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.

Memories of PyeongChang 2018

Can you recall exactly where you were and what you were doing on this date last year?

Personally, I will never forget February 20, 2018.  For me and countless others, it will forever be etched in mind as the day that Tessa Virtue & Scott Moir delivered an on-ice performance for the ages.

PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Winter Games
February 20, 2018: Tessa Virtue & Scott Moir performing their free dance at Gangneung Ice Arena, earning them an Olympic Gold Medal in the ice dance competition. (PHOTO: Greg Kolz)

I hadn’t really planned on writing a retrospective piece about my experience photographing the PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Winter Games.  However, as images and stories continue to show up on social media marking the one-year anniversary of the Games, I can’t help but reflect on what a privilege it was to bear witness to such an incredible series of athletic achievements; not just by Virtue & Moir, but many others as well.

My memories of PyeongChang are so vivid that it really does feel like just yesterday that I was in Korea serving as the official photographer for Skate Canada and Speed Skating Canada.  I’m rarely at a loss for words, but a year later, it’s still hard for me to adequately describe just how special and impactful the experience was.

While I’m quite proud of how I was able to manage and execute this monumental assignment, the truth is, I simply could not have done it without the help of so many others.  In particular, the advice I received from several photographers who have documented previous Olympic Games proved invaluable.

I want to specifically thank André Ringuette, Dave Holland, Jean Levac, Adrian Wyld, Sean Kilpatrick and André Forget for taking time out of their busy schedules to provide me with tips and guidance in the months leading up to the Games.

I also want to highlight what a pleasure it was to shoot alongside such accomplished photographers as Danielle Earl, Jason Ransom, Leah Hennel, Paul Chiasson, Vaughn Ridley, Steve Russell and David Jackson, among others, during the Games. I was (and continue to be) amazed and inspired by their work.

PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Winter Games
February 20, 2018: Scott Moir & Tessa Virtue celebrate their Olympic Gold Medal victory in the ice dance competition at Gangneung Ice Arena. (PHOTO: Greg Kolz)

Because there were so many highlights throughout the Olympics, it’s very difficult for me to narrow the list down to just a few favourites.

Seeing Team Canada enter PyeongChang Olympic Stadium during the opening ceremony, witnessing Kim Boutin overcome incredible adversity to earn three medals in short track at her first Olympics, and watching the figure skating squad earn gold in the team event are some of my most cherished memories.

Of course, the one Olympic moment that stands out for me above all others involves being rinkside for Virtue & Moir’s breathtaking performance of Moulin Rouge in the ice dance competition.

Passion. Connected.

Over the past nine years, I’ve had the privilege of photographing Tessa and Scott both on and off the ice.  During that time, I’ve been afforded the rare opportunity to witness first-hand just how incredibly hard they’ve worked to become the very best in the world at what they do.  And while I am certainly a fan of their skating, I am even more fond of them as people.

Tessa and Scott are exceptional athletes and artists, and there is no question that their connection with one another is unparalleled.  However, what has always impressed me the most is how genuine and kind they are.  To me, this duo represents excellence in the truest sense of the word, and I am extremely grateful to them for their faith and confidence in me as a photographer.

PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Winter Games
February 20, 2018: Tessa Virtue & Scott Moir performing Moulin Rouge at Gangneung Ice Arena, which earned them an Olympic Gold Medal in the ice dance competition. (PHOTO: Greg Kolz)

When photographing major events, it’s of paramount importance to stay focused and impartial to the subject(s) you’re trying to capture.  This is especially critical to keep in mind while documenting sports, since the action moves very quickly and there is zero margin for error.

I must admit that it was quite a challenge keeping my emotions in check during Tessa and Scott’s free dance at the Gangneung Ice Arena.  In fact, I don’t know of anyone who watched the performance in-person or on TV that wasn’t completely mesmerized.

Nevertheless, I did the very best I could to not get too wrapped-up in what I was seeing, and in the end, I think the images I captured turned out about as well as I could have hoped.

The Hug Seen Around the World

Immediately following the performance, while Tessa and Scott were anxiously awaiting their score, I wanted to better position myself to capture their reaction when the results were announced.  Although I was initially located at the opposite end of the ice, I managed to hustle and claim a spot just a few feet away from the “Kiss & Cry” area with mere seconds to spare.

When Tessa and Scott were declared Olympic champions, they immediately started celebrating with their coaches.  As I was taking photos of this jubilant scene, Tessa approached and asked if she could give me a hug.  As a rule, sports photographers must be as discrete as possible and, as one might expect, interactions with the athletes are generally forbidden. In this particular instance, however, how could I possible say no?!

Of course, little did I realize that our embrace was being captured on camera.  Within seconds, my phone began buzzing incessantly, as friends and family sent text messages indicating that they’d spotted me on TV back home in Canada.  The ‘hug seen around the world’ lives on in the form of an animated gif and still brings a smile to my face, even though I appear terribly unprofessional.

Virtue Hug 2

As the celebration continued, I aimed to capture images of Tessa and Scott’s family and friends in the stands. I distinctly recall catching the attention of Tessa’s sister Jordan and asking her to assemble the group for a photo.  It was wonderful to see them huddled together as one big happy family, beaming with pride. Perhaps that explains why I was suddenly unable to contain my own excitement and proceeded to do a big first-pump, which Jordan and I have joked about several times since.

PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Winter Games
February 20, 2018: The Virtue and Moir Families celebrate Tessa & Scott’s gold medal victory in the ice dance competition at the Gangneung Ice Arena. (PHOTO: Greg Kolz)

More Than A Feeling

Once the victory ceremony began and Tessa and Scott took their rightful place at the top of the podium, I was immediately struck by the incredible bond the two skaters share.  Given that they have spent over twenty years together as ice dance partners and best friends, I’m not sure that anyone other than Tessa and Scott can truly understand or appreciate the uniqueness of their relationship.

PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Winter Games
February 20, 2018: Tessa Virtue & Scott Moir sshare a moment atop the podium following their Olympic Gold Medal victory in the ice dance competition. (PHOTO: Greg Kolz)

That said, I’m truly honoured that one of the photos I took during the victory ceremony was later chosen by Tessa and Scott to appear on the cover of their new book, which was released in October 2018.  When I learned that the reason they selected that image was because of the feelings that it captured and conveyed, I was very moved.  For them to appreciate my work in such a meaningful way was incredibly humbling.


Overall, as I look back on my experience as a photographer at the PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Winter Games, I still cannot believe how fortunate I was.

In addition to the people I mentioned above, I owe a debt of gratitude to Skate Canada (Emma Bowie) and Speed Skating Canada (Patrick Godbout) for enlisting me, to the Canadian athletes for inspiring me each and every day throughout the Games, to my friends and colleagues for offering me their unwavering support and encouragement, and to my parents and sister for cheering me on as though I too was an Olympian.

Hopefully I’ll have the opportunity to document future Olympic Games, but regardless of whether that comes to pass, I will always have cherished memories of PyeongChang 2018.  Thank you for allowing me to share some of these with you!