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The First Three, Flash Free Rules

“First three, no flash” – if you have photographed a concert, almost any concert with a barricade, you will have heard these rules. Where did these rules come from? I have no idea. Without doing any research on the wonderful World Wide Web I am going to guess it went something like this:

Photographer: Hey I want to take photos of you on stage!

Artist: Okay that would be awesome, please don’t use a flash because it’s very distracting to me.

Photographer: Sounds good! How long should I shoot for?

Artist: Let’s just stick to the first three- I want to look my best for your magazine!

Photographer: Cool beans!

Historically I am not sure if the rule was originally artist implemented and venue enforced or vice versa, but one thing is for sure- it stuck around. Long story short – #1st3flashfree

Here are some other reasons why the general rule is First Three, Flash Free:

  • After the first three, artists start to look pretty sweaty
  • Flash is blinding when used excessively and by multiple photographers
  • Flash can mess up the show if it’s a dark concert
  • Exclusivity – 3 songs limits the amount of chances you have to get a great shot
  • Security has work to do in the pit area and photographers don’t help
  • Some photo pits block concertgoers’ view, can’t have that for the whole concert

Honestly every venue is different, every concert is unique. For every rule I try to explain, I am sure there are 50 exceptions and another 50 modifications. I see some photographers getting a little bit ego out there when some of these rules are enforced. My advice is…

We are photographers, our job is important but it doesn’t make the show go on- you are always in the way, no one is ever in your way… unless it’s another photographer. Then you must smite them!!! So when you go to a venue and pick up your passes they will probably tell you right then about the rules. If they don’t and you haven’t heard otherwise, I would just assume 1st 3 Flash Free. I am going to give you a walk through of how it all goes, what to expect, and hopefully some of the info helps you for your next gig. 

We are going to assume you have qualified for a photo pass prior to the concert. That’s a whole other blog… I’ll write it soon. But your first step when you get to the venue is to pick up your credentials. So find the Box Office or Guest List, or Will Call, or something of the sort. It is different at every venue and if you can’t find it – just ask security. They will tell you. Give the nice human working the list your ID and they will find your name and hand you your credentials. Your credentials could be a variety of things- maybe it’s a sticky thing that goes on your shirt, or a bracelet on your wrist, or maybe it’s a pass around your neck. Whatever it is, you have to pick it up! Seems easy enough? Right? I wish that was the case… here are the problems you will most likely run into:

  • No pass at will call/ your name isn’t on the list 
  • Name is on list, but with only a ticket, not a pass

Picking up credentials historically has been the worst part of my night. I think it is for most people. Some personal experiences for me here… where to start. I have driven 3 hours to a venue only to have to drive home. Passes lost

  • Incorrect credentials granted
  • Name spelled wrong
  • Artists *forgot*
  • Manager forgot
  • Tour manager forgot
  • Someone forgot something somewhere somehow

It doesn’t happen that often to me anymore, but just when you think it never will again, it happens! It takes a lot of coordinating to get your name there, and similar to a game of telephone, there is a lot of room for human error. It’s a big bummer to get packed and ready for a show, drive there, park, get to the venue and then get shot down with no solution. Easily avoidable! Whenever you get that email confirming you have been granted a photo pass, ask them for a “day of contact” (preferably a phone number). This is the person you can call “day of” in case something will come up. It’s usually best to have a phone number because if something does come up, you will have to handle it promptly or risk missing the concert. 

  1. Go to will call/ guest list
  2. Give them your name
  3. Name is on list – snag pass
  4. Name not on list – call your day of contact and figure it out!

Awesome, you got your pass. Next step, head on inside! It’s really easy to do something wrong at a venue while working. There are so many things going on constantly and most of them happen without you even noticing. That is kind of the idea- you don’t really see the people working at a concert. They all wear black and prefer to stay hidden. It took me a while to understand and I didn’t fully grasp it until I went on the road and lived with the people, but let me try and break it down for you. Keep in mind this is me stereotyping the hell out of people just to take a stab at trying to teach a few things. Of course everyone is different! This is more “what to expect” if anything. 

