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!

Sons of Texas: A Tale From The Photo Pit

Sons of Texas

Mark Morales of Sons of Texas; photo Reuben Martinez

Sons of Texas opened for heavyweights Hellyeah at the Observatory North Park, San Diego.

When asked to cover Sons of Texas, I was excited to see Hellyeah (one of my favorites) but I did my research and listened to Sons of Texas’ CD Baptized in the Rio Grande days before the gig. Next thing you know, I’m buying the album on iTunes!

Sons of Texas

Sons of Texas; photo Reuben Martinez

I arrived at the venue to find there were minor issues with my photo pass. This happens from time to time, but everything worked out. This is why a photographer should arrive early to a venue.

Excited, but not knowing what to expect, plus this was my first time shooting at this venue, I walked around, grabbed a drink and checked out the merchandise before the show started, then headed to the photo pit. The venue had great lighting and a great ambiance.

As Sons of Texas opened playing “Never Bury the Hatchet”, these guys were top notched musicians! I noticed right away how perfect they fit on the bill with Hellyeah, and could hear the influence of Pantera and other bands.

Sons of Texas; photo Reuben Martinez

Sons of Texas; photo Reuben Martinez

Sons had great energy that got the crowd going. During one song in their set, singer Mark Morales jumped in the crowd singing as a small mosh pit went around him. They played most of their debut album and did not disappoint. Great performance also equals great compositions.

Even after the Hellyeah performance, the band was hanging around greeting fans. I definitely had to go over and say “Hi” and bought another copy of their CD to get signed.

I will be looking forward to seeing these guys again either covering their concerts or just attending as a fan. In fact, I kicked myself when I found out they had played a couple headline shows in the past week here in Southern California and I missed them.

But I’m sure they will be headlining more shows in the future. I can’t emphasize how good these guys sound live and couldn’t ask for a better end to my Father’s Day than seeing these two bands play.

Skillet, Sick Puppies, Devour The Day: A Tale From The Photo Pit

Skillet

Korey Cooper of Skillet; photo Reuben Martinez

Skillet headlined the Grove of Anaheim in support of their latest release Unleashed with two great opening bands, Sick Puppies and Devour the Day.

As I arrived early at the venue, the one thing that instantly amazed me was how many cars were already in the parking lot. I had a feeling this venue was going to be full and possibly sell out.

When Devour the Day took the stage they had a fantastic stage presence. But a funny thing that has never happened to me occurred during the second song.

As I was turning around after taking a great shot of singer Blake Allison singing while he surfed the crowd on his back, the microphone stand hit me in the face! I then noticed that his microphone cord got wrapped around the base while he was going through the crowd.

Devour the Day

Blake Allison of Devour the Day; photo Reuben Martinez

That was a first for me and I actually thought it was funny. I’d rather get hit in my face instead of hitting my camera. As I brushed off my wounds I finished my three songs for the first band of the night.

I’m very familiar with Sick Puppies, who were the next band to play, having photographed them before plus I was excited to see the new singer, Bryan Scott. For being a three-piece band they know how to entertain and sound amazing. Bassist Emma Anzai is always fun to shoot. Her slap style and hair blowing around is always a great visual. My obvious favorite band of the night but I would say 90% of the crowd was there to see Skillet. Yet, I’m sure Sick Puppies won over some new followers.

sick puppies

Emma Anzai of Sick Puppies; photo Reuben Martinez

When headliner Skillet took the stage the crowd was cheering with excitement. They opened with “Feel Invincible” with the crowd reciting every word. Skillet has been around over 10 years and have a strong Christian base. This band knows how to play and knows how to entertain. Singer John Cooper and wife Korey on guitar are full of energy. I’ve never seen this band live before but seeing their energy along with their fans’ (known as “Panheads”) made for some great compositions.

Using one camera, I was switching from a zoom lens to a prime lens (faster lens that doesn’t zoom). With a band like Skillet jumping around and all of the fast action, I needed the faster lens. The three songs I was allowed to shoot went by quickly!

Skillet

John Cooper of Skillet; photo Reuben Martinez

It was an all-around great show to see and to photograph making it a very successful photo opportunity for me. And one thing I can say about the Grove of Anaheim is that I love the lighting in this venue. I have never had a bad shoot there.

One Love Reggae Festival Day 1: Tale from the Photo Pit

slightly stoopid

Slightly Stoopid at One Love Cali Reggae Fest Day 1; photo Andy Ortega

It was quite the adventure getting into the One Love Cali Reggae Fest at the Queen Mary in Long Beach on opening night. It was raining the entire evening, which is pretty special for Southern California, and I’m guessing it wasn’t expected by the promoters – or anybody else. Either way, it didn’t stop attendees from having an experience that had everyone feeling “irie”.

Once I made my way through the line at the entrance, I breathed a deep sigh of relief and immediately had the sensation of pure relaxation. Then I realized that along with the deep sigh of relief, there were massive clouds of smoke that also may have helped me relax a bit as I walked past a group of concert goers with dreadlocks. The ganja was flowing freely everywhere I looked.

