One thing I’m sure all band photographers, like myself, question all the time, is the necessity for the Three Song Rule limit at live concerts. Is it still as necessary as promoters and agents make it out to be, or is just because it’s become the norm over years?
Paul Natkin, one of Chicago’s best concert photographers stated in an interview that the rule started in the 80’s with bands playing in New York. During concerts, the photographers, only having 36 shots available per reel of film became concerned with the lighting and started using flash to light up the artists on stage. Unfortunately, this caused many artists, such as Bruce Springsteen a bit of a headache when fifty or so photographers started flashing him as he walked on stage. The Boss became concerned with this practice and said something needed to be done. According to Paul, someone came up with the idea of just letting the photographers shoot for the first fifteen minutes, or first three songs as the average time per song is around five minutes. It was around this time when MTV appeared on our television sets and artists wanted to look perfect on stage photos as they did in their music videos.
But now it’s 2017, and many artists, especially in the pop genre do multiple wardrobe changes during a concert, wear smudge-proof makeup and looks amazing during the entire set. When it comes to Rock Shows, the best images are where they’re all sweaty and really getting into their songs as the concert progresses.
Our cameras have also evolved over the years. With incredible ISO performance and the dynamic range expanding with the release of every new camera, is this rule really still applicable as it was in the 80’s? Every time I shoot a concert, I am told not to use flash anyway. I’ve found the lighting to be absolutely incredible 99% of the time, which means flash is definitely not as essential as it used to be.
So why is it then that we still have to use the Three Song Limit? Sometimes, it’s not even so much a three song limit as a one song limit (or five minutes). I've seen the organizers move the photographer’s pit to the back, right in front of the sound stage, making it really difficult to capture those close-ups (unless you've got a 400mm lens or bigger) or dynamic wide-angle shots.
There are countless threads dedicated to protesting this exercise as being redundant in our modern age. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining about the three song rule. I’m merely just asking a question. Is it really necessary? Is it still applicable in 2017 as it was in 1980? Most of the time the stage is elevated above the photographer’s head, which means we won’t get in the way of the crowd and we’re not really allowed to use flash anymore.
So then, why the rules? Is it because the band usually hires their own photographer, like Ross Halfin, and he has free reign to be in the pit as well as parts of the stage during the entire show?
I’ve always found the beginning of concert shows to be a bit straightforward. Bands usually bring out their true performance from the middle of the show towards the end. They’ve warmed up to the crowd and at this point, the band is feeding off their energy. This is usually when a photographer would get the shots that best represent the band.
A while ago I had the opportunity to photograph Iron Maiden here in Cape Town and I felt like a 15-year old all over again – filled with giddiness and excitement for this incredible opportunity. I simply couldn’t wait to go stand in the pit and shoot. Although, when the time came, and I entered the pit, I simply stood there, gobsmacked for an entire song, before realizing I should actually be shooting. I managed to capture quite a few good shots of them performing, with their Mayan set in the background and pyrotechnics flaring up alongside the members of the band. A photographer’s dream! Yet the time passed and all the photographers had to huddle toward the exit in a single file. I packed away my gear and proceeded to join my friends in the audience. Yet, as I entered the crowd I saw something move out the corner of my eye. A huge Eddie (The official Iron Maiden Mascot) being inflated on stage as the pyrotechnics went crazy and the band members jumping around on stage. This would’ve been one epic shot had I been present in the pit, but unfortunately, I had to abide by the rules given to me in the contract I signed. Coming home after the show, my veins still coursing with adrenaline, I proceeded to dump my images to my computer. While waiting for the transfer to be completed, I browsed Instagram and saw quite a few people who were present in the front row posted images of that moment I so badly wanted to capture.
Sure, they had mobile phones and I had a DSLR but they still managed to capture a clear image of Bruce Dickinson airborne in front of an inflating Eddie while pyrotechnics went off in the background. Yeah, I was a bit jealous. But I was happy they managed to catch such an incredible moment. I only wish I was there to capture it as well and have that as part of my portfolio.
Don’t get me wrong, I do count myself lucky when shooting a concert like this and I definitely do not take it for granted. But I would love for photographers and organizers to work together to achieve the same goal. We’re in the pit because we love the bands that we shoot and the band can use this for their marketing. It’s a win-win situation, isn’t it? But we’d love to get the best shots of the night out there to make both us and the bands happy, and we can’t do that with rules such as the three song limit being imposed on us. Personally, if we have to stick to a three song limit, I would love to see it being moved to the last three songs of the concert rather than the first.
What are your thoughts on the three song limit and how have you been affected by it?