‘Can I be your assistant?’ – Willie Nelson, truth behind concert photography

“Can I be your assistant? I’ll carry your gear to your Willie Nelson photo shoot.”

 

By Rose Riot

For the last five years, I have been photographing concerts anywhere from once a month to several times a week. I almost literally stumbled into the niche of concert photography art as a budding photographer with some networking in the media and music world, accompanied by a ton of hard work and determination. Becoming a concert photographer has been a dream come true in so many ways. I have photographed almost every living idol I’ve ever had and discovered some amazing performers who I would never have noticed if it wasn’t for the opportunity I was given to photograph them.

One of my “bucket list” performers to shoot has been Willie Nelson. I made the press request and got turned down two times, and I just figured I was going to have to let this one go. Several months ago, I read that Willie Nelson was coming to Atlanta again, on the heels of his 81st birthday and release of one of his highest-charting albums: To All the Girls, so I made yet another request. I am happy to report, the third time was the charm because I was granted press access to photograph his concert at Chastain Amphitheatre May 17. Not only was I be allowed to shoot my hero, I was given two review tickets to attend the show. Elated is the best word I can use to describe my feeling.

Click image for full photo gallery published earlier

As many children from my generation did, I spent hours thumbing through my parents’ records and,sometimes out of sheer boredom, at times I would listen to music that fell into the category of “uncool” by simple association with my parents. This is how I first discovered Willie Nelson, but I must have been young because I really can’t remember a time when I didn’t listen to him and love him. I don’t know if it’s because he represents the West, where I was born (Utah to be exact) or if it’s his kind eyes that I had seen on his album covers. Growing up in a home full of chaos, kind eyes were important to me, but so was his honest sounding voice. Nelson always seemed like he would benice to me, never yell at me, only speak to me with love and respect, and tell me great stories about honky tonks and outlaws. I held on to my appreciation of him my whole pre-teen and teenage season of life. He managed to hold a place on many mixed tapes, accompanied by the likes of Bauhaus and Motorhead.

Willie Nelson live

Seeing Willie Nelson live for the first time did not disappoint. He sounded just like he always has to my ears and my heart. He sang all the hits like “Angels Flying To Close To The Ground” and “Whiskey River.” The amphitheater echoed with the chorus of “Mama’s Don’t Let your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys” at the appropriate portion of the concert. He played Trigger (his guitar) with the youthful nimbleness of a man several decades his junior, but with an emotion that is ancient. Even though he sang songs that he has been singing on a regular basis longer than I have been alive in many cases, he sounded far from tired or bored.The highlight for me was when he sang the song he wrote for Patsy Cline, “Crazy.” I probably would have teared-up if it wasn’t for the fact that I was frantically trying to find my seat–and that leads into what I would like the world to know about being a concert photographer, it is nothing like you think!

The truth behind concert photography

 

People ask me on a regular basis, sometimes jokingly and sometimes serious, if they can be my assistant or carry my bag into concerts.

The biggest misconception about what I do is that I actually get to meet the people I photograph. This almost never happens. I have on occasion been asked to interview certain musicians before the show starts and, yes, I do meet them when I interview them. I am almost never backstage unless there is an interview. Usually, what happens if I am shooting a national act is, I meet a PR Rep at a designated spot before the show and I am escorted into a photo pit, soundboard or balcony with any other photographers who have press passes.

The evening of Willie Nelson, I was taken to the soundboard with one other photographer (who has also contributed to Target Audience Magazine previously). He and I became friends before the show started because we had an hour and a half to kill before we were allowed in to shoot the headliner (Willie Nelson). You can talk about a lot of stuff in an hour and a half!

TAM 2

Technical aspects of concert photography: soundboard shoot

My new friend and I were allowed to shoot the first two songs, and that is all. I am only 5 foot 4 inches tall, so trying to shoot a long distance over the heads of dancing fans was a challenge. The other challenge I had was the focal length of my lens. I was shooting with a 70-200mm lens. There is not nearly enough zoom on it to get a good close-up shot, so I knew that I would have to make sure my images were tack sharp. I shot at the lowest possible ISO (exposure) to ensure the best quality image because I knew I would have to crop them in order to make them look like more than a really good iPhone picture.

The 70-200mm lens is heavy, and not one I use a lot, so shooting with it can be tough. Add to this the tipsy girl who was dancing in front of me, who eventually fell on my feet.

I couldn’t begin to tell you what Nelson sang for the first two songs; I was busy problem-solving, adjusting settings, dodging flailing arms and trying to remain calm and steady.

Just about the time you start to relax and enjoy the show, it’s time to be escorted back out of the venue. Many venues do not allow photographers to keep their cameras in the show with them, as is the case with Chastain Amphitheatre. I have always respected and understood the rules and either checked my camera with security when I was done, or walked it back to my car.

I had shared with my new photographer friend that I had paid $20 to park far away, under the sales pitch from the parking lot guy (not affiliated with the venue). The parking lot guy said that the walk from his lot was a “pretty, nature hike through the woods” that would only take us five minutes. In actuality, my guest and I had to hike up a hill through the woods, and then walk about half a mile to the front gate. My friend offered to drive me back to my car to drop off my camera, and then back to the front gate so I could enjoy more of the show and find my guest inside, who had been away from me now for about two and a half hours. That ride was a godsend!

Please take your seats

Once inside, it took me a while, but I found my guest. I was finally able to relax for a bit, and just enjoy the show as a ticket holder. It was a lovely, spring evening and Willie Nelson is the perfect soundtrack for that environment. His songs seemed like an extension of the night breeze. It didn’t take too long before it was time for my guest and I to embark upon the journey down the street and through the woods (at least going back it was downhill) back to the car. She was a great sport and we laughed at the absurdity of the situation.

None of this is meant to be a complaint; far from it. This is simply my attempt to demystify the assumed fame and fun that I go through as a concert photographer to do what I do. It is fun for me and, on some very small level has gained me a tiny amount of very local fame, but that is all. Concert photography is hard and it is hardly glamorous. There can be a lot of waiting, walking, lugging and frustration with very little pay (“Can you make a living as a concert photographer”).

I do this purely because I love it! When I go home and load the images of musical role models onto my computer, I get to have the concert all over again; this time just for me. I get to keep frozen expressions that help create a story in my mind of the artists I love. My photographic creations provide an amount of connection that I would not otherwise have to these inspirational people. Concert photography is a privilege and an honor that I will always be thankful for. But, it’s not easy!