If you're a music photographer, it's common to get your start photographing concerts. A single concert may feature a few bands playing over the course of several hours. Music festivals, on the other hand, are an entirely different sort of event and it's natural that they can feel a little daunting. If concerts are a sprint, music festivals are a marathon.
In addition to all the normal challenges of live music photography, festivals also introduce unpredictable weather, multiple stages, multiple days, and dozens and dozens of acts.
From festivals like Lollapalooza and Coachella and Bonnaroo to local festivals and more, here's the photographer's guide to music festivals.
OK, here's what we're going to cover:
- Non-Photography Basics
- Preparation and Approach
- Be Early
- Photo Pit Etiquette
- On-Site Editing and Image Storage
- Large Capcity Memory Cards
- In-Camera Editing
- Photo Editing with a Laptop On-Site
- Editing Software
- Laptop Alternatives
- Accessories & Gear
- Step Stools
- Camera Bags
- Camera Straps
- My kit — Cameras and Lenses
- Lenses for Festival Photography
- 70-200mm — Telephoto
- 24-70mm — Midrange
- 14-24mm — Ultra-wide
- Cameras for Festival Photography
- General Photo Tips for Festivals
- First 3 Songs
- Zone Defense
- White Balance
- Photographic Approach for Music Festivals
- Fans & Atmosphere
- Artist Portraits
- Live Music Performances
First, before we get to all the more photography-oriented aspects of covering a music festival, you still have to prepare for a festival just like any other festival-goer.
Drink Water: This is a fundamental part of staying alive.
Wear Sunscreen: Protect your hearing and protect your skin! You don't want to get roasted on day one and have the discomfort of a sunburn for the second and third days of a festival. That's a mistake you only make once.
Wear Comfortable Shoes: Needless to say, you're probably going to be on your feet for hours and hours at a music festival. Comfortable shoes are a necessity. Both in crowded photo pits and for trekking/running between stages, comfortable footwear is absolutely essential. Leave the flip flops at the beach.
Bring Snacks: Don't forget, if you're photographing a festival, you're working and you need to have fuel to perform at your best. Don't forget to take some time to eat throughout the day. Festivals may have food or snacks in the media area or backstage (if you have access), but you can't count on it, so pack snacks like energy bars so you can eat on the go if necessary.
Wear Earplugs: Earplugs are essential at a music festival, where you may be subjected to extremely volumes of sound for hours and days at a time. My recommendations for the best earplugs for live music.
Music Festival Photography Essentials — Preparation and Approach
Scheduling The Day
When photographing music festivals, I always like to plan a schedule of the bands I want to photograph. As with most things, timing is everything with festival photography.
The schedules for music festivals are almost always posted at the event, if not well ahead of time. With often dozens of bands performing on any given day, it pays to take a few minutes to plan your day for maximize efficiency.
I like to draft a festival schedule showing the acts and the stages they're playing. I'll make a graphic or just take a photo of my notes, then make this my lock screen on my phone. This trick makes it easy to reference where I need to be and when throughout the day, so I'm not making it up as I go and scrambling the day of.
Start times, the distance between stages, and the anticipated popularity of the bands are the main factors for my planning. The latter point of popularity is especially important if the number of photographers is expected to be limited. Such was the case with Rage Against The Machine performing at Lollapalooza 2008, when only about 20 photographers were admitted to the photo pit out of 100+ shooters.
Even without limiting photographers, for larger artists, it’s advised to get to the photo pit early if you want to scope out a prime shooting position. If you get to the stage at the start of the set time, you may well get stuck at the edges of a packed pit.
Take-away: Get to the pit early and secure your spot for your must-shoot bands, even if it means skipping other acts.
With any extended shooting, pacing yourself is critical, especially if you’re limited on battery power or memory cards. The last thing you want is to be out of power or card-space at the end of the day. If you're constrained by memory cards and aren't downloading on-site to a drive or laptop, my advice is to save a memory card or two for your top-bands.
Of course, this advice of pacing goes not only for conserving your memory cards and your camera’s battery, but for your own energy as well. If you have the chance to take some downtime and grab some shade, do it. Taking small breaks may just mean the difference between being able to deliver your best work for the biggest bands and running out of gas before the headliners even take the stage
Photo Pit Etiquette
At large music festivals, the photo pits can quickly become crowded, so a little courtesy goes a long way. Basically, the golden rule applies here. Just be nice, because in all likelihood, you’re going to be sharing photo pits with same people all day/weekend long. No eye gouging, no hitting below the waist.
