Living by the Three Song Rule as a Band Photographer

Living by the Three Song Rule as a Band Photographer

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?

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13 Comments

Jaap Venhovens's picture

Couldn't agree with you more. I work at concerts and therefor I'm in the luxury position of watching every show. I use a compact to take shots during te show from an audience position, bc we are not allowed to use professional gear (just like the audience) and photographing backstage or from a backstage position is out of the question. Every show I see the pro's guided into the pit (or indeed sometimes the FOH) and taken out after 3 songs or a certain short time limit. Funny enough I never wondered why this 3 song rule was ever made or where it originated. Until recently a new working partner asked me the question. When I started googling, the only thing i could find was indeed the Springsteen story. I could understand the cause, but what I don't understand is that in more then 30 years the rule has never been revised or changed while a lot has changed in photography, and I wonder how this rule became a worldwide standard at nearly every concert (except maybe festivals). In my opinion it doesn't hurt the band , the audience or whoever and indeed, shows and artists are rarely at their best at the beginning. And the audience is allowed to take shots during the whole show anyway (except with a few artists). I understand very well the frustration of photographers, but i wonder where to start a change. As far as I know there is not one organisation who authorises all concerts and artists. Maybe Bruce?

Having shot almost a thousand gigs in the past 8 years, I have had this rule for about 80% of my festival gigs. But some festivals are starting to enforce it themselves, without the artist themselves aware of it. In fact, when I told a smaller band which I knew backstage that we weren't allowed, they where shocked, and loved to have as much photographers in there. But even then, the stage manager booted me.

Rubbish rule.

Rui Bandeira's picture

as i see it there are 3 tips of concert photographers...

Concert photographer that is working for a news papers ( or any other media) that goes to the concert to take some images that go with the text on the news, and for this 3 songs is enough for getting the job done.

Concert photographer that doesn't work for anyone, and just goes to the concert to take some images and to enjoy a free concert, and that uses the image to post on facebook to impress is friend and is willing to give the images to anyone ho asks...media, bands, promoter,fans etc...not only gives the images to anyone that ask for them, he goes and post them on the facebook pages of the promote, bands etc...killing the market right there...

And finaly there is the band/promoter official photograther that is allowed to shoot all concert.

as i see it, i really believe that the media photographer are ok with the 3 song rules,having them for more then 3 songs cam be distracting for the audience and for the bands, having a few photographer running on the PIT can be really annoying.
The ones that go there to make image for facebook and to give them for free, well they shouldn't be allowed at the pit, they are not ready yet...

the bands photograther is the only way that bands have to control the quality of the images that go out, yes the audiance will alwias use the cellphones to make images, and cellphones are getting better every year but it]s not the same as having someone moving around trying to fing the best light, and now that the record industry is selling less and less CDs having a photograther can make a new market for the bands, selling prints,,,it will never be as god as selling CDs but it cam be an extra income.

As i see it the 3 song rule is fine, but i think that it will be over soon...the way i see it band will tent to only allow the bands photograther, and make the images available for the Media, or they only allow the media to shoot one song or only form the sound stage...

Jay Jay's picture

I'll disagree on your last point- bands will sometimes have their own photog, but that's for their own use, that being their FB page, blog, Insta, etc. The photogs you see in the pit shooting that band belong to local newspapers, magazines, music blogs and websites, as well as wire services, such as Getty Images.

Your second point implies that if photographers don't work for media, they should not be shooting a show because they are killing... the market? That makes no sense whatsoever. For any band, any promotion, whether it's on a blog or FB, is free promotion. If 5 friends of that photog come to the band's next show because of those 'free' photos, that can easily equate to $100 in ticket sales at $20 a ticket. T shirts and merch at $40x 5 people equals $200 more in sales for a band. So factoring in things like that, what are free photos really killing?

Btw, most bands don't have a photographer who travels with them, unless you're a top tier band who has the budget for paying a photog, and paying for extra food and lodging every day of the tour. That's a *lot* of money, hence the reason you never see a traveling photog.

If you only allow photogs to shoot for one song or from the sound stage, what will result is a small selection of photos- and for a band, run the risk of photogs posting bad or unflattering photos because they didn't have the extra songs to get better shots.

Rui Bandeira's picture

when i say"The ones that go there to make image for facebook and to give them for free, well they shouldn't be allowed at the pit, they are not ready yet..."
i´m talking about those that give the images for free, doing that they are kiling the market for photographer that must make a living selling theyre images.

As you told, and i totaly agree the images that the bands share on facebook, intagram etc, are markting material, they share it to try to get more public for the next show, so this images have a commertial value and they shoudl be payed, when some whanabe photographer gives those images for free they are killing that oportunity...those whanabe photografers not only give them for free they go and publish them on the bands facefook page, the bands dont nead to ask for the images...the photograther now are paying for photograthing concerts and aldo do part of the promotion for the bands, yes, photographer are paying because there is no sutch thing as photographin for free, when whe go to a concert we pay for transportation, traim, bus, car etc...whe pay with the cam wear out, whe pay with the time we spend editing etc etc etc...