Venue security works for the venue. They can be a bit power trippy. They generally know exactly what to do for their job and nothing else. Meaning they are not always the best people to ask if you have a question (yes I know I just told you to ask them where guest list is… it’s all a test). You can usually tell who is in charge when you look at them because they have a headset. Your goal is to work with these guys and never be on their bad side. 

Touring crew works for the artist. They don’t listen to venue security, and they don’t care who told you could be where and when. They will kick you out, yell at you, and do whatever they need to do to get their job done. They have a job to do, and if they don’t do it the artist gets mad and fires them. Goal is to stay out of their way. They most likely will be wearing *bands name* crew shirts or have a tour laminate, they travel with the tour. 

Touring crew and venue staff do not know each other and don’t really work together all the time. This is important to know because this is often what causes a lot of trouble at shows. Venue tells you one thing, tour tells you another. For example, when I was younger I photographed Deftones at The Rave in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The venue told me first three no flash, however the band only allowed first 1 (or 2) I can’t remember. So after the songs ended, I was approached by their tour manager who then proceeded to start yelling at me and eventually kicked me out of the pit. At the time I had no idea what was going on, because from my perspective the venue just changed their minds, I had no idea about local and touring crew. I was super bummed. I drove home upset that day. I didn’t understand why anyone would ever yell at me. Funny part is now I work with the guy. I didn’t make the connection until I had known him for a few months this year, but he totally yelled at me a good 8 years ago. Happy I am on his good side now. 

Venue security can be a bit tricky to work with, but if you are at your local venues you need to make sure you are friends with all of them. Some of them work multiple venues and you might get to see them more than a few times a week. These guys put on a straight face, but honestly they are usually just big dudes with good hearts. You want to avoid at all costs having conversations with them during the show. That means get all of your *could be* mistakes and misunderstandings out before the show starts. I find the best way to do this is to shake every single one of their hands before the show starts, just introduce yourself, and look at them in the eyes and smile. Smiles go a long way, cause these guys are on guard, they are ready to be threatened, and the last thing you want is for them to feel threatened by you. 

So be friendly, don’t be a dick, and have a good time. You have to start somewhere and work your way up. If you want to photograph concerts from on stage and wherever you want- you have to start creating relationships, meeting people, and learning more about how the show works. Shooting first three, is the first step.

So after you get your pass you can go into the venue. Depending on your pass you might also need a ticket, and they might search you bags as well. So leave your drugs and guns at home and not in your gear bag and you should be just fine. Now you go into venue and find the photo pit entrance. It’s usually on the left or the right of the stage. I head to the pit about 5-10 mins before each band starts. Sometimes they will let you in the pit early, sometimes they wait for them to start playing, it’s honestly different everywhere. 

The key is to be patient and goal oriented at these events. So before I went I would think to myself *what do I want to leave this show with?* – and my answer was always *a few decent images* . Then I would do whatever it takes to get them. Honestly the rule was most applicable to the photoshoots I would have to wait hours for the bands to be ready for. One time I waited 2 hours for a band member to get off the *toilet*. I always arrive early and plan on leaving late- just go with whatever the night offers. In 2009 I was shooting Bring Me The Horizon in Milwaukee. This was probably the 5th time I had photographed them. On the way out of the venue their vocalist, Oli, grabbed me and dragged me with them to a nearby party at the drummer of Fall Out Boy’s house. In reality we just played Scrabble and hung out in his kitchen, but it was still fun. I try to just kind of go with the flow in that respect. Maybe you get permission to shoot the whole set, or you find a spot you can shoot from at FOH- stay the night! 

So once you get to the pit and you are ready to shoot, just wait for security to let you in. At some shows you need different passes for each artist, but at most you can shoot the whole show with your single credential. It changes all the time. The key to getting around the venue, getting around the pit, and getting all the places you need to be- is acting like you know what the heck you are doing- even if you have no idea what the heck you are doing. Sad thing about our culture here is that if you are too nice, people think you are doing something wrong. I try to avoid contact with most security and just walk directly where I need to go like I am in a hurry. I know this kinda contradicts my introducing yourself to security thoughts, but please- still do that. Just do it after you get where you were heading.

