Monthly Guest: Concert Photographer Allen Ross Thomas (@artistxposure)

Written by: Glyn Dewis

Published: July 20, 2010

Category: General

Glyn: Allen thanks so much for being a Guest Photographer here on the blog; I really do appreciate it mate.

Allen: Hey no problem at all it’s very nice of you to ask me.

Glyn: Ok so I guess the first question I want to ask you is ‘How did you get started?’

Allen: Well I actually started shooting some years ago but life took over as it does going to college, work, marriage, starting a family and photography fell by the wayside. TIme passes, life changes, and you end up back with your passions. Seven years ago, in 2003, a friend of mine invited me to a local festival, ProgPower USA which is an annual festival here in Atlanta which features progressive rock and metal bands largely from Europe. A photographer himself, he informed me the festival was camera friendly so I went along with the camera I had at the time which was a Nikon Coolpix 5700. This was the catalyst for me. Shortly thereafter, I invested in a Nikon D70 and started going out and shooting at local clubs as much as possible. Shooting and networking, local clubs lead to shooting regional acts. Shooting and networking. Regional acts lead to shooting national acts. Lather, rinse, repeat. Over time I’ve managed to build a nice portfolio and establish a solid reputation with local and national media outlets and artist management.

Glyn: So how come you’ve chosen to specialise in music as opposed to say ‘Portraiture’ or ‘Editorial’ Photography?

Allen: I suppose photography is photography right? But in fact, for me, and many other genre specific photographers it is the subject matter and the challenges therein to a specific type of photography that gets you excited and ever challenges you. I am a music lover. I am also a photographer. I love the quirks navigating the music industry as well as walking into each and every assignment no knowing what to expect, having to get my head into it within about 3 seconds, shooting 10 minutes and then having to come away with 20 or so great photos worthy of publication.

Glyn: When it comes to camera gear what are you shooting with at the moment?

Allen: At present I am shooting with Nikon D700’s and I’m shooting dual bodies. Generally when it comes to lenses I have with me what I call ‘The Holy Trinity’ which is the Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 , the Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8 and the Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8. They easily handle most if not all the live performance shooting situations I find myself in as well as also allow for some creative freedoms. I really love the wide angle of the 14-24mm when you can pull it off, especially when the artist comes out to the edge of the stage and does a lot of crowd interaction. The 24-70mm is a perfect mid range focal length for normal stage front positioning. Finally the 70-200mm is exceptional for the long shots such as catching the drummer at the back of the stage or if I’m in a crowded pit shooting down stage. While I don’t buy into the brand wars in the photography world, I am most comfortable with the Nikon system and I trust it to not let me down.

Glyn: So how on earth do you prepare for shooting a live concert?

Allen: I approach a live shoot with the same level of detail as any photographer would prepare for a shoot. First and foremost is pre show equipment check and clean. Charge batteries, clear memory cards, check settings, check camera straps and connections, and general working order of my equipment. I then pack my kit based on

the venue for which I am shooting. Some lenses are better suited for certain venues and positioning. I then spend some time thinking about the venue and how I have covered artists there before with success, or not. Finally, I research the current tour and artist from existing concert photos or fan filmed footage from the tour to get an idea of stage positioning, artist movement tendencies, and the lighting treatment before the show. This allows me to begin visualising in my head how I will use my allotted shooting time. My positioning in the pit, my framing, my exposures, and the pace at which I need to work all before I’ve ever entered the photo pit if possible such that I can mentally be working out how I will use my allotted shooting time, my positioning and shots, my exposures, all before I’ve ever entered the photo pit.

Glyn: Regarding your final look of your images, how much would you say is ‘out of camera’ and how much is down to your post production work?

Allen: When it comes to post production, I perform very little. Editorial timelines are often quite tight – within 24 hours of the end of the event. As such, I make every effort to nail the shots in camera. I always shoot in manual, and have adjusted my in camera settings to deal with known facts about the Nikon system and or to favor the final look of the images I like to have. For example, I have adapted the cameras ‘Picture Controls’ to dial down the red channel in the WB a bit as Nikon tends to expose it a bit hot. I expose with a bit more contrast to get closer to a good black point out of camera. Post processing then is merely editing down to a set of images which tell the story of the performance through a series of key “moments”, perhaps some minor tweaks to exposure or WB depending on the lighting, and rendering to web or print ready formats.

Glyn: Now the vast majority of the locations you’re shooting in I imagine have quitter challenging lighting situations to deal with so how do you deal with say, noise and produce high quality, sharp images like you do?

