It wasn't that long ago that I dreamt of photographing a massive music festival like Lollapalooza. After taking the dive into the photography world, I realized there is something special to photographing a performance as an artist seemingly enters another world when they deliver their raw melodic sounds to the ears of thousands of adoring fans.
That feeling can only be described as cathartic - a feeling I can’t help but chase time and time again. There's no shortage of amazing festival photographers, but one that comes to mind as one of the best to do to ever do it is none other than Rukes.
And as I dove further and further into the world of music festival photography, I learned a ton of stuff. I learned how to set up amazing compositions while on site, I learned which cameras are best for capturing music festival environments, and I learned why music festival photography needs different post processing than conventional photography.
And lucky for you, I'm about to break down every single thing that I learned. So bust out your notepad and get ready to learn everything you've ever wondered about festival photography and landing paid photography in the music industry.
How To Compose Your Festival Performance Photos
Before we dive into any gear and technical aspects, let’s talk about what matters most when photographing a festival - composition.
What I look for when photographing a performance, first and foremost, is emotion - whether that’s the lead singer making some gnarly face, the drummer going to town on their solo, or the connection between audience and performer. It's emotion that connects image to experience.
That’s how a photo becomes a feeling.
Think about it this way - if you, as an attendee, feel something while watching a performance, then encapsulating that feeling is what you’re hoping to achieve.
When considering composition, also consider how the light, be it natural light or artificial, looks on the performers you’re photographing. The light changes quickly, especially stage lighting.
My advice to newer photographers looking to up their composition game while on site is to take a lot of photos using burst mode to capture a sequence throughout the performance. That way, you can easily pick a moment in a sequence that stands out as the winner. The better the light on the performer(s), the better that photo will look.
On the other hand, I’m also personally fond of a cool silhouette photo or creative take or two. If you plan to pitch your photos to an online mag or publication, showcasing how your work stands out will only boost your chances of an editor choosing you to represent their publication.
If you’re able to nail a handful of sharp, emotional photos along with some creative shots, then it’ll give you an edge when attempting to land your first gig.
How To Capture An Incredible Photo At Your Festival
I’ll be the first to admit, I personally don’t have a “shot list” when photographing a festival. I very much shoot when inspired by a moment. Be that as it may, I have honed in on some shots I always look for personally.
For those that are looking to break into the festival photography space, time is your friend. Take time to photograph performances from different angles and vantage points. Enjoy that time now because once you’re a seasoned festival photographer, your time is generally cut to three songs to get it right.
Check out some examples of a number of the shots I look for as stated below: Electric Daisy Carnival
Let's Dive Into The Tips..
#1 Get Close
Do whatever you can to get up close and personal enough to distinguish the faces of the performers. While it might be difficult to get front and center all the time, it's worth it to camp out early on the rail for some of your favorite artists.
The closer you can get, the more raw the images will feel and the easier it'll be to connect image to viewer. You can check out some great examples from photographer, Ian Young, at Pitchfork last year here.
#2 Watch For Connection
Performing artists move a ton when they are in the moment. Watch for facial expressions, crowd interaction, and spontaneous moments of them expressing emotion and connection with the audience.
Your entire career could be launched by capturing a single moment of an artist on stage, so be extra mindful of the moments that make a star on stage look human.
Trust me, it'll be worth your while.
#3 Take Wide Shot From Further Back Of The Crowd
Beyond getting up close and personal, taking a few wide shots from the crowd will easily make your audience feel like they're there themselves. It also makes the performer(s) look good when you're able to capture the crowd rocking out to their performance
The more dynamic the shots are, the more feeling you'll capture. Think about movement, crowd participation, phone lights in the air, synchronized hand waving, fireworks, etc...
#4 Look for Candid Moments Of Artists Connecting With Fans
Whenever an artist goes out of their way to connect with the fans in the audience, it's always a solid shot. Whether that's the performer(s) going down by the rail to interact with the crowd, or whether they bring a fan up on stage, it's a wholesome moment that's shutter-worthy and sure to be received well.
These moments are so important to capture because it humanizes the the artists and connects the experience beyond the music. It's a feel-good moment that reminds us that at the end of the day, we all seek acknowledgement and connection.
#5 There Is No "I" In Band
If you're photographing a band with multiple singers, instrumentalists, and even dancers, it's always a solid idea to photograph as many of the performers as you can.
