Sunday, January 13, 2013

A day in the life of an LBC concert

8:54pm - Performance
Several times each year, our church hosts concerts for A-list contemporary Christian musicians.  My wife heads up hospitality (food & green room) for these events, and I usually help her.  It takes scores of volunteers an entire day of work to put on a show that provides the attendees with 2-3 hours of entertainment, but most people have no clue what really happens behind the scenes to make a show like this happen.  After several years of watching this, I proposed to our head concert organizer that I shoot a personal project documenting a day in the life of one of our concerts.  He loved the idea, and thus began one of the busiest single days of photography that I'd done to date.

8:40am - Campus Ops
As I've watched my photographer friends shoot these performances over the years, I've been struck with how all of their shots, though high quality, are all the same.  Not just the same as their other shots from other concerts, but the same views that the rest of the audience sees.  I've got pretty good 3D visualization skills, and I couldn't help but notice how cool some situations would look if you shot them from behind the artists rather than from the front row of the audience.

The pitch that I made to our concert organizer was that I focus on the dozens of volunteers and all the work that they put in behind the scenes -- before, during, and after the show.  I'd show up when the bus rolled in at 8am and not leave until they locked the church at 1am.  Ideally, this would include shooting backstage and from the wings during the show itself.  I knew that the light inside the church sucked and I'd be shooting at high ISO, so I envisioned the entire project presented in black & white in a photojournalistic style.

9:37am - Food Prep
As luck would have it, the next show would be the largest production we'd hosted to date.  It was headlined by the Newsboys, with special guests Building 429, Luminate, Grace Campbell, and VOTA as opening acts.  That's right, five bands in one 3-hour set.  This was part of the "God's Not Dead" tour.  The Newsboys' tour & stage managers were cool with the project, too, and quite happily agreed to let me shoot from the wings during the show, which was way cool.

11:31am - Merchandise
The result was a 17-hour day on my feet with 20 lbs of camera gear strapped to my waist.  I came home with over 1800 photos and some lessons on what to do differently the next time around.

I'm not exactly sure yet just how these photos will be used.  I'll make the finished product available to the church for internal use, of course.  A couple of the band members asked me for business cards, but I've yet to hear from any of them two months after the show.  If I'm happy with the results, I'll probably propose to display them in a print showing in one of our church gallery spaces so that our entire membership can see what goes on at these concerts.  The collection will probably end up online somewhere, too.  I'll update this post with a link when that happens.

1:59pm - Stage Setup
Most importantly, I had fun and learned a lot about shooting this sort of event.  It's definitely a bigger job than the corporate events and golf tournaments that I typically photograph.  If you're not stretching yourself and growing, you may as well be dead.

I can't go into all the details of the day in this little post, but I wanted to share a few pointers for those that may have this opportunity themselves.

First, get your elevator pitch down.  Make sure as many of the people involved as possible know what you're doing and why.  People are much more comfortable around an official event photographer than they are around some creep with a camera.  It helped that most of the volunteers already knew (or at least recognized) me from my years behind their feed trough and the other work I continually do at church.

3:44pm - Sound Check
Don't be a groupie.  Focus on the volunteers.  Treat the performers as just another piece of the puzzle that makes this event happen.  I find that the less famous opening acts are usually more fun to hang out with than the experienced headliners.

Interact with the volunteers and performers rather than just sneaking around in the shadows like a spy with a long lens.  This will get you more personable shots as people warm up to your presence.  You'll get more shots of friendly people enjoying their job, and your viewers will feel like they're part of the action.

Make the rounds.  Don't get too hung up on the main event, like the stage setup or the on-stage performance.  There are a lot of other things going on at any given time.  Be sure to highlight the food prep, the merchandise setup, the A/V team, the building maintenance, the security team manning their posts, and the green room hang out (if you have access).  Capture the crowds enjoying the show, too.

8:02pm - All-Ages Audience
Find out well in advance what kind of access you'll have around the venue.  Things start to get crazy a few hours before showtime, and the stage manager & security team won't want to be bothered then.  Don't forget your elevator pitch.

Remember the theme of the story you're trying to tell, and focus on capturing moments that tell that story.  Great light and interesting compositions have their place, but they do little to tell a story.

Be flexible with your gear, and travel light.  I carried two bodies (Canon 7D and 50D), three lenses, and two teleconverters that covered a focal range from 10-400mm (APS-C crop sensor).  I rarely shot at longer than 300mm because it was too hard to compose & focus on active performers at 400/5.6.  I kept a 17-70mm walk-around lens on one body all day, and the other body alternated between a 10-22mm ultra-wide lens and a 70-200mm telephoto lens, depending on the anticipated situation.  Anticipation is key--you don't want to be swapping lenses when the fog machine is running full blast.

8:59pm - Sound
Lighting throughout the day--and especially during a high-energy performance like the Newsboys put on--is highly variable.  I tried shooting aperture priority and auto-ISO for while, and lost many shots due to hosed exposures of high-contrast scenes.  I eventually reverted back to full-manual, and still missed plenty of (but fewer) shots due to hosed exposures.  Shoot at your widest aperture, be aware of your current ISO setting, and keep one eye on the viewfinder's exposure meter so you can roll your shutter speed wheel as necessary.  Remember that you can minimize high-ISO noise in post, but you can't do jack about motion blur.  That said, ISO 12800 on a Canon 7D is pretty sketchy, even in B&W.

10:42pm - Load Out
Shooting RAW will allow you to recover many imperfect exposures in post, but takes a lot more space on your memory cards.  I took 58GB of cards, and would have run out if I hadn't switched to JPEG-only mid-way through the performance.  That sucked, but not as much as running out of space would have.  Switching from RAW+JPEG (my default) to RAW-only earlier on would have been better.  Buying another 32GB memory card before hand would have been better yet.

I took lots of other notes after I got home and as I post-processed the images, but I'll spare you the gory details.  If this sounds like a lot to remember, you're right.  I tend to get blinders on when I drop into "event photographer" mode, and it prevents me from enjoying the show itself.  In my experience, you'll either have a great time, or you'll get great photos, but you can't do both.  Determine ahead of time which is your goal, and immerse yourself in it.  If you try to do a half-baked job of both, you won't enjoy the results of either.

What's been your favorite performance to attend and/or photograph?  Please share your stories, links to galleries, etc in the comments below!

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