Round-table chat | Photographers: Shooting the shows you enjoy

Shooting bands looks glamorous, but it is actually a lot of hard work. We caught up with three metal photographers to talk about their work, for our second industry chat: Inna Ford, a Russian photographer; Shelley J, a Swiss photographer; and Mary Boukouvalas, an Australian photographer.

We also got these guys to tell us what their standard kit contains, and got them to give us a list of the top ten skills they believe are essential for working in the field.
Each of these three women began shooting for fun, and for themselves, at metal shows. Each of their stories is a little bit different as to how they began doing it on a professional level, but the common bottom line is that they got into the field by doing what they love to do. Inna got her break by shooting a local show and then taking her photographs around a few magazines; Shelley got hers by being asked to shoot a show by a friend of hers who ran a webzine; and Mary got hers by shooting for herself and eventually being head-hunted by local street press.

We asked each of these photographers some key questions about the work that they do, and how they do it – and what they recommend to others. Unlike the previous industry field that we covered – publicity – photography really is an area that anybody can get into, if they have their head in the right place.

MaF: What was the first thing you learned, in dealing with high movement and low light at shows?

It turns out that a good knowledge of your camera, and the ability to not panic is essential.

'The first thing I learned was that there's no universal formula of a good picture. It all very much depends on the band, on the set, on the light, on the venue. It's always an improvisation. There's no universal parameters that you can set on camera to get good photos,' Inna stated. 'But there are certain logic and objective laws, you learn on practice. Sometimes you need to shoot a number of performances in one venue to understand the right way to work there. One more thing, the very important, is never set your camera to "Automatic" mode, always set all parameters manually.'

Mary agreed with Inna, in regards to setting your parameters manually. 'The first thing I learned was not to panic! Work with the light that you have, slow down shutter speed –but not too much, and adjust your aperture accordingly.'

For Shelley, though, the first thing she learned was actually nothing to do with lights or movement, but the protocols.

'It doesn't have anything to do with the lights, but definitely the first thing I learned at a show was that having a "photopass" means you can enter the space between the stage and the fans. And that place is called "photopit",' she laughed. 'At that gig I was the only photographer, so there was no one there I could ask or find out from. So I ended up shooting my first gig at the Z7 (the "metal mecca" in Switzerland) from the first row in the crowd. A fast learned lesson.'


MaF: What techniques do you believe are essential to have nailed, if you shoot a lot of shows of different sizes?

Inna believes that there are no universal recipes, and that all good photographers choose a method that he or she likes most.

'All photographers I know use totally different techniques - someone likes wide angle lens, someone takes everything with tele-lens - it's all very much an individual thing,' she said. 'Though techniques are different, many photographers get wonderful shots in their own style. I think it's great when every one has an own way and distinctive style.'

Shelley agreed, telling us that it comes back to knowing your equipment perfectly.

'You have to know your equipment by heart,' she said. 'If you have to think about which settings to use, you'll lose too much time. You only get three songs and if you'll lose the moment, you'll pull your hair out.'

Mary agreed that knowing your camera is essential, but so is a willingness to experiment.

'Dealing with high movement and low light is the key,' she said. 'Learn to work without flash – even if you are able to use flash in some of the smaller venues, flash tends to flatten the subjects and doesn’t capture the essence of the show. Experiment – especially when you have quality white light at a show – try different ISO settings, shutter speeds, spot metering – know your camera.'

We at Metal as Fuck knew that each of these photographers had a wide range of experiences, and tend to shoot different styles of shows. We also knew that differently sized shows tend to have different requirements, so we asked these guys what the key differences are between them.

Between them, Inna, Shelley and Mary highlighted separate areas that they all believe are the key differences. Interestingly, where the VIP space at European festivals means that photographers can have a rest between bands, in Australia shooting festivals is far more about time management.

'I shoot festivals only in Europe and large and medium gig only in Russia,' Inna explained. 'The main difference for me is that there is a comfortable VIP zone at any festival, where photographers can have rest between the performances. Quite often, things are very chaotic at large concerts in Russia, the security staff doesn't know when to let people in to the photo pit, so in the end there happen to be so many photographers that you can not actually move any limb. That never happens in Europe,' she went on, 'though at festivals there are many more photographers'.

'Yes, there are pros and cons to each,' Mary added. 'Festivals at the Melbourne Showgrounds or Flemington Racecourse, as opposed to medium-large gigs at Rod Laver Arena or Hisene Arena, are a mad rush. You must be at the front of the stage for the first three songs of each band so if the stages are far, you have trouble running from one side of the showgrounds or the racecourse to the other in time for the first three songs of the next band you want to shoot,' she explained. 'A lot of planning is needed, but even the best laid plans don’t foresee crowds of people you need to get through, no access to the front so you need to carry all your cameras and equipment through the mosh, and security that tell you you must go all the way round to the right hand side entrance! Medium-large gigs are easy. You have direct access to the photo pit so have space to move around and frame the shots exactly how you want them, and you usually have great lighting conditions to work with too. Nice white light!'

