Making photos, three songs at a time…

July 2019 marked the 25th anniversary of Ottawa Bluesfest; one of North America’s premiere music festivals. This year I had the distinct pleasure of serving as one of three official media photographers for the event, alongside Scott Penner and Sean Sisk, under the direction of AJ Sauvé.

The ten-day festival featured over 130 acts, representing a multitude of musical styles and catering to audiences of all ages. With five stages, dozens of food and beverage tents, carnival games and even an Insta-worthy Ferris wheel, there was something for everyone at this year’s festival.

My perspective of Bluesfest was probably quite different than most (both literally and figuratively), since I spent the bulk of my time either photographing musical acts or editing the images I’d just captured.

If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to be in “the pit” documenting some of the biggest names in music, I would encourage you to read on…

Pit Protocol

Anyone who thinks that accredited photographers have the option of attending a concert and enjoying a complimentary front-row spot for the duration of the show is sadly mistaken. In fact, because time and space are at such a premium, being in the pit (the narrow buffer zone between the stage and the audience) can be quite intense.

RBC Ottawa Bluesfest
A crowded pit area during RBC Ottawa Bluesfest on July 13, 2019. Photo by Greg Kolz / Bluesfest

“Three songs, No flash!”

I can pretty much guarantee that anyone who has been accredited to photograph a concert is very familiar with the “three songs, no flash” rule.

It doesn’t matter if you’re shooting a local act in a dimly lit bar or documenting a headline performance on the main stage of a major music festival; it pretty much goes without saying that you’ll be limited to taking photos during the first three songs of a set, and you must never use flash. This is done to limit distractions to both the performers and the audience.

As one might expect, however, pit protocol extends well beyond that one simple rule.

If I were to provide one piece of advice to any photographer shooting a concert from the pit, regardless of age or experience, it would be: Always be aware of your surroundings!

The importance of spatial awareness

To the extent possible, you want to avoid interfering with your fellow photographers and their ability to capture the shot(s) they need. You also want to avoid annoying the fans behind you who have all paid big bucks and often spent hours waiting to see their favourite artists perform. And, of course, you do not want to in any way hinder security guards’ and first responders’ ability to ensure that everyone is kept safe during the show.

Some photographers are almost ninja-like in their ability to maneuver themselves without ever getting in the way or being noticed. While others, unfortunately, are much less discrete in their approach.

Ultimately, it all boils down to respect. If you respect the rules and the people around you, then your odds of capturing compelling moments (and earning the privilege of doing so again in the future) increase considerably.

RBC Ottawa Bluesfest
Kane Brown performing at RBC Ottawa Bluesfest on July 11, 2019. Photo by Greg Kolz / Bluesfest

Brothers and Sisters in Arms

While there are literally dozens (if not hundreds) of professional photographers based in Ottawa, the subset of us who shoot concerts is relatively small. Some have been shooting for decades, whereas others are relatively new to the scene.

Whether you’re a grizzled veteran or a keen newbie, you can learn a lot by observing and interacting with your fellow photographers.

I can honestly say that I would not be the photographer I am today without the guidance and mentorship I’ve received from some of the very best in the business. And, by extension, I’m always happy to share helpful advice with others. (Truth be told, this often consists of advising people on how to avoid repeating many of the same mistakes I’ve made!)

What I enjoy most about annual events like Bluesfest is the sense of camaraderie that develops among the photographers. Naturally, concert photographers tend to be a rather competitive bunch, since we all want to capture “the shot”, but generally speaking, this only serves to motivate each of us to deliver the best results possible.

In instances when someone makes a better photo than me (and trust me, that happens all the time), I always try to make a point of congratulating the photographer on their work. I know how hard it can be to produce a truly captivating image, and therefore I believe those that succeed in doing so should be recognized for their achievement.

Rather than being jealous of another person’s success, I use it to fuel my desire to improve my own photography skills. I can only hope that some of my work has served to inspire others in a similar way.

RBC Ottawa Bluesfest
CHVRCHΞS performing at RBC Ottawa Bluesfest on July 4, 2019. Photo by Greg Kolz / Bluesfest

So, what’s the secret to becoming a great concert photographer?

I’m afraid that I can’t provide you with a definitive answer, since I’m still searching for it myself.

What I can say, however, is that no one I know has become good at anything without working really hard at honing their craft. This involves a lot of time and effort, and plenty of trial and error as well. I know this sounds very cliché, but it also happens to be true.

Case in point: Over the course of nine days at Ottawa Bluesfest, I photographed 58 different acts, and captured more than 30,000 frames. That averages out to approximately 517 photos per act. Of those, I generally selected about 15 photos that I felt were worthy of editing and sharing. In other words, less than 3% of the photos I took throughout the festival made the cut.

There are very few professions in the world (apart from meteorologists) where you are allowed to essentially ‘fail’ 97% of the time, and still be considered good at what you do. But, therein lies the beauty of photography.

RBC Ottawa Bluesfest
Keys N Krates performing at RBC Ottawa Bluesfest on July 7, 2019. Photo by Greg Kolz / Bluesfest

The goal, of course, for any photographer (myself included) is to continue improving their skills so that their failure rate decreases and their success rate increases. This can only be achieved by taking every chance you can to practice your technique, refine your workflow, and ultimately produce better results.

My friends have become so accustomed to seeing me with a camera (or two) slung over my shoulder, that in rare instances when I don’t have a DSLR with me, they’ll joke that I appear to be missing a limb. In fact, their observation isn’t so far from the truth. My camera has very much become an extension of who I am, and the pictures I make are a byproduct of the life I’m living.

RBC Ottawa Bluesfest
The Backstreet Boys performing at RBC Ottawa Bluesfest on July 14, 2019. Photo by Greg Kolz / Bluesfest

Words of thanks

If you’ve made it this far, then I very much appreciate you taking the time to read my musings.

Before concluding, I want to extend special thanks and congratulations to everyone who helped make the 25th edition of Ottawa Bluesfest such a success. In particular I applaud AJ Sauvé who continues to do yeoman’s work as the festival’s Director of Communications.

In addition to Scott Penner and Sean Sisk, I’d also like to recognize the many other photographers who worked tirelessly to document the festival for various outlets and whose talents continue to inspire me.  These include Wayne Cuddington, Ashley Fraser, Renée Boucher Doiron, Els Durnford, Landon Entwistle, Dan Nawrocki, Matthew Perry, John-Finnigan Lin, Greg Matthews, Kamara Morozuk, and Scott Martin, among others.

As always, please feel free to send me any feedback you may have about this blog post or questions about photography in general. I’m no expert, but I did stay at a Holiday Inn Express once.