A weekend in the life of a Festival Photographer

By Alex Williams

Following feedback on the previous “A day in the life of a gig photographer” story earlier in the year, I felt it would be good to give gig-photographer visitors an insight into what goes on at Festivals in the UK for a photographer.

With teaching duties out of the way for the summer, I ventured to YNot? Festival – winner of 2012’s “Small Festival of the Year” award. Situated just outside of Matlock, Derbyshire in the midlands of the UK, there are plenty of upcoming and established bands for ‘togs to get their shutter speeds into over the weekend.

Festival photographer – does have a good ring to it doesn’t it?! As with gig photography, many may think “it’s a free ticket”, and yet again I very much doubt that Mr Joe Public realises how much work and time actually goes in to it. A photography weekend of live music can (and usually does) bring many of the possible difficulties of photography – poor weather, poor lighting, battling with access, and trying to achieve all of the shots on your “to do” list. Although this was not my first time photographing a festival, a felt it was different enough to give an insight to the goings on.

The festival photography area is a mixed community – well known names in the business that are shooting for bands and or stock sites, mixed with some photographers breaking into the professional, along with bloggers and website reviewers.

Friday August 2nd 2013 – Ynot? Festival
Equipment list:

  • 1 Lowepro Fastpack rucksack
  • 2x5DMk2
  • 1x7D
  • 550D (just in case?!)
  • 50mm f1.4, 85mm f1.8, 70-200mm 2.8, 24-105mm f4, 100-400 f4
  • MacBook Pro
  • Hard drives (USB), chargers for laptop, batteries and phone
  • Beer tokens!

Before you ask – no, I wasn’t in the Boy Scouts. I do, however, tend to take enough kit with me. As discussed in “A day in the life of a gig photographer”, having the right lens for the right job or shot has been a definite advantage at previous shoots. It is important to remember that you’re able to carry everything, and keep everything with you – I think it’s absolutely pointless to have a load of kit in your car at a festival that you’ll need quickly (lenses, batteries etc), as it will usually be a good track to and from the stage! I use a harness for two cameras (rather than having camera straps over my neck), this evens out the weight of the equipment and means I have quicker access than cameras on straps.

It is so important that you’re able to respond to a situation quickly these days too – I’m not a fan of changing lenses at gigs or festivals (or weddings for that matter!). It takes too much time, and you’re at risk of allowing dust, dirt, or anything else (smoke grenades were popular in the UK this summer!) into the camera.

While some gig photographers will shoot on Shutter or Aperture priority, I usually prefer to shoot manually, using dials on the Canon cameras to change exposure values that I see fit. This may take a little bit of getting used to for some people, but I prefer to have the control of the exposure, utilizing the TTL meter readings on the go.

I will also change the focusing area, which is set at spot metering, and AI focus. This usually means that I can achieve a good exposure on the artists face, which I tend to over expose half a stop. With the AI Servo, if the subject moves I can track the focus on the camera – these are both habits picked up in sports photography, to maintain focus on someone running, and over exposing slightly to allow for shadow in someone’s face. I always shoot on RAW too, so I’ll carry plenty of cards and hard drives to back things up, with the ability to change colour balance when required when processing.

With the festival warm up on the Thursday evening, I arrived “fashionably late to the party”. However, when I arrived at around midday on Friday, so were thousands of others. After waiting on a lane in the scenic English countryside in traffic for around half an hour, I was able to get through to the appropriate area to pick up my VIP and AAA passes.

As with many gigs and festivals, issues happen and it was quickly noted that although Wi-fi had been promised by the festival PR, it had not been set up in time for the bands on Friday so any images taken on the day would not reach their agencies within the time constraints. This meant that I’d have to leave fairly quickly after the last band on the main stage in the evening.

A promising step at the festival this year (and one I have not seen at other festivals) was meeting between photographers and band / PR. The outcome was positive, with lots of conversation and interaction. I also think the free bar helped.

