Posted on June 17, 2012 10:43 pm Categorised in:

Free Press Summerfest, year 4. I have successfully photographed every year and every year seen not only the festival grow in terms of the scope of performers and attendance, but my own personal vision grow with it.

The year one headliners were Of Montreal and Explosions in the Sky, year two it was The Flaming Lips, last year it was Weezer and Ween and this year Snoop Dogg, Willie Nelson, Pretty Lights and Afrojack co-headlined. There is no doubt that this year’s festival was the largest with an estimated 92K+ through the gates which is way up from an estimated 60K in 2011.

Is it just me or are we smack-dab in the middle of a festival renaissance?  Traveling festivals like The Van’s Warped Tour and Ozzfest have existed for a decade or two, but there seem to be new festivals popping up all over the place…and they are growing too!

I, for one, love it. Sure (especially in Houston) festivals can be long, hot, sweaty, tiring, and you’re guaranteed to wake up with a sun-burn come Monday, but given my love of photographing artists and music, where else can I photograph a live performance with a gorgeous blue sky and the skyline of my city as my backdrop? For photographers that cover as many entertainment-related events as I do, we whole-heartedly welcome the opportunity to shoot at ISO 200 and work with something other than a bland, dark, stage. I know others that are rather pessimistic at the thought, but when it comes to festivals, sign me up.

This year’s Summerfest was particularly exciting due to the fact that not only was I photographing the festival like I had in years past, but my own band, Square and Compass had been selected to play the festival. Needless to say, preparation was definitely key to being able to manage performing in a band as well as bringing home quality images. That being said, my usually kit for photographing a normal evening live performance at a club or venue is one body and one, maybe  two, lenses. I try to keep my shoulder bag pretty light and unassuming so a Canon 5D mark III sans grip with a Canon 35mm 1.4L and maybe the Canon 24-105mm f4L is about all I carry. I plan on being at festivals for 12+ hours, in the heat, and not only photographing live music at different hours of the day, but lots of feature stuff as well.

In the weeks leading up to the festival I received several questions from my fellow photographers on how to prepare to photograph a music festival. On a whim, the day before the festival I decided to put together a short behind-the-scenes gear preparation video explaining a bit on what I take and why I take it with my trusty iPhone 4s. Its nothing special since I was short on time and it was shot with a cell phone, so don’t expect much, but if you’re at all interested, check it out below.

Music festival photo gear prep with Houston commercial photographer Todd Spoth from Todd Spoth on Vimeo.

SATURDAY, DAY 1: Day 1 started pretty early at around 9:30am. Luckily this year I had the good fortune of being able to have an assistant with me at all times. My good friend Chris Lue who has accompanied me on many live music adventures over the last several years picked me up and we headed downtown. Getting to the festival grounds early meant up close parking which was a big plus. After getting our badges the first order of business is to locate and set up shop in the media tent. Since I was having to transmit images live on a deadline that means that I had to make sure my laptop would have a safe place to live during the day and wifi was available. Even though I am for the most part familiar with the general layout of Summerfest, I like to walk around the entire festival grounds early on the first day to make sure I know where the different stages are located. Another thing I like to do is chat up the security guards at each stage early in the day when its slow and they are just standing around. If you sneak a Red Bull from the artists’ tent and give them to the security at the main stages, you’ll be golden for the entire fest, regardless of what your pass says. I pretty much had the best access out of anyone, but I like to at least attempt to make that connection early in the day, since I know that later on when the headliners are slotted to perform and I’m running from stage to stage trying to photograph everything I can, that connection just might save my ass.

The first actual performance I photographed was local outfit The Sideshow Tramps on the main stage, from there we bounced around before catching an awesome set of Morris Day and The Time, followed up by Z-Ro and Major Lazer on the same stage. One of the acts I was really excited to see was Snoop Dogg, however his stage manager proceeded to boot nearly everyone from the stage and refused to let any photographers or videographers near his set. We managed to make it up to the VIP area which overhang each side of the stage, but the stage view was mostly obstructed by scaffolding. We still managed to catch a few songs then bolted for the other main stage to prepare for The Flaming Lips.

Over at the smaller main stage, we were fortunate enough to catch the second half of Erykah Badu’s set which to our sadness did NOT feature “Tyrone”. After her set the preparation started for The Flaming Lips. Now I knew going into it that I had a lot of pressure to top my Flaming Lips image from two years back, and although Im not entirely sure that I topped it, I think I came fairly close. I’m admittedly not the biggest Lips fan, but shooting them live in 2010 was one of the funnest live performances to attend AND shoot and since photography at a Lips live show is like shooting fish in a barrel it was a must for me. After what seemed like an extra hour of delay, the band busted into a short set of their own jams before barreling head first into Pink Floyd’s classic Dark Side of The Moon which they played in its entirety. After the first three songs I moved from the front of the stage, onstage just to the right of the guitarists which was the absolute best seat in the house. I was in-between Erykah Badu with a foil cape on, jumping up and down the entire time and a grown man in a felt lion costume losing his mind. It was a party the entire time. I LOVE the Dark Side of The Moon record so to see it live like that was amazing. Throw in a ton of balloons, endless confetti, and 5 huge balloons filled with cash money (courtesy of Snoop Dogg) made it unbelievable. I happened to do a portrait of The Flaming Lips front man, Wayne Coyne backstage earlier in the day and chatted him up a bit. He is one of the nicest guys and one of the most captivating front men I have ever seen, and I have seen a ton. How was day 2 going to top this?!

