Curtis Harding: A Tale From The Photo Pit

CURTIS HARDING; photo Andy Ortega

CURTIS HARDING; photo Andy Ortega

I love the El Rey Theater and taking pics of Curtis Harding’s show there made my day epic. If you’ve never been to the El Rey, it’s on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles, around the corner from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art a.k.a. LACMA. Getting there is fairly easy. There’s paid parking in the surrounding areas but the El Rey offers valet parking for only $10. There was no line when I arrived at the entrance, so I went straight up to the window and presented my credentials in exchange for the coveted photo pass. Security checked me and my bag thoroughly and then I was in.

CURTIS HARDING; photo Andy Ortega

CURTIS HARDING; photo Andy Ortega

I made my way into the venue and Algiers was just getting started as the opening band. The El Rey has an open floor for general admission and there’s also a balcony. One of the ushers there told me that VIP ticket holders can get access to the balcony, but they usually come right back down because it gets warm up there.

CURTIS HARDING; photo Andy Ortega

CURTIS HARDING; photo Andy Ortega

There is no photo pit, which means that photographers don’t have a special spot in front of the stage. Instead, you just need to be in the front early or work your way in. Since the El Rey has the best staff members, one of the usher/security personnel turned on his flashlight and created a path for me to get in front of the stage. Thanks bro!

CURTIS HARDING; photo Andy Ortega

CURTIS HARDING; photo Andy Ortega

Curtis Harding’s set immediately had fans dancing and moving. As I started to frame my first shot, I was happy to see that the lighting was nice and bright. This gave me the ability to turn up my shutter speed, so I can get clean, sharp pictures. When I wanted to get a different point of view, I gently squeezed my way to the other side of the stage. Once I had enough close-up shots, I moved back and took a few pictures for a wider view so that I could get the whole band. Then I put the lens cap back on my 50-200mm Nikon lens, took off my earplugs and enjoyed the rest of the show.

Japandroids: A Tale From The Photo Pit

JAPANDROIDS; photo Andy Ortega

JAPANDROIDS; photo Andy Ortega

Japandroids at the Masonic Lodge at Hollywood Forever on May 30th was off the hook!

Normally when I do a “Tale from the Photo Pit” article, I’ll share my experience of a show as a photographer. But boy do I need to back up a bit and address the elephant in the room. I’ll just come out and say it – this concert was at a cemetery. That’s right. Now that you know, you won’t be as dumbfounded as I was when I arrived.

JAPANDROIDS; photo Andy Ortega

JAPANDROIDS; photo Andy Ortega

The guard at the entrance chuckled as I said, “I must be really lost. I’m supposed to be looking for a concert venue”.

Then he let me know that Hollywood Forever is the right place, you can park anywhere (and it’s free parking), and points to the venue entrance. “That’s where you want to go”.

I grab my camera bag and head over while wondering what was in store for me. Would there be some goth girl taking tickets and giving out media passes, or would it be a guy in a suit whispering like they do at funerals?

JAPANDROIDS; photo Andy Ortega

JAPANDROIDS; photo Andy Ortega

Well, the inside of the Masonic Lodge was a bit spooky but other than that, no ghouls, no Twilight-looking hipsters, no girls wearing all black. Oh wait, I lied. The opening band was just getting started and they actually did fit right in with the venue and vibe. The women of L.A. Witch did a great job to get the good times started.

During the break, a security guard tells me that someone complained about how loud the sound was. This is the second time I reach complete utter confusion today.

JAPANDROIDS; photo Andy Ortega

JAPANDROIDS; photo Andy Ortega

The time arrives for Japandroids to begin their set. There’s no designated photo pit area at the Masonic Lodge at Hollywood Forever so I make my way as close to the stage as possible. Brian King and David Prowse, the two members of Japandroids step onto the stage and the crowd erupts in cheers and applause. The music of Japandroids attracted a full house and lots of energetic fans.

Not all venues have good lighting, but the Masonic Lodge did not disappoint. I was able to get some great pictures with clear detail.

Shinedown: A Tale From The Photo Pit

SHINEDOWN; photo Reuben Martinez

SHINEDOWN; photo Reuben Martinez

Shinedown hit Riverside Apr. 12, as part of their Attention Attention Tour and will return to SoCal Aug. 4 stopping at Fivepoint Amphitheatre with Godsmack.

SHINEDOWN; photo Reuben Martinez

SHINEDOWN; photo Reuben Martinez

As I arrived at the venue 30 minutes before the show, I noticed right away that the line to get in went around the building. Once I was inside, I noticed how crowded and packed the venue was. I’ve shot a few sold out shows here at the Riverside Municipal Auditorium and it was unusual for people to come out early and pack in the venue as the doors opened.

SHINEDOWN; photo Reuben Martinez

SHINEDOWN; photo Reuben Martinez

I ran into familiar faces in the photo pit while waiting for the headliner, Shinedown to take the stage. They opened with “Sounds of Madness” and the crowd went crazy singing word for word. After the first song ended, singer Brent Smith thanked the audience, the staff and us, the photographers, for the work we do and shook all our hands. This was such a humbling experience.

SHINEDOWN; photo Reuben Martinez

SHINEDOWN; photo Reuben Martinez

While shooting the standard first three songs, I really enjoyed the energy from the band. The sound, the lights, also. This band really puts on a great show, one to see. In fact, the audience was on their feet the entire time. They only played a couple of new songs and ended the show with their cover of Lynard Skynard’s “Simple Man”, one of my all-time favorite remakes, followed by the first single “Devil” from the upcoming album Attention Attention.

