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Category: Gear

Preparing to Photograph Bonnaroo for Red Bull

Photo by Jordan Dunn

Back in April, I checked my email one day and found an email from a photo editor at Red Bull…

“Hey Brad, We’re filling up our photographer roster for Bonnaroo and are hoping that you are free and would be down to work with us on it. If you are interested and able to do it, let us know, and we can give you more details.”


Well, that wasn’t my exact reply, but it may as well have been. We exchanged a few more emails to go over logistics and whatnot over the next few months leading up to the event, and I was all set!

I had never been to Bonnaroo before, nor had I worked with Red Bull before. So I had lots of questions about what to expect, what photo gear I needed to be as prepared as possible, and what other miscellaneous things I needed to survive being out in the summer heat for four days. Thankfully, I had Drew Gurian on speed dial to help me with all of this! He’s been to Bonnaroo many times and has been working with Red Bull for years.

As some of you may already know, Drew and I go all the way back to my days of assisting Joe McNally. He took over the first assistant role with Joe after I moved on to work with Scott Kelby, and we’ve remained good friends since then. We often call each other to discuss navigating the freelance photographer life and bounce ideas off each other when we’re working on things.

Anyway, after chatting with Drew multiple times, I stocked up on memory cards, extra camera batteries, a cooling towel, sun block, and mentally prepared myself to walk upwards of 10 miles a day around the Bonnaroo Festival site. To some, that may not sound like a lot, but when you live in a city where the primary mode of transportation is getting in your vehicle and driving 20 minutes to get just about anywhere, it can seem daunting.

Here’s a breakdown of the gear I used at the festival:

I wanted to make sure I captured the best, highest quality images I could, so I got a couple of the blazing fast 1DX Mark II bodies from Canon. These, coupled with the “lens trinity,” set me up for success in the photo pits while shooting sets and around the festival grounds capturing lifestyle images. I used the 24-70mm f/2.8 a little here and there, but for the most part I stuck to the 70-200mm f/2.8 and 11-24mm f/4.

Over the past few years, I’ve had a certain brand of memory cards fail on me pretty reliably, so I made sure I had at least a couple of fast, sizable SanDisk cards to primarily use. At one point, I stuck the other brand of card in my camera (I had some as backups) and it immediately gave me a “card not readable” error, so I tossed it and put the SanDisk back in. Still had to use the other brand of card readers though as they’re the most available and affordable ones, but I had four of them just in case any of them failed.

I also mentioned making sure that the CF cards were fast. This is vital in an environment where turnaround time is a high priority. If you’re working in an area where you need to have images going up online as soon as possible, you don’t want to be the person who is holding everything up because you cheaped out on memory cards to save $30. When you’re purchasing memory cards, always look at BOTH the read and write speeds. Just because they say 120 MB/s or 800x instead of 160 MB/s or 1066x on them doesn’t mean that applies to both speeds. You may not see a noticeable difference when you’re shooting, but when you’re waiting an extra 10 minutes for your card to download and everyone else is done editing and uploading their photos, you’ll know why that card was so much cheaper.

After reading this guest blog from Adam Elmakias about wrist and back injuries, I sought out a SpiderHolster dual camera belt and found one that my buddy Pete Collins let me borrow. This took all the weight of the cameras and lenses off my shoulders and put it on my hips and legs. It took a little getting used to, but I eventually started getting the pins that attach to the bottom of the camera into the holster pretty quickly. If you haven’t used this before and want to give it a shot, just make sure your shirt stays tucked into the belt and doesn’t get in the way of the holsters! Pete also let me borrow the SpiderPro Hand Straps, which helped me keep a good grip on the cameras and alleviate some of the weight on my wrist when shooting.

Also, not knowing how many batteries I would be going through each day, I rented four extra Canon LP-E4N batteries from to make sure I was covered. Thankfully, the new LP-E19 batteries that came with the 1DX Mark II bodies lasted all day every day. There was a day where one was down to two notches with one set left to shoot, so I put a fresh one in to be safe. But, it probably would’ve lasted through that last set without any problems. So, while I could look at the rented batteries as wasted money, I still feel like I did the right (and professional) thing by making sure I showed up with all the tools I needed to get the job done.

And, surprise to me, this was the first time I’ve ever had an assistant for shooting concerts! I didn’t know I was going to have one until I received the production guide about a week before the festival. So I touched base with him ahead of time to talk through expectations, what I did and didn’t know about the festival and what we would be doing, and to give him a chance to ask me any questions he had.