SUNDAY, DAY 2: Everyone on day 2 is a little bit slower, a little bit more tired and always show up a bit later, which is why I try and get there fairly early to catch the early acts of day 2. My #1 goal of day 2 was to get their early, get good parking once again and try and get several feature options to send off to my client before things got hectic later in the day. We started off walking the festival grounds and found quite a few nice features prior to stumbling on Austin’s Suite 709 on a side stage shortly after noon. I was walking by and their sound stopped me dead in my tracks. These guys were a little funk, a little Motown and a little rock and roll and I fell in love with their sound instantly. I made some images of them while I enjoyed the jams and they were nice enough to give me a few advanced copies of their forthcoming album Night & Day and boy is it awesome. After their set we headed over to see local favorites, Wild Moccasins on the same stage where The Flaming Lips played hours prior. The ground was still littered with confetti which was a welcomed sight as the Moccasins tore into their set of bubbly indie pop. I love those kids. Soon thereafter, we were in the media tent tearing through the frames I had just shot, editing and transmitting to the client. The initial plan was successful as I had just enough time to change and head over to the stage where I was performing before Square and Compass took the stage. Our own set went off without a hitch. It was definitely hot, but we had an awesome crowd and had a blast. Even though I was unable to operate a camera while playing guitar, I was able to setup (2) GoPro Hero2 HD cameras on stage to capture video of the set.

I allowed myself just enough time to change in the middle of the street, grab some water before we regrouped and headed back to the media tent to prepare for the second half of the day. Before Willie’s set I stopped by the paint slide which was a blast to photograph last year. Willie Nelson’s set was fun to photograph. There were too many Texas flags to count which is more than appropriate. Their plot took up less than half of the main stage and seemed so intimate with small combo amps, a grand piano and several decorative rugs underneath the bands’ feet. I guess that’s the way Willie likes it, which is fine by me.

After Willie we headed up to photograph a bit of our good friends’ Touche Amore’s set and then headed over to the smaller main stage to gear up for The Descendents. This was the second time to see them in the past two years which is amazing since they are incredible live. “Bikeage” is a personal favorite, so hearing that from the stage was pretty magical. Primus was up next. We caught a couple of songs of their set then worked our way back to the main stage to set up for Pretty Lights the headliner for day 2.

I really didn’t know exactly what to expect with Pretty Lights. I gathered that I had better plan to photograph the set since it would most likely have pretty lights and boy was that an understatement. Apparently the musical portion is a singular DJ that plays everything from glitch-hop to dub step from an on-stage platform surrounded by one of THE most insane lighting setups I have seen live. The music started off decent, with some hip-hop, but got progressively worse as the set progressed, however I was so entranced by the lights and focused on photographing them that I really wasn’t paying too much attention. For one thing, shooting with auto-exposure is a crap-shoot in a situation like this since your camera’s meter is going berserk with a lighting setup like that. Either way I was able to make some awesome frames from their set. After a handful of songs I moved back onto the hill and perched on top of a VERY unstable table for a few songs before we slipped out the back gate and were on the freeway home before the flood of people were able to block our path.


A hill full of people watches Sunday headliner, Pretty Lights, perform.

Even though I had transmitted early in the day I still had to transmit a batch from the headliners shortly after so getting out of there and avoiding the crowds were a must. If you’re shooting a festival either plan on staying for the long-haul and waiting for the majority of the crowd to disperse after the headliner’s set or have an exit strategy in place a few songs before the headliner finishes otherwise plan on being stuck in a flood of people heading to their cars and probably traffic as well.

MONDAY: Surprise, surprise. Despite my efforts of applying copious amounts of SPF 110, I still had gotten a good amount of sun, but I had a blast. After it was all said and done I walked away with 4144 total images and edited 124 for the gallery slideshow below. Nothing was broken, lost or stolen, all of the clients were happy, my own band’s performance was awesome and I got paid to watch some amazing live music from the best seats in the house. I had about 8 Red Bulls and learned that I ACTUALLY like them. I remember hating Red Bull prior to the weekend. Between the Red Bulls and the awesome baguettes in the artists’ lounge, I was covered for the entire weekend. I can’t wait for 2013!

Check out the slideshow and let me know what you think!

Click here to check out my Summerfest coverage from 2011! // Click here to check out my Summerfest coverage from 2010!