Allen: In my opinion there are three factors that contribute to noise in low light, high ISO shooting conditions. First and foremost is proper exposure. My starting point each night by default is 1/320, F3.2, ISO3200. Obviously I come off that base very quickly as the lighting treatment is presented. However, the sensitivity of modern full frame CMOS sensors is rather astounding. I comfortably shoot to ISO6400 without hesitation and have pushed the sensor as hard as ISO12800 at times. The gear rarely gets in my way anymore and my choice of exposure (again proper exposure) is what ultimately creates or limits noise in my images. I have pushed images in post to ISO51200 in the most of extreme conditions and while not suitable for a centerfold, still quite usable for editorial. The second most important factor is capturing the image in the cameras RAW format. I always shoot in RAW, Adobe RGB color space, 14 bit to get the maximum information the camera can capture in regards to the image. This coupled with a good RAW converter which in may case is Nikon’s Capture NX2 and you have not only usable, but terribly clean images even when pushing gear to these extremes.

Glyn: How many shots would you typically come away with from a Live Concert Shoot?

Allen: I generally capture in the region of 200-300 images in the allotted shooting time which is anything from 7 minutes upwards to around 15 minutes at most live assignments. Anything less than that is irritating, anything more a blessing.

Glyn: So you’re limited to how long you can shoot for?

Allen : Yes. Typically you are escorted in, shoot the first 3 songs of the performance, and then escorted out along with your gear. This is true even on shows with multiple acts. In the rain, cold, heat, most of my time spent coverage a show is spent standing around outside the venue waiting for the next 10 mins of shooting. In some situations it can be even more restrictive. For example country artists are typically 2 songs, songs 2 and 3. I have seen as little as one song or the first 45 seconds of a song.

Additionally there are sometimes restrictions of where you can shoot in terms of the pit in front of the stage, from the soundboard only. From the left side of the stage only, 2 rows back. These restrictions truly require for your to prepare properly, think on your feet,and to get your head into the game quickly. You learn to read the light and and anticipate, to visualize the shot before it happens. I have reached a point now after shooting hundreds of shows where I can simply look at the lighting treatment, and manually adjust on the fly to proper settings. From the outside, it all seems so glamorous with the pass and being up close. The reality is, it is one of the more challenging photographic assignments you will ever face where technical ability, creativity, composure, focus, persistence, anticipation all most come together in fractions of a second. Perhaps the most interesting thing is that while I am following the song structure in my head, my ears never really hear a note from the moment I look through the viewfinder until I am exiting the pit area.

Glyn: You mentioned style Allen and that’s something I’ve chatted about quite a lot lately so I’ll ask you the same question ‘How did you develop your style?’

Allen: You know when you talk about style I don’t think it’s something you can intentionally develop. I’d actually like that very same question to be asked to other named photographers. Glyn you know your images have a very consistent feel to them even though the lighting and the post production may be different there is still something in the making of your photographs that’s inherently you. For myself I think my style has just naturally developed over time. I do make a very conscious effort to capture the mood of the performance. I like to get those little moments where the personality or the energy they’re putting out really is captured as it was. I like subject isolation a lot in my framing. Clean capture of the artist in a true moment on stage. I like my images to pop. When editing I want every image I deliver to make me say “WOW!”. In this kind of photography you can go into the pit with 4 different photographers and each end up with different interpretations of the same shot and I really enjoy seeing that. That is truly when you know you have a “style” as it were. Glyn when it comes to style, would you say yours is intentional?

Glyn: To be honest Allen I don’t really think about it; I just shoot the way I feel is natural and that’s the results I got. I remember speaking with Photographer Tim Wallace who has also been a Guest Photographer here on the blog and he said that with every press of the shutter button you’re photographing yourself; your experiences in life, your personality all come through in your images and I really do believe in that thinking.

Allen, would you say you have any ‘idols’ or photographers that you turn to for inspiration?

Allen: Glyn I take influences from a lot of different sources. I enjoy a lot of what you do and the work you showcase and tutorials on your own site. In the music genre, I take influence of the guys who have reached a level I someday hope to both in their work, relationships, and standout personalities. Ross Halfin is a great influence – as is the late Jim Marshall to this day. Zack Arias who’s here locally in Atlanta is a tremendous influence as much for his person as for his craft in some ways and the way in which he is known. I just take lots of bits and pieces from here and there but ultimately it’s what I like, it’s what I think looks good and hopefully the client likes that too.

Glyn: You mentioned Zack Arias, now that critique he gave you was quite something huh?

Allen: Yes that was a real nice surprise. I have been a fan of those critiques since inception. When I saw the critique announcement on his blog I was away from the office but was able to see enough that I was going to be critiqued. I was not able to view it until later that evening when I anxiously grabbed a drink and was able to watch it. I appreciate all honest critiques and it could have been a bad one and I would have been happy with it. That being said I am glad it was favorable. It meant a lot coming from someone whose work I respect so much.