SET LIST:
Sound Of Madness
Bully
Cut the Cord
How Did You Love
I’ll Follow You
The Human Radio
State of My Head
If You Only Knew
Enemies
45
Unity
Second Chance
Diamond Eyes
Simple Man
Devil

Pale Waves: A Tale From The Photo Pit

PALE WAVES; photo Lauren Ratkowski

PALE WAVES; photo Lauren Ratkowski

If you’ve never been to The Constellation Room inside the Observatory, let me set the scene. It’s a small room off to the side of the main entrance, just before you reach the main venue space. This small room is reminiscent of the legendary venue Chain Reaction just a few cities north in Anaheim. Friendly to local acts and smaller touring bands, this room holds a max of just 300 people. Yes, bands do sell this little room out, but usually not until the night of. Pale Waves, a young band from Manchester, England had their show sold out days, maybe even weeks in advance.

PALE WAVES; photo Lauren Ratkowski

PALE WAVES; photo Lauren Ratkowski

There is no photo pit in this space, just a stage and the fans. Knowing this, I arrived an hour and half early to get my credentials and to be sure I had a good place to work from. Sold out meant it was going to get packed quick, leaving little room for moving around. I ended up at the corner of the stage with a clear view. This was going to have to do. The rest of the room was already a sea of heads.

Shooting from the crowd is always a challenge. Angles and space are limited. Being conscious of others is always a must. And stage lighting in smaller venues is an expected hurdle. Despite those small things, it was refreshing to be shooting outside of the photo pit. It brought back memories of my humble beginnings as a young photographer- sneaking my camera into local venues (including the Observatory) and shooting up at the acts I admired.

PALE WAVES; photo Lauren Ratkowski

PALE WAVES; photo Lauren Ratkowski

Once Pale Waves hit the stage, everyone came alive. Hands in the air, lyrics sang back to goth angel lead singer Heather Barron-Gracie, and small pockets of dancing. Not to sound jaded, but it has been a minute since I’ve seen a young band produce such a passionate following. It speaks volumes to see sold out small venues packed with kids who know every word. Beyond that, that type of energy always bleeds into the photos!

PALE WAVES; photo Lauren Ratkowski

PALE WAVES; photo Lauren Ratkowski

The lighting has improved since I last shot in The Constellation Room, much to my relief. Mixed red and blue lights created an interesting appeal, while white light evenly mixed in to allow the capture of skin tones without washing out. Score! My outpost at the corner of the stage worked out well. I was able to capture some of my favorite shots of the night, especially during the more somber songs of the set when there was some artist-to-fan interaction.

PALE WAVES; photo Lauren Ratkowski

PALE WAVES; photo Lauren Ratkowski

As the set started to come to a close, I started eyeballing places to move to. I scooted across two rows to an empty space just big enough for me to squeeze in. I was now almost dead center, which allowed me to leverage the flying hands in the air as framing devices. I know young photographers who sometimes hate capturing that extra hand/limb/head in the frame, but when you can’t avoid it, you have to use it to your advantage! That move paid off. I ended up with some really strong images from this view point.

Personally, I’m going to bet that we will be seeing Pale Waves in bigger venue spaces before we know it. Between their infectious sound, passionate fans, and confident image, there is no room for failure. Suppose that is my photo lesson of this round- never stop paying attention to the up—and-comers!

Tale From The Photo Pit: One Love Cali Fest 2018

BREWFISH; photo Andy Ortega

BREWFISH; photo Andy Ortega

Even in SoCal, a February outdoor concert can have its risks with the weather but this year, you couldn’t have asked for anything better at the One Love Cali Reggae Fest. As a concert photographer, if there’s any chance of rain, I’ll need to bring some plastic bags and rubber bands to protect my camera. No need for that this time!

The One Love Cali Reggae Fest was held on the grounds of the Queen Mary in Long Beach Harbor. I parked at one of the designated areas, then took the free shuttle to the event. Getting in was smooth and quick thanks to the staff and organization. I went to pick up my media and photo passes. From there, I was directed to go through the VIP line and then through security.

The first show I covered was Long Beach’s own BREWFISH at the Flav stage. Since it was still midday, taking photos was a little more tricky than usual. See, when you’re outdoors on a mostly cloudy day you may need to deal with moving clouds. Moving clouds means changes in brightness. I had to change my settings every so often but they were mostly set at f4, 1/1000th ISO 200.

FORTUNATE YOUTH; photo Andy Ortega

FORTUNATE YOUTH; photo Andy Ortega

After that, I headed to the main stage to cover FORTUNATE YOUTH and MATISYAHU. Fortunate Youth did a wonderful job to get the mid-day concert goers dancing and moving. Then came Matisyahu. The photo pit had more photographers by now so I had to practice photo pit courtesy and carefully squeeze through them, sometimes while ducking, when I needed to change my spot.

J BOOG; photo Andy Ortega

J BOOG; photo Andy Ortega

Another challenge when shooting an outdoor stage comes during sunset. During J BOOG‘s set, I had to update my Nikon’s settings every couple of minutes. Shutter speed goes down, ISO goes up. By the time night has settled in, I was at f2.8, 1/250th, ISO 2500-3200 and stayed there for most of the night.

COLLIE BUDDZ

COLLIE BUDDZ; photo Andy Ortega

For the rest of the performances on the main stage including COLLIE BUDDZ, IRATION and REBELUTION, the photo pit was much busier. It always helps to say “hi” to other photographers and introduce yourself because we’re only able to stay in the photo pit for three songs (unless you have a coveted all-access photo pass) and it’s much easier to work among friends instead bumping and squeezing around strangers.

I’ve got to give it to the One Love Cali Reggae production team. My experience this year was perfect! No photo pass issues, easy entrance, clear and standard photo pit rules, and great security. There was no confusion from staff or security, which happens at large events sometimes.

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.