One you get in the pit you have first three songs to shoot. I will teach you pit etiquette at a different time cause that is another whole blog post. But first three songs of each artist to shoot- what do you do with your time? It boils down to about 15 mins, maybe 10 mins or less with a punk band (they have quick songs). I always shoot like I am going to get kicked out after the first song. So you always want to get your most important shots first. Then move on to the rest. After all, sometimes you do get kicked out sooner than expected! I try to shoot with both eyes open for most of the set. I have one eye ready behind the camera and the other ready looking around. 70% of the time I stick to a single person and track (follow them and stay in focus) them with my camera until they do interesting accompanied by solid light on them. However at the same time I still want to be looking around the area making sure I am ready if the singer decided to jump in the crowd. Shots of each member is important! Shots of any one member doing something psycho is way more important. Just try to balance it out. 

Here are my tricks for photographing the first three songs:

  • Focus on one member at a time
  • Switch lenses between songs
  • Try to switch locations between songs
  • Watch for lighting patterns
  • Keep an eye out for people falling on you as they come over the barricade
  • Move as soon as a security guard taps your shoulder, or shoves you
  • We are not important, we just take photos, catching people so they don’t die is more important, get out of securities’ way

There is a lot that goes on in a pit, and the more you do it the better you will get at noticing when something is about to happen. At first it’s overwhelming and you will find you spend most of your time just trying to deal with all the things happening around you. It’s even hard to concentrate! I was also very excited to be so close to my favorite bands, and you are a fan of music you might find yourself in the same position. But it’s fun, it’s a rush, and you get something to take home with you.

All of these are just guidelines, I feel the need to reiterate this because you can honestly do whatever the heck you want. This s just what I know from experience, but you can do whatever you want. 

I recently photographed Twenty One Pilots live in San Diego. I made a little behind the scenes video to go along with it as well. I voiced it over to let you know what was going through my head, and here are my shots I was able to snag in the first three songs. This is very hard for me. I am spoiled, or more so I have just trained myself to be able to get all my shots, but it takes a me a whole set, or a few shows. I am just very picky now. This time I decided to show you all the shots. I don’t like most of these but it doesn’t mean they don’t get the job done. Okay I kind of cheated… I stayed for an extra song. So four songs. But I just couldn’t resist!

Tyler Joseph of Twenty One Pilots
Tyler Joseph of Twenty One Pilots
Tyler Joseph of Twenty One Pilots
Tyler Joseph of Twenty One Pilots
Tyler Joseph of Twenty One Pilots
Tyler Joseph of Twenty One Pilots
Tyler Joseph of Twenty One Pilots
Tyler Joseph of Twenty One Pilots
Twenty One PIlots
Twenty One Pilots
Twenty One Pilots
Tyler Joseph of Twenty One Pilots
Tyler Joseph of Twenty One Pilots
Joshua Dun of Twenty One PIlots
Joshua Dun of Twenty One PIlots
Tyler Joseph of Twenty One Pilots
Tyler Jospeh of Twenty One PIlots
Tyler Joseph of Twenty One Pilots
Tyler Jospeh of Twenty One PIlots
Joshua Dun of Twenty One PIlots
Joshua Dun of Twenty One PIlots
Twenty One Pilots
Joshua Dun of Twenty One PIlots
Joshua Dun of Twenty One PIlots
Joshua Dun of Twenty One PIlots
Joshua Dun of Twenty One PIlots
Joshua Dun of Twenty One PIlots
Tyler Joseph of Twenty One Pilots
Tyler Jospeh of Twenty One PIlots
Tyler Joseph of Twenty One Pilots
Tyler Jospeh of Twenty One PIlots

 

Tyler Joseph of Twenty One Pilots
Tyler Jospeh of Twenty One PIlots
Joshua Dun of Twenty One PIlots
Joshua Dun of Twenty One PIlots
Tyler Joseph of Twenty One Pilots
Tyler Jospeh of Twenty One PIlots

Hopefully most of this makes sense. Do you guys have any other questions? Leave it below and I will respond. 

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Adam Elmakias
Adam Elmakias is a Fine Art Music Photographer based out of Los Angeles, California.