First arena shoot

December 10, 2023

First published November 2018

This is the story of my first arena shoot.

When this show was announced, the artist hadn’t been to the UK for a decade, and the last time was at Hyde Park during a time in my life that me and large crowds were not the best of friends.

When the O2 gig went on sale I was really torn. £75 for the cheapest seats, released when a spare £75 was a) not available without busting the credit card out of retirement (big fat nope), and b) over my self-imposed limit for ticket prices (my brain has had a really hard time moving on from 1990s prices). So I decided that I would wait it out and cross my fingers that a) the cheap seats wouldn’t sell out, and b) I could rustle up £75 before the event. As is usually the case, I squeaked excitedly on Facebook about the gig announcement and rambled on about my photography bucket list.

For a while now, I’ve been on the contributing photographer list for a big webzine, but had only done a small handful of gigs for them due to them having a large pool of photographers, gig allocation being ‘first come, first served’, and most contributors being online more than me, or at least a lot quicker off the mark when gigs were announced :)

One of the people who read my Facebook post was my editor. No promises, he said, but if he could find a reviewer he’d apply for a photo pass for me. I really wasn’t convinced that anything would come of this, but a few weeks ago, jackpot! Thank you!

So suddenly I found myself plunged into exciting, unfamiliar territory - finally, my first ever arena gig after almost a decade and a half of gig photography, and a bucket list one too!

The day before the show, I discovered that it was a mixing desk shoot, which I’d sort of been expecting/dreading. I find mixing desk shoots to be a very silly concept, especially in this era - literally everyone in the arena has a mobile device, and photos and videos will be spewing out in their thousands in real time, yet the press is put in a tiny pen half a mile from the stage. I’m of the opinion that if artists want to put restrictions in place that basically punish the press for wanting to publicise them, they should just say ‘no photographers’ and hire one of their own to handle the media distribution.

Anyhoo, I digress.

I knew from friends how things generally work for photographers at the O2. You are escorted in and out. You can’t stay to watch the support act, you are escorted out, and wait outside to be escorted in again for the headliner. After the first three songs you have to be escorted out again. If you have a ticket to the show, you have to check your photography gear in at security before you go back in; you’re not allowed to take your gear to your seat.

As I was photographing and not reviewing, I knew that there was no guarantee I would even get a ticket, and so I resigned myself to knowing that my bucket list show could well consist of three songs with an obscured view from half a mile away, then straight back home on the bus to drown my sorrows in pasta.

I went to the gig straight after work (having photographed a colleague's graduation in the afternoon, talk about contrasts!), and as I was pretty early, did a recce of all the entrances/exits I would need to find later in the evening. At 6.30 I went to find out whether I had a ticket in addition to a photo pass. The very nice lady at the box office said that I was welcome to stay for the show and handed me a ticket from the top of the pile. I thanked her and walked away, glanced at the ticket (fully expecting it to be up in the gods at the back) and… holy crap, block A, 11 rows from the front! Jackpot!

I walked over to door A were we were meeting the PR rep and getting our passes. Then came surprise #1 - a contract. Ugh. It’s all very well getting emailed a contract days/weeks in advance, but minutes? A contract that stated that you may only photograph from the mixer (fine, we already knew that), the photos could only be used in conjunction with the review (no website/portfolio use allowed), and that the artist could have free use of the photos (REALLY not fine). The thought did actually cross my mind - I could blow this one out, store my gear, and just enjoy my free ticket. But, in the end, I signed (I’ve only ever done this once before) as I didn’t want to let my editor down; he’d gone above and beyond sorting the pass at me. I reasoned that we’d only be publishing a few photos with the review, which the artist would most likely have no interest in whatsoever (you’ll understand why when I get to the next part of this story), and I’d just go in and enjoy the majority of the show.

I messaged a friend who I knew was also shooting to warn her about the contract, and some attempts were made to renegotiate, but no joy.

The time came to go in to shoot the support band. I won’t deny it - I did get a bit of a tingle walking into the arena and passing by the photo pit. Restrictions notwithstanding, I was still pretty damn excited to be there at all! Then I saw my ‘home base’  - the mixing desk. A few dozen rows back, with six of us penned into a little teeny corner. It was a bit grim - with my biggest lens and a 1.7x teleconverter, I *just* had enough reach to zoom in sufficiently.

On another technical point, camera shake is a problem when you are using a heavy telephoto from a distance (especially when you have weak arthritic thumbs); the shutter speed as a rule needs to be fast enough to compensate for the unsteadiness, e.g. if I’m shooting at 300mm I’ll try to be at 1/300 of a second.  In a club gig that kind of speed is rarely if ever possible, but in glorious arena lighting? No problem! I was also able to sneakily rest one elbow against the desk to stabilise myself, which helped a bit. The audience was sitting, everything went smoothly, but I started to worry about the main event. Bluntly, if people stood up, my 5’2.5” self would be totally screwed. Some of the other photographers came prepared with step stools - I have one, but when I hauled it out to bring with me that morning, I discovered that it was cracked and perished in places you do not want things to be cracked and perished when trusting them to hold your weight.

After the first three songs we were escorted out, and then had an hour and twenty minutes to kill before being taken back in. Now you can see how glamorous the life of an event photographer truly is(n’t!). The O2 was very draughty, my circulation was crap, food was expensive, and I really didn’t want to kill what was left of my phone battery at this point. So I mooched around, and discovered that since I last paid any attention, a fancy shopping mall linking the O2 and the Intercontinental Hotel had been built. I am not a fan of shopping, but the big sweeping staircases are nice and they provided me with plenty of exercise to keep me warm. One of the security staff rolled eyes at me a bit on my third trip up and down the stairs (but