The lighting was also something that Shelley focused on.

'At festivals you get more light during the day. In combination with strong lights on the stage, you can get some quite interesting effects. So considering the technical side, it's much easier to get a crispy picture,' she explained. 'On the other hand, it takes more to get an atmospheric one. Especially if the band is dressed in black and is using a black backdrop you might end up having pictures where you can see only faces. But also at festivals, they mostly use bigger and better light equipment than you get at middle sized metal gigs.'

'Personally, rather than festivals or medium-large gigs, I prefer smaller gigs because of the crowds,' Mary told us. 'Though metal audiences are energetic and forceful wherever the gig is held, the closeness of the smaller gigs, say at the Hifi Bar or Corner Hotel, with the audience and the band is thrilling. Both crowd and band enjoy the proximity. The adrenaline is contagious.'

These photographers all agreed on one thing: that the best show that each has shot has been where the atmosphere has been amazing, where the bands shone with energy, and where the chemistry between the photographer and the bands is working well.

'The best is Morbid Angel that I've shot last year [2008] at Hellfest in France. That was just magnificent!,' Inna recalled. 'Though light wasn't very intense, I got some of the best shots in my career. The band is just shines with energy. I must say that Hellfest 2008 was truly amazing itself - great performances, great festival, great program - but Morbid Angel is most memorable to me.'

'Cannibal Corpse in Thessaloniki, Greece in 2003,' Mary stated as her best. 'The band had been banned in Australia for years so I’d never seen them and always wanted to. They were dynamic and did not disappoint. And I enjoyed the atmosphere. It was casual as fuck!! I was allowed to sit on the side of the stage for the whole show. I can’t see that ever happening in Melbourne – though the Corner Hotel are great in allowing me to take shots from side of stage and from the back of the stage for different angles and mood.'


But for Shelley, it was less about a specific show, and more about the interaction.

'I much rather have favourite bands to work with, than favourite gigs,' Shelley stated, recounting that the number of gigs she's shot over the years makes it impossible to pick a favourite. 'The better you know the band, the easier it is to feel what's going to happen next on the stage and thus also easier to catch the right moment. Also if the chemistry between the musicians and you as photographer work, then you get more interactions and free space. And that's something you can see on the pictures. Considering that, for me it's always a pleasure to work for example with Behemoth, Dismember or Legion of the Damned.'

For each, the worst shows have been those with terrible light and/or terrible sound. Shelley went on to tell us how dramatic this can get.

'Gigs with bad lights can be really frustrating,' she said. 'Especially when the lights turn much better and brighter after the usual first three songs. [Ed's note: photographers are usually only allowed to shoot the first three songs of any set.] Sometimes you get the feeling that some artists aim for making it really hard for photographers to get usable pictures. If that repeats, I stop shooting their gigs. Fortunately, those are very rare.'

MaF: Do you need a strong knowledge of PhotoShop?

'Considering live pictures, in my opinion it shouldn't be,' said Shelley. 'I'm more of a photo reporter when it's about live pictures, even though I sometimes do enjoy "playing around" with those too. It's different with promotional pictures though. A lot of customers require you to edit the pictures and then it's important to know how things work so you can reach the wanted look and quality.'

Inna agreed that people want live shots, but cautiously added that some PhotoShop skills can be useful.

'Well, some basic knowledge are essential. And if you can use PhotoShop masterfully, you can create really unique thing. But of cause you need knowledge, taste and sense of moderation for that,' she pointed out. 'You shouldn't forget that it's photography and people want to see real events, not just somebody's fantasies.'

MaF: Have technology changes meant that you work differently now from when you started, and how hard is it to keep up with changes in technology?

'I've always been kind of a freak about technical stuff so following the development comes by nature for me. I find it exciting to check out the technical details of new cameras even when I'm not interested in buying them,' admitted Shelley. 'One of the biggest advantages the change from analog to digital photography brought was the weight. While during the first years I used to come home with 15-20 films in my bag, now it all comes down to a few memory cards,' she explained. 'That also means money and time saving since you don't have to develop the films before getting the results. And of course, it makes it much easier to react on the changing conditions since you don't depend on the ISO of the film in your camera, but you can simply switch it at any time.'

On the contrary, Mary reluctantly moved to digital.

'I was very stubborn giving up film. I still haven’t given it up completely,' she said. 'But I do admit that digital is quicker and cheaper. As the magazine I work for doesn’t pay for live photographs, I opt for digital. Digital also allows you to edit and manipulate the images if needed. Digital is also less time-consuming when working to a deadline. But on a personal level, I still prefer film.'

Inna agreed that digital has been an enormous boon, time-wise, and says that keeping up with technology change isn't difficult at all.