Our first day of shooting was Thursday, June 8, so the photo team all arrived in Manchester, Tennessee on June 7. Last year, the team had to make a 30-45 minute drive each way to their hotel and back to the festival every day. This year, Red Bull was amazing enough to put us up in a place in Manchester (next to a Cracker Barrel even!) so we didn’t have to make that drive when we finished each night anywhere between 2:00am and 4:00am. Once we all arrived, I went to dinner with the other two photographers so I could get to know them a bit before getting into the heat of the festival.

Next up… Bonnaroo Workflow

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Choosing Camera Lenses

Choosing lenses can be confusing with so many things to take into consideration… Focal length, maximum aperture, weight, price, prime vs. zoom, etc. I’m going to try and break things down as best I can and hopefully give you a better understanding of all this so you can make a more informed decision on what to purchase.

What Do All Those Numbers Mean?
When looking at lenses, you’re going to see lots of different numbers. The first ones are going to be followed by mm. So, 24-70mm or 70-200mm or 16-35mm or whatever. This is the focal length. The smaller the number, the “wider” the lens, so these are called wide angle lenses. The bigger the number, the “longer” the lens, and these are called telephoto lenses once they’re 70mm or more. After these numbers, you’ll see some that start with f/. So, f/2.8, f/4, f/3.5-5.6, etc. This is the maximum f-stop or aperture (the terms are relatively interchangeable). The lower the number, the “faster” the lens, aka glass. The bigger the number, the “slower” the lens/glass. Let’s dig into these two sets of numbers a little deeper…

Zoom vs. Prime Lenses
If you see two numbers, like 24-70mm, on a lens, that means it’s a zoom lens. These lenses let you get closer to or further away from your subject without physically moving yourself to do so. If there’s only one number, like 35mm, this means it’s a fixed focal length, or “prime,” lens. So if you want to get closer or further away from your subject, you have to “zoom with your feet,” as Joe McNally says.

Fixed vs. Variable Aperture
If you see one number, like f/2.8, on a lens, that means it’s a fixed aperture lens. All prime lenses are fixed aperture, as well as some zoom lenses. This means that no matter what focal length the lens is at, your maximum aperture will remain the same. If you see two numbers, like f/3.5-5.6, then it’s a variable aperture lens. This means that as you zoom the lens in or back out, the maximum aperture is going to change. If I’m using an 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 lens, the maximum aperture will change from f/3.5 when I’m at 18mm and then incrementally increase to f/5.6 as I zoom to 135mm.

Putting It All Together
While zoom lenses can be fast, prime lenses tend to be faster. For example, the Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 is around $1750 currently. But if I wanted a faster fixed lens, I have lots of options at different price points. I can get a 35mm f/2 lens for around $600 or the original f/1.4 version for around $1000 (there’s a new version that is priced around $1800). Lots of 35mm options for Nikon shooters as well. Or I can look at the Canon 50mm lineup and go anywhere from $110 for the f/1.8 version to $350 for the f/1.4 version  or even tack on an extra grand and spend $1350 for the f/1.2 version. Again, Nikon also has various 50mm options.

But, you have to take into account what kinds of shooting situations you find yourself in most often. Can you zoom with your feet? If so, then prime lenses might be the best for you. If not and you’re in situations with limited space (say, a photo pit at a concert), then zoom lenses might be best. And what camera are you shooting with? Does it handle high ISO situations pretty well? If so, you might prefer shooting at a higher ISO with a slower lens to spending more money on a faster lens.

The “Standard” Pro Setup
A lot of working pros have what is referred to as the “trinity” of lenses. For Canon shooters, that’s the 11-24mm f/4 or 16-35mm f/2.824-70mm f/2.8, and 70-200mm f/2.8. For Nikon shooters, it’s the 14-24mm f/2.824-70mm f/2.8, and 70-200mm f/2.8. Why these lenses? They’re going to cover you really well in most situations all the way from super wide to telephoto, and they’re all pretty fast lenses so they’re helpful if you’re shooting in low light situations. These are also high end lenses, so they’re going to put a dent in your wallet. Worth it if you need it, but…

Saving Money
Do you really need to spring for the most expensive options? Unless you’re shooting in low light situations, you probably don’t. For example, my buddy Peter Hurley does the vast majority of his work in the studio where he’s controlling the light, so he uses the Canon 70-200mm f/4 lens instead of the 70-200mm f/2.8. What’s the difference? About $1350, a stop of light, and nearly half the weight.

So, for Peter the f/4 version makes more sense because if he needs more light, he’s in his studio and can adjust the power. And he never shoots at f/2.8, so why spend all that extra money and add twice the weight to what he’s holding and carrying around in his gear bag? Nikon makes 70-200mm f/4 and 70-200mm f/2.8 lenses as well. The price difference isn’t as big as Canon’s, but $600 is still a lot of money!

