HIM: A Tale From The Photo Pit

HIM

HIM; photo Lauren Ratkowski

Although this column is about concert photography, there is a back story which began when I was around 12, about the time my sister and I discovered the music of the Finnish rock band called HIM.

Their music was intoxicating to a young soul just learning how to explore music. Poetic lyrics about love, death, and life delivered by one of rock music’s smoothest voices, all encased in metal instrumentals. We practically watched the two music videos of the band via Yahoo Music on a loop (YouTube quite wasn’t around, yet).

Fast forward to 24-year-old me standing at the box office of the House of Blues, Anaheim on Oct. 27, 2017. With my camera ready to rock, I waited for the friendly people behind the counter to take my I.D. to receive my photo credential for that night’s HIM show, one of the first few stops on their farewell tour. Once the silver wrist band with the words “PHOTO” separated by a heart-a-gram (the band’s infamous symbol) was on my wrist, I sprinted inside to catch the first act of the night.

HIM; photo Lauren Ratkowski

HIM; photo Lauren Ratkowski

When it was time to jump into my trench-sized office for HIM, I still wasn’t really feeling the gravity of what was about to happen. When the band finally walked out on stage, I had this incredible moment where I just stood there thinking to myself “oh my god, they ARE real people.” I shoved 12 year-old-me down and raised my camera to my eye, 24-year-old me had a mission to complete, even if I was singing along as I did my job!

HIM; photo Lauren Ratkowski

HIM; photo Lauren Ratkowski

I expected the lighting to be dark, so I cranked the ISO a bit higher than usual this time. I’m glad I did, despite the risk of the photos looking grainy. Challenge one: Conquered. Next was trying to get good shots of lead vocalist, Ville Valo. Valo is a pretty tall guy to begin with, but when his black Converse high-topped feet are level with your collarbone the entire time you’re trying to shoot him, angles get pretty weird. I found myself backed up against the barrier, leg twisted around the metal supports, to get what I wanted. Sometimes you just have to get creative with your posture to get the right shot. Once I had found the right combination of exposure and viewpoints, I was on a roll. I didn’t want to waste any time looking back at my LCD screen.

HIM; photo Lauren Ratkowski

HIM; photo Lauren Ratkowski

I knew I’d never get the opportunity to photograph this band again, so making the most of it was a high priority. After song three came to a close, we photographers expected to be kicked out. But some of us weren’t ready to leave quite yet. To our surprise, security let us stay for a fourth song. All I knew was I wasn’t leaving until I was kicked out!

I’m always grateful of all the opportunities I get to join my passion for both music and photography. However, being able to photograph HIM is something 12-year-old me would have never believed would happen. I take that back, I hope she knew deep down she’d make it to this point in her photo career and that future her wouldn’t ever give up on her dream to see that band whose CD’s had to be smuggled into her bedroom.

Day N Night Festival: A Tale From The Photo Pit

Lil Uzi Vert

Lil Uzi Vert at Day N Night Festival; photo Lauren Ratkowski

Hit the ground and hustle. My motto for tackling this year’s Day N Night Festival. First order of business, as always, was to grab my credentials. I arrived at the festival grounds around 3:30, and to my surprise there was still a healthy line of people waiting up to enter. Wristbands on, I made my way inside, walking halfway around Angel Stadium before seeing the first stage of the day.

SZA

SZA at Day N Night festival; photo Lauren Ratkowski

I wanted to be sure I had plenty of time to catch SZA. I’ve really come to like her debut album, CTRL, and was excited to be able to shoot her. I was one of the first to arrive in the photo pit, so I made sure I picked out the best spot. Festival pits are amazing in that they are often quite spacious compared to the trenches we photographers experience in venues. However, there are a lot more security guards when it comes to festival pits. Add them, about 15-20 photographers at any given time, and overheated kids being pulled from the pit and space disappears quickly.

