Anthony D’Angio (also known as ‘Flex the Frog’) makes shooting live concerts & events an art form. Ant’s images are stunning and in his short career he has already made a big impact on the music photography industry.
He has just come back to the UK after photographing in Nashville for the Country Music Awards 2014 (CMAs). We caught up with a tired and blury-eyed Flex as soon as he stepped onto UK shores to get the low-down on this years’ pilgrimage to Nashville.
So Ant, you have just finished shooting the Country Music Awards 2014! Yeah, I always think November’s going to be a quick straightforward gig because it’s just one night but it never ends up that way – the day pretty much started at 4am for me and ended a couple of days later. The Awards are more than just the televised event – you’ve got the red carpet arrivals plus because it’s the most important event in the country music calendar, the whole week is taken up with promo stuff which I was also involved in. It’s become CMA week, so shooting content that is either directly related to the CMA Awards or related to upcoming UK events makes it convenient since the boys are already in town.
You also shot the red carpet! When you see the photographers on the TV at these red carpet events it looks like every man to himself – all bundled in snatching space to get the shot. Is that really what it’s like? To be fair, from what I’ve heard, the Red Carpet at the CMA Awards is a hell of a lot tamer than any premiere or event that you may see in LA or New York. It’s a credit to the CMA organisers who put it together. Two rows of photographers with a set spot for equipment – and I don’t know if it’s something in the Nashville air, but every photographer there was respectful of each other and we all worked together to allow each of us to get the shot we wanted. In terms of enjoyment, it isn’t the greatest gig – very repetitive and stop/start – it went on for 3 hours and you don’t obviously get the chance to be creative at all so for me personally, it’s not the most fulfilling of assignments.
Who were you shooting for? I was shooting for the BBC (specifically BBC Radio 2) as they’re pretty much part of the Nashville music scene now with Bob Harris and Patrick Kielty’s sessions, interviews and shows. Country music is spinning out of control in the right direction over here in the UK now and it’s thanks to people like them, SJM Concerts, the O2, the people behind C2C and a growing community of media and artists (The Shires, Ward Thomas et al). So the BBC have got this huge drive leading up to the Awards week which is being well received and providing visual content for them is very important. We did sessions with Bob Harris throughout the days which included some of the now-winners of the CMAs along with the artists that are coming over in March for the C2C Festival at the O2.
Were you shooting for the BBC last year? How did you get the gig? Last year I wasn’t – the shots were commissioned by Maverick and 2country. The BBC involvement came off the back of last year’s assignment where I spent some time doing work for SJM and C2C at Audio Productions during CMA week, and with the help of the CMA, I got the gig with the BBC and the relationship began.
What access did you have? AAA? No AAA on this one – as it’s a televised event, there is no pit and understandably so. The photographers were placed at soundboard – which if you know Bridgestone Arena at all – is quite a ways back from the main stage, so a 500mm is mandatory. The good thing is that they have a rear popup stage which carries some of the performances so the trusty 70-200 did the trick for that. There are two types of access – you get Red Carpet + Ceremony or Red Carpet + Backstage. I much prefer the Ceremony option as that’s what I’m about. The Backstage access doesn’t give you a seat in house and you are capturing shots of the press conferences after the awards are given out – that kind of thing. I thrive on live performances. The BBC handled the backstage stuff themselves anyway.
What was the photographers’ area like around the soundboard? Did you all have much room? Did you manage to move around to change your view or did you have to stick to your spot? It’s pretty much static. We had a decent amount of room – ie., I had enough room for 2 tripods and supports, but we couldn’t move around really. To be fair, there wasn’t any need to with the super telephotos – it was pretty much set up and shoot. It wouldn’t have been practical to move about. Imagine a dozen photographers, each set up with 2 tripods in a small area – you’d be a brave man to try and shift position. But it was really well put together. Enough room for your roller bag and equipment, a chair, cam runners and even guys coming and offering drinks. Gatorade was my friend!