'Everything changes, indeed. When I started, I used film camera and high-speed film. The picture was very grainy, it was almost impossible to shoot without flash. It's all different now, I never use flash at concerts, just at press conferences sometimes. Improving technologies makes our life easier, gives us new abilities. To keep up with changes is no hard at all, on contrary, it helps a lot.'

We here at Metal as Fuck asked these guys what their standard kits contain, and what they never go to a gig without. Two of them– Inna and Shelley – use Canon; whilst Mary shoots with Nikon.



What Inna, Shelley and Mary carry - and what they wouldn't head to a gig without

Inna's kit

Canon 30D (I used different cameras, but it is always 30D, it's ideal combination of a good price and great specifications), lenses – 100/2.0, 20/2.8 and sometimes 50/1.8. I use only lenses with fixed focus, no zooms. My favourite lens is 100/2.0, I use it most often and can not imagine a situation where I may not need it.


Shelley's kit

I've been shooting with the Canon EOS 5D more or less since the day Canon launched it. It's a very reliable camera giving you a lot of technical possibilities and free space. One of my first choices for lenses for live photography is the Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM. With the full format 5D it gives a good zoom range for middle and bigger stages and the image stabilisation comes in handy for harder light conditions as well as against shaky arms when it comes to long working days. When nothing else goes anymore considering the light conditions, I switch to the Canon 50mm f/1.8 II. In my opinion the Canon lens with the best cost/performance ratio. For the photoshootings I use the Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 - also the lens for live pics at gigs on smaller stages - and sometimes the Canon 15mm f/2.8 fisheye.


Mary's kit

Bodies: NIKON D80 & D200, NIKON F80
Lenses: Nikkor 55mm & Nikkor 70-300mm
Extra memory cards, film (400ASA, 800ASA, 1600ASA, XP2), batteries.




... according to Inna Ford

1. know camera for 100%

2. mobility, you need feat legs to capture everything

3. ability to react fast, things changes on stage very fast

4. fast fingers and good memory, you need to switch parameters often

5. ability to move in the crowd fast, which helps you a lot when there's no
photo pit

6. knowledge of PhotoShop

7. ability to communicate with all different people

8. communicate with people

9. and communicate with people

10. and communicate with people again and again, thats very important really


... according to Shelley J

1.Know your camera, how it works and its possibilities.

2.Learn which lens for which conditions so you don't waste time switching unnecessarily.

3.Interact with the people around you. There's no use of the best picture, if nobody knows about it.

4.Keep safety copies of your work.

5.Try to come up with ideas that haven't been done yet. Every band likes to have something new and recognisable.

6.It's always important to give input and ideas, but base those on the wishes of the client. Don't ignore their needs or they might not come back to you again.

7.Respect I: What the band/management says is the word! You can always ask, but don't complain or start to discuss.

8.Respect II: The other photographers are not your competitors. See them as co-workers: The better the atmosphere, the easier the work. You can also learn a lot from them and maybe even get a recommendation for an assignment.

9.Respect III: Even tho flying beers can be annoying, without the fans there is no show.

10.Finally: Stay in shape, so you can carry around all the extra weight without the need of chiropractor after every gig


... according to Mary Boukouvalas

1.Passion – you really must love the music and the art of photography.

2.Technical – must be able to shoot in low light / fast speed conditions.

3.Learn to work without flash. Chances are flash won’t be allowed anyway - the general rule with shooting gigs is: first three songs, no flash. However, even if you are allowed to use flash, keep in mind that flash tends to flatten out not only the subject but also the atmosphere of your pic.

4.Ensure knowledge of your camera.

5.Ensure knowledge of where everything is in your camera bag because you might just need that spare battery or memory card when the singer is stage jumping!

6.Position – where are you taking your pics from? If possible choose your distance, your angle, “your spot”. Explore the area you have to work within –and keep in mind there are other photographers in the pit area too –don’t ruin their shots by walking in front of them.

7.Tips 7, 8 & 9 interconnect … Visualise – what do you hope to capture? Of course there are always surprises but is there a particular image this band represents for you?

8.Timing – anticipate what will happen next. Knowing the music helps here. If you know there is a sudden shift in melody or tempo, then it is likely at those certain moments the band members are going to be jumping in the air, making devil horns or executing perfect cock rock poses.

9.Capturing the moment. Many would disagree here but don’t just keep shooting because you are worried that you will miss that crucial moment. Even with the fast shutter speeds, there is still time delay between one shot to the next. That time delay could make you miss the moment you wanted. Wait, anticipate, and shoot.

10.Etiquette & Have Fun! Everyone is there to enjoy the act. When there is no photo pit and already a crowd at the front of the stage, I generally find people to be understanding and let you through – explain that it is only for three songs. If they don’t let you through, there’s always the zoom lens packed ready in your camera bag. Take your shots, grab a JD & Coke and enjoy.