Considering this festival was entirely outdoors, I knew the sun was going to be a concern. This time, it presented a bit of a challenge in that as it lowered, it passed behind the main stage, which meant everything was backlit. And standing in the wrong spot created the type of lens flares I am not too keen on. Funky, flat colors and no detail. SZA’s set was nearing the time in the day where this sort of thing is a problem, but the sun created no issue for her set. SCORE!

POST MALONE

POST MALONE at Day N Night festival; photo Lauren Ratkowski

Next up was Post Malone. This is where lighting became a challenge. I learned very quickly that standing in one half of the pit was going to leave me with the bad sun flare all over photos. The sun was much lower now, peaking out the side of the stage’s background and backlighting everything. Great. Moving over a few feet and adjusting my camera settings took care of my issues. I always have to be able to think quickly!

By the time Lil Uzi Vert hit the stage, it was dark. I was back in the right setting for shooting shows – in the dark. Lil Uzi was easily one of the most energetic performers I’ve photographed. He ran from one side of the stage to the other, commanding the audience to engage with him. He jumped down to the barricade, causing a rush of cameras following. Next minute, he was back on stage and on the other side, climbing up to the side screens. The LED screen behind him was red by the time he took center stage again, but even white stage light balanced him out. Moments later, fog canons were shooting off, covering the stage as he bounced to the beat. Lil Uzi’s set was easily one of my favorites of the night!

THE NEIGHBOURHOOD

THE NEIGHBOURHOOD at Day N Night festival; photo Lauren Ratkowski

I hustled over to another stage immediately after Lil Uzi to catch the only rock band on the bill, The Neighborhood. I’ve been waiting to shoot them for a few years now, so I knew the hustle across the festival grounds in a matter of minutes was worth it. I arrived to see the sound crew stringing up lead singer Jesse Rutherford’s mic, which was hanging off a chain from the stage’s upper scaffolding. Yes. This meant something new! Despite the bands darker, monochromatic lighting, the combination of fog machines and Rutherford’s undeniable charisma made for a strong set of photos.

Three songs and we’re out! Hustle back to the main stage for that night’s headliner, Chance The Rapper. I arrived early, knowing the pit was going to fill up fast. Being that I don’t have the telephoto range I wish I had for these settings, I knew getting a good spot was going to be crucial. After talking with security, we were told that media would be allowed to enter the pit when Chance went on stage. It seemed as if the audience was getting crazier and security needed room to remove those from the crowd that needed an escape. About five minutes before Chance was due, we were told all media was barred from the pit. No shooting. It’s unclear to who ended up making that call, but many of us went into borderline panic. We were now faced with no pit access, a giant crowd that there was no way to plow through to get a good spot, and the need to capture the headliner. This would have been the perfect time for that long telephoto! Nevertheless, I am always grateful for my time in the pit!

Portugal. The Man: A Tale From The Photo Pit

PORTUGAL. THE MAN

PORTUGAL. THE MAN; photo Lauren Ratkowski

Jump in the car. Battle through traffic. Find a parking space. Dash to the venue. Get in line. Go to the box office. Everything was a rush, but nothing could stop my excitement to get back into the photo pit. After receiving my photo pass, I had only two minutes to make it inside and catch the first act. Usually I leave myself more time, but sometimes a rush can keep you on your toes!

PORTUGAL. THE MAN; photo Lauren Ratkowski

PORTUGAL. THE MAN; photo Lauren Ratkowski

When Portugal. The Man stepped on stage, the audience was wowed with a beautiful visual show. A massive projector sat at the edge of the stage, pointed toward a plain white backdrop. Each song had its own look, showing melting faces, lyrics, and psychedelic patterns. Did I mention there were lasers? Because there were LASERS.

As the set unfolded, I was wowed by the bands lighting display. As a photographer, I always appreciate good lighting because it makes my job easier. However, Portugal. The Man took things one step further.