Glyn: I remember watching it and then obviously we got to meet up at one of Zack’s mixers last year in Atlanta; small world huh?

Allen: Yes that was fantastic. That critique led me to the mixer that night which was the first time I had met Zack/Meghan in person. I met some amazing photographers and cool people that night as it generally goes through networking with like creatives in the industry.

Glyn: Geez does that mean I’m cool?…lol

So you mentioned Networking there Allen…how important do you think networking, Social Media and even blogging is these days?

Allen: I think it’s terribly important but it’s still not a replacement for word of mouth and interpersonal networking. There is nothing better than a personal endorsement or referral. However, it adds credibility in that someone can hear your name and they then have a place they can go to see your work. I published my website using a blog format around one your ago. Before that I was running an Apple iWeb site that didn’t work out too well. It was very limiting and not all that visible to search engines and those sorts of things. I took a look at WordPress and saw that a lot of people were using it as it tends to lend itself well to S.E.O and interaction. It is more than just the pictures that matter, it is about content, accessibility, and interactivity. Both with fans of your work, clients, and industry peers. While I don’t get caught up in the technical side of it, I just try to publish good content on a regular basis. This has worked out very well.

Glyn: Ok so to finish off Allen, if you could offer one piece of advice, a Golden Nugget if you like to photographers out there looking to get into Concert Photography what would that be?

Allen: The biggest piece of advice would be to get out there and do it. Just get out there and shoot as much live music as you can in whatever venues are accessible to you. Don’t worry about getting into the big shows, go to the local clubs, the local bars and shoot whoever is playing. Put your camera in manual. Crank your ISO. Crank your Aperture. Learn how your camera is going to behave in these environments. You don’t have a lot of time to be sitting and reviewing your photos whilst you’re working so you have got learn to trust your meter and also learn when not to trust your meter. Learn how to deal with the situations and locations you’re going to be in; the light you can’t control, the environment you can’t control, an artist you can’t control but you can control your exposure and framing and when you press the shutter. Analyse the EXIF data to understand what worked out and why and also what didn’t work out and why. When you have a body of work you like, solicit local streetpress or webzines for assignments. Any assignments, not just someone you might like to shoot. Be professional, have a personality, put yourself out there and network, network, network. Most of all have fun. This type of photography will give you the greatest rush you’ve ever had in your life…15 minutes at a time!

Glyn: Allen, thanks so much for your time and for sharing so much. Like I said at when we first started talking I really do appreciate this because I know you’re so busy, so again thanks a lot mate.

Allen: Hey absolutely no problem at all Glyn, you’re very welcome; I really enjoyed it, thanks.

To connect with Allen and see more of his work be sure to check out the following:

Website: www.artistxposure.com

Facebook: Allen Ross Thomas

Twitter: @artistxposure

I know Allen is really keen to read and respond to your feedback so if you have any questions or comments then be sure to make use of the comments section below and send them over,

Enjoy 🙂

You may also like…

Interviewed by Ron Clifford
Interviewed by Ron Clifford

A few weeks back I was invited onto Ron Clifford YouTube LIVE Channel to speak with him about all things photography....

14 Comments

  1. Neal Hibbert

    Top stuff, the shots are amazing Allen.

    Reply
  2. Jon Watkiss

    Great post, excellent images too ;^)
    @Allen, I’ve tried shooting some of the local bands that are around here, only trouble I’ve found is that, because they are in small venues, the lighting is to the point of no lighting, even cranking the ISO to the point of noise that looks like I’ve been through a radiation field doesn’t help! What would you say is the smallest venue you’ve tried to shoot at when you first started and failed?

    Reply
  3. Rick Wenner

    @Glyn :: Excellent guest blog interview. Been a fan of Allen’s work since I saw his work critiqued on Zack’s blog. Keep the guests coming! You’ve had a great list so far 😉

    @Allen :: Thanks for all the great info. I’m a NY music/fashion photographer and have started to really enjoy shooting shows. Although my love is in portraiture, I can really appreciate the challenges of the live show. Do you have any recommendations on how to get access to shoot in a local venue? My guess…just ask.

    @Jon :: Your question will be better answered by Allen but if I can suggest anything, it would be to see if you can bring in your own lighting. Set up a Speedlite on/off stage. You can get some great shots from this.

    Reply
    • Glyn

      @Rick…Thanks for the comment mate and yeah ditto, I’ve been following Allen’s work ever since his critique so then meeting him in Atlanta was just incredible; a really great, honest, humble and what you see is that you get kind of guy!

