Alright alright, we already know COVID has shutdown or postponed most, if not all, concerts and tours around the world. Now we have perfect opportunity to sit down with our resident concert photographers at JROCK NEWS for a cheeky chit-chat now they have no performances to shoot.
Today we’ll be talking to two of our photographers, Narine and Zephyr—you might have come across some of their work in our photo reports in the past. The featured image is by our talented Charles who couldn’t make it for the interview, but he’s an amazing photographer so be sure to check him out.
As with most things, a lot of work and talent goes on behind the scenes, unseen by the public eye, so with this interview, we’ll start uncovering the thinking, training, and preparation our photographers go through to photograph a concert. They’ll give you some tips to get started too.
Before we dig in, can you both please introduce yourself?
Narine: Hey everyone, I’m Narine! I’m based in the UK and I mainly shoot for JROCK NEWS. My favorite musician is MIYAVI. I’ve been shooting for around 10 years or so as a hobby and gradually got into live concert shows in recent years. I’ve been blessed to photograph MIYAVI, DIR EN GREY, The GazettE, and ONE OK ROCK.
Zephyr: Hi everyone, my name is Matt. I’m based in the US and so far I’ve shot lives for Tricot, Alexandros, and DIR EN GREY. While I do cinematography mainly as a career, I shoot a lot of 35mm and medium format stills work as well.
Narine: Matt, your cinematography is so cool!
Zephyr: Thank you, thank you, I hope to get much better. [laugh]
Ah boy, way back in the day I use to take photos too, but now I’m surrounded by professionals, I feel very self-conscious about them. What’s your first kit like then? How’d you get it?
Narine: Back in high school after taking the hardest higher maths exam in the Scottish education system, I came out of that exam in tears feeling miserable. To make up for it and with my birthday being a week away, my parents decided to buy me a basic Olympus camera. After that, I was hooked and took my camera everywhere with me. Unfortunately, I no longer own that camera and I’ve moved on to Nikon.
You know, that could have been a pretty neat keepsake for when you became famous? How about you Zeph?
Zephyr: In my senior year of high school, I finally racked up enough money to buy a Canon 70D with an 18-135mm kit lens, which was huge for me. The year was 2014 and that was when I truly first ever got into the world of cameras, film, and photography. Because the 70D was one of the better affordable hybrid DSLRs for photo and video at that time, it really got me really excited. It’s still a digital camera I own to this day.
How’d you get into live photography then?
Narine: Back in 2015, the London Korean festival was taking place at Trafalgar Square—Korean girl group F(x) and Korean indie rock band Guckkasten were amongst those performing that day. Knowing I wanted to build myself a portfolio for concert shows I took advantage of the free event and took photos of most of the events which took place. The photos I took for the London Korean festival ended up landing me an official photographer position for the Kpop group, Topp Dogg, now known as Xeno-T.
Zephyr: Back in 2015, DIR EN GREY played a show in NYC and I really wanted to shoot it but didn’t know how to gain access for the press. I was just a freshman in college with no experience but I decided to send out emails to various Japanese rock publication websites. Eventually, JROCK NEWS took me in, and while I didn’t get to shoot that DIR EN GREY show, I stuck with them and eventually landed the opportunities I did.
You make it sound easy but in reality, you had to work hard to prove yourself before we let you turn up to shows. [laughs]
Zephyr: Yeah, looking back at it now, I did do quite a bit of work to gain the team’s trust, but I’m glad I stuck with it because deep down I knew eventually the work would show and I would eventually land something if I kept going at it. To be honest, I’m surprised myself with my own persistence because I can be quite lazy at times. [laughs]
Remind me, who did you photograph for us first?
Zephyr: It was actually not even a Japanese headliner. It was a co-headliner with CHON and Polyphia—Tricot happened to open for them. So I saw that and decided to message their team for press access and somehow got it.
Oh yeah, that’s right. To be honest, Polyphia and CHON are amazing bands too. Okay, so we’ve talked about how you both started, how about now? What’s your current setup like at a show?
Narine: For me, it honestly depends on what kind of role I have at a show. For some shows, I could be attending as a press photographer covering for a publication or as the official photographer. When I’m invited as a press photographer I like to keep my bag light and only have my Nikon D810, Tamron 24-70mm, and Nikkor 50mm. As for the official photographer role, a flash and a tripod are added to my list. I’ve also been thinking of adding a foldable stool to my list, because you know, short people problems. [laughs]
Yeah, I can relate [laughs]
Zephyr: For the first few, I used my own kit which was the Canon 70D which I mentioned above. I usually shoot with a Sigma 24mm art lens for wide shots, and an 85mm for close up shots of the performer’s face. Occasionally I’d use a fisheye lens or a 1/4 Tiffen ProMist filter for stylistic flare. When I shot DIR EN GREY, however, I had some loose change so I rented a Canon 5d Mark IV, one of Canon’s better and more expensive DSLRs.