In general, best practices mean giving a little common courtesy to your fellow shooters, such as moving toward the back of the pack if you're grabbing “hail mary” overhead shots and not stepping into someone's shot.
If you use a step stool, it's important that you only do this at the back or sides of the photo pit. Step stools can be great if you're a shorter individual, but it's critical to be mindful of others and to not impede the flow of the photo pit if you choose to use one.
For a full rundown of photo it etiquette, see Photo Pit Etiquette 101 and The Ultimate Guide to Photo Pit Etiquette.
On-Site Editing and Image Storage
When photographing a music festival, image storage is of key importance. Music festivals are the marathons of live music photography, and ample amounts of storage are just as important as having the batteries to power your cameras. Needless to say, a full-day festival is going to require at least 2-4 times as much storage space as your normal 3-band concert, so it's essential to have a game plan for handling on-site storage.
With a finite amount of memory cards and a huge number of bands playing any given day at large festivals, it's very important to manage your data efficiently. To this end, there are three main approaches:
- Large capacity memory cards
- Mobile downloads (laptop or portable drive)
- In-camera editing (review & deleting on-site)
Large Capcity Memory Cards: These days, 16GB or 36GB memory cards are relatively cheap. This is especially true for older formats like SD, which can be had for dirt cheap compared to newer formats like CFExpress or XQD.
Another approach is to use fewer, but larger capacity cards like 64GB, 128GB or 256GB cards. Even if you don't use all the space allotted by these big cards, having multiple large-gig cards on hand will ensure that you'll have plenty of space every day.
In-Camera Editing: In-camera editing simply means reviewing images on your camera's LCD screen and deleting on-site. If there's ample downtime between sets, this is a nice option, as it requires no more hardware than what you already have – your camera.
What in-camera editing does require is sufficient total storage of photographer selects for the complete event, enough extra capacity for the last headlining act, and the battery to power extended use of the LCD. The downside to this approach is that you don't have the benefit of a large display for critical editing, so there is a real chance of imprudent decisions and accidental deletions.
Overall, deleting images in-camera can get you through an event and it costs nothing but time, but it's also the least optimal option. Only recommended in a pinch.
Photo Editing with a Laptop On-Site: The ability to download on-site to a laptop essentially eliminates all storage concerns. Moreover, the ability to edit throughout the day makes festival work much more efficient, especially when there are daily filing deadlines.
Most big festivals will have a dedicated media or press area with power strips and even potentially Wi-Fi to allow you to comfortably edit and deliver images.
The downside to laptops is the added weight and security issues — just like all your other gear, you should plan to carry everything for the day with you. However, using something like the ultra-portable Apple Macbook Air is a great option.
One tradeoff to editing on-site is that you're spending less time photographing, but that isn't necessarily a bad thing with regard to pacing. Build in editing time to your schedule if you're on a deadline for a publication. Editing on-site will save you some time if you're on a next-day delivery schedule for a publication or just want to chip away at your images as you make them.
If you do decide to edit at a festival, I highly recommend the software Photo Mechanic by Camera Bits. This program is much, much faster for editing images than Lightroom. After making my selects, I'll then still process images in Lightroom.
Aside from a laptop, using a portable drive like a Gnarbox allows one to use smaller cards and download throughout the day, giving the storage benefits of laptop without the option of editing in depth. Gnarbox offers an app whereby you can actually browse and edit images from your phone or tablet, which can be a good compromise without a full laptop setup.
Accessories & Gear for Music Festivals
With a multiple full days of shooting, you’re going to want to have your camera’s batteries fully charged before the start of every day.
Festivals can be long hauls. While a single concert, one battery is more than enough, but with a music festival where you're potentially photography off and on for 10-12 hours, you're going to want backup.
To conserve battery power, you can minimize image review and shoot conservatively. Better yet, bring at least a couple of extra batteries. Extra batteries are going to be key if you have a power-hungry camera, and especially so if you are going to be reviewing images throughout the day, which quickly drains battery life.
Newer cameras can also charge via USB-C, so if you're bringing a battery pack for your phone, you may be able to charge your camera, too. But a word of warning, the charging via USB can be slow so this option should be used as a last resort.
Earplugs are essential equipment for music festivals if you're a music photographer. As day-long events, music festivals can put your hearing in danger due to the extended period you're exposed to very loud music.
Here's a chart showing the danger limits for hearing loss.
The average concert's duration of the risk of hearing loss is measured in minutes. Multiply the number of acts you can photograph at a festival, where you're the very closest to the speakers, and you can see how big of an issue noise exposure can be at a festival.
Read more on my recommendations for the best earplugs for live music.