Focus on different groupings of bandmates, especially when it looks like they're really having a good time performing together.
An example would be two guitarists playing back to back to each other or a drummer wilding out while the singer head bangs next to the drum set.
#6 Set The Mood
All those strobes, fog machines, lighting, video boards, pyrotechnics, and everything in between is used to set the mood for the performance.
Utilizing all that's given to you visually can take a normally boring image and turn it into a straight up dream shot. Personally, these are the shots I live for the most.
Whenever possible, time your shots to include pyrotechnics going off, use fog/lighting situations for the dreamy feel, and the video board to frame the performer(s)
#7 Feel It, Shoot It
Photographing festivals means tapping into your empathy. The best concert photographers, in my opinion, seem to able to predict what the artist is going to do next.
As mentioned before, if you as an attendee feel something from a performance, then that's a moment you needs to be captured. It seems like a pretty abstract idea, but it just means listening to your intuition.
#8 You're On Stage!
So you made it on stage by virtue of a coveted All-Access pass, a Super VIP pass, or you snuck pass security (Just kidding. We don't condone this behavior, but if you make it, well done). DON'T waste it; act like you've been there before.
If you somehow end up with a unique vantage point, particularly on stage, focus on shooting the performer(s) with their back to you and the crowd in the shot as they perform. It's an amazingly unique point of view and makes the audience feel like they're on stage themselves.
#9 Capture Dynamic and Powerful Moments
Tying it all in, the best shots are the ones that feel like a still in a movie.
Whenever a performer looks like they're about to jump off a part of the stage, stand somewhere they probably shouldn't be standing, or moving like they're a possessed banshee, shoot as many shots as you can of the sequence.
Movement is moving. Whenever you see performers get lost in a moment, shoot your shot! Check out some examples of a number of the shots I look for as stated above: Electric Daisy Carnival
How To Get Close To The Music At A Festival
For those wondering how you’re going to take up close photos without being in the pit or the fence, the smaller stages at the festival are a great place to start. It’ll be easier to photograph from different angles and much easier to hug that front rail to take close-ups than to try to get through a few thousand people at the headliner stage.
Obviously, the bigger the act, the more “wow” factor when it comes to pitching an editor to let you shoot a festival, but if you’re just getting your feet wet, the smaller stages and earlier set times will be the easiest to navigate.
Beyond the performances themselves, I also photograph festivals with the intention of encapsulating the grandeur of the festival as if it were a living and breathing landscape. After all, that's why festivals are so special to begin with.
The beauty of festivals is its ability to transport us somewhere else - places we can only dream of in our imaginations. To photograph a festival means sharing the experience of a dreamscape turned reality. If you can share the feeling of being there, you’ve got your audience hook, line, and sinker.
Alright, now that you have some of the basics of what I look for when shooting a festival, you’re probably wondering what camera I used to capture the photos that landed me my first gig.
While your cell phone camera’s capabilities are far superior than early “point and shoot” cameras of yesteryear, what you make up in ease, you lose in quality - especially when you have to zoom in. If that’s all you have, I highly recommend purchasing a telephoto camera lens adaptor with at least 200mm capabilities. Be warned though, you may not be able to bring that lens inside the festival unless you have amazing smuggling skills.
Best Point And Shoot Cameras For Festival Photography
Since I went into the festival with the intention of photographing it as if I were on a gig, I opted for one of the best “point and shoot” cameras I could rent.
My Top Pick: The Sony RX-10 IV
Why this camera?
Mainly because of its 600mm max focal length; which allowed me to shoot from most distances and gave me the kind of compression I wanted for the photos. Having that kind of range gave me flexibility as to where I could shoot from. Also, Sony has always been known for capturing amazing images even in low light, which made that decision super easy to justify as the lighting on stage shifts quickly.
While you don’t necessarily need the absolute best camera on the market, you’re going to want to have the best possible gear that falls within your budget to capture the sharpest images while still giving you a wide variety of focal lengths to shoot from different perspectives. Not trying to drop a thousand dollars on a new camera?
Don't worry, you can rent gear and I highly recommend doing so instead of buying a new camera all together, especially if you're just using the camera for a few days. A couple of my favorite sites to rent from are - borrowlenses.com & lensrentals.com
When choosing a camera, I’d look for a camera with focal lengths ranging from 15/16mm on the wide end to at least 200mm for a mid-range telephoto. If it’s within your means, I recommend opting for a camera with a longer focal length such as 500 or 600mm - especially if you’re trying to land a photo gig.
Down below, I’ve listed an array of camera recommendations with different price points.
Sony RX100 VII (retail- $862, rent-$49 for 3 days)
- Compact Design
- Built-in 24-200mm zoom
While a great compact camera with a high-speed shutter, the sensor is small which means as the light starts to fade, the quality of the image will start to diminish (aka - grainy photos).
This option is good if you're trying to minimize extra weight you'll be carrying at the festival.
Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ1000 (retail- $757, rent-$44 for 3 days)
- Built-in 25-400mm zoom
- Larger sensor than most point and shoots
If I were to rent another point and shoot for a festival, this might take the cake. While this isn't a DSLR, it could easily match up with an entry-level DSLR in my opinion. Panasonic is generally slept on for its cameras, but this incredible camera produces high quality images and video to boot.
Panasonic Lumix ZS100 (retail-$497, rent-$31 for 3 days)
- built in 25-250mm zoom (longest zoom within its class)
Looking to combine the best of both worlds of a compact camera and that of a "bridge" point and shoot? This is it. With the longest zoom range within its class, a 1 inch sensor, and ability to shoot 5.7 frames per second, this is a beast for its size. While it's much more advance sibling, the Lumix DMC -FZ1000 produces better quality images, what you lose in quality you make up in portability.
Nikon Coolpix P950 (retail-$950, rent-$42)
- Built-in 24-2000mm zoom
With Nikon giving the "bridge" camera a go, one would hope it would live up to the Nikon name. While only 16mp, the zoom range on this camera is a staggering 2000mm.
You'll almost be able to see the sweat beading down the performers' forehead. It's probably the bulkiest of the camera mentioned in this article, but with that kind of zoom range, it's expected.
Note: Make sure you rent an extra or two batteries for any of these cameras. While these cameras pack a punch for its size, you'll easily drain the batteries within the first couple hours of the festival.
A Short Guide On Processing Your Festival Photos
If your photographs are already great "straight out of camera," you'll spend less time editing. When you're going through images from the festival, besides choosing the best images that convey a sense of emotion, you also want to choose sharp, well lit photos.
Creative images are also a great addition to any set, but make sure you have sharp, clean images first. Remember - if you're shooting for a publication, your photos have to capture the essence of a performance for it to be shared to the masses.
You're essentially an extension to the PR representative for the publication and the artists alike so you have to ask yourself,
If yes, then you've done your job.
There's no shortage of editing software these days, but my favorite ones to use are Adobe Lightroom and Skylum's Luminar Neo . If you're new to editing photos, I'd start with editing photos you've taken on your phone using Google's Snapseed or any one of the free apps you can download on iOS or Google Play.
I won't break down the editing process as that's a whole other beast altogether, but focus on the basics for the moment: exposure, color, contrast, and white balance. Once you've mastered that, you can start to get creative with your edits.
Using Your Portfolio To Get Paid Photography Gigs
Alright, so you’ve shot the festival and hoping to leverage your work to shoot your next one for a publication, online blog and hopefully one day - for an artist. How does one get there?
Given the infinite possibilities of the internet, it all starts with putting yourself out there and showing your work.
First off, start by looking for publications that focus on festivals or music and find the contact for the editors in charge. Reach out to the editors with your body of work along with how you think you’ll add value to the team.
Show your best body of work...
DON’T take it personally if you do not hear from them...
There could be a million reasons why you never get a reply, but it shouldn’t deter you from continuing to pitch. It doesn’t always mean your work isn’t good enough. Editors are bombarded with deadlines and a never-ending stream of emails.
You’re going to pitch a lot of publications. It could take weeks until you hear back or it could happen in the first couple days. You just have to be persistent. This is the reality of freelance work, especially if you are not established yet.
Once you finally have a publication that wants to work with you, now it’s about finding the PR team responsible for the festival. Usually, you can find this on the festival website and it’ll list how to apply for a Press Pass or Photo credentials. You’ll have to talk to your editor to make sure coverage of the festival is guaranteed for the publication before applying but after that, you’re good to go. And like that, you’re a festival photographer! Maybe one day I’ll see you in the photo pit…
Need more inspiration? Check out Rutger Geerling's "20 years of EDM photography."