PORTUGAL. THE MAN; photo Lauren Ratkowski

PORTUGAL. THE MAN; photo Lauren Ratkowski

The use of the projector complimented the stage lighting perfectly. There was very little of the dreaded solid red or blue light. Instead, the lighting was very mixed in terms of colors, which contributed to great variation in the photographs. This mixture allowed me to create everything from silhouettes to almost tie-dyed looking photographs. The previously mentioned lasers served as the cherry on top! Their sharp colors contrasted against the projections and stage lighting, making the band look like they had super powers. Perhaps this was their plan all along?

Portugal. The Man put on a crowd-wowing show for a full house. I was grateful I could experience such an incredible visual band perform!

LANY, Machine Heart: A Tale From The Photo Pit

LANY

LANY; photo Lauren Ratkowski

After shooting shows for several years, I’ve learned that it’s always worth it to talk to the fans. I arrived at the Observatory in Santa Ana to find out LANY’s show was sold out. I wasn’t surprised as I’ve been a witness of sorts to their growth over the past year. Mind you, this band from Los Angeles hasn’t even released their debut, yet.

I got into the venue and immediately got into the pit to catch the first band, Machine Heart. While in the little photo trench we concert photographers call our office for the night, I couldn’t help but overhear the chatter of the fans behind me. Some needing water, but were afraid to leave their barrier spot. Others dreaming about their after concert meal, some periodically announcing a countdown until LANY would appear on stage.

MACHINE HEART

MACHINE HEART; photo Lauren Ratkowski

When it came time for the break between bands, I immediately jumped back into the photo pit to get a good spot. About six photographers were shooting Maiden Heart, but I knew more would show for LANY. I sat on the barricade near the middle of the stage and began listening to the fans again.

I couldn’t help but notice two girls next to me with fists full of roses. For those unfamiliar, the rose has become a symbol of the band. It adorns their album cover, merch, and everything in-between. I asked how long they had waited in line – 7 a.m. They had also attended LANY’s previous show in Pomona the night before, but they weren’t the first ones there for that one. Fans had been camping for over 24 hours for that particular show. I’ve met some very dedicated fans, but I was impressed that such a young band had such passionate fans despite not having released their debut album.

The lights finally dimmed and screams filled the venue. It was time for LANY.

Twelve photographers were jammed into the pit alongside me, so I was thankful I had arrived early. Frontman Paul Jason Klein made his way to the stage, starting with just a guitar and a microphone. His vocals were almost drowned out over how loud fans sang back to him. Klein made his way over to the girls with the roses and grabbed two of them, then ended up directly over me in the pit. This usually makes me panic a bit because shooting straight up at someone usually is never flattering. I tried to take a step to the left or right, but there was no room for that. I was surrounded by photographers on both sides and the hands of the audience were reaching to Klein behind me.

LANY

LANY; photo Lauren Ratkowski

Well, what goes up must come down. So I sat on the barricade and shot almost straight up, hoping for the best. I ended up with my favorite shot from the night in that position! A minute later, roses were flying through the air toward the band, covering the stage. It was something out of a movie.

The band had great lighting and production, which makes my job a little bit easier. Their lighting started out with a 4 bulb LED strobe from behind the stage, creating a dramatic scene. As the songs progressed, it drifted into the perfect blend of soft purples, oranges, and blues. This creates great backgrounds while still allowing the artists not to get lost in the photos, much like what usually happens with solo use of red or blue.

Photographing LANY was a fabulous experience. It was refreshing to see such a young band have such a strong, passionate following. After all, there is nothing better than a sold out venue filled with positive energy!

Bear Hands: A Tale From The Photo Pit

Bear Hands

Bear Hands at The Observatory; photo Lauren Ratkowski

As I arrived at The Observatory’s box office, I saw a huge line of people queuing up to get into the venue, which was only hosting one show that night. I was excited that it was going to be a full house. I slapped my credential onto my chest and headed inside. Everything seemed pretty typical at that point. But the difference was that I had my new camera with me – a Nikon D810. I was dying to use it to shoot a show.

