Monday, October 1, 2012

My Concert Photography Experience: Radio City Music Hall

Radio City Music Hall, shot on PX100 silver shade film, wheel set to 2/3rds dark

I've decided to split up my Radio City Music Hall posts into two parts. This post is about my experience and how this all came about. I figured it would save those who just wanted to see pictures from my rambling; conversely, if you're curious about who I am and my journey to get to this point, read on!

As some of you may know, I attended my first Gotye concert back in March of this year at the House of Blues in Boston. I brought along my point and shoot camera, which had been standard for my concert going experience for a year and a half. I took fairly decent pictures for what that camera is and forwarded them along to the band. Wally responded to my email and asked if they could use them on their website. I was beyond thrilled. When the band announced that they were going to do a second leg of the tour back in June, I gathered up my courage and took a chance. I emailed again, something along the lines of I took pretty good pictures with a point and shoot camera and a severely sprained right wrist and would love the opportunity to show them what I could do with a real camera. I never expected to get the result that I did.

I remained quiet about this as I emailed between Wally and his tour manager, and for the four months until the concert. My biggest reason for this was that I didn't really believe it was all happening. I didn't want to announce that I was going to photograph one of my favorite bands at a huge venue only to jinx it. I told my immediate family, my boss to make sure I could have the time off from work and two friends. It's not that I wasn't excited/freaked out/proud/stressed/overwhelmed and believe me, I wanted so badly to scream it to the entire world. 

I've wanted to be a concert photographer for as long as I can remember, but I give the credit to my first Jimmy Buffett concert experience at 12 years old. It was an amazing, colorful show and all I thought the entire night, was how badly I wanted to capture those moments. I pretty much had a camera with me from that point forward. You can scroll through this blog and see plenty of concert pictures. I'm fairly certain you can see the difference of which camera I'm shooting with, but for the most part, I have my point and shoot camera. A fully manual point and shoot that takes RAW files, but a point and shoot camera all the same.

Over the past couple of years, I've made an effort to realize my dream. It's not easy having a dream where you don't actually have access to what you want to photograph. The most I can do is know my equipment inside and out, know the limits to which I can push it, understand the lighting and keep trying. I feel that photography is one third knowledge and two thirds vision. You need to be able to see what's going on, make things look dynamic and interesting and have a sense of timing. For me, I've always believed that I feel what I'm shooting. In my best moments, I tune into the energy of my subject and the shots just happen. It's wonderful and effortless and thrilling.

The Eels at Terminal 5, September 25th, 2010, shot with a Panasonic Lumix DX5

There is another moment that stands out in my mind. This was the first time where I realized this dream of mine wasn't all that far fetched. I saw The Eels live for the first time at Terminal 5 in 2010. I found a clear spot on the first balcony and fired away. I was able to capture a handful of keepers, but what really stood out to me is the shot I've included above. E, the guy in the white jump suit, picked up the microphone, walked up to the edge of the stage and started screaming his head off. I was right there in that moment, adrenaline pumping and caught that energy.

When I found out I was really going to be photographing Gotye at Radio City Music Hall, I knew I needed more experience with my DSLR. I wanted to be ready for anything. Although I work for a newspaper company, we don't cover concerts and the arts as much as I would like. I spoke to one editor about really wanting to expand that coverage and he jumped at the opportunity. In the span of one week, he had me at three different shows at Fairfield Theatre Company's Stage One. It's a small venue and I only knew one of the bands, but it didn't matter. I dealt with some less than ideal lighting situations and learned to remain calm.

Orgone, The English Beat and Noam Pikelny & Friends at Stage One,  July 2012

It had been two months since I'd shot a concert with my DSLR and the Radio City Hall show was a mere ten days away. I reached out to a new band that I'd become a huge fan of, Eytan and the Embassy, and they allowed my to shoot their concert at The Knitting Factory. Only a few months ago, I never would have had the guts let alone the confidence to ask a band to let a stranger take their picture. I don't even know if they looked at my work before they said yes. I'm still blown away by their kindness. It felt good to shake the dust off and get back to what I love. I was able to get some good practice with color correcting from this show and more importantly, it kept me busy enough to not think about what was coming up.

Eytan and the Embassy at The Knitting Factory, September 15th, 2012

I had a minor freak out the week before the show. Last week's Project Runway episode brought the designers to Radio City Music Hall to make a new outfit for the Rockettes. As I saw the interior of Radio City on TV, I was gripped with fear. I thought, "I have absolutely no right shooting at Radio City Music Hall." I chose Radio City because wanted to capture Gotye at a historic venue. Also, it would be two years to the day after I took that picture of The Eels. I thought it would be great to be able to look back and show just how far I've come in that amount of time.