Okay, now, how do either of you feel about phones at shows?
Narine: I don’t mind phones when I’m taking photos from the photo pit at the front [laughs]. On rare occasions when there isn’t a photo pit I have to take photos from the crowd and that’s when I find it difficult to get some shots as I’m quite short.
Short people problem again, huh?
Narine: Unfortunately, yes [laughs].
Narine: When I attend shows as a fan, it can get a little frustrating if someone is recording the whole show in front of me. I don’t want to see the band or artist I came to see through the phone screen.
Zephyr: It’s cool, just don’t record the whole show please [laugh]. As a spectator, I don’t wanna constantly see phones in the air or in front of my face. I’m fairly tall so if I’m in the audience I’m usually pretty self-aware of keeping a phone up in the air for extended periods of time.
We have a couple of questions our readers would like to ask, let’s start with your favorite concert shoot experience so far and how was it different from the others?
Narine: It’s so difficult to pick a favorite, I have quite a few from MIYAVI, The Boyz to ONE OK ROCK. If I really had to choose one, it would be a small kpop group called Seven O’Clock. I had never heard of this group or known their music before. I worked for them back in April 2019 and strangely I found myself really enjoying their show. They were cute, funny, and charismatic. On top of that, they were the kindest group I’ve ever worked for.
Mmm, yeah, when the artist has a good personality it really helps. When they’re polite and are thankful to the staff, I find it makes me want to put in a bit more effort for them, you know?
Zephyr: Nothing particularly stands out to me, I enjoyed them all equally. And even though people may think it’s all fun when we’re invited to shows and taking pictures of famous musicians, it is still work for me, so when I go to shoot shows that mentality never leaves me.
Narine: That’s true too. We’re so lucky to enjoy all of these shows. For me, at the end of the day, as long as there’s good lighting then I’m happy.
Here’s another from a reader, which artist would you like to photograph live?
Zephyr: For me, DIR EN GREY or Sukekiyo, always. Every show is unique due to the virtuosic qualities of the members, and each different show usually tells a different story. These are both two of the most artistic bands I know of for their form of rock and metal, and especially with Sukekiyo, photographing them would almost be like photographing a theatre performance.
Narine: I would love another opportunity to photograph ONE OK ROCK. I feel like my skills have evolved since I shot them last time in 2015, and photographing them again could allow me to make up for the regrets I had before.
Following up on that, they ask how do you handle all the hot artists posing in front of your camera? [laughs]
Narine: Just enjoy all the eye candy up close while it lasts.
Zephyr: I wonder myself.
[laughs] Alright, let’s move onto something more serious. What is your favorite camera quality, functionality-wise?
Narine: This question is quite tricky because more than the camera body itself, the lens you use with it is more important. So if we’re talking overall, I want a camera to do well in low lighting, not get too grainy from high ISO, take photos in RAW format, and give me some bokeh and background blur.
Zephyr: I suppose for me, having a camera that shoots at a high number of frames per second is perfect for concert photography, so I can much easier freeze the actions of the musicians. Also, a full-frame camera is nice, which is why I rented the 5D Mark IV for DIR EN GREY. As opposed to my 70d which has a sensor crop factor of 1.6x, with the 5d I can get more of the stage in the frame, and dynamic range tends to be a little better with those more expensive cameras. Like Narine mentioned above, a camera that shoots RAW is a godsend for concert photography because you can pull detail out of dark shadows much easier than you would with a compressed jpeg file.
Narine: A full-frame camera is life-changing when shooting from the photo pit.
Ah, interesting. I bet most people outside of photography won’t know much about full-frame cameras. Okay, now, what’s the top three items you use for your job?
Narine: Earplugs, extra battery, and extra SD card. Earplugs are so important to have on me when I attend a show. It keeps your ears protected from the loud music coming out of the huge speakers and you can still hear the music clearly. Sometimes I’d find myself standing right next to the speakers to get a shot I want. If you ever feel like you need a pair of earplugs or someone else needs them, go and ask the bar staff. They generally stock a handful of them and they’ll just hand it over to you when you ask. The extra battery and SD card are for emergency cases. Once I forgot I didn’t have an SD card in my camera but luckily I was saved by the extra SD card in my bag.