I had heard mixed reviews on setting the ISO to auto and shooting manual for everything else. I’ve always shot full manual but my old camera was outdated and I no longer trusted its auto ISO setting. I knew my new camera had a much better ability to function at higher ISO with little “noise” so I gave the auto ISO a whirl.

The Moth & The Flame were the first band of the night. Their lighting was pretty even, which allowed me not to worry about waiting for the right instant to capture a moment. Both the bassist and singer were very expressive, too! As I shot, I kept my eye on the ISO number my camera was choosing for itself. Three songs went by quick and I returned to my spot in the audience.

I peeked at my shots to see how things went so I could adjust accordingly for Bear Hands. I zoomed on a few images to see some noise from the high ISO, but it didn’t look too bad.

Bear Hands hit the stage bathed in blue and magenta light. I have always disliked this lighting color combination as it never worked well for my shots in the past. But before getting too discouraged, I remembered that maybe things would be different with my new buddy. I snapped a few photos and then looked back at them while still in the photo pit. I rarely do that so I don’t miss anything, but I had to be sure things were working! I could see more detail than the blue, flat images I used to get. I knew I could work with what I was getting and carried on. Soon the blue and magenta light was replaced by white and red. This was good!

Bear hands

Bear Hands at The Observatory; photo Lauren Ratkowski

Bear Hands put on a great performance. Interestingly enough, my favorite image of the night came after I was out of the photo pit. Vocalist Dylan Rau was on his knees at the edge of the stage, facing me as he sang. I leaned over the security guard I was standing above and hoped the image would come out ok – and it did!

After shooting the headliners, Atlas Genius, I headed home to get a good look at my photos. While processing my images, I was amazed at the difference between my old camera and my new one. I was able to make great things happen with the images I shot in blue light. I was comforted in knowing that I had conquered one more difficulty in shooting concerts!

Oh, and as for the auto ISO, I didn’t hate the results, but I think I’ll be sticking to full manual. Maybe I just like being in total control.

Pierce The Veil: A Tale From The Photo Pit

piercetheveil-laurenratkowski

Pierce The Veil at Observatory North Park Jun 25; photo Lauren Ratkowski

Pierce The Veil headlined a sold out show to 1,200 people Saturday night in their home town of San Diego playing The Observatory North Park, which made it all the more special.

In 2008, I went to the now defunct Bamboozle Left, the west coast edition of The Bamboozle Festival (R.I.P to both). Before I went, I checked out all the bands I didn’t know on MySpace so I could plan out my festival day. I came across a band named Pierce The Veil on the line up, gave them a listen, and penciled them into my schedule.

I don’t know what I was expecting standing out there on the grassy hills of the Irvine Meadows Amphitheater (almost R.I.P), but 15 year old me was in love. Any band that sounded better live than their recorded music had my heart.

Eight years later, almost 23 year old me found herself standing in line waiting to get her press badge to photograph that little band she fell in love with on that grassy hill. Except, they’re not so little anymore.

I shot Pierce The Veil back in 2014, so I knew they would have great production and lighting wouldn’t be an issue. My goal this time was to capture the sheer energy the band brought every time they played.

Halfway through the first song, I could literally feel the floor beneath me shaking from the crowd going nuts. I found myself dodging security pulling crowd surfers out behind me as I photographed. I got pushed into the stage at one point, but I was too focused to care. Confetti was flying. Air canons were firing. Everyone was screaming lyrics back to the band. It was too much fun.

pierce the veil

Pierce The Veil at Observatory North Park Jun 25; photo Lauren Ratkowski

When the first three songs had passed, I left the photo pit with a smile on my face and that feeling I get in my heart when I know I’ve captured something good. I flipped through a few shots on my LCD just to confirm. I try not to judge too harshly as I know things can look totally different once I get home, but I was pleased with what I saw. I then proceeded to find a good spot in the crowd to shoot from. I wanted to capture at least some of the full theater as a conclusion to my set of photos just to emphasize the feeling of the show.