Little did I know, every other media outlet in the Tri-City area had the same idea. I was told that I was one of 15 photographers that would be shooting that night upon arrival. RCMH is highly organized, and all of the staff were lovely to deal with. From the employees at Will Call, the ushers and the heads of PR, each and every one of them were kind to me. I wasn't shooting for a publication, so I wasn't on any list of instructions. All the other photographers were listed by name; I think I was just put down as photographer for Gotye. As such, I was only allowed to take pictures during Gotye's performance. I arrived at 7:30 and had to watch the two opening acts. I like to take that time to work out any remaining jitters and test my lighting so I'm ready to go once the main act is on. It really felt like I was a benched, second string athlete. I enjoyed the music and mentally prepared as best I could.

I checked in with the point person in the lobby at the end of Missy Higgins' set. I was in full on observation mode, attempting to take in everything I could from the other photographers. There was a pretty clear distinction between the competitive ones and the rest of us. I overheard that the fans on the right side of the stage were already in a bad mood about all the photographers. In preparation for this concert, I had looked at the photos being posted online and watched the Live on Letterman performance. I knew the band's stage set up and had a fairly good idea on where everyone would be positioned during the three songs I was allowed to shoot. I went back and forth on which side of the stage I wanted to shoot on several times. I wanted to make sure I got pictures of the entire band, so the right side of the stage was the best position to accomplish this. The competitive photographers all announced that they wanted the right side of the stage and because there were so many of us, some had to be on the left.

I learned early on in my career that position is key. I spent many a cold night at football and soccer games to know that you need to be where the action is, but that sometimes it pays off to take a chance. I also knew that Wally moved around between instruments throughout the show. Instead of crowding into the right side of the stage with all the others, I volunteered for the left side of the stage. I'd rather be with fewer people and I didn't want to get the exact same angle as every other photographer there. Besides, it would put me on Tim Shiel's side of the stage, and I adore Tim Shiel.

We were paraded into the photography pit at 9:30. It was so bizarre. As we all tried to settle into the miniscule space, I finally spoke to the photographers near me. They asked me how I landed the gig and were really excited for me. I'm so glad I chose the left side of the stage for that reason alone. Ten minutes flew by in conversation, which was perfect because it didn't give me a moment to get tense or nervous.

What followed was the most intense, frenzied 15 minutes of my life. There is no time to think, you just react. I had set my ISO on the high end before the band came out. I knew I wanted a higher depth of field and I knew the noise on my camera, amount of grain in the pictures, wasn't bad at that speed. I had selected my 70-200mm, 2.8 lens because it would give me the most versatility. They opened with The Only Way, the very song that I shot back in March that had given me this opportunity. Tim was directly in front of me, dancing up a storm. Wally was back behind him, on a raised platform. Ben and Lucas were to my right, buried behind microphone and drum stands. Michael was hidden behind his cymbals and music stands. I remained calm and kept shooting. If this was going to turn into a Tim Shiel photo shoot, so be it. Eventually, I managed to get an angle where I could see Wally and capture enough of the animation behind him. Knowing the music inside and out makes photographing it so much easier. I knew the emotional parts of the song and knew when Wally would turn the intensity on. Unlike the other photographers on the right side of the stage, I didn't have to fight through all those microphone stands; I just had to crop out the tiniest bit of Tim's arm.

The result?

Gotye at Radio City Music Hall, September 25th, 2012

The second song was What Do You Want, where Wally came back to the front of the stage, much to the relief of the photographer directly to my right. He turned to face the left side while drumming and I got some incredible pictures. Retribution was quick because the entire third song, Easy Way Out was bathed in red light. I'm pretty sure the right side photographers had white light hitting the musicians, but I was directly in line with a red flood. There's nothing you can do at that point besides keep shooting. I knew the color was shot, but red light gives a lovely contrast boost in black and white photographs. 

In the blink of an eye, it was all over. I never even paused to change lenses. I picked up my bag, thanked the people whom I had been crouching in front of several times and headed back to the lobby. It all happened so fast, I really didn't know what songs I had just photographed other than The Only Way until the next day when I saw what the set list was. I was given a ticket and bracelet along with my photo pass, so I was allowed back into the concert once I packed up my camera. I think my heart was pounding in my ears for the majority of the concert. I wasn't going to complain about only shooting three songs because I was so happy and thankful for those three songs. Of course, I want to be photographing the entire concert because so much more happens once the musicians find their stride, but this is what concert photographers have to deal with. Hopefully, that will be my life from now on.