There were two stages at this massive event. There was the main stage, which was labeled the “One Love” stage on the One Love Cali Fest website and there was the second stage labeled the “Queen Mary” stage.

The Aggrolites were just starting at the second stage and to my surprise, it wasn’t very crowded. I say that because there were people everywhere else and later I saw that a majority of people were at the main stage. They sure missed out because there was some good dancing at The Aggrolites’ performance. People were singing along and cheering. It was more like a wild party.

The Aggrolites

The Aggrolites at One Love Cali Reggae Fest Day 1; photo Andy Ortega

After that, Fishbone played on the same stage. Yeah, Fishbone is playing at this reggae fest and they do have a reggae-esque sound but I kept thinking, “Wait, is this reggae?” Fishbone fans know that they have a unique style and they’ve changed over the years from ska to funk to rock. I guess you could say they do “skunk rock”?

Next, I got the munchies. The One Love Cali Reggae Fest was the best place to be for that. I was tempted to get something from the Pink Taco Food Truck or Chronic Tacos but instead went for a plain teriyaki bowl from some place that didn’t have such a creative name.

As I headed to the main stage, I came around the corner and saw a sea of people ahead of me. These crazy, fun-loving, hippies did not care one bit about the rain, the mud, or the stinky greenish haze.

SOJA was playing as I entered the photo pit in front of the main stage. They released their first album, Peace in a Time of War, in 2002 and have four more albums after that so they’ve been around the block a bit.

The headlining band that night on the main stage was Slightly Stoopid. I don’t mean that in a negative way, they’re actually

SOJA

SOJA at One Love Cali Reggae Fest Day 1; photo Andy Ortega

awesome and that’s their real band name. Maybe they were at a previous One Love concert in the middle of that thick haze

when they thought of the name, but they’re rad and the roar of the crowd as they walked out proves it. Slightly Stoopid offers a fusion of ska, metal, punk, hip-hop and funk. I’m not going to try to name their style like I did with Fishbone – you get the idea. I can tell you that anyone born and raised in California is familiar with this style.

At the end of the night, I found myself happy and feeling right at home here on this rainy SoCal evening, right next to the Queen Mary and with all my reggae brothas and sistas!

Metal Allegiance: A Tale From The Photo Pit

METAL ALLEGIANCE

METAL ALLEGIANCE; photo Reuben Martinez

Metal Allegiance, a metal all-star concert and project started by Mark Menghi, asked friends to collaborate and pay tribute to recent and past artists at the Grove of Anaheim over NAMM weekend.

They played tribute to “Fallen Heroes” like David Bowie, Prince and Lemmy with songs like Bowie’s “Suffragette City and Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy”. Metal Allegiance also played music of artists from the past such as Pantera, Metallica, Queen, Deep Purple and Ozzy Osbourne.

Kicking off NAMM, this event was highly sought after by the media. In fact, there were so many photographers that we were divided into small groups to photograph three different songs each, while the event was simultaneously being filmed and streamed live.

METAL ALLEGIANCE; photo Reuben Martinez

METAL ALLEGIANCE; photo Reuben Martinez

Metal Allegiance consists of artists such as Chris Jericho (Fozzy), Mark Osegueda (Death Angel), Phil Demmel (Machine Head), Alex Skolnick and Chuck Billy (Testament), Mike Portnoy (Winery Dogs), David Ellefson (Megadeth), Charlie Benante (Anthrax), Gary Holt (Slayer, Exodus) and many more artists contributed throughout the show.

I was excited to be covering this event as I am also a huge fan of all of these artists. I waited my turn to get into the photo pit and ended up being able to shoot songs like “I Don’t Know” Randy Rhodes/Ozzy, “Was Ensemble” Jeff Hanneman/Slayer and “5 Minutes Alone” Dimebag Darrell/Pantera. Great songs! I couldn’t have asked for a better selection of three songs. The lighting and sound were great and any “Music Fan” would have enjoyed this lineup paying tribute.

METAL ALLEGIANCE; photo Reuben Martinez

METAL ALLEGIANCE; photo Reuben Martinez

As the night continued, special guests Mikkey Dee drummer of Motorhead and Vinnie Appice drummer of Dio covered their own songs to pay tribute to their own singers that have passed.

It was a great evening of great musicians paying tribute to their “Fallen Heroes” and I was pleased to capture the moments of the night.

Menghi, who also plays bass in Metal Allegiance, continues to hold this event of all-stars in the Metal genre during the NAMM conference each year. Be on the lookout for this show every January in Southern California.

Ghost: A Tale From The Photo Pit

GHOST

GHOST photo: Reuben Martinez

Grammy Award winning band Ghost, who won for Best Metal Performance this year, recently played the Riverside Municipal Auditorium. For the past two years, there’s been a lot of buzz brewing for this band. I had the chance to see them at Coachella for the first time back in 2013. I was intrigued then with their stage presence of metal with heavy demonic overtones and was looking forward to this event.

