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Or how I got into a Travis gig... without paying

I am what could be considered an amateur photographer. I have absolutely no intention of turning professional, but I dearly love taking pictures. Some weeks ago, I decided it would be fun to go and photograph a concert; now Aberdeen has many fine small venues, The Lemon Tree has paid host to such bands as Radiohead, Terrorvision and Pearl Jam, but scanning through the local What's On guide, one concert caught my eye, Travis at the rather larger Aberdeen Exhibition and Conference Centre.

"Worth a shot", I thought.

My first port of call was the Internet, to find out how photo passes were issued. There were lots of stern guides warning that if you are not taking pictures for a newspaper or magazine, you should not even bother asking. I did not let this discourage me, and neither should you. I did a Google search to find Travis' record company, whose website very nicely listed their manager's email address. Several polite emails later and I was told that when as long as I signed and returned the attached release form, there would be a pass waiting for me at the Gig.

The days passed slowly...

1900hrs, 7th March 2001 and I was standing outside the main entrance. I went to the box office window and was greeted with... "No i'm sorry sir, we have no press pass for a Mr Thomas". AAAARRGGH! I knew this would happen. "But (name deleted) organised it, it should be here!" I feebly replied. 20 minutes, three phone calls, some people talking on a CB radio and a lot of me pacing up and down looking stressed, and my pass duly turned up. To this day I will never know if they just gave it to me because it was less hassle than confessing that they had lost my form.

At this point I was in the venue, I had a pass and I knew basically what to do, but not where or when to do it. I got through about half a dozen stewards before I found one who knew what he was talking about. "In the pit, first three, no flash".

There followed a large amount of time hanging around, chatting to punters and generally waiting for Travis. During this time, I was (depending on who I was talking to), taking pics for NME, Melody Maker or Rolling Stone magazine. Four other photographers turned up, all with identical identikit concert photographing camera kits (Nikon D1, Nikon 80-200/2.8 lens) who looked vaguely amused at my little Canon AE1 and Tamron 135/2.8. Three random women hinted at all sorts of good things if we could get them over the barrier.

The lights dimmed, the music stopped and Travis emerged.

Sing, picture, picture, picture, picture, picture, picture, picture, picture, picture, picture, picture, picture, picture, picture, picture, picture, picture, picture, picture, picture, picture, picture, picture, picture, picture, picture, picture, picture, picture, picture, picture, picture, picture, picture, picture, picture, reload.

The Fear, picture, picture, picture, picture, picture, picture, picture, picture, picture, picture, picture, picture, picture, picture, picture, picture, picture, picture, picture, picture, picture, picture, picture, picture, picture, picture, picture, picture, picture, picture, picture, picture, picture, picture, picture, picture, reload.

Writing to Reach You, picture, picture, picture, picture, picture, picture, picture, picture, picture, picture, picture, picture, picture, picture, picture, picture, picture, picture, picture, picture, picture, picture, picture, picture, picture, picture, picture, picture, picture, picture, picture, picture, picture, picture, picture, picture, relax.

Out of the pit and time to go home. I wandered around taking some atmosphere shots but a nice security man told me to put the camera away.

I have done few things in my life that have given me such a rush, the photo pit is a scary, hectic place. Five photograpers all trying to get the "one true picture". After the gig I was completely drained, I was suffering from an adrenaline crash and the only thing I could think of doing was going to bed.

If you think this sounds fun, do it, its easy. Find a concert in your area with a band you like (or at least vaguely admire), preferably one with an independant record label and start sending letters. All you will need is an SLR with motor wind and a fast (f2.8) lens in the 80-150mm range. Stock up on 800 speed film (I used Fuji Press film) and get to it. Even if the pictures are all crap I will look back on this as one of the best experiences of my life.

If you do it, read http://www.photo.net/concerts/mirarchi/concer_i first.

PS. If the prospect of having lots of young women pat you on the head while you crouch in the photo pit disturbs you, this is not for you, I wonder what happens at a Metallica concert.


I have decided to finish this off with a list of tips for the budding concert photographer:
  • Buy good fast colour negative film (Fuji NPH-II 800 for example) and do not be afraid to push it a stop or two if the light is bad.
  • Camera shake will kill a picture, do not let the shutter speed fall below 2/focal length seconds. You cann always get the printer to compensate for low light.
  • Beg steal or borrow a spot metering camera, meter off the face and be happy. Use a centre weighted meter and prepare to have over exposed faces.
  • Do not pack too much equipment, you will barely have time to change lenses. I would recommend 85-100mm as the ideal focus length if you are right up to the stage.
  • If you are short of cash, get a fast prime lens, a 100/2.0 will cost far far less than a 80-200/2.8 zoom, it is much lighter and easier to handle, it will be just as sharp and lets in twice the light.
  • Pack enough film, you can never have too much.
  • Practise loading film until you can do it in seconds (in the dark, in front of an 8 foot stack of sub woofers, in front of 8000 people).
  • Be polite to everyone, they are doing you a favour letting you take pictures at their concert so play nice.
  • Realise that you did not pay for your ticket, everyone else did so do not block people's views unless it is necessary.
  • If you are shooting for fun (as I was), do not get in the other photographers way - they are trying to make a living.
  • Chill out, don't worry and have fun!
In my fourth full year of music photography I definitely know that I have a different approach than most photographers. I generally do not enjoy talking about equipment or technique at length as I find it quite boring. I could go on about the bands I have seen, but as they are not million-album sellers you wouldn't recognise any of them. I have rung up both the Age and the Herald Sun only to be told they were 'pretty right' for photographers in the case of the latter.