I realized at the end of the show that the bracelet I was given was my after party pass. I would've been completely happy to photograph the band, but the generosity didn't stop there. I was going to meet the band. Now, as my readers are well aware of at this point, I turn into a blundering idiot when I talk to famous people. It's so bad, I've decided I am never going to attempt to speak to Darren Jessee for the rest of my life. At least in my most recent brush with Eytan Oren, I just profusely thanked him. He told me that he read my blog post and that was the end of the conversation; all coherent thoughts and the ability to vocalize them exited my brain simultaneously. Think of how Stan from South Park vomits every time he sees Wendy and that's pretty much me. (I don't physically vomit, but you get the point.)

At the after party, I met Cris, an admin for the blog The WallNuts and her mother. I saw them wanting to take a picture with Tim and I offered to take it for them. They were both so inviting and I spent the rest of the night tagging along with them. It helped me get over my typical social awkwardness and I never fully thanked them for that. Thanks, Cris! Tim put a face to the name of the little AMP logo that's been tweeting at him for months and I have to say it was pretty cool to have him call me Audra May without prompting. My business is Audra May Photography because let's face it, Audra Napolitano Photography is a mouthful, and all of my social media is branded the same.

We made our way over to Wally and eventually had the chance to speak to him. I introduced myself as his photographer and Wally laughed and called me by name. I remained pretty quiet while Cris talked, took another picture for her, then busted out my Polaroid camera. I warned Wally that this was the first time testing the flashbar, that it was older than we were and that it might explode but he agreed to give it a shot. I took a deep breath and steadied myself, unsure how long the camera would set the exposure for and watched through the lens as Wally gave me that personality filled smile I've seen in so many photographs but never expected to be getting myself. That was pretty incredible. Slightly more confident that I would actually be able to speak, I looked him right in the eyes and did my best to express how truly, utterly thankful I was to him for giving me the chance to live my dream. It probably came out something like, "I want to thank you so much, Wally" before my throat closed up on me. His smile widened and his voice dropped down an octave and much softer, he replied, "You're welcome, Awwdruh." And just like that, I knew he got it and I got that he got it and we were good. 

He asked me how the shoot went and I told how intense it was. He looked confused when I told him I was only allowed to shoot the first three songs, and explained that he really wanted the visuals for all the songs. I agreed and added that their interactions during State of the Art and Thanks For Your Time capture their fun energy. I told him that I had tickets for Thursday's show and was planning on going with my friend. I said I'd try to get there early enough to get a good spot with the point and shoot and he shook his head. He told me to email his tour manager when I got home and that they'd set me up to be able to shoot the entire show from the pit. I think my eyes got very large and I squeeked out, "Seriously?" to which he chuckled and shook his head. After a quick hug to each of us, he moved on. 

Without even seeing a single result for the first night, Wally just asked me to shoot again. I'd get into how amazed and thankful I was, but this post has gone on long enough and what you guys really want to see are some pictures. I will be posting Radio City pictures on Wednesday and Williamsburg Park pictures the following couple of weeks. I might have to split those up into a couple of posts because I took far too many pictures. I've never once said that in my life. To give you an idea, I average about 125 pictures per song during the three and done rule. Imagine me at an entire hour and a half concert.

A big thanks to you for making it to the end. I promise I'm never this verbose and the concert pictures will post on Wednesday with next to no commentary.


  1. Great material! Thank you, fellow devotee! 

  2. Fantastic, I'm still loving your photos, can't wait for the next batch :)

  3. What an exquisite account--loved meeting you, too, Audra (thanks for the shout-out, from me and for the Wall-Nuts). It was wonderful to meet another like-minded fan, also creative, and also a little bit shy (loved our gag, initiated by my mom, about having to take deli-ticket numbers in order to get in line to meet Wally, ha ha).
    Finally, I'm always pleased to see a great bunch of people--from Wally to his bandmates to his manager and "Gotye HQ"--getting accolades for their impressive generosity and kindness.

    I hope you get a chance for many more such opportunities!

    (P.S.--The way Wally pronounced your name really WAS special!)

  4. Way to go, Aud! Very happy for you :)

  5. Thanks for sharing the tale of your journey, it's almost as if I were there! Looking forward to pairing the photos with the story :}

  6. Thanks, Leese!

  7. Cris, the deli numbers! That just made me crack up all over again!

  8. Thanks so much, Em!

  9. Hi Paige, glad you liked it!