Lens Cleaning: Microfiber Cloth, Lens Pen
I like to carry a small microfiber cloth and clip it to my bag. It's easy to take off and to wipe down my front elements as necessary. Spudz is the brand that makes mine and they offer various sizes, but there are other similar products.
I also will carry a lens pen for cleaning my lenses at a festival. These are great due to the brush tool, which is good for brushing off dust from your front elements before using the microfiber portion.
In addition to the above, one thing other cleaning item that might be useful is a larger microfiber cloth for use as a rag. This can be useful if you're expecting rain and need to wipe down your gear, or could be in dirty/muddy situations.
If you're a shorter individual, the use of a folding step stool can be a good option in a photo pit for a festival if you use some common courtesy. The main value of a step stool is that it can give you some extra height to deal with high festival stages. The downsides are that you have to lug them with you all day and the fact that your mobility in using a step stool is severely limited.
Ultimately, it's a personal choice and depends on your approach to a a festival. When you need it the added height of a stepstool, they can be a big help, but they are also a huge hassle to deal with.
A model like this 13″ folding stepstool is a good balance of being compact will still offering a bit of height.
For music festivals, I'm mainly using a camera bag to get my gear on-site. During the festival, I'm carrying my gear (2x bodies and 2x bodies) on a Black Rapid Double Strap. So I want a lightweight bag that can hold all the other essentials, but which won't be too bulky.
Here are a few options for great camera bags for music festivals:
Camera Straps and Belt Systems
If you use two cameras, I HIGHLY recommend the Black Rapid Double Strap. This has been my go-to camera strap for over a decade, as I almost always photograph with two camera bodies. For a festival, where I'm using a 70-200mm and a 24-70mm almost exclusively, I will use a dedicated body for each and never have to change lenses.
For belt systems, I swear by the Think Tank Photo modular belt system. This is a very customizable bit of carrying kit that will allow you to carry gear in the most comfortable way possible. If you're using multiple lenses, this slim bag system is ideal in a packed photo pit as all gear is just around your waste, no need to dig into a backpack to fish something out.
My Camera and Lens Kit for Festival Photography
My general music photography kit includes three zoom lenses: an ultra-wide, a midrange, and a telephoto. Shooting music festivals, this is no exception and I still rely on a main, three lens kit:
I use two bodies for all my music photography and for festivals, I will rely on the 70-200mm and 24-70mm f/2.8 lenses as my main pair. More on this below.
Lenses For Festival Photography
One interesting aspect of festivals is that with the exception of the headliners, most of the daytime acts are totally shootable with nothing fancier than a kit lens and slower, variable aperture lenses.
That said, I still always recommend f/2.8 zooms, because when the sun goes down and the headliners do come out, those slow lenses will be a much bigger liability for normal stage lighting.
Telephoto Lenses (70-200mm)
At music festivals, my go-to lens is my Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8. As music festivals feature high stages, the extra distance between performers and the photo pit will be well covered by a 70-200mm lens.
In addition, a telephoto lens will let you shoot from farther back in the photo pit or alley (connecting to the soundboard at many larger festivals) or from the sides, which can give you more compositional options and also help create a flatter perspective.
Midrange Lenses (24-70mm)
For stage-front photography of smaller stages, a midrange zoom like a 24-70mm f/2.8 is a great option. For me, this lens will serve as my secondary zoom after my main 70-200mm.
A midrange zoom here will cover your wide shots and is great for photographing fans and any instances where a performer may come down into the photo pit or onto the barricade.
Due to the bigger scale of most music festivals, the midrange zoom can serve a “wider” role than it does at smaller shows, and may offer all the wide-angle coverage you need on a full-frame camera.
Wide-Angle Lenses (14-24mm)
An ultra-wide lens like the Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 I use is great for capturing the atmosphere of festivals, and especially nice if performers leave the stage and get up close and personal with fans. Additionally, wide-angle lenses are fantastic for performers with more theatrical stage productions, where you really want to cover a large expanse of the stage and capture the full lighting rig, for example.
However, for general live music shooting at festivals, an ultra-wide is going to have limited utility due to the high stages, so keep this in mind when making your festival photography kit. Due to the extra height of large stages at festivals, an ultra-wide angle lens isn't necessary for most kinds of shooting.
The exception to this fact is for festivals with a large number of small stages with lower heights can still make an ultra-wide lens a great option for performers.
Check out my guide on the Best Lenses for Music Photography for more general suggestions on equipment. Want to know what I bring to music festivals? Check out the Gear Guide.