It is not actually about the photos at all but more about managing relationships with the performers. I always try to act in a way that I would be asked to come back again and always deal with requests related to the photos in a timely manner. If you promise something always try to deliver and people will respect you for it.

Once you have taken thousands of photos of someone your feelings towards them will change. If this does not happen then you are doing something wrong. I have not crossed the line and become involved with any of the performers I have photographed, but the temptation is there sometimes which is only natural. This has led to me being destroyed on a couple of occasions. I once had to take down an entire set of 400+ photos of my friends' performances due to miscommunication on the part of the organisers of a show.

I am still learning even now and always open to learning new techniques. Just when I was used to only using about 10% of my photos when using a 50mm f/1.4 lens, I purchased a bounce flash and ended up using almost 1:1 of the photos I took for a while. I don't like having a load of gear personally and everything I use has to be able to be carried just by myself and changed over on the fly so I can continue to take photos.

If you only take photos of what is occurring on stage you are missing half the gig. For smaller venues I always try to take at least a few photos of the general crowd in attendance and any willing punters. The venue promoter will love you for this and it is a good way of meeting people.

After each gig I have a system set up where I download the photos, copy to my backup drive, burn two copies to CD and prepare a mailing envelope for the performer's copy. Almost everyone has an email now days and it is easy enough to ask for a postal address later. Over a year the total costs for postage and blank CDs has come to a few hundred dollars, which I wouldn't have noticed if I hadn't been keeping track of it.

I know most people like to watermark their photos on their personal websites. It is my personal preference not to as people can just re-crop the photo if they want to get rid of the watermark plus in my opinion most photos are not really worth the trouble of doing it on.

When I make prints of photos I don't do things by halves. As I generally only like to print out photos from major events I have covered including music festivals and community sports days, I print out at least $50 of prints each time. My record was 710 prints for a recent charity football match (double prints). This presents its own problems in sorting a counting.

As with everything there has to be limits on it and the main one you are likely to run into is cost. While working with digital saves the cost of film, there are always other costs you need to be aware of like meals, drinks and taxis. In my last job I spent virtually my entire wage on photography, which I would definitely not recommend.

I see this as a long term proposition and am considering more secure data storage services now that I have thousands of photos on file. I have had a couple of scares with data loss so it pays to be careful. There are hardly any sites that have a long term archive. I recently tried to look back ten years and could only find a handful of sites with an archive. Unless I decide to move overseas in the near future or start a family I plan to continue taking photos for at least a few more years yet.

Always begin with the Bass player. This will always lead to confusion amongst the band members, at least two of whom will just think it is the manager venting frustration again. This has happened at least twice, three times if it is a particularly popular band. In this case, the bassist will be a robot brought in to pretend to be a former, more aggravating, band member. The two band members who think the manager is angry will attempt to mollify the third and explain why the manager has just shot Jim and why motor oil is leaking onto the stage. When things have calmed down, get to the side stage, orient yourself between the vocalist and the lead guitarist, or alternatively the lead guitar/vocal and the keyboard player.

The, now mollified, third member is probably the Drummer, who didn't know the bassist was a robot because he's only been there for 30 minutes. If you wait another 15 minutes he'll probably quit the band and reporters from crappy magazines will swarm the remaining members, and the new Robot Bassist will have come out of the closet.(the broom closet that is; he doesn't come out of the other closet unless a feather boa is gets caught on a shoulder servo) As the press would get in the way, take the opportunity from this vantage to shoot the drummer. If you use an explosive round, the two remaining members will probably think this is par for the course. However one of them, the one with a slightly smaller ego, will be getting nervous and will probably make for the door. Make sure a trip wire is ready and he'll practically shoot himself.

Finally, the lead guitar/vocal will be irritated since he'll need to find a new band and will probably sit down for a smoke. Replace his cigarettes with a pack you've prepared with powerful bombs inside. If it fails go off, shoot the rest of the pack which he's stuck back into his breast pocket or, lacking a shirt as he often does, his pants. Use the remote detonator and that should be it. If there is a fifth member of the band just take him out for a night of drinking and he'll fall into a spiral of alcohol and drugs that eventually lead to his death or recovery with teary memoirs and specials on VH1.

The manager will pay you off with a percentage of the insurance if you promise to stay quiet about how the feather boa got on the extra robotic bassist.

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