A crowd of people watch music on a huge festival stage in the sun. Photo by Bart Heemskerk.


Photographer to rock royalty, Bart Heemskerk, on capturing the feeling of a festival

"Music is the love and photography is the tool," says Dutch music photographer Bart Heemskerk. He shoots major festivals and concerts across Europe, capturing big names including Nick Cave, Lana Del Rey and Dua Lipa – a role that led to an enviable invitation to photograph the Rolling Stones.

This summer he'll be touring around 40 festivals to photograph them, driven by his passion for music. Here he tells his inspiring story, packed with tips that you can try out with a compact camera at this summer's outdoor events.

"I always listened to the radio and recorded the music chart shows as a child. Later I went to gigs with my father and fell in love with the festival scene when I attended the Pinkpop Festival in the Netherlands at the age of 15," says the 33-old-old photographer.

A few years after his first festival experience, Bart got a chance to borrow a Canon EOS 400D (an earlier version of the Canon EOS 800D). He quickly realised that having a camera allows you to enjoy your time at festivals even more – by capturing the fun away from the stage as well as getting creative shots of the world's best live acts.

After spending time building a portfolio voluntarily photographing music events, he quit working as a teacher to make photography his career: "Ten years after attending my first festival, I was back at Pinkpop with a commission to photograph the Dutch band Kensington, who I had gotten to know by first offering to photograph them for free in return for getting access to more of their gigs," Bart says. The following year, he got a call he'd never expected – from international rock legends the Rolling Stones, asking him to photograph them.

"The Rolling Stones were going on a tour in 2014 and they saw me on the internet – they had searched online for photographers in the Netherlands. So they contacted the Pinkpop festival and enquired. That was a surreal moment!"

The band invited him to photograph their European tour, giving him backstage access to some of the most famous musicians in the world. "Touring with the Stones felt like family," Bart says. "We joked around. Keith [Richards] was the most fun to work with. He was such a laugh. I had to shoot the meet-and-greets with fans and bookers, and I got an all-area pass so I could go wherever I wanted – backstage, in front of the stage. I was part of the crew and had dinner with everyone else, went to the sound checks and so on."

Bart kept in touch with the Rolling Stones after this and even joined them on tour again in 2017.

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Find the light, then work with it

"You never know what the lighting is going to be like, and that's one of the most fun parts of being a concert photographer. You just have to work with the light that you've got," says Bart.

To make the most of the lighting, he recommends that you move around instead of staying in one spot. "If the light is shining from above onto someone's face, it's different from the left side than when you stand in front of them, or when you walk further back," he says.

"Light repeats itself. If an artist is standing behind his microphone and I see a nice yellow, white or blue light beam repeating on his face and he's moving in and out of it, I just pick the shot where it's on his face, or around it to get a nice silhouette."

If you're photographing a well-known act, watching their previous live concerts online can also help you anticipate what's going to happen. "Sometimes, you see an artist jumping into the crowd during the second song, and you see it at another show and another, so you know it's going to happen where you are. Then you just have to pick your spot."

For camera settings and tips about photographing in different light conditions, read our festival photography tips.

Get varied with your framing

When it comes to choosing how to photograph concerts and music festivals, "People often put the subject in the middle of the frame and take lots of photos of the same thing, just zoomed in on the main artist, which can get boring," Bart says.

Instead, he suggests varying your compositions, framing subjects on the left or the right of shot. "Get a cool shot of one artist, pick one or two, and then get a wide shot or some involvement with the crowd. If you do decide to put your subject in the middle, there has to be something happening – maybe a jump, the artist's arms flung wide, or them looking to camera."

"You want to capture the feeling of the festival, and every festival has its unique vibe."

Sun sets above a huge festival display. Photo by Bart Heemskerk.

Don't miss the highlight of a concert

"Cameras are so good at focusing these days, so when an artist is moving back and forth, I prefer using autofocus instead of manually focusing," Bart says. By selecting the right autofocus points, he's able to keep his subjects pin sharp even when they're racing across the stage, crowd-surfing or in the middle of a fast dance routine.

On a compact camera such as the Canon PowerShot SX740 HS, clicking on the menu button on the back of your camera will allow you to select an autofocus mode under Shooting Settings. Tracking AF follows your subject – for example, a singer moving around on stage – so you can capture the action without fear of blurry shots.

Under Shooting Settings, you can also select drive modes and pick High Speed Continuous. This enables you to continue taking pictures for as long as you hold your finger down on the shutter button.

"I normally use the continuous shooting mode in case a hand gets in front of my camera or the singer's eyes are closed," Bart says. "A jump from Eddie Vedder from Pearl Jam, for example, is just a second and you really want to capture it. But when it's a singer-songwriter or someone behind the piano or an artist that is standing just behind his microphone, you can use your single shot. Just pick the right moment."

The best camera for festival photography

Many festivals won't let you bring in big DSLRs, unless you've got press accreditation, so it's useful to have a small camera with a capable zoom, such as the Canon PowerShot SX740 HS, advises Bart.

"You'll be standing in a crowd, so it's a good idea to have a camera with a tilting screen [so you can shoot from more angles]. It can help to have a camera with image stabilisation, such as the 5-axis Stabilisation on the PowerShot SX740 HS. There are a lot of people moving around you at events, and [particularly if you're holding your camera up high or at an angle] IS can make a big difference in avoiding camera shake."

If you use a camera with interchangeable lenses, such as the Canon EOS M50, Bart recommends taking just two lenses with you to events. "I bring one wide prime lens and one tele-zoom lens so you can capture the wide shots and action at a range of distances or focal lengths," he says.

A fixed lens such as the Canon EF-M 32mm f/1.4 STM lens has a wider aperture, to let more light into your shots and offer shorter exposures, while the Canon EF-M 55-200mm f/4.5-6.3 IS STM lens lets you zoom in and out of scenes.

The key to getting interesting festival shots

"I always say that you should be photographing a festival the way the audience experiences it, not the way a photographer sees it," Bart says. "These days, every festival has things going on around the main stage, such as food markets. You want to capture the feeling of the festival, and every festival has its unique vibe to shoot. You might want to have a nice, yellow sunset with people lying around, relaxing and enjoying the music. Maybe some people are doing yoga or have a hula hoop. These moments are so valuable.

"If you're on a big Ferris wheel or you've gone up one of the cranes that have a lookout over the festival, that's a good time to use the wide-angle lens, to get a view of the whole festival. You don't want to use a zoom lens then, because you can only get a small part of the festival in the frame."

After photographing so many incredible acts at atmospheric shows, does Bart have a favourite photo? "I think the photos from the 2013 show with Kensington at Pinkpop," he says. "It was my first time photographing on stage at such a big festival. It still touches me emotionally when I see one of those photos. But I also tour regularly with Armin van Buuren, the DJ, and a couple of years ago I got an amazing shot of him in Miami, at Ultra Music Festival. After the show, he saw the photo and he said: 'It combines all of me in one photo.' When the artist says something like that to you, that makes it unique, right?"

Written by Lucy Fulford

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