The challenges of shooting rock ‘n’ roll

One of the things I love about my job is that it occasionally allows me to shoot concerts. Some I want to see, like The Mynabirds, and others aren’t my style, such as Cher.

I want to clear up two questions I always get: Yes, it can be fun, but it is really hard work (more on that later).  Also, I do not get to go hang out backstage or even meet the band on most occasions.

Conor Oberst plays with Omaha-based Bright Eyes with at the Westfair Amphitheater in Council Bluffs in June 2011.


For most big concerts, you’re only allowed to shoot photos during the first three songs.  You’re escorted into the pit (the area between the stage and the crowd where security is), then escorted out out when your three songs are done.  The major tours of the year make you sign contracts about what you are allowed to do with the photos. Some bands will try and make you sign away ownership of the photos to them (I NEVER sign those).

Todd Fink, lead singer of The Faint, is silhouetted against the intense light show that is a trademark of the band at the Maha Music Festival in July 2010.


I prefer local musicians and smaller venues because they allow more access.  It’s much easier to take a creative risk when you don’t have the three-song limit ticking away in the back if your mind. I have time to take my “safety” shots and my “artsy” shots.

Concerts are full of emotion and movement, and my job is translate that into still images. Some artists have better stage presence than others. A charismatic musician makes that part of my job easy.

Laura Burhenn of The Mynabirds performs at The Waiting Room in March 2012.

Nik Fackler of InDreama puts on a show at the Slowdown.


If it is an indoor show at a small venue, light can be scarce. This forces me to use slower shutter speeds and high ISO speeds, sometimes not the most appealing options. Some shows have frantic displays with lights that flicker. The amount of light falling on the subject can more than triple and go back to dark in less than a second. I have time time my shots with the light show while hoping the musician is doing something photogenic in that minuscule window of when the light is just right. I have used a slower shutter speed to my advantage to convey the fury of Cully Symington of Cursive.

Cully Symington of Cursive at The Waiting Room. in January 2011.


Smaller concert venues are known providing intimacy between the musician and the audience. When the kids rock out to the song, they often pulse with the beat. If you are standing in the middle of them, it can make the task of shootings photos very difficult. I made this short video of what it was like to shoot a Cursive show at The Waiting Room standing near the front of a frantic crowd.

Now imagine me holding two cameras and having a fanny pack strapped to my waist as all that is going on.


A common mistake young photographers make at concerts is to ignore the audience. There are wonderful images to be had by turning the camera the other direction. I like to think of it as snapshot of pop culture at that moment in time.

Sarah Briseno takes a photo of Conor Oberst as he performs with Bright Eyes in August 2010 in Benson.

The intense light show highlights the crowd as The Faint plays their show at the Maha Musical Festival.

The intense light show highlights the crowd as The Faint plays at the Maha Music Festival in July 2010.


Photographing musicians doesn’t even have to happen at formal concerts. I ran into Randal Turner in the Old Market for a story on street musicians in Omaha.  It was a steamy August evening and his sweat glistened as the sunset’s light filled his face.

Randal Turner plays on the southeast corner of 11th and Howard Streets in July 2010.


Another standout show for me was the Omaha Girls Rock! camp last summer. The weeklong camp teaches young women in Omaha music and self-expression. The week culminated with a showcase of the girls playing a concert at the Slowdown.

Cori Johnson, 10, of the band Misschief Managed gets the crowd rocking with her at the Omaha Girls Rock Showcase at the Slowdown in July 2011.


Some of my favorite shows from recent years:

Cursive  (January 2011)

Concert for Equality (July 2010)

Aerosmith (August 2010)

Dave Matthews Band (September 2010)

2010 Maha Music Festival (July 2010)

Red Sky Music Festival (July 2011)

Throwdown at the Slowdown (December 2010)

Omaha Girls Rock! camp (July 2011)

2010 SBA Marching Band Competition  (October 2010)


Be sure to check out The Omaha World-Herald’s music blog, Rock Candy, at

Chris Machian

About Chris Machian

I was born in Omaha, graduated from the University of Nebraska at Omaha with a journalism degree in 2004 and have spent most of my life here. I was a photo intern with the Omaha World-Herald in 2003 and had various roles with the company before becoming a staff photographer. I love to shoot UNO hockey and last year placed video and still cameras inside the goal to provide our readers with another unique perspective. My goal is to use available technology in ways that help our readers understand the stories we cover. For instance, in 2011 I used Gigapan technology to provide a wide view of flooded areas while allowing users to zoom in on the smaller details. My love of this job extends beyond disasters and sporting events; I also enjoy covering the events that help define Omaha's cultural landscape.
This entry was posted in Viewfinder, Viewfinder - carousel, Viewfinder - Featured, Viewfinder archive and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.


  1. Jolene McHugh Jolene McHugh says:

    Excellent blog!!!!

  2. Jin says:

    Redemption is found at the bottom of a bottle, and miracles happen nightly on bar stages across America.”
    Amen Bowman. Your writing is fresh and poignant. I’d like to see more.