll. This would obviously get annoying for big names, having dozens of photographers popping flashes in their face all night while they’re trying to perform. Bruce Springsteen is credited to starting the rule around this time in New York and it’s been standard in the industry since.
There’s a lot of back and forth about the current relevancy of the three song rule, but overall I agree that photographers in the pit interfere with the audience experience and I don’t blame bands for wanting some control over the photos produced of their performances. In addition, the biggest opportunity to make money as a concert photographer is in being hired by an artist - venues and media outlets pay pennies - so I think it would be silly of me to push to remove a rule that in the end provides (a limited few) photographers with pretty sweet jobs.
At this point in my career, no, I’m not making big bucks photographing bands in front of what is often the smallest crowd of their tour, but I am having a lot of fun capturing sick photos of my favourite artists.