As I left the venue that night, I was still buzzing. Not only because I felt I had a good session, but because I love seeing good bands grow and succeed. And that’s exactly what Pierce The Veil has done!

Buzzcocks: A Tale From The Photo Pit

BUZZCOCKS

BUZZCOCKS / Steve Diggle; photo Lauren Ratkowski

As I stood in line to pick up my credentials at the Observatory Box office, I found myself surrounded by fans of all ages. The two men in front of me talked about the last time they had been to the same venue to see the band they were waiting to pick up tickets for now. The band: Buzzcocks…And the venue was still known as The Galaxy back then. They continued to chat about what songs they hoped would be played excited like they were waiting to see them for the first time. Just from that moment, I knew it was going to be a good show.

Once my Concert Guide Live partner-in-crime Madison Desler arrived, we headed inside to find a good spot to post up. Unfortunately, we got inside a little late, so I wasn’t able to photograph the first band like I had planned. I was a little bummed, but I was honestly just excited to be shooting again. As we watched their performance, I noticed how packed the venue was already.

As soon as the first band left the stage, I left my spot and set my sites on the photo pit. It had been just over a month since I was last in the pit. I was so excited just to be back in my natural habitat- a trench like space surrounded by cameras, excited fans behind me and a stage in front of me. It felt good.

The Buzzcocks hit the stage and were greeted by enthusiastic fans singing along. Their lighting was a little iffy in the beginning, but soon things evened out. They had the perfect balance of colored and white light. I knew I was going to end up with a great bunch of photos. This only added to my excitement as I had dealt with some very challenging lighting situations during my last two previous shows.

It was amazing to see a band with a 40 year history play to a sold out space filled to the brim with fans that have undoubtedly followed them for that amount of time. Each member of Buzzcocks had great energy and emotion, which I was able to capture. The combination of great lighting, passionate fans, and an amazing performance allowed me to create a strong set of photos.

I’m thankful for shows like these not only because they make my job easy, but because they remind me how truly happy combining my two passions of music and photography make me. Hopefully this is an indication of how great this summer’s concert season will be!

Nick Carter: Tale From The Photo Pit

NICK CARTER

NICK CARTER at HOB/Anaheim photo: Lauren Ratkowski

What do you do when your editor asks if you can shoot a member of Backstreet Boys, aka Nick Carter, at one of your favorite venues? You agree and grab your camera of course!

It was a typical Friday night in Downtown Disney when I arrived – crowded and buzzing with people. I was expecting to catch the end of the first act when I arrived at House of Blues, but instead I got held up at the box office. There was a tiny bump in communication and I was left without a photo pass. But it wasn’t anything a quick call to the on-site tour manager couldn’t fix.

By the time I got inside, the venue was packed. I went straight into the photo pit as there was no one on stage. I thought I had managed to arrive before anyone played, as there were no other photographers in sight. But I was wrong. The crew was setting up for Nick Carter!

It was twenty minutes before set time, so I made sure my camera was ready while I waited. I expected other photographers to show, but as it got closer to set time, it seemed as if I would have the entire photo pit to myself.

Nick Carter greeted fans with a familiar sound when he hit the stage – the unmistakable beat of Backstreet Boys’ hit “Larger Than Life”. Fans greeted him in return with singing and screaming. There was a ton of energy in the room, so I knew it was going to be a good shoot.

With the photo pit to myself, I had a ton of freedom. All I needed was some great lighting and a lively performance and I was set for a good shoot – and that’s exactly what I got! I was able to shoot at wide angles without worrying about having ends of other photographer’s lenses in my frame, which is a luxury! The lighting was constant, yet not overpowering. This allowed me to follow Nick Carter as he moved to and from his mic stand. It also let me zoom in and get some great on-stage portraits.
After my three songs were up, I headed up stairs to shoot some group shots from above the main room. Getting an overhead view of a show isn’t something I get too often, so I took the opportunity.