Zephyr: A camera bag, backup SD cards, and batteries. Those items are essential because you’ll never know what could happen and when you might need them. The camera bag helps keep everything organized because I usually bring a lot of gear to shows, probably more than I should [laughs]. But again, you can never be too careful. Please don’t rob me.
Narine: I won’t lie, being robbed is one of my fears too whenever I carry my camera in my bag with me. [laughs].
Ah boy, that’ll lead up nicely to the next question. What’s your worst nightmare? What makes concert photography difficult?
Narine: Minimal lighting on the stage makes it so difficult to photograph the artist. This continues when trying to edit the photos too as each photo requires more time and concentration to make sure it turns out decent to present.
As for my worst nightmare, I think to lose all the photos or to have an SD card error.
Zephyr: I think it’s a little difficult that press photographers have a time restraint. We’re usually only allowed to take photographs during the first three songs so we have to absolutely make sure we get what we need in that timeframe. Narine also makes a good point about stage lighting. Because it is usually enveloped in darkness with strobes flashing and such, consistent exposures can be hard to nail sometimes, and you’re constantly messing with settings to try and get the clearest picture possible.
My worst nightmare would have to be not being prepared—to not have a backup battery charged, or an SD card unformatted. This happened when I shot DIR EN GREY actually—I thought I had wiped one of my cards. Spoiler alert, I didn’t, and I ran out of space halfway through the first song. I panicked, ran to my bag, and luckily I had some backup cards that were smaller but also not fully wiped. I kinda just had to finesse and delete pictures that weren’t good as I took them. It was stressful, to be honest [laughs]
Narine: Oh my god, that’s happened to me too, running out of space. I can’t remember which event it was but I had two SD cards with me and one of them ended up having an error and on the other one had limited space. Luckily I managed to get enough photos in the end! Imagine both of my SD cards were giving me errors, terrifying thought [laughs].
You guys should probably invest in more SD cards. [laughs] Coming back to it, I imagine it would be pretty helpful if we could find out the lighting engineer’s direction before the show now you mention it. If you could request the organizer one thing to help get better concert pictures?
Narine: After the three songs, please allow us to take photos from the crowds to get some shots of how full the venue is and so on. While on this subject, I’m curious what the reader’s thoughts are on photographers taking photos amongst the crowds? Personally, I try to be very cautious of those behind me and if I really want to grab a shot of the artist on stage from the crowd, I make sure I get the job done quickly.
Zephyr: Can’t really think of anything, to be honest, but maybe time for one more song would be nice.
Organizers and concert managers out there, please take note. We wish for more time in the photo pit, please! Alright now, on tour usually there are some good stories that come out of it, do you have a favorite story to tell?
Narine: When I was photographing The London Korean Festival in 2017 at the Olympia in London, I was on the upper floor of the venue in the designated area for photographers. Throughout EXID‘s show, I spotted someone below looking up at me, smiling and waving. I was ready to wave back until I noticed more waving fans, so I thought “Surely, I’m not that popular or famous”. I looked around and found out why I was feeling famous—one of the members from KNK was standing to my left side, enjoying EXID’s performance. At that moment the penny dropped [laughs] I enjoyed the few seconds I felt of fame.
Zephyr: [laughs] I would have done the same though. Savor every second of glory while you have it. As for me, nothing particularly funny or odd happened at any of the shows I shot. The incident with my SD card filling up at DIR EN GREY was probably the most chaotic thing that’s happened so far.
Don’t let your dreams be dreams right? I’m sure your story is coming. Alright, let’s wrap things up, for all the readers out there who are starting out, could you give them a piece of advice?
Narine: If you already know the basics and want to get into live music photography, my best advice would be to attend free events to build yourself a portfolio. After that, you could reach out to different promoters, publications, or band management and ask them if you could shoot a show to build your portfolio. You’ll receive a lot of “no’s” but don’t give up because eventually, someone will tell you yes.
Zephyr: Take some time to figure out your style. How you like to compose images, how you like to edit in terms of finding the right color palette, for example. The only way to stand out from the rest is to really know yourself and what you like, and feel confident in doing so. But in terms of technical things, learning how to manually expose is the most important thing when first learning to use a camera, how shutter speed, ISO, and aperture affect each other. Learn how different lenses affect facial shapes depending on the focal length. Notice subtle details. With lots of practice, you’ll be able to make quality work in no time.
We hope you enjoyed the slightly unusual interview with our team today, if you liked this, please check out our interview with a tour roadie or music label owner. Also, follow our photographers if you use Instagram!