As we slowly return to photographing live music events, it is an important moment to take into consideration aspects of that job that fall outside simple gear and technique concerns. I am talking about health and safety, and I doubt that there are any concert photographers who do not view that aspect of the work in a new light since 2020. We know how severe an impact the live music business has felt and that many precautions and protocols will be with us for the foreseeable future, so let’s talk about how to be safe while shooting live music.
This article is not only about COVID-19 precautions; there are certainly other hazards at large concerts, but the spread of COVID-19 is still a concern in many locations. Consider what we have come to realize—masks protect you and others from the spread of disease and if you will be working shoulder to shoulder with thousands of folks, getting vaccinated against COVID-19 seems a smart decision. Masks can fog up your eyeglasses or viewfinder and create minor complications when shooting, but it is a safety standard that will be with us, either voluntarily or required by the venue for the foreseeable future.
While wearing protective gloves may not be necessary, some would consider it an option. Certainly, washing your hands when possible and using sanitizer are valuable precautions. At present, many venues are establishing or re-establishing their social distancing policies. Although the idea of staying six feet away from others at a concert seems difficult, it would seem safer—if not more respectful—to keep as much a distance as possible from fans, security, and other photographers for the time being. Also, follow the protocols set up by the venue and its security team. If they require you to be in designated areas or leave after three songs, it’s probably safer for all that you do so. I would also wash and disinfect my gear and clothing after each gig.
As mentioned, there are many safety concerns at a show that existed before and will exist after this coronavirus is no longer a threat. Let’s look at a few.
This is a basic but serious concern that can come from a variety of often combined sources and can not only risk your ability to get the shots you want but can lead to medical issues.
Be sure to consider the weight of your photo kit when you are at a concert. Choose wisely based on the size of the venue, your access, and the type of images you would like to make. Carry as little as possible to minimize the weight you are carrying, bumping into other people, and potential theft or damage. Consider bringing just one reliable body and a quality telephoto zoom lens, especially if you will be working an outdoor daylight concert.
Speaking of outdoor and daylight—heat, sun, and dehydration will bring exhaustion and worse, if not managed properly. Dress appropriately, wear a hat, apply sunscreen, and have water with you and/or access to shade and water nearby, especially if you are working festivals or long concerts. On the flip side, if a concert will last until the wee hours, consider whether you will need warmer clothes or layers as the temperature drops. Staying well fed is also important for the long days and, because you may not want to miss one act in a long festival, keeping healthy snacks in your camera bag is a good idea.
We mentioned heat and cold, but weather is always an outdoor photographer’s backseat driver. Be aware of storms in the vicinity—a hard rain can not only damage gear but poses risks for slipping, for electrocution, for evacuation, and if you don’t dry off, as grandma always scolded, you’ll catch your death of cold. Needless to say, lightning is a reason to leave an open field or stadium and high winds can certainly whip up trouble and are a threat to stage setups.
Cables and Electricity
Although it’s unlikely that a photographer will be touching live electric equipment during a concert, the consideration of electricity should be noted. More so, the risk of tripping and falling over the cables that line and crisscross the grounds near a stage or any production should be a concern. At well-produced events, these hazards are shielded or clearly marked but with your eyes on the stage or your viewfinder there are a lot of items at your feet (including other people’s feet) that could cause a fall. If you happen to be shooting onstage, it can be extremely exciting, so, obviously, be careful about bumping into monitors and gear and roadies and always know where the stage ends.
Sound and Ear Protection
As a younger photographer I might have scoffed at this idea, but having had a few sonic blasts (musical and otherwise) do damage to my hearing, I would not be so callous nowadays. Many concerts are loud, especially near the stage, and earplugs are a simple protection against acute and long-term hearing loss. Unless you’re really into the band, they may also help you tune out the distractions and focus on the imagery.
Crowds and Other Photographers
If the live music you photograph is string quartets in a museum or jazz bands in a theater, you can probably skip this section, but stadium, arena, and club concerts have you interacting with potentially thousands of people. Alcohol, amped-up emotions, and just good-natured enthusiasm (think crowd surfing) can make individuals or groups of fans a hindrance to getting your work done or even a danger to your personal safety. In these cases, its best to keep your cool, stay out of people’s view, take someone’s picture if they drunkenly ask for it, and rely on venue security if needed.
Photographer Christie Goodwin, who was featured on the B&H Photography Podcast, relayed a story about fans at a One Direction concert getting overly excited with the thought that she was the band’s private photographer. “A fan clocked me and shouted at the top of her voice: ‘Guys, their photographer is here’ and literally within seconds I got mobbed by a hurdle of wild fans banging their mobile phones into my head trying to get a picture of who knows what. I had two cameras hanging on each side of my body and was clinging on to them for dear life. The mob became larger and heavier and I couldn’t breathe and felt my legs getting shaky under me. I also could feel my cameras being knocked about and pulled. It was the most terrifying experience I have ever gone through in my life. Suddenly a pair of hands grabbed me forcefully and hauled me out of my distressful situation. It was Harry (Style’s) bodyguard who had seen what had happened and came to my rescue.”
Large crowds can be scary. Fortunately, at most large venues, there are “pits” separated from the crowd for photographers and media and these should (and at times, must) be utilized. Within the pits, be careful of other photographers and gear and watch for flying elbows as everyone jostles for the best angle.
Also, follow the instructions of security personnel and stage managers, know where emergency exits are, and have a plan if there is a reason for a mass exit. At some concerts there are pre-show safety briefings that would be worth attending, if possible. Speaking of pre-show, if you happen to be photographing soundcheck or even when a stage is still being assembled, you may be required to wear a helmet!
Joints, Muscles, and Injuries
Not the first thing we think of when talking concert photography, but we should not overlook the physical rigors of the job. It can be taxing—equipment hanging on your body, running around and through crowds to get to a good spot, craning your neck, and kneeling and squatting and squinting, all for a photo. Just writing this has worn me out. We all understand the career we have chosen and the joys of the profession, but let’s not forget to take care of ourselves. Stretch your muscles before a show, distribute your weight evenly, wear comfortable shoes and loose-fitting clothing, and avoid repetitive strain. As mentioned earlier, bring as little gear as you can and/or find a safe and accessible place to store what you might need. One item that has helped me at events where the audience is mostly seated or where I have to remain out of sight is knee pads. Trust me, your knees will thank you.
Have you photographed live music events? Please share your experiences and feel free to add any health and safety tips in the Comments section, below.