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Taking photographs at a music festival

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Category: Specialist

Music festival photography - If you're heading to a festival this year to take some pictures you're going to need much more than just your wellies and a tent.

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 Killhannah at Download
Photography by Gary Wolstenholme
Kill Hannah at the Download festival.
Gary Wolstenholme has been taking photographs at festivals for about four years now, and like with anything, it's become a lot easier with practise and experience.
 
Before stepping foot in a muddy field, Gary will always check the weather, and more often than not, prepare for the worst. If it's a festival he's not been to before he'll also check agencies and photo-sharing websites for shots of previous events, to check for things like the height of the stage and the lighting set-up. He'll also talk to other photographers and journalists to find out if there's anything specific he should be aware of, as sometimes, a tip-off can get you to the right place at the right time: “At the Leeds festival a couple of years ago, The Kaiser Chiefs played one of the smaller stages under a pseudonym,” explained Gary. “I managed to find out about this and get myself to the stage before the scrum of other photographers had filled the pit.
 
As festivals are chaotic places, Gary always attempts to find out the stage times before the festival starts so he can make a “clashfinder”, a spreadsheet showing where and when each band will play. Of course if you're doing commissioned work you have to cover the bands you're asked to so you wont always have the luxury of being left to your own devices but just in-case, planning ahead is always a good idea. Just make sure your plan is flexible as things can often change on the day.
 
Helloween at Bloodstock
Photography by Gary Wolstenholme.
Helloween at the Bloodstock festival.
If you're going to cover a festival you need to actually get into it. If you're commissioned, the publication you're working for will probably source a pass for you or, if you're like Gary and have an agency, you could try approaching them.
 
Good contacts always help, even if it just to find someone to have a drink with when the bands are done for the day.
 
Once you arrive whether you're camping or not, your kit should never leave your side and only pack what is essential for the trip. If he's photographing in the UK where it's bound to rain, Gary will take an Optech Rainsleeve to protect the camera from the elements and Duct-tape to fasten up any exposed zips to keep the rain out. If you're shooting at a festival abroad don't forget there's the added issue of carry-on baggage restrictions. Gary recommends you ensure everything is at least a couple of grams under the maximum weight, just in case.
 
Overkill at Bloodstock
Photography by Gary Wolstenholme.
Over Kill at the Bloodstock festival.
Apart from obvious items such as a camera tent and wellies Gary's basic kit consists of:
  • Battery grip
  • Rainsleeves
  • 12inch Laptop
  • Portable hardrive
  • Card Reader
  • USB Cable
  • Lens cloth
  • Waterproof trainers
  • Waterproof jacket
  • A folding step or set of ladders
  • Camping stove
  • Tins of beans and sausages
  • Coffee
  • UHT Milk
  • Camping Mug
  • Folding aluminium pan
  • Brillo pads
  • Sleeping bag + warmth liner and a foam mattress
  • Cereal Bars
  • 2 litres of tap water
  • Money
  • Red wine (it's the only alcohol that tastes good after being sat in a warm tent all day!)
 
Radiohead V Festival
Photography by Gary Wolstenholme.
Radiohead at the V Festival.
For an outdoor festival I couldn't really live without any of this but if I had to take just one thing from this it would have to be the waterproof trainers. They are so much more comfortable and lightweight than my wellies, which is important when I'm on my feet all day.
 
A good set of lenses is also essential for festival photography. Gary always takes the Sigma 15-30mm, Nikon 35mm f/2, Nikon 50mm f/1.4, Nikon 85mm f/1.8, Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 VR and a Nikon 300m f/4. The 70-200mm is his most used lens for shooting artists on stage at festivals. As Gary thinks it's the perfect range (on a full-frame camera) for medium to large stages. For smaller stages, which are usually under cover, there for darker, he uses the faster prime lenses. The 300mm is great for closer shots on the larger stages and for isolating people in large crowds and he takes the 15-30mm for general shots of the festival site and for crowd shots which he takes from the photo pit at the front of the stage.
 
If possible, I'll always try to get at least one portrait and one landscape photo of each band member. Shooting both ways helps to ensure I'll have images to fit most page designs. As part of the coverage of a festival, most publications will also want at least a few shots of people having fun to help break up the images of musicians growling into microphones.
Crowd at Download festival Hove Festival Hove festival site
Photography by Gary Wolstenholme.
Crowd at the Download festival.
Photography by Gary Wolstenholme.
Stage at the Hove festival.
Photography by Gary Wolstenholme.
The Hove festival site.
 
Rock and pop music are full of clichés and sometimes a nice rock cliché sits well with the coverage. When the guitarist clambers onto the drum kit, you can almost guarantee you will get a great shot
of them jumping. Catching them mid-air is also a popular shot and learning to capture it is something that will become second nature.
 
Experience will help you to pre-empt this kind of thing. Taking pictures at a festival isn't easy and is a learning experience but I do enjoy it!
 
Visit Gary Wolstenholme's website to see more of his work.
Subways Download festival
 Photography by Gary Wolstenholme.
The Subways at the Download festival.


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