Cameras For Festival Photography
As far as cameras for festival photography, your best choice is honestly whatever you have available. Because festivals occur with daytime acts, the majority of acts you photograph will have a lot more light than a normal indoor concert, so the technical demands are a lot less overall.
Full Frame Cameras
Full-frame cameras like the Nikon D850 or Nikon Z 7II are my preference for live music photography overall and that's no exception for festivals. A full-frame sensor is larger and, all things being equal, will give you the best low light performance.
APS-C / Cropped Sensor Cameras
APS-C cameras have the benefit of a smaller sensor, and this translates to a 70-200mm designed for full-frame to be an effective 135-300mm on an APS-C body. This extra reach can be extremely useful for festivals where the stages can be bigger, higher and the distances are greater than normal concerts.
Mirrorless vs DSLR
Between mirrorless and DSLRs for festival photography, I am personally a fan of mirrorless overall. This mostly comes down to much larger AF coverage for mirrorless cameras and dynamic AF tracking modes to cover this larger area.
Using Two Camera Bodies
While I wouldn't worry about the camera body itself too much, I personally greatly prefer using two of the same bodies to photograph live music whenever possible. The use of two cameras cuts down on changing lenses and for a festival this is a lovely thing. It just means you will rarely miss a moment due to changing lenses.
If you use a single camera, here are 5 tips for changing lenses faster.
Photography Tips For Music Festivals
First Three Songs
Like most tours, the “first three songs” rule is in effect for music festivals. What this means is that you’ll be able to photograph the first three songs of a band’s performance from the photo pit, located between the stage and the barricade at the front of the crowd. For regular gig photographers, this should be no surprise.
If you're only using one camera, try and use the first three songs wisely. Change lenses in between songs. If you're chasing a moment and need to change lenses, it might well be over by the time you eventually switch lenses.
Camera Settings for Festival Photography
I've written on Camera Settings for Concert Photography and those are the same settings I use for photographing a music festival. Please see that post for more details on all my recommended settings from AF mode to shutter speeds and aperture and more.
File Format — Use RAW
You may be tempted to use JPG to save memory card space, but that would be a mistake. RAW will give you not only more quality overall, but you'll have much more flexibility in editing essential aspects of the image like white balance and with highlight recovery.
Whenever I get a new camera, the very first thing I do is set it to RAW.
With such packed photo pits, it's simply not practical to move around at festivals as one might at a concert on a national tour. Constant movement is going to be a losing battle in a crowded pit, so one approach is to play “zone defense” and photograph musicians from a single area as opportunities present themselves.
Be opportunistic and choose your movements carefully, as you might not be able to move from one side of the pit to another. You may want to cover one song from stage right, one from stage left, etc.
For all-day festivals, most often the majority of the bands play with daylight as the main lightsource, rather than stage lighting. Depending on the orientation of the stages and time of day, open shade can the be dominating treatment for most bands.
Pre-setting your white balance for stages that are in shade can help warm up scenes that might otherwise come off as a little cool with auto WB. Using the “Cloudy” daylight preset or manually dialing in a K rating of between 5000-7000 should work in most instances. This small trick can be enough to keep performers under shaded stages from looking too blue. In addition, having a set WB can also make processing easier and more consistent.
The Photographic Approach for Music Festivals
So, what do you photograph at a music festival? There's no subject of subjects, some of them obvious and some perhaps less so. The live music aspect of festivals is certainly a big draw, but I personally love the other aspects of it just as much or more. The fans, the outfits, the scale and atmosphere of it all — these aspects of a music festival are just as important to capture.
Atmosphere & Fans
Don't forget that a festival isn't just a big concert, they are often so much more. I love photographing the atmosphere and vibe of a festival as much as the performers. The outfits and fashion of festival goers, the setting or festival grounds, and all the other unique aspects of a festival are things I love to cover when photographing a music festival.
Unlike a tour, festival are one instance where artists will more freely schedule time with photographers for on-site interviews and portraits. These are best scheduled in advance with an artists's publicist, but you may be able to get lucky in the moment if you catch an artist in the media area.
Unless your dedicated to portraits or have an assistant who can mind your lighting gear, it's almost always better to just roll with photographing natural light portraits. Make it easy on yourself and keep it easy for the artists to say yes to.
Live Music Performances
This part is self explanatory.
If you're photographing a music festival, have fun. I hope these tips and suggestions have helped. The basics of photographing a music festival are the same as a concert, just on a vastly different scale.
Overall, you want to simplify your approach as much as you can. Don't try to cover everything or you'll burn yourself out. Simple is good when it comes to music festivals, from the gear to the approach to everything else.