What they don't tell you about shooting festivals

This weekend I attended my first music festival of 2013 as a photographer. I've shot festivals for three years now and they're still not only enormously fun, but a great way to add a bit of depth and difference to the Live Music end of your portfolio.

However this weekend, I noticed a few first-timers go through all the mistakes that can catch you out the first time you are shooting at a festival. Obviously lightweight rain-gear is necessary, but everyone prepares for that - here are a few less obvious things to be aware of.

Ear Protection

First up, the most important one - ear protection. When you shoot a gig in a small venue, you may be surrounded by amps and speakers, and though highly dangerous you *could* get away without ear protection up in the pit. Playing in a large venue, it's important to protect those things that keep the glasses on your face. However at a festival, ear protection is vital.

Think about it - at an indoor gig the sound doesn't have to travel the length of a long field like it does at a festival. Similarly it's not competing with other gigs nearby. You'll be right up front in the pit, literally beside the speakers which you can *feel* pulse through your entire body. Not a great feeling and one that can mess up your ears permanently if you're not careful.

To combat this I wear two pairs of ear protection, the ER-20 and a pair of standard builder's earmuffs on top. I can still hear all the music, but the damaging frequencies are filtered out. 

James Blake: Distributor of the world's scariest basslines.

Shutter Speed

The great thing about festivals, visually speaking at least, is that they're outdoors. No longer are your images' quality dictated by the lighting technician, at festivals Mother Nature will give you a hand. The extra light gives you a few options - you can drop the ISO from the normal highs to around the 200-400 mark, you could narrow the aperture to around the pin sharp f8 range, or you could bump up the shutter speed to about 1/1000 of a second. I tend to favour the high shutter speed, but I mix it with reducing the ISO. This gives you high quality, noise-free images that capture fast movement without blur.

This obviously changes as the day going on, meaning your headline act won't be bathed in the same light as the mid-afternoon acts, but there'll still be some generous light by the time they take the stage which you can use. 

Sugar & Shoes

Bring good, comfy (waterproof) shoes. You'll be walking all day, up hills, between drunk people and up and down the pit. Wellies may seem like a great idea, but unless it's particularly muddy, they're just cumbersome, awkward and will slow you down. Comfy shoes are vital if you want to last the day - as is a fair amount of sugar.

Pack a few treats in your camera bag - there are times when you won't get a break for hours between sets, so some glucose tablets or a bag of crisps might be all you have to keep you going until you get a chance to hit the food stalls after the music stops. 


Prepare in advance of the festival. Many festivals will put up a timetable of running events a week or so before the start date. Plan your time around this. Obviously the main-stage headliners will be priority, so make your plan work around them. 

I tend to see who are the most visually interesting bands on early - and they get preference. Most bands early are are essentially write-offs for most publications, unless they're a local group, or insanely weird.

Take Mykki Blaco at Forbidden Fruit (pictured below). He's a cross-dressing, camp rapper, who was quite brilliant live. Talent aside though, someone like Mykki beats hands down any other band plodding along with guitars at the same time. He plays to the camera, interacts with the crowd and is generally great fun to shoot. He pads out the images you get through the day. Not everyone will be interested in his music  but pictures of a grown muscley man humping a mic stand are always handy to have for submission to any publication.

Bands will always cancel, run late or start early, so keep your ears to the ground too, to avoid any problems. Which leads us to the final point: 

Knowing Your Contacts

Festivals aren't gigs. Sometimes they'll have weird stipulations, like shooting from one side of the pit, not shooting at all, meeting with a liaison before entering the pit, shooting for one song only, entry to the stage from this side only, etc. etc... So get down early, meet the festival media contact and find out all you can about the day ahead. It'll make the day run much more smoothly, and you might get some interesting nuggets about stage setups too, as some will have seen soundcheck - and of course there's never any trouble being on good terms with folk like this, for the long run.



And remember, festivals will give you a lot of different pits. Some will see you squashed up against the stage, and other like the Main Stage will give you enough room to kick a football about it. Come prepared for this. a 24-70 & 70-200mm combo of lenses should see you set. Mightn't be a bad idea to bring your fastest 50mm either, just incase you get one of those moody, photophobic hipster bands in one of the tents late at night. 


So there you have it. If you think I've forgotten anything major, let me know in the comments!  I'll be putting all these tips to use next week when I'm off to Slane to shoot Bon Jovi.