Carter and his band sounded great and it was nice to see such a dedicated fan base turn out in support of his solo career. Photographing this show was surprisingly simple, but I’ll be sure not to take those shows for granted as I head into shooting in 2016!

Michael Monroe:Tale From The Photo Pit

MICHAEL MONROE

MICHAEL MONROE photo: Lauren Ratkowski

Nothing screams rock-n-roll more than watching a teased haired, flame-leg pants wearing front man parade around a stage while wielding a red saxophone and a harmonica all during one single performance. Wait, I lied. It is more significant considering that I was photographing all of this inside the famous Whiskey A Go Go on the Sunset Strip. I was photographing Finland’s Michael Monroe, former lead of glam rock outfit Hanoi Rocks.

Arriving at the venue after the show had already started, I immediately tried to find a decent spot to photograph from. The venue was already half filled, so there were not many great places left. I opted for the right side of the stage, set up my camera, and waited.

A moment after the show began, I knew I would be photographing some full energy performers. I was happy about this, but I was not so happy about the lighting. I’ve never shot at the Whiskey before, so I had no idea what I was really getting myself into. After trying a few different settings, I found my happy place. After all, I didn’t have the advantage of shooting from the comfort of a photo pit. I was shooting from the crowd, which meant I was also battling hands and phones being raised into the air at unpredictable times.

Typically if the lighting is going to change during a set, it’s going to happen after the first song. That didn’t happen this time. I knew I had to try and get closer if I was going to get anything good. I weighed my options in what was now a fully packed room. The only real open spot was about two feet from me next to a steel support beam.

This spot was better than what I started with, but I found myself pressed up against the beam, shooting around whichever side was better at the time. It was certainly one of the more odd shooting conditions I’ve ever been in.

I can honestly say I was a little worried when I’d check my LCD screen to see how the shots were coming every once and awhile. But I was happy to leave the venue with some images that at least captured the energy and great performance that Michael Monroe displayed.

Mayday Parade : Tale From The Photo Pit

MAYDAY PARADE

MAYDAY PARADE: Tale From the Photo Pit photo: Lauren Ratkowski

When I finally made it into House Of Blues in Anaheim, I knew Mayday Parade’s show was going to be full of energy. Fans packed the venue and had already been treated to two up-and-coming openers on this year’s annual AP tour.

Although I arrived a little late, I jumped into the photo pit to catch the third band of the night, Real Friends. I have shot them before and knew how crazy the audience would get once they took the stage. Crowd surfers and screaming fans did not let down my expectations. Security lined the photo pit, so we photographers were finding ourselves courteously climbing over each other and security to get good shots. Of course, security is doing their job and we are doing ours, but we’re both operating in what can basically be described as a 3-foot-wide trench. Sometimes things get…close.

Once Real Friends finished their set, I jumped right back into the photo pit and waited. I had a feeling that more photographers would arrive to shoot the band, so the earlier I got there, the more time I’d have to get a decent spot to shoot from. Again, security remained in the pit, but there were now about 9 photographers reporting for duty.

Another photographer gave me the heads up that Mayday Parade’s set was all backlit, which is not good news. When the band stepped on stage, we were also greeted with incredibly bright, white LCD lights. Once the intro was over, the LCD panels became red. I knew this was going to be a challenge.

Despite a red light saturated set, I managed to get some good shots. The secret is trying to catch onto the patterns in the lights and then being ready to fire at the right moment. It also paid off to zoom in closer on the band members, wide shots would allow for more red light to blow out the photo I was trying to create.

The time in the pit went fast, but the energy Mayday Parade brought to the stage carried on through the whole set. It had been awhile since I shot a sold-out show, but it was refreshing to be surrounded by people truly excited to experience a night of amazing bands!