Did you run into any problems with any of the other photographers? None whatsoever – and I’ve said this before – there is a real camaraderie amongst photographers in Nashville – everyone works together as a team. I’ve never had a single bad experience in Music City over the 4 times I’ve been there.
This is your 2nd time shooting the CMAs, how did this year compare to last year, in terms of you as a photographer and your approach? Your experience must have helped you this time round? Initial feedback has been overwhelming. Personally, as I said I always try and better myself with every shoot and I can comfortably say I am 100% more satisfied with this year’s results than last years. I think it’s just a case of learning the lens and how it works with your camera. It’s always hard when you only hire a lens like that a handful of times a year so you don’t really ever get to know it. But I played around with it for a few days before, did some research online to try and understand how to get the most out of it, which was quite scary. I could have taken the easy approach and gone with what I knew, but in mixing it up a bit I was taking a chance, which made me quite nervous – one shot and all that – but when I was going through editing the first set, I actually got a bit emotional – think I was carrying a fair weight of the unknown during the shoot, so to see that I had succeeded in what I was aiming for sort of hit home. But this is pretty much how I am – I can’t just accept things – I need to figure out how to make them better. I’m sure the lack of sleep also contributed to my insanity!
How did you find it this year? What are your highlights? Shot favourites? Gosh I was really pushing myself this year – as I try and do with every shoot. I’m always quite reserved when it comes to soundboard shoots as you just don’t get a) the creativity and angles you do from the pit and b) the sharpness of a 16-35 or 24-70. But in using the 500mm Mk II, I was astounded by the sharpness and AF system this lens has. I remember going through the photos pretty loosely at 5am the following morning and thinking jeez, some of these aren’t bad. I particularly like the Carrie Underwood shot, the silhouetted Tim McGraw shot, the Lady Antebellum shot, Keith Urban, Kenny Chesney, Florida Georgia Line… Performances? I was ‘Blown Away’ (pardon the pun) with Carrie Underwood’s performance. Visually, the set was immense but this girl quite simply has the greatest voice in country music. She never fails to disappoint. Also really loved seeing Eric Church & the legend George Strait perform together – there were really a lot of great performances, but you don’t get to savour them at all while you’re shooting, so I’ll just pour a Jack once I’ve caught up on zzz’s and watch it back on TV.
Are you able to relax and enjoy the show when you have such pressure on yourself to get shots – bearing in mind you were shooting for the BBC? Not at all. Aside from who won the awards, I can’t remember much about it. It’s pretty relentless and you are constantly framing and reframing as best you can with a 500. You’re got it – I put an indecent amount of pressure upon myself, but that’s the way I like it and how I thrive. I don’t always succeed, but if I took the easy option without risk, then I would never better myself. I’m pretty relaxed when it comes to who I work for, so I didn’t feel pressure being that it was for the BBC. The pressure I put on is personal pressure – who I’m working for doesn’t come into it. All I worry about is whether I can stretch my boundaries personally – if I can do that successfully, everything else falls into place. Plus the guys at the BBC are such a great and jovial team to work with.
Were there any moments that you didn’t capture that you’re kicking yourself for? Not really – I was constantly primed – we have a written schedule so we know what’s coming. The only thing I guess is you don’t have much flexibility with the 500 and switching to the 200 to get everything in can result in quite a crop. So when an ensemble comes on – as was the case with The Doobie Brothers + Jennifer Nettles, Hunter Hayes and Hillary from Lady Antebellum – you don’t have much choice – you switch to the wider lens, but I don’t mind that so much anymore as capturing a wide view of the arena with the crowd actually adds to the atmosphere. There were a few times that I shook my head when they announced a winner, but I don’t think that made me miss anything during my moments of disgust lol. I’ll probably know when I watch it back.