When the lights went down, operatic music began to play, the stage crew came out wearing the Ghost logo, an upside down cross with a “G”, on their shirts, bowed to each other and removed the black cloaks covering the drum set and keyboard. The scent of incense burned on stage, creating a church-like atmosphere.

They opened with “Square Hammer” a new song from the Popestar EP, a followup to last year’s album, Meliora. Singer Papa Emeritus III came onstage dressed in a black “pope like” robe and skull makeup.

This is exactly what a photographer loves to see in a stage show. The band members are called “nameless” ghouls and wear silver masks with horns and eye cutouts but no mouth. Scanning the crowd, I noticed there were fans wearing make-up like singer Papa, replicating their allegiance to Ghost.

GHOST

GHOST photo: Reuben Martinez

After shooting the first three songs, we photographers had to vacate the photo pit, which is standard practice. Most of the photographers went to the balcony to get full stage shots until the security stopped us and made us go downstairs.

Trying to shoot from the floor was hard with the general admission crowd, and eventually security told us we couldn’t shoot at all. I’ve shot this venue before with all access to the balcony and other places, but they were strict with this show.

The band played a total of 17 songs but during “Mummy Dust”, guns shot confetti and dollars with Papa’s face on them into the crowd creating a visually stimulating atmosphere.

The Swedish group formed in 2008 and I am sure will stay around. Hopefully, I’ll be covering them next time they’re in Southern California. Great music and a great visual show.

Temper Trap: A Tale From The Photo Pit

Temper Trap

Temper Trap at the Observatory; photo Andy Ortega

There have been times at The Observatory in Santa Ana where I could barely make it through the crowd of concert goers. This time, while it was still mostly full, I was able to move around fairly comfortably for the Temper Trap concert.

I got the sense that there were many fans of the opener, Coast Modern, in the audience, as well. During their last song, I could see and hear people singing along to their laid back tunes such as “Hollow Life”. Coast Modern was a great warm-up before the main show.

The lights were dimmed down a notch as Dougy Mandagi and the rest of the Temper Trap band walked onto the stage. They opened with “Thick As Thieves”, the title track from their latest album and closed with “Sweet Disposition” from their 2009 album, Conditions.

However, as the show progressed, the lights didn’t get much brighter. I think it’s safe to say that they didn’t want bright, or really any lights. My camera was a little sad about that because light is his friend but I was still able to get some decent shots.

Return Of The Dreads: A Tale From The Photo Pit

korn

Korn at Irvine Meadows; photo Reuben Martinez

“Return of the Dreads” came to SoCal with a lineup that featured In This Moment, Rob Zombie and Korn. SoCal hasn’t had a rock fest in a while and this was guaranteed to sell out.

Arriving at the venue, there were issues getting in. Key to being a photographer is being early to shoot all the bands on the bill, but unfortunately I did hit a snag. As soon as I got into the parking lot there was a lot of walking. As I arrived at the box office to get my credentials, I was given a photo pass but the venue staff said I also needed a ticket to get in. I could hear that In This Moment had already taken the stage. After other photographers were denied entry, another staff worker walked up and said we could all go in.

I walked as fast as I could while getting my camera ready. But once I showed up to the stage, In This Moment finished their last song. Since we’re only allowed to shoot the first three songs of a set, I had missed my opportunity. But running into friends that are photographers, they also had the same problem. But never-the-less, I was able to shoot Rob Zombie and Korn.

When Rob Zombie took to the stage I already knew he never disappoints the fans. His stage was full of his visions of horror and pop art, including a microphone stand that had a Nosferatu looking metal base.

rob zombie

Rob Zombie at Irvine Meadows; photo Reuben Martinez

There were overwhelming red lights that are hard to capture in photos so I switched my camera to shoot black and white and was able to get great shots of him and the band. However, the color photos captured the vibrancy and mysticism of the band.

As Rob loves to entertain, he and guitarist John 5 had an oversized Devil walking around the stage that he interacted with. Such a great stage presence and a great showman. Even while John 5 showcased during a solo, Rob was running around the crowd getting them even more enthused.

While we were waiting for Korn to come on stage, the photographers were escorted back down to the photo pit. Right away, I was in the presence of singer Jonathan Davis’ mic stand, which the legendary artist/sculptor H.R. Giger designed for him years ago.

When drummer Ray Luzier entered the stage that was my key to get the camera ready. The rest of the band came on, bassist Fieldy’s neon bass strings were glowing, and the band went into the first song, “Right Now”. The crowd was jumping!

Great lighting for the band made it easy to get the shots I wanted. And as the tour was called “Return of the Dreads” both guitarists, Head and Munky, had dreads that made great action shots while they were rocking out to their performance.

I’ve seen these bands many times before, they sounded great but this was my first time shooting them. It was a very entertaining show and a great experience to shoot and share.

Although these bands have been around for a long time, their new songs also sounded great. If you are a fan, check them out next time they come around.