If you’ve been to a gig at any point in the last ten years (and we bloody hope you have), the chances are you’ll have seen dozens, if not hundreds, of amateur photographers thrusting their mobile phones in the air to get a picture, or even ‘enjoying’ the show being played out on their minute blue-lit screens. Meanwhile, the real people who are busy capturing those all-important “wow” moments on camera are the quiet and sturdy photographers, doing their best to remain unnoticed. If they’re not crouched in the lion’s den that is the photo pit, they’re braving the crushes at the front of the crowd to get that one shot that sums up the show – the one shot that will be shared on social media the following day by those people who were wafting their camera phones in the air.
In the latest in our ‘Who Are Ya?’ series looking at the people who make live music happen, we speak to Merseyside photographer CONOR MCDONNELL about the way the people behind the lens view a concert. Having graduated from the homely delights of The Zanzibar and The Shipping Forecast, Conor is now a much in demand photographer who regularly does live and tour photography for Ellie Goulding, Rita Ora and James Morrison. Before jetting off for a one-night shoot in Las Vegas with Calvin Harris, Conor – the man behind the most liked photo ever on Instagram – spoke to us about the often underappreciated role of the gig photographer.
I always keep my gear packed as my job often has lots of last-minute calls. It’s always packed with fully charged batteries and clean cards (plus plenty of spares), ready to go. My general gear that I take mostly to every job consists of two camera bodies, an assortment of lenses (there are four in the bag), two flash guns and hard drives. Earplugs are a definite essential for this job, too. I also currently pop in a Polaroid camera for fun.
Every job I do these days is for the artist, so I always get to photograph and film the whole show. Back in the day when I started shooting live music and I wasn’t working for artists but for magazines and websites, it was almost always ‘first three songs’. There’s lots of pressure, as you have no control over anything at all: you can’t control the lighting, or where the artist will be. It’s tricky. You have to learn to anticipate the moment – there’s no point in chasing it, it’s already happened. I remember a few times in the past where I’ve been shooting artists and, when leaving at the start of the fourth song, the lighting became incredible or the artist started to jump around and climb about on stage, and I’ve thought, “Ahh, I wish I could shoot that, it looks amazing”. But you just gotta work with what you have!
There are no general rules on pit etiquette between photographers. It’s not like when you do it, there’s a list of stuff you have to abide by. I wish there was, as some people have no idea how to behave in the pit. When I started I was 16 years old so I was quite young. I was always getting pushed out of the way by older photographers who thought that because they have been doing it for years they are better and have a priority over me. I’ve had several elbows to the head, been dragged back, etc. There’s no need to be like that, no matter who you are.
The best condition for shooting a live show is lots of energy, be it from the performer or the crowd. Energy is always fun to capture. It always looks awesome, too. Good lighting definitely helps but it isn’t a necessity. I like to make myself work hard when shooting. Obviously great lighting makes it easier but if there’s no energy even the greatest lighting rig in the world can look like the most boring concert in the world. My favourite place I’ve ever photographed was Red Rocks in Denver, Colorado, a legendary venue, which was so much fun. I got free rein over the whole concert there whilst on tour in America with Ellie Goulding.
When on tour or when I work with artists I always explore the venue before the gig, quite often during soundcheck. This way I can find vantage points and the quickest route to and from these points. Figuring this out during the actual concert is wasted time. A lot of the time you just have to find these places yourself: sometimes you can ask security how to get to certain points but more often than not I just do it. It’s easier to ask for forgiveness than permission.
On tour, my lens cap always stays off, and editing is done on late nights. The majority, if not all, of the time my photos are expected on a superfast turnaround. I try to get my photos to the artist the same night so that they can post them on social media. As a live photographer, my role is to document the occasion for the artist, so that when the photos go live you look at the photos and they make you wish you were there because it looked so awesome.
I’m always finding new places to take shots from. Though it varies from venue to venue, you can often find me on stage hidden behind amps or band members getting the shot. One of the strangest places I got into was at the O2 in Dublin [now the 3Arena], where I managed to get in the roof of the arena directly above the stage and crowd. It made for an interesting angle.
It definitely helps being a music fan for shooting live music. It helps me anticipate what could potentially happen on stage. Live music photography is all about anticipation: like I said earlier, there’s no point in chasing something that has already happened as it’s gone forever. It helps to anticipate if there’s going to be a drop in the music or a breakdown as, more often than not, something will happen during those moments.
I don’t mind it when fans post my photos online, though a lot of photographers I know do. It really frustrates them and they spend so much time chasing [the people concerned] getting them to take [the photos] down. The way I see it, I’m shooting for the fans too and I’d rather spend time working than chasing teenagers online asking them to take down a photo. If they enjoy it then I see it as my job there is done. It bothers me when people make money out of it though, like people putting my photos on fake merch, or selling prints. That’s a different story. That is theft.
To be a good live photographer takes a combination of natural talent and an acquired technique. I think you can be taught photography to a certain degree, but I think you have to have a natural eye for it, and that is something that can’t be taught.