Were you shooting just the awards show or did you have a schedule of other shows leading up to the CMAs? Yeah, the whole week was non stop – Tuesday through Thursday shooting plus editing time. As I mentioned, the BBC were doing sessions in Music Row with artists who were coming over to the UK along with some of the big name nominees, and some guy called Garth Brooks. Not a bad thing to be wandering in snapping away like they were in your own living room. Schedule was pretty much morning to afternoon. The Wednesday was the longest as it was a 6am start since Patrick Kielty’s show was going live to the UK for the next 5 hours which included guests like Little Big Town, Lee Ann Womack, Garth Brooks, Luke Bryan etc. That soon followed with the red carpet + the awards show and after party – so it was a long day. Oh, and something called culling / selecting / editing came after that. I remember waking up at 4am on Wednesday and the next time my head hit the pillow was 4pm Friday – and that was accidental. But it’s great – you run on pure adrenalin. I’m back now – I slept the entire flight from JFK and woke up as the plane hit the tarmac which I’ve never done.
You mentioned you used the 500mm and your 70-200mm. What’s in the kit bag when you are on this kind of assignment? Is it any different to your normal show? For the ceremony, that’s pretty much it. I carry the 1.4x and 2x just in case, but I don’t think I’ve ever used them. F4 is slow enough, i wouldn’t want to push it beyond that. For the red carpet it’s the 24-70 all the way with the 600EX-RT speedlite and as I was doing studio shots throughout the week, I also carried the 16-35.
Assuming you were living out of a hotel room, what did you bring for your post-processing set up? Hotels? What are they? No way – Air BNB all the way. I need comfort and space and not a huge fan of staying downtown, so I always get myself set up in a one bed apartment (or a 3 bedroom house in the woods if I’m lucky!)… I feel that I work better and more conscientiously if I know that I’m not surrounded by bars that serve up my favourite tonic, so getting away from the madness is a good thing for me. Pretty much a Macbook Pro with Retina Display, external hard drive, a mouse & mousepad (VERY important for me as my ageing hands need something I can control!), Photoshop, Lightroom and coffee.
We know you like to put a lot of effort into your photos when it comes to post, whether it’s popping out more colour and vibrance. Did you create any presets or did you go through and tweak each chosen photo individually? Thanks – that means a lot because I do spend the time. People question how I turn around things so quickly – I think it just comes with having done it regularly, I know what works. Having said that, nothing is set up as a preset. Each photo to me is individual. I have my step by steps mapped out in my head, but when it comes to it, it’s all manual as one shot may require something the other doesn’t. I’m not a fan of batch processing – I prefer to look at each shot and seeing what’s missing or what can be tweaked to bring out the best in it. Hence the lack of sleep! 😉
What did you do differently this year? Did you drink less Jack? That’s just a crazy assumption! Although I did have a Bushwhacker for the first time, which is quite a potent milkshake. Aside from tweaking the 500mm as I mentioned, not a hell of a lot. I brought 2 tripods as I knew the set up this year, so that helped having both cameras ready facing the correct direction (last year I was switching frantically). I think spending more time in Midtown rather than Downtown actually relaxed me quite a lot. To compare, Midtown is like the Eastside of London whereas Downtown is just like the West End – full of tourists. I spent more time with the creative types in Midtown and I’m sure that helped as I’m a big believer that creativity inspires creativity.
And finally, what do you think you’ll do differently next year? That’s a real tough one. I tend to only think about these things leading up to the event. I’ve got some downtime now and that’s probably the last thing on my mind. I probably won’t do the red carpet as it’s not a requirement – you just get given that access by default – I’ve done it twice now and I think that’s enough. I’m not shooting for Getty or Wire so I don’t need those shots. Aside from that, if I had to pick something, I’d say more Single Barrel and less honey.
You can go back to bed now. Cheers Flex…
Check out more of Ant’s work:
- Website: www.frography.com
- Facebook: facebook.com/kissthefrography
- Twitter: @xthefrog
- Flickr: flickr.com/photos/frography/sets/
- Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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