      Reply
  4. Tom

    @Jon, the best advice is here “Put your camera in manual. Crank your ISO. Crank your Aperture. Learn how your camera is going to behave in these environments.”
    Start out in small venues and don’t expect your shots to look like big places with decent lighting set-ups. You should aim to capture what’s there, so if it’s a dark backroom of a pub with a single red tungsten bulb (it does happen) that’s how your photos should look. Get a 50mm, open it up to f1.8 or just under and EMBRACE the high ISO – it’s a characteristic of this kind of shooting, not a flaw. PS Don’t use a speedlight… it won’t help you in the long-run.

    Reply
  5. Tim Skipper

    I loved this post and I love Allen’s work. I have had an interest in trying concert photography for about a year but wasn’t sure where to begin or what to do when I got there. I will definitely keep an eye on what Allen is doing from now on.

    Reply
  6. Allen Ross Thomas

    @Neal – Thank you! Much appreciated

    @Rick – Thank you very much.

    @Jon – I am am certainly thankful that my gear affords me certain high ISO luxuries. This is out of necessity as even some of the largest touring productions I have shot at ISO6400+ and flash is never allowed. In smaller clubs, and I do still shoot in them with little to no light, as large an aperture as you can muster coupled with the the highest ISO your gear can handle and possibly even dragging the shutter more than normal in certain moments of pause, etc one can still capture great shots. Both Canon and Nikon make the very affordable 50mm 1.8 (around 100.00 USD) which can be ideal in these situations. RIck makes a great point as well in that with local venues you can often bring flash. Get it off camera and go the strobist route balancing flash and ambient. With proper balancing it can be made to closely resemble a follow spot. As examples see from a small club in 2008 with a D300.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/artistxposure/2848598059/

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/artistxposure/2848598045/

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/artistxposure/2849430186/

    -A

    Reply
  7. Noel Hannan

    Hi Glyn, great blog post and interview. @Allen, inspiring stuff; you make it look easy and I know it isn’t. Thats the work of a master! Fantastic, I’ll be folowing your work Allen.

    all the best
    Noel

    Reply
    • Glyn

      @Noel…Thanks Buddy 🙂

      Reply
  8. David Kelly

    Hi Glyn / Allen – thanks to you both for this great post with some excellent images too.

    @Allen – Being a big fan of Joe Satriani & having being in the front row a many of his concerts, I know some of the (amusing?) expressions he pulls on his face when playing so I particularly like the image of him posted here. Having a look at your blog too, I really liked the other image you have of the fans grabbing shots of Joe from their phones / cameras – really nice twist on the standard concert shot.

    Couple of questions I’d like to ask you, if you don’t mind:
    i) With using your ISO at such higher ranges, do you use any noise removal software?
    ii) Would I be corrected in presuming that you must use ear plugs as well, in order to preserve your hearing whilst shooting?
    iii) Is there any particular artist / band you’d love to shoot that you haven’t as yet?

    Many thanks for the tips.

    Regards,

    David

    Reply
    • Glyn

      @David…Thanks David; glad you liked it 🙂

      Reply
  9. Allen Ross Thomas

    @ David Kelley – Thank you much for the compliments and reviewing the blog. Indeed, the Satriani shot with was from the recent Chickenfoot tour. The band was filming a DVD that night and the photographers where placed behind the sound board and video crew and a few thousand GA fans. Shooting required a lot of patience as angles where limited and fans do as they do. I intentionally framed this shot with all the fan cameras in the air in a attempt to be creative in the restrictions we had that night. It is one of my favorites. Glad you like it.

    On to questions:

    1) I rarely use noise removal software. I own Noise Ninja from my D70/D300 days. With the D700 and using Nikons Capture NX2 as RAW converter. Noise really isn’t an issue for me and if a little is there, its generally creatively acceptable. In very extreme cases (ISO25,600) I will use a Photoshop Dust and Scratch filter on the image to smooth out the noise slightly if that excessive.

    2) I am a child of the 80’s and I always wore my walkman on 10, cut grass without ear protection, and rode motorcycles without ear protection. As such I have a very small touch of tinnitus. I ALWAYS wear ear protection. Period. I buy the bulk orange or yellow packs and throw the pair away at the end of the shoot. Sometimes you are slightly behind FOH but sometimes you are right against the mains which is both painful at the time and irreversible in damage. The also allow me to follow the song pace easier. Never ever leave home without them.

    3) There are many artists I would love to shoot an have not. Some have passed so that opportunity will never present itself. In terms of active touring musicians today the one act I would love the opportunity to cover would be Iron Maiden.

    Reply
  10. Steve Fell

    Very helpful guys thanks alot for sharing. Shooting at my nephews gig at the end of this month in a small club in Liverpool. This is a first for me but feel much more confident now.

    Reply
    • Glyn

      @Steve…Thanks for dropping by mate; would love to see any of the results you get at your nephews gig if you’re able.

      Cheers, Glyn

      Reply

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *