Reflecting on 10 Years of Concert Photography

Be Your Own Pet playing at The End in 2007
Jemina Pearl and Jonas Stein playing at The End in 2007.

Ten years ago, for the first time in my life, I brought a camera to a concert.

I was 20-years-old and a year into my term as a journalism student at Belmont University. The thing about studying journalism at a school that doesn’t offer photojournalism classes is that you’re pretty much on your own if you need art to go along with your stories. You could hope that a fine art photography student might take pity on you and lend a hand, but that was never a guarantee. I knew that I wanted to write about music, which — more often than not — meant that if I wanted pictures to go along with concert reviews that I wrote for the campus newspaper, I’d better learn how to use a camera myself.

And so, I bought the cheapest lens with the widest aperture I could find, retrieved a silver Digital Rebel XT from the newspaper’s equipment closet, and marched down to The End to shoot Be Your Own Pet.

If I’m being honest with myself, I did just about everything wrong: my autofocus was set to One-Shot, I shot in JPG instead of RAW, the on-camera flash kept popping up and I didn’t know how to turn it off. I even showed up at the venue an hour before the first band even thought about playing. I fumbled and stumbled through the entire night, figuring out settings as I went, letting dumb instinct take over as I clicked and clicked and clicked, hoping that any shot panned out.

An outstanding example of me completely blowing the shot.

I had no idea what I was doing. What I did know was that I loved every minute of my clumsy dance at the front of the stage. It was the most fun I’d ever had at a concert, bobbing and weaving through the crowd, dodging moshers and beating my head against the split-second mental math that concert photography requires. Just getting one halfway usable shot was exhilarating. I felt triumphant.

By my count, I’ve shot 604 bands at more than 50 venues and every show, I chase that feeling. It doesn’t matter if it’s Justin Timberlake at Bridgestone Arena or, more recently, Dream Wave in a hot basement near the fairgrounds. I feel so fortunate, so lucky to say that I’ve been able to do this professionally for a solid decade.

I’ve learned a few things:

  • Your gear doesn’t matter. What matters is doing the work. I didn’t own my own camera for my first year as a photographer. I lens for 80 bucks and borrowed a camera to put it on. You shouldn’t feel like you need $10,000 worth of camera gear to be a photographer. Shooting with budget gear and working within their limitations helped me develop a style.
  • Don’t be afraid to fail. You’re going to take bad photos. If you’re like me, probably a lot of them. But failure has been my best teacher. I’ve blown entire concerts because of some mistake I made, but it’s never the end of the world. There will always be more shows, and there will always be more photos.
  • Learn from others. It took me eight years before I took an actual photography class. I’d been so self-taught that I had huge holes in my technical understanding of how cameras work. There’s always more to learn, no matter where you’re at in your career.

I’ve been thinking a lot about that last thing. I feel like photographers tend to be so solitary in their work. At least, I know that’s how I feel. Photography, even more than other visual arts, is directly affected by the perspective of the photographer. You’re literally seeing their perspective, what they see, how they see it.

We all have so much to learn from each other, and I want to make this pledge to my fellow photographers: my door is open. What good is accruing a decade of experience in something as hyper-specific as concert photography if you’re not going to share your privilege? More than that, I want to learn from you. Whether you’re brand new to this or have been doing it for your entire life, I value your perspective and want to learn from it.

And bands? I still want to take your picture. I’ll see you at the show.

Be Your Own Pet playing at The End in 2007
Nathan Vasquez playing with Be Your Own Pet in 2007.

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