Return Of The Dreads: A Tale From The Photo Pit


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.

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.

Wyatt Blair: A Tale From The Photo Pit

Wyatt Blair

Wyatt Blair played The Wayfarer Jul 31; photo Andy Ortega

When Wyatt Blair jumped onto the stage at The Wayfarer in Costa Mesa, I admit, I had to pause for a minute in shock. Wyatt Blair was the real deal. My 80’s childhood began to flash before my eyes. Was he really wearing one of those long dangling silver earrings on his left ear? You know, the ones all the cool class of 1987 kids wore? Yes, it was really happening and it was totally awesome.

The Wayfarer was previously known as Detroit Bar until 2014 when it changed owners and its name. It was my first time at The Wayfarer since the change. As I walked in, I noticed that they removed some walls which made it feel more spacious. They definitely made some great improvements that turned this venue into a modern, trendy, live music bar.

Wyatt Blair

Wyatt Blair played The Wayfarer Jul 31; photo Andy Ortega

There isn’t a photo pit at this venue, which means that you’ll need to get there early if you want to get close-up photos or you’ll need to squeeze through the crowd as best as you can. The lighting here has been upgraded and it’s now top notch. I can name a few concert venues that don’t compare to The Wayfarer’s lights. For photography, this means I can lower my ISO settings and increase my shutter speed for more crisp, colorful shots.

Wyatt Blair’s music has been compared to the sound of the movie Top Guns’ soundtrack. That was the exact impression I had as they started their set. The band included a guitarist, a bass guitarist and of course, a keyboardist. Can’t leave out those synths, sound effects and electronic drums in an 80’s band, right? The entire band was clad in 80’s-style pastel colors and jean jackets, with the female bass guitarist donning a side ponytail.

Pierce The Veil: A Tale From The Photo Pit


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 / 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!

A Tale From The Photo Pit: Flogging Molly


FLOGGING MOLLY photo: Lauren Ratkowski

The best way for some to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day is by wearing green (to avoid getting pinched, of course) and to drink copious amounts of green beer. This year I went against the grain and shot Flogging Molly at Irvine Meadows Amphitheater. After all, there is no better way for a music photographer to celebrate any holiday!

I had never shot at this venue, so I arrived a little early not sure what to expect. Being it was a Thursday night, not many attendees were present, which made parking and getting inside a piece of cake. I had 5 minutes until the first band, Hepcat, got on stage, so I went straight to the photo pit.

One other photographer was waiting, but I arrived just as security was telling him that our yellow wristbands didn’t grant us access to the pit. Great. As we waited, Hepcat made it through their entire first song. Double great. We were finally let in just as the second song began.

Irvine Meadows is outdoors, so when Hepcat was playing, I was able to use natural light. This is a luxury I often don’t get. And it was nearing sundown, which is one of the most perfect times to be shooting – everything has a great golden hue that just can’t be beat.

Next up was Gogol Bordello. I made the ultimate mistake of not checking them out before the show, but as soon as they stepped on stage, there was magic in the air. Each member of the band was theatrically dressed and their front man had that energy that is required to create the best live music shots. The sun had gone down by this point, but one thing I love about amphitheaters is that they ALWAYS have great stage lighting. Flowers were shot into the audience, two women in the band flipped around stage, that crazy front man bounced all around, and each of the seven members had the spotlight at some point during the performance. I left the photo pit still trying to process what just actually happened, but I was so in love with their performance, I was perfectly ok with my slightly confused state.

Flogging Molly entered the pub…errr, I mean, the stage they had decorated to look like a pub…to be greeted by screaming fans covered in green attire. With a Guinness in hand, front man Dave King welcomed everyone to the venue. Although not as energetic as Gogol Bordello, Flogging Molly brought their own excitement to the stage. Their pub-like backdrop on stage gave my photos a different look, which I’m always searching for. Their lighting was spot on, which allowed me to stay within a small bracket of shutter speeds and focus on creating rather than worrying about constantly checking my settings.

Photographing a holiday show was something new for me, but it was a great experience!

Nick Carter: Tale From The Photo Pit


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 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: 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!

Five Finger Death Punch Heads Ontario Lineup

Five Finger Death Punch

Five Finger Death Punch headlined Citizens Bank Arena photo: Reuben Martinez

New to shooting at The Citizens Bank Arena in Ontario, I walked in not knowing what to expect but excited to see three bands I really liked.

First up was In This Moment who know how to give a great performance. Singer Maria Brink, with her two dancers, portrayed songs like “Big Bad Wolf” wearing wolf masks. This is what’s exciting as a photographer, seeing the presence of each song and documenting each move when all of the band members play a part.

Papa Roach came next with a full energetic set. Singer Jacoby Shaddix made his presence known by going into the crowd a few times then later, he and guitarist Jerry Horton played a couple acoustic songs in the center of the crowd. As the lighting radiated throughout the place, I was able to still get great shots from outside the photo pit.

Finally, the band everyone came to see was up next, Five Finger Death Punch. Singer Ivan Moody approached his 180 pound silver mic-stand adorned with a skull, grenades and bullets on the base with the microphone set into a handgun.

I was enraptured by the moment, taking shots of the mic stand alone. Approaching each member of the band, I tried to capture every possible angle but, it was hard to keep an eye open while taking it all in.

This band knows how to get their audience’s attention. From bringing kids onstage to having everyone turn on their cell phone lights, as a photographer, I try to seize every moment.

Five Finger Death Punch delivered a powerful performance and their music fits their name. This music is my preference. Great show. Great venue. Well played.