The sun was shining early afternoon, and photography at a festival usually means you’re changing camera settings throughout the day. Similar to Wedding Photography where the situation, white balance and lighting changes frequently (inside the church with no flash, outside into sunlight / cloud etc), it is important to keep a check on the camera settings. Gig photography usually means a high ISO, fast lens and making sure the shutter speed is fast enough to rule out any (or too much) blur. A good afternoon at a festival usually means a low ISO is fine to capture acts and crowds.

However, as the festival warmed up and built up momentum, the weather turned and as the rain fell, I felt that photographing the crowd was equally as important as the bands – festival goers in the rain are usually images that may sell! Many photographers at the festival have waterproof gear for their cameras, while others rely on carrier bags and gaffer tape!

One of the major issues with shooting festivals in the rain is trying to get from one side of the site to the other. A ten minute walk in fine weather turns into 30 minutes in rain and mud, and the possibility of missing acts – as with most gigs, it is usually “first 3 songs, no flash”. On top of this, you have varying natural light, varying stage light, plus the odd projectiles whizzing passed your head courtesy of the crowd that has been stood in a field for most of the day, quenching their thirst on cider.

The weather was my biggest issue on the Friday evening. With the ISO moved up to 3200, I had photographed at the main stage, and then walked to another tent about 10 minutes walk away. But as the rain fell, the crowd filled the tent and it was very difficult to get out safely at the end of the first couple of songs (while carrying two cameras and a backpack!). To make matters worse, the Mystery Jets were on the main stage as I attempted to sludge my way through the mud while the rain fall was reminiscent of Forrest Gump’s tour to ‘Nam (Little bitty stingin’ rain, big ol’ fat rain. Rain that flew in sideways, and sometimes rain even seemed to come straight up from underneath!).

A few cracks of thunder and lightning bolts in the distance meant that for safety reasons, Mystery Jets were required to leave the stage – just as I arrived there! Unfortunately, to ensure images were sent off to their required destinations within time constraints, I had to leave to connect up to the net before bands returned to the stage at 11pm to complete Friday’s band list.

Again, I aimed to be on site by 12:00 on Saturday, and with a clear bright day ahead of me I was able to walk around the site and take more crowd shots.

Fortunately, the internet had been sorted out by mid afternoon. The downside of this was as soon as security / hangers on found out that a connection was available, a lot of connectivity was used up by other people (not press) using the facility to catch up with things on Facebook and Twitter. This kind of thing can become a big drain for those trying to work at festivals and update websites or stock agencies.

The afternoon provided what seems to be a guarantee at festivals in the UK now – the powder paint fight! Although these situations can be fantastic visually – you may have seen some posts on the internet about the damage that powder paint can cause to your dSLR. A good 70-200 lens on the camera allowed me to keep a safe distance, but still achieve good shots.

When teaching photography to students, I always talk about the camera angle – at a festival, with paint bombs going off, it’s definitely helpful to find something to elevate you. Some festival photographers can be seen with small collapsible stools strapped to their backpacks to use at some stages throughout the festival. For this paint bomb fight, I entrusted handy picnic tables (making sure not to knock over the beers people were drinking first!), and hay bales that were to the side of the paint bomb fight.

Kids in Glass Houses perform at Y Not Festival, Matlock, Derbyshire, UK on Saturday 3rd August 2013.

Aled Phillips from Kids in Glass Houses

Some cracking sets by Kids In Glass Houses and Ash followed in the afternoon, with lead singer of Kids In Glass Houses, Aled Phillips, jumping off the stage and into the crowd in the first song. Again, this is time to make sure you know your camera and the settings, as lenses quickly moved from the well light staging area, to Aled body surfing in the front of the crowd.

Tim Wheeler of Ash didn’t venture into the crowd, however using my AAA pass to gain stage access, settings were again changed on cameras to ensure a good exposure of both the band on stage, as well as the crowd in the fading light of the day. While shooting from the pit I used around ISO 1600, f2.8, 1/500. While on stage I wanted a longer depth of field to include the crowd, shooting f13 at 1/60. Again, stage light, sun light, cloud, strobes etc all contribute to the exposure values, and I feel understanding exposure is a real must.