Jay Jay's picture

The one problem i have with photographers who shoot a band and then sells photographs- the band doesn't see any money from it. It's like you are in a band, and you let someone record a song you sing at your show and they then later sell that live song on their web page for money- and you as the band, don't see any money from the sales of that live song. In a way, isn't both examples the same thing as not benefiting the band, only the person who records it?

Rui Bandeira's picture

No, when o say the market to sell photos im talking about trying to sell the images to the bandas/promoters.
the case you are talking is against the law, if anyone trys to sell any audio recoding of a live show is going agains the copy right laws.
the images are alwais of the photographer.
anyway i was not talking about selling the images to fans or as markting material.

I think we must be happy if we can shoot three songs from the pit at all. In the meanwhile I shot concerts from almost anywhere. Only one song only from right side (Brian Adams, Neil Young) or from FOH or even from the very end of the arena (Rihanna) or from the side of the stands.

And then there are bands who allow you to shoot frist three songs from the pit and then you can shoot away outside the pit taking care of the audience. And we have one famous rocker here in Germany who allows you the first three songs and the last eight! songs from the pit. At least lots of cool photos of him (Udo Lindenberg). And then there is Bob Dylan...

Could also talk about Nena who obviously hate photogs. She let take you photos from anywhere (one song) and then switiching off most of the lights or direct the lights in direction of the photogs. So at least I like more the way Bob does: No photogs at all.

Jay Jay's picture

You have very valid points. The idea could be, let photogs shoot as much as they want for the first 15, and then the band and the concert goers can enjoy the rest of the show. At another angle, the thinking could also be that photogs could shoot right out of the gate and then leave to do other things after, instead of being made to wait til the last 3 (The Cure has been known to play four hour shows).

Of all the shows i've shot, only one had a rule that only the last 3 songs could be shot, a British band called Foals. I found out from a photog who shot them a few days prior that the singer would hop the barricade on the final song, jump in to the crowd, and let them hoist him up in the air as he sang (which he would do at every show). I also caught their guitarist throwing his guitar off the stage into the bushes, so of course, all the photogs got great photos, which only serves to make the band look that much better when the photos get posted.

I've shot a lot of shows and toured as a band's photographer. I think the rule continues to stick around for a few reasons. First, most bands playing a venue larger than a club have their own photographer. It's not as expensive as it seems when there are plenty of people willing to trade a bunk on a bus and access for shooting for a low rate while working merch or whatever. Secondly, I do think a lot of artist value the connection with the fans at a show and having 20 photographers between them and the crowd capturing every move puts up a wall of sorts between them. And finally, it's the logistics of it all. Watch security at any show. They've got tons of extra people with expensive gear in their work space. They've got to keep everyone safe in the pit and in the crowd and that's complicated when there are people moving unpredictably around in front of the stage. As soon as the photographers file out, you can see security take a deep breathe and begin their jobs. Not to mention things like pyro and confetti cannons and other things that a tour photographer knows about but someone local won't know when they need to avoid certain areas up front.

Spike S's picture

I've never experienced a security problem when I've been allowed to stay in the pit longer than three songs, and that includes some pretty wild punk shows. I have been pushed around when surfers come over the barricade, but security never seemed to view me, or any other photographer as a security problem. And I've run into very few tour photographers in the pit. I occasionally see people shooting in the wings on stage but I think they're often friends of the band or crew. And for the most recent Jeff Beck tour, the tour photographer came over to tell all two of us we could shoot the whole show, which surprised the promoter who was walking us out at the time.

A lot of metal shows, particularly death metal (no surprise), have dark stages and constant lighting. And some performers allow photographers but ignore them, hang to the back, or stay in the fog (Jesus & Mary Chain, jesus, impossible).

I find the comment about costume changes to be one of the best points in the original article, I shot Grace Jones last year and she changed parts of her outfit for every song, which meant missing a lot of costume changes. (On the other hand, she intentionally gave me some excellent shots.) There's also the point that the best visuals are typically in the first song and the last three or four, bands try to slam it up front and then pump up the crowd towards the end.

I see both points. I believe having a full team of photographers in the pit for a whole concert can be very distracting for the performers. Not to mention the logistics nightmare that would mean to have them enter by the end of the show. I also think the best part of the show is mostly by the end of it. I have managed to sneak my camera into the public and take awesome photos that no one else has. I also work as part of the staff for a local three-day festival and undoubtedly having an all-access pass and less rules makes the job a lot more fun.

I can see this from a fan's perspective. Who wants to pay for a front row seat only to be stuck behind a mob of photographers for the whole concert? The solution seems easy to me: have the photographers do their 3-song set in the middle of the show.