But for someone like me who does concert and behind the scenes work, I need that extra stop of light that the f/2.8 version gives me. Could I get by with the f/4? A lot of the time, yes. But if I’m in a small venue with bad lighting trying to shoot a high-energy artist that doesn’t allow flash, I’m going to be hard pressed to get a single shot that isn’t blurry, even at 25,600 ISO. My wallet may be thinner and my shoulders may be a bit more sore at the end of the night, but at least the images are sharp!

Full Frame vs. Crop Frame

One last thing to consider is whether you’re shooting on a full frame or a crop sensor camera. Most of the lower-end DSLRs are crop sensors, meaning they are smaller than full frame sensors. Some lenses are made to only cover the size of the crop sensor, so if you use them on a full frame camera, your image will be cropped and you’ll lose some of your resolution, as you see below on the right.

However, if you purchase full frame lenses, you can use them on any camera without a loss of image resolution. If you do use them on a crop sensor camera, then they effectively become a “longer” lens because of the smaller sensor size. So what was a 70-200mm lens becomes an approximately 105-300mm lens, depending on the exact size of the crop sensor.

So which should you buy? If you never plan on upgrading to a full-frame camera and alway sticking with a crop sensor camera, then you can save some money and only buy crop lenses. But if you think you might make the jump to a full frame camera, it’s up to you if you want to save in the short term then buy new lenses when you make the jump, or go ahead and invest now to save yourself the hassle later.

On Canon, crop lenses are indicated by the letters EF-S (full frame lenses are just EF), and Nikon indicates their crop lenses with the letters DX (full frame lenses are FX). And to find out if your camera body is full frame or crop sensor, just look up the specs online and it should be one of the first things listed. Canon crop sensors will say APS-C sensor (full frame will just say full frame), and Nikon crop sensors will say DX-Format while full frame will say FX-Format.

I hope this helps you when choosing which lenses to buy. When in doubt, you can always rent lenses (and other gear) from places like LensProToGoBorrow Lenses, or Lens Rentals to try them before you buy them. And once you do decide to make the purchase, using my B&H affiliate links for Canon lenses and Nikon lenses will help me keep bringing you content like this.

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Canon 11-24mm f/4 Lens Field Report

Canon has had a good variety of wide angle lenses for a while, but as a HUGE fan of super wide angle zoom lenses, I’ve had an itch that was almost scratched but not quite. Now with the 11-24mm f/4, that itch has been scratched very well.

Red Rocks Amphitheater in Morrison, Colorado

As a concert photographer who is usually limited to the photo pit without a lot of room to move back and forth, zoom lenses are a life saver. That’s why I was thrilled when Canon announced this new ultra wide angle lens, and even more thrilled to try it out during a couple of recent shoots.

Third Day perform on June 14, 2015 at Red Rocks Amphitheater in Morrison, Colorado
Third Day sign the tunnel at Red Rocks Amphitheater in Morrison, Colorado on June 14, 2015

Is there distortion on the edges? Well, sure, a little, but it’s incredibly minimal! Check out the completely un-cropped images above, with no lens corrections, shot at 12mm. The guys on the edges would normally be stretched quite a bit more, especially in the first one, but this rectilinear lens handles them really well.

I also love just how close this lens allows me to get to performers who come out to the edge of the stage or come out for some crowd interaction. The musician above looks like he’s still a decent distance from where I’m shooting from, right? Here’s an iPhone shot from the crowd where you can see me in the lower right hand corner…

Photo by Alex Roberts

I’m probably a bit closer than you were expecting, right? My only complaint about the ultra-wideness of this lens is that it makes it difficult to keep the other photographers out of my shots!

Third Day perform on June 14, 2015 at Red Rocks Amphitheater in Morrison, Colorado

This thing is a bit of a beast though, coming in at 2.6 pounds (for comparison, another one of Canon’s wide-angle zoom lenses is 1.35 pounds), so it can add a little weight to your pack and shoulders. But for the results, it’s totally worth it to me.

I didn’t see any noticeable chromatic aberration in the images, and I have no complaints on edge to edge sharpness even its widest points.

Mac Powell of Third Day soundchecks on June 14, 2015 at Red Rocks Amphitheater in Morrison, Colorado

This thing handles lens flare like a champ. Normally in a shot like the one above, with the sun beaming directly into the lens, you’d be lucky to see much of anything. But here you just get a little bit of flare near the headstock of the guitar.

As with any lens with a rounded front element, you’ll want to make sure you keep a lens cloth handy for the occasional accidental finger smudge. The built-in lens hood does help prevent that, plus it’s never going to fall off and get lost during a shoot.

Pierce The Veil perform during Warped Tour in St. Petersburg, Florida

So, is this lens worth it for music photographers? If you’re a fan of the ultra-wide look, then absolutely!

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