If there is one genre which can really get the adrenaline pumping, it’s photographing live concerts. Henry Engelbrecht has been capturing local and international bands for several years, and chats to us about the do’s and don’ts of shooting at gigs.
How did you get started with band photography?
Way back in 2012 I took some photos at a live gig organised by a guy I knew. I really enjoyed it, got to photograph a few more shows, and within a year or two I was hooked. These days I get to do it quite often, which is a huge privilege.
Photographing live shows can be a risky business. You must have had a couple of close encounters?
My style is to include as much of the venue and the crowd in my shots as I can to tell the story of what happened at the event, which means that I shoot from within the crowd a lot. So, yes, I have pretty much seen everything, and have been covered in everything from beer, sweat, blood and other unmentionables.
At a Fokofpolisiekar show in 2018, I got in the way of a bass guitar and ended up with seven staples in my head. As luck would have it, it was a show that was held on a Sunday afternoon, which meant that the hospital staff were convinced that I was in a fight and/or drinking. They wouldn’t believe me when I explained to them that I got the wound while taking photos of a rock band.
Favourite bands to photograph and why?
The best bands to photograph are the bands that engage with the crowd. The bands that always make it a show. There are way too many to mention here, but the best examples would be bands like Francois van Coke, Spoegwolf, B.C.U.C., and so on. And I am going to stop here, because I can list at least another 50 bands that fall into this category.
How do you keep your gear safe?
I don’t think you really can, to be honest. Not the way I shoot anyway. The fact that my Fujifilm gear is well-built and water-resistant helps a great deal when I negotiate crowds, stages and media pits.
What are some of the ‘don’ts’ when you are shooting bands?
I can probably write a book about this, but the best is always to remember that you are at an event where hard-working artists are performing in front of people who paid good money to see them do it, and that your actions must not interfere with any of that.
And, yes, then there is always the courtesy you must show the other photographers who are present, which boils down to basic manners and common sense. I am lucky to have great relationships with and huge respect for a lot of the people I shoot with, and it’s almost like a family. Sometimes you come across photographers that have no regard for others, but they do not last long.
How do you feel about using flash when shooting?
I try to avoid flash as much as I can, and this is apart from the fact that you are not allowed to use flash at any of the bigger events anyway. However, there are smaller venues which are just too dark (even when I take out my f/1.4 primes), which almost forces you to use flash if you want to cover the gig in some sort of way. In those cases it is very important that the flash must not distract the band at all, and the trick is to use the flash in such a way that it doesn’t take too much away from the mood of the stage lighting.
Is it difficult to move from doing this as a hobby, to getting paid to shoot bands live?
In South Africa you cannot make a living by just shooting bands, period. There are full-time musicians here, but most of the bands you will take photos of have day jobs that pay the bills. I am lucky enough to be able to do it purely as a hobby (because I also have a day job which pays the bills) and I don’t mind that at all.
Do you have tips for anyone looking to start off with shooting bands/live shows?
Go to your local venue and take photos of your local bands and start to support the scene from there. Do not take anything for granted and build relationships. Bands, venue owners and event organisers have to know that they can trust you when they give you access to their shows.
If you like doing it, and if you do not mind the huge amount of work that comes with it, do it often. You are only as good as the last show you covered.
Can you take us through the gear you use?
I use two Fujifilm X-H1 bodies, which I really like because of the bigger grip and the advantage I get from the in-body image stabilization in low light. What I do can often be compared to trying to take photos of people running around in a very dark room, so I need all the help I can get.
As far as lenses are concerned, my XF16-55mm f/2.8 is my go-to lens and is always on one of the bodies. And depending on the size of the stage and the venue, my XF50-140mm f/2.8 or XF8-16mm goes on the other body. I like to shoot wide, so the 8-16mm is currently my favourite.