In at the deep end: Pocket-lint takes on festival gig photography
It's weird how things work out. One minute we're pitching an idea to Virgin Media about tailing one of its Louder Lounge photographers at the V Festival in order to learn how to take crowd and celebrity photographs on the fly, the next we're thrust into the photo pits of some of the best-known festival stages in the UK.
Well, it seemed that way as once the Virgin Media team had the idea for us to follow renowned professional photographer and V Festival stalwart Tom Oldham around the site's four main stages, the rest happened very quickly indeed.
Our task, should we choose to accept it, was to see if we could match the pros in snapping some of the country's biggest and up-and-coming stars as they performed on the Hylands Park site in Chelmsford on Saturday, 17 August. Our shots would be compared to Oldham's, but we would be at a disadvantage; we'd never done anything like this before and he has been Virgin Media's official gig snapper for years and years. And years.
First on the agenda, several weeks before the festival was due to begin, we had to get ourselves a camera. We dabbled with the idea of taking our Canon EOS 650D and a Tamron 18-270mm f/3.5-6.3 zoom lens we've used for over a year on hands-on and gadget shots. It's a combo certainly light enough to whip around in frantic conditions, and it's affordable.
However, two things persuaded us not to. For a start, we decided that if we were to make a proper go of it and attempt to produce shots that could stand up in comparison to those taken by a pro, we would need a full frame DSLR. And second, when positioned in front of a 50,000 strong baying crowd and rubbing shoulders with some of the industry's finest, we didn't want everything to collapse due to camera envy.
Therefore we opted for the entry-level full frame digital camera of Canon's, the EOS 6D. At between £1,500 to £1,800 for the body, it's reasonably affordable in comparison to, say, a 5D mk III (which will set you back around £2,500). Plus, as it has a plastic body rather than metal, it is light enough for a non-seasoned festival snapper.
Read: Canon EOS 6D review
Lens choices were a different matter. We could probably have done a similar job with the consumer versions of the 24-105mm and 70-300mm IS USM lenses in Canon's range, but the L Series equivalents were available so went for those instead. If anything, they added a bit of the weight we were looking to lose by the plastic body, but they are reassuringly well built so would stand up to any rigours a festival may have to offer.
Our last, and perhaps most controversial, decision was to add the new Autographer wearable camera to our kit bag. You're very unlikely to see any shots automatically taken by the device in the NME ever, but it helped us document our experience in the most visual way possible. We may look a bit odd, and attract stares from normally over-vigilant security guards, but having that automated camera - the first of its kind - dangling around chest height taking shots of everything it thinks is worthwhile would give a sense of context to the proceedings.
Festivals are ridiculously hard to organise and something as big as the V Festival has to have more red tape than most because of the sheer number of acts and accredited professionals that come and go throughout the weekend. There are wristbands for everything. Every single role or area backstage seems to have a separate wristband that needs to be waved for access. As we were partaking in a bit of VIP treatment in the Virgin Media Louder Lounge for the weekend, we had specific wristbands for that, but needed new ones to gain entry to the areas designated for photographers.
By the end of the V Festival, we had somehow accrued no fewer than six wristbands of varying styles and colours. The other photographers just needed the two or three but everywhere we went we seemed to have another slapped on.
We also had to sign a collection of non-disclosure agreements, the contents of which we can't disclose for obvious reasons. All we can say is that certain acts are a little more precious about where their photos end up than others. We wouldn't dream of revealing who, especially with Beyonce's lawyers on the prowl. D'oh!
However, as laborious as signing NDAs was, it made the choice of which bands to shoot much easier. We'd focus on three acts who didn't insist on restrictive use of the end results.
A gig photographer is generally allowed to shoot for the first three songs and must then get out of the way. So that helped when planning our schedule. To get the best and most varied experience, we decided to shoot on three of the four stages, with one being inside a massive tent so offering very different shooting conditions. Looking at the line-up, that meant that we would shoot Irish indie group Two Door Cinema Club on the main stage, songstress Jessie Ware in the tent and multi-talented singer-songwriter Labrinth on the Channel 4 Music stage.
But before we started, it was time to grill Oldham on what we should be looking out for and any tips he could offer. The first knocked us for six.
There was a look of mild confusion when we explained that we planned to use the aperture priority mode (Av) on the 6D. "You will really need to control your shutter speed," he explained. "Conditions will be different and mostly the artists are stood in front of black sheets."
This panicked us. We've used manual shutter speeds before, but our subjects were still, unmoving gadgetry, not energetic musicians. "Really?" we said. "Really," he replied.
The only thing static in the next hour or so would be our ISO setting. Automated ISO could kill a shot stone dead with noise. Between 500 and 800 ISO is advised, so we opted for 640. The aperture was going to depend on the type of shot we fancied and the lens we used. Our 70-300mm f/4-5.6 zoom lens was going to be the glass most utilised, so we attached it and set off into the unknown.
Two Door Cinema Club
First stop was the Virgin Media stage, the main one on the site, to take shots of Two Door Cinema Club for just the first song of their set. It was at this moment that we suddenly realised that we didn't know what we were doing. At all.
Two Door Cinema Club, taken by Rik Henderson, Pocket-lint
The band were yet to come on when we were led to the massive area between the tens of thousands of (mostly) screaming punters and the elevated stage and Oldham gave us a couple more, final tips. "Take some test shots now to figure out your shutter speed and white balance. And don't get in the way of the other photographers," he told us before manoeuvring to the sort of position someone with experience would take.
White balance? We hadn't even considered white balance. There was no time to figure out the manual controls for the fineries of white balance, so one of the set modes would have to do. It was cloudy overhead, but we stuck with daylight.
Then the band came on and it was a blur. As were a majority of the pics we took.
Two Door Cinema Club, taken by Tom Oldham
Thankfully, just as the first song and our only chance to get something usable from this first act was about to end we got one that we thought could work. Smoke cannons were were shooting around lead singer Alex Trimble and a combination of a 1/640 sec shutter speed and f/5.6 at 300mm captured the moment with animation and drama. But it was a hard won photo. Harder than we'd previously imagined.
Oldham's, on the other hand, showed why taking up the right position was of vital importance. It was a lesson we were not yet ready to learn.
The Two Door Cinema Club shoot was hard because we had no idea what to expect. The Jessie Ware shoot was even harder because it was in a big, stuffy tent, with not a sniff of natural light.
What we had going in our favour this time, however, was the experience of jostling for position with other photographers, closer access to the performer, and three songs to get something from. Even then, we didn't quite get anything we could compare with Oldham's shots.
Jessie Ware, taken by Rik Henderson, Pocket-lint
The conditions were a huge test. Again, there was the black sheet backdrop, but this time the lighting rig threw all manner of different coloured beams around a shot. Sometimes nowhere near Jessie Ware's face and more often than not directly behind her.
Shooting a silhouette when you're taking an image of a lion against the setting sun on the African plains is one thing, but gig photography is all about capturing the subject at his or her best. You need to see a clear face at the very least. That either meant waiting for the right moment or, the option we took, shoot as many pictures as we could on our SD card and worry about the rest later.
Jessie Ware, taken by Tom Oldham
As we decided to snap away to our heart's content, we fiddled about with white balance throughout - sometimes getting it spot on and sometimes not. Honestly, no matter how good the LCD screen on the back of a DSLR is, it will also give you a false sense of security that a picture is both sharper than it really is and has the colours and brightness spot on.
That's where Adobe's Lightroom comes into its own. Used more and more by the pro community, the software can hide a multitude of sins (unlike Photoshop, which can hide a multitude of chins). White balance can be altered to correct settings and pictures can be sharpened without introducing too much extra noise.
Jessie Ware, taken by Tom Oldham
At Pocket-lint, we use Adobe's Lightroom CC - part of the current Creative Cloud subscription service - and it did a decent job of rescuing some Jessie Ware shots we liked but thought were either too soft or not balanced correctly.
You will need a decent computer to munch through the amount of RAW files we generated - another side-effect of shooting so many shots willy nilly - but an array of pre-prepared filters we have on our system and the easy-to-use crop and rotate tools were both essential. Our favourite shot had an exposure of 1/30 sec at f/5.6 (116mm), so we also had to fiddle a little with the sharpening feature of Lightroom.
By the time we reached the 4 Music stage we were gaining in confidence dramatically. This was another outside shoot and after the tent natural light was a godsend - some would say literally. There was quite a bit of pressure as our subject, Labrinth, is undoubtedly the best known of the three acts and we really wanted to leave with at least one shot of him we were genuinely proud of.
Labrinth, taken by Rik Henderson, Pocket-lint
What didn't help with nerves though was that after the three songs of Jessie Ware we had to wait over 20 minutes beside the 4 Music stage before we were even let into the pit, let alone when Labrinth himself would appear.
It did give us a chance to look at what some of the other photographers were using and it has to be said that, much to the chagrin of Nikon fans everywhere, almost every one of them had at least two Canons dangling around their necks or, more accurately, lying on the grass giving them a respite between shoots. We couldn't really see logos in a lot of instances, but the telltale grey Canon L Series lenses gave the game away.
Certainly Tom Oldham was a Canon man, having already revealed that fact during an interview with Pocket-lint on the eve of last year's V Festival. We just wish we'd brought a second camera too. Hot-swapping lenses during songs was not the best use of our limited time. We first did it during the last song of Ware's in order to get shots of Oldham in action - they needed to be close up so the 24-105mm was better suited. Doing it when there were more photographers, louder fans and more happening on stage proved to be costly. We completely missed the moment Labrinth took up his guitar for an energetic solo. Damn.
Labrinth, taken by Tom Oldham
Nonetheless, thanks to the natural light pouring on the performer, and the more intricate lighting show behind him we still managed to get the shots we are most proud of. Again, a little Lightroom shenanigans have helped, but we'd finally figured out the best locations for composition. And on the whole our shots of Labrinth were naturally sharp without needing help. Focal depth was more pronounced too.
Cropping helped and, with our favourite shot of the bunch, we did cheat a little with Photoshop (where once a laptop sat, no more), but the 1/640 sec at f/5.0 (200mm) settings captured a moment. Not a nice picture of a talented celebrity, but a memory and that's when we realised what gig photography is all about.
Memories are made of this
Having a good camera and a photo pass are only part of the battle for taking great gig shots. And you can be taught what settings work best in certain situations, as we discovered. But the reason why Tom Oldham is one of the best at what he does is that he knows the moments as they happen. He doesn't have to scroll through the best part of 600 RAW files to find one or two he likes. In fact, after we filled our 16GB UHS-I SD card to the brim, Oldham revealed he'd taken 50-60 shots in total. That's why he makes the big bucks.
He knows where to be and when. He has a nose for what an artist might do next and ensures he's there to capture it. That moment. That memory.
That's what it's all about. We might have done a half-decent job of being a gig photographer when thrown in at the deep end, but a fair amount of that was down to luck. The real professionals replace luck with instinct and that will take a lot longer than a couple of hours on a Saturday afternoon to acquire.
Tom Oldham, taken by Rik Henderson, Pocket-lint
All of the photos unless otherwise stated were taken by Pocket-lint, including those captured by the Autographer we were wearing. You can check out more of Tom Oldham's photography on tomoldham.com and follow him on Twitter at @Tommyophoto.