The Cribs headlined the Saturday night, and I had been looking forward to photographing the band. I’d assisted another photographer, Tony Wooliscroft, on a very quick portrait shoot of the band prior to them taking the stage. Again, some photographers will discuss “pit etiquette” – I think it’s important to get on with those around you, and having known Tony for the past couple of years, I was more than happy to help out.

Unfortunately, poor lighting during the first 3 songs drastically reduced the quality of the shots photographers could achieve. At one point I moved the ISO up to 6400 and shooting on f1.4 still wasn’t enough to achieve a good exposure. This turned in to a talking point between photographers following the set, with all photographers leaving with a sense of disappointment that they couldn’t achieve many of the shots they’d wanted. This was a let down for photographers and the festival itself, as the band had probably drawn the biggest in the festivals history.

Although the weather was fairly overcast all day, there was a sense of positivity as following some constructive photographer feedback to those in the know – lighting on stage had definitely improved. The knock on effect of this means that photographers had less sporadic changes in light, which saves time in change ISO, shutter and aperture settings.

I ventured to side of stage again in the afternoon to shoot the fantastic The Joy Formidable. It was the first time I saw the band live, but hopefully not the last. Sometimes and band just pushes the adrenaline through your body and this was definitely the case!

Y Not Festival, Matlock, Derbyshire, UK. 4th August 2013

The Enemy

Some rain throughout the afternoon did not stop the crowds enjoying the bands, I was able to utilise the spot lights while The Enemy performed on stage in the rain. While shooting the band center stage, I used f1.8 or f2.8 depending on lens, at around 1/500. With the light changing slightly when shooting the spot lights from the side and less light filling the frame, I used a different camera equipped with my 70-200 lens to shoot at 2.8 1/125.

Y Not Festival, Matlock, Derbyshire, UK. 4th August 2013

Justin Hawkins from The Darkness

The weather finally cleared for headline act The Darkness, and as the band arrived on stage to close the festival, the lighting set up was everything a gig photographer could wish for. There were opportunities for silhouettes, strobes, spotlights, but after bumping into him back stage earlier in the day, I was well aware that lead singer Justin Hawkins would be energetic in front of the huge and boisterous crowd. Keeping an eye on the lead singer, I achieved one of my favorite shots of the weekend as he did the splits in mid air after jumping from the drum riser (2.8 1/500). Prior knowledge of the band and their traits is definitely beneficial! Experience of sport photography and newspaper work also played a part in composing the image, as I left enough space around the leaping lead singer to give room for a little cropping.

It’s better to have a little space and crop in, to lose a foot or limb in camera!

Festival Tips:

Know your bands! If you’re shooting a festival, make sure you do your homework on all bands performing. If a band are on the cusp of something potentially big, make sure you’re around to document them performing. Check Facebook, Twitter, music sites etc, and see what has been said about them at the time. I was looking forward to getting a few shots of new bands including Swim Deep and Drenge, bands that have been gaining more followers after the summer festival circuit.

Know your times! Print off a custom set list and plan on which bands you can’t miss. It is also beneficial to strike up conversation with anyone official at the festival, just in case sets or running orders change.

First 3 songs, no flash Yes, yes, you know the phrase, however there can always be someone who thinks they are above and beyond the rule. Respect those who have the authority to shoot beyond the first 3, but don’t stick around or chance it if you know you don’t! Or shooting with an iPad…

Social networking – You’ve worked your butt off over the weekend, but the job isn’t done yet! This is stating the obvious, but if you have strong images make sure you share them on line and make sure the bands / PR’s see them! Tweet them and any re-tweets will mean more traffic and interest on your site!

Thanks very much for your time Alex. 

You can check out Alex’s contributions on this site by clicking this link or check out the links below:

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If you have a ‘Day in the life’ story and would like to share it – please do get in touch and we will make your experiences a regular feature.

Join the discussion One Comment

  • Trust A Fox says:

    Hey Alex, only just read this…….been busy, but was aware you were doing this via twitter. Great read mate, and it’s nice to know lots of others do as I do (even if you are on the darkside as a Canon user)

    Great shots, and love the rain shot with the lighting.


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