This past September I had the privilege of photographing the iHeartRadio Music Festival at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. Having shot music events of various sizes over the past few years, I quickly recognized that this wasn’t going to be a typical “concert” by any means. It was a 2-day event, packed with 10 “A list” artists each night, performing anywhere from 10 to 40 minutes each. Fast paced and on a large scale, I knew from the outset that in order to “capture” the event in a cohesive and artful way I’d have to draw from all facets of my shooting experience and documentary style. Given that I had virtually unrestricted access to run around the arena and get the shots I wanted, the challenge was on me to document and present the concert in a unique way and to deliver something different than the typical concert coverage. (Often you are restricted to just the “pit,” the narrow area between the stage and first row of fans, or another position, such as the soundboard or a particular side of the arena.)
With the first night featuring acts like Coldplay, Jay-Z, The Black Eyed Peas, and Alicia Keys, and second night featuring Jennifer Lopez, Usher, Steven Tyler and (my favorite) Lady Gaga, the action was fast and furious to say the least. Getting around the arena with my gear (2 Nikon D3 bodies and various lenses) was a big challenge. The positions I wanted to shoot from were often obstructed by concert-goers as well as massive amounts of security, but thankfully there were a few things I did that helped be get around these inconveniences and ended up making a big difference in the results I got each night.
In many regards, I approached this like I would a wedding and made it my goal to tell the story of the event as a whole including the build-up of the concert, and the performances themselves. The tactics I employed to get the resulting story can be applied to weddings and other events. Here are 9 notable tactics:
1. Take the details seriously. I took the details for this event so seriously that I arrived on site from the day the first production truck rolled in – 5 days before a note was to be played. I spent several hours each day walking through the arena, shooting the bare elements that went into actually “making” the concert. Instead of flowers and invitations, I took photos of chain links, microphones and all sorts of cables. I shot them artfully, and mainly with my prime lenses. I focused on the instruments themselves, the lighting grids, even the seats. Everything that went into the actual build was fair game. Just like at a wedding, these things count and may not normally be photographed at concert.
2. Bring a really long lens. In addition to my 80-200, I rented a 200-400 f/4 knowing there was a chance I would need something longer than the 200. And I was right. I recall specifically that this came in handy when the very last act, Lady Gaga, performed her first few numbers from the back of the stage (and I was in the pit). I had that lens with me and needed it to get shots tight enough on her that they’d be unique and successful too. I also used this lens (on a monopod) from the sides and the back of the room. Using a 400 when you have a large distance to your subject, and then even larger distance from the subject to the background can give you a very beautiful bokeh and perspective on your subject. You never know when a 200 isn’t going to be long enough.
3. Get your rest! Unfortunately, just because I was in Vegas didn’t mean it was necessarily a good idea to party like it! Especially before this major assignment. Just like an 8 or 10 hour wedding shoot, it’s very important to get a good amount of rest before a shoot. So before and after the 1st night, I downloaded my cards, put the batteries on the chargers and went to sleep! (You bet I partied after the 2nd show!)
4. Pre-determine the best shooting positions in the venue, as well as target exposure settings. The beauty of a high-production-value concert is that things will likely be lit beautifully. But there’s a catch, YOU AREN’T LIGHTING IT! So that means you have to quickly determine where you can and cannot shoot from given the amount of light falling on the subject AND into your lens. Often concerts are very strongly backlit, with powerful lights facing out from the stage to the audience. It’s important to use your position and focal length to either let those lights into the scene or out. This is no different than if it we’re a wedding; only at a concert the chance of too bright a light coming into the frame is, in my opinion, much greater and often much harder to tame. The important thing overall is to get your shutter speed about 1/250th of a second or faster. You must stop action in order for the shot to be successful. Each night I shot wide open, with a shutter speed of about 1/250th-1/300th, iso 1600-3200. Hold steady, focus well, and fire.
5. Bring an abundance of cards, batteries and chargers. I needed to continually dump cards in the production room so my client had up to the minute coverage of the concert, so I brought lots of cards and had a system in place for unloading the images. Just as if I were on a wedding assignment, having lots of cards and extra batteries was key. You don’t want to worry about storage or power when shooting such an important event. Of course I had my chargers on me as well so that each night I was able to recharge the batteries for my cameras and flashes. It’s always a good idea to have more storage and power than you think you’ll actually need.
6. Quickly make friends with other working professionals. We’re often working with other shooters – in the wedding world that would be mainly videographers. But at a concert there could be other still shooters there as well. In this instance there were about 8 other photographers (from Getty) and me. So while I didn’t necessarily have drinks with the other shooters, I did smile, introduce myself, and showed a professional courtesy that I only hoped would be shown to me as well (and it was). Even though these other shooters were after the same thing as I was, being “against them” would make no sense. Plus these are people I might see down the line, and I’ve always believed that you get farther in life by being kind and paying it forward.
7. Make sure gear is in top shape. Before this event I had my camera sensors cleaned and blew out my lenses as best I could. Granted in dark settings (shooting wide open), the chance of dust showing up in a frame is minimal, but I didn’t want to take that chance so I had my camera sensors cleaned before the gig and kept them in a dust free environment. I also removed the filters from my lenses and cleaned the main glass, as well as the filters themselves.
8. Bring earplugs, just in case. How many times have we been stuck standing right next to a speaker that’s about as tall as we are? I always have earplugs in my bag regardless of the event. Just like a 4 hour reception, a concert can get loud. Very loud in fact! The last thing you want to have happen is an avoidance of a particular area to shoot from. So being prepared with earplugs at just about any special event with amplified sound is very very important. I use very basic foam earplugs that have a plastic cable attaching them together so it’s easy to keep them around my neck and at the ready.
9. Stay calm and focused, always. I’m a huge fan of music and many of these acts are ones that I follow and even sing along to in the car (yeah, scary I know!). Just as when the couple kisses or the boquet is flung, I stayed calm and focused throughout the entire shoot. I drank lots of water, took deep breaths when possible, and just got in my zone. I wore earplugs (very important), had a little hankerchief to wipe down my forehead, and even danced a little while taking the photos (especially during Colplay, Jay-Z and of course, Gaga).
In the end, I snapped about 10,000 frames over the course of the week. I delivered about 8% of those to my client, and about half of those were shots of the concert prep (so ultimately I delivered about 200 images from each nights performance). The editing process took me several days to complete, with much time walking away from the computer and returning with a fresh perspective. The level of concentration remained very high all throughout as did my level of enjoyment. This was a very unique opportunity for me as an artist and a fan of popular music; so why wouldn’t I enjoy the process all the way through? I did, and at the end of it all, I am overjoyed I got to memorialize such a historic concert.
About Brian Friedman
New York-based photographer Brian Friedman started out as a road manager for the legendary jazz drummer Roy Haynes. But it was during Haynes’ 20-city tour, that Brian began photographing Roy and discovered his passion for image making that put him on a road to a new career. Since then, he has sharpened his skills and his eye to become recognized as a photographer of choice by noted entertainment personalities, politicians, corporate leaders, event planners and of course, brides and grooms from all over the world.