Why I think the ‘first three, no flash’ rule in concert photography needs an update
Would Pennie Smith have managed to capture the iconic shot of Paul Simonon smashing his bass guitar, which would later become The Clash’s album cover for London Calling, if she had been escorted out of the pit after the third song?
Our perception of iconic musical legends is determined in part by how they were captured during this time period, and it’s rare to find such a raw image resembling this energy in today’s press, musicians sing arguably performing better on stage and the “first three, non-flash” adding restrictions to what can be captured.
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Contemporary debates in concert and live music photography have been circulating for some time and I think we need to address the industry standard rule that prohibits photographers from using flash and taking pictures after first three songs from an artist’s setlist. I’d like to start by saying that I think the “no flash” part of the rule is completely understandable, and I agree that it shouldn’t be tolerated.
Stage lights can be distracting enough for a performer without the added blinding of an unexpected camera flash, and if we’re being honest, it really isn’t necessary if your camera performs well in low light conditions. lighting or has an extended ISO range. With the exception of film cameras and granted permissions, you should never use flash at a concert, especially if you are shooting from the photo pit.
That being clarified, I think it’s important to note the origins of the first three, no flash politics and how it came to be. In a 2009 interview with Chicago-based music photographer Paul Natkin, he suggests it started in the ’80s.” Bruce [Springsteen] would go on stage, and there would be 50 photographers, all shooting flashes in his face… he walked off the stage one night and said, ‘we have to do something about this'”.
Paul continues, “Someone said, ‘Why don’t we let them run the first fifteen minutes?’…at a normal rock concert, a song is about five minutes long. Someone said, let’s shooting them the first three songs. So it started with him and the people of that era. That’s also when MTV started, and everybody wanted to look perfect, like in their videos.
One thing that I found particularly interesting in this interview with Natkin was when he shared an anecdote of a band from Chicago, jesus lizard, who once asked him “Why is it that as soon as our show starts getting really good, all the photographers pack up their things and leave?” giving Natkin the realization that most bands don’t know the three-song rule and, in fact, it’s up to the band and not instead to decide how long photographers are allowed to shoot.
This led Natkin to explain the policy to jesus lizard which, following the conversation with Natkin, allowed the photographers to shoot their entire set in Lollapalooza in the 90s, which resulted in a photo dressed in a sunset of them surfing the crowd that graced the cover of The New York Times.
It could be argued that the rule also exists because of music magazines like New Musical Express (NME), which in the 80s cared so little about a musician’s reputation that they deliberately selected images from the rock royalty photographed with their eyes closed. or stumble for its cover pages, as said in The history of the NME, a fantastic book by Pat Long.
Today’s press certainly knows better than to post unflattering images or start a Twitter feud with a musician, and knows how to protect themselves from being sued politically for defamation. So we have now established how this rule came into existence, but why does it still exist in today’s industry? Or at least why has it not been updated and still retains outdated measures put in place in the 80s?
I had always photographed in crowds when I started as a music photographer, yes I was only 14 and finding my feet, but it wasn’t until I moved to Brighton and that I started acquiring photo passes that I was abruptly escorted out of the photo pit halfway through a group shoot at Concorde 2, and I couldn’t understand why. The more gigs I shot the more I started to question the need for this policy, the main issue for me as a slow shooter being the lack of time you had to capture the ‘ultimate’ shot.
The application of the first three, no flash photography policies may depend on the size of the venue as well as the press and media requests made by the artist and his public relations. Many larger bands now employ their own tour photographers with access to all areas to photograph each show and backstage portraits, naturally removing the need for press photographers if a band has its own employed photographer.
While studying music journalism in college, I conducted investigative and action research that found that in small local venues, about 8 out of 10 people had no idea that the top three, no flash policy existed. All the venue managers, promoters and security I spoke with knew that I had been given some kind of permission to have my camera at the show, but the idea of only being allowed to shoot three songs was disconcerting and unprecedented for them.
On the other hand, a number of photographers believe that if you can’t capture the images you need in the first three songs of a setlist, then you shouldn’t be in the business. A fair point, though, the first three songs in my own experience can be the dullest and give the most boring imagery, especially in smaller venues when the band starts to warm up. It also depends of course on the production scale of the show and the lighting performance.
With larger arena shows, the best shots you’ll capture are likely to be towards the end of the night when the pyrotechnics and whimsical confetti cannons emerge, with punk bands really getting into the swing with jumps and water spitting in the crowd.
It should be noted that most venues allow photographers to continue taking pictures of the crowd after leaving the pit to get those wider “mood shots”, although I often felt uncomfortable about getting into the bustling crowd and having to disturb people by navigating through them to the perfect spot, while protecting my gear from airborne beer.
The other side of this debate is that the three-song delay allows commissioned photographers to relax and enjoy the rest of the show at their leisure, without the pressure of having to shoot an entire show or setlist. While I can certainly see the benefit of this, I think ideally a photographer should be allowed to choose whether to stay or go (pardon the Clash pun) and given the ability to return to the pit at any time throughout the show to keep trying for the winning shot.
I think there needs to be a review of the first three, no flash policy at live events, not necessarily revoking the rule, but adjusting it to benefit both parties in a more reliable era of photography Press. There are certainly things to consider such as the photo pit space itself, as during shows in heavier musical genres, security is often needed to lift surfers over the pit barrier, a clearer space with no photographers in the pit all the time would surely benefit from keeping the crowd safe.
I’m no expert, but having a photographer choose their three songs throughout the set might be a better compromise, being able to shoot both the start and end of a show, with just one or two photographers per song, or maybe have a song (or multiples) assigned to each photographer that they can shoot during.
More rule clarity and attention is definitely a must, making groups aware that they have the power to allow photographers to stay for the full set, as well as making photographers (and shooters) aware crowd on smartphone) of the common courtesy of not using flash. or be a hindrance to others.
What do you think of this policy? Have you heard of it? Let us know by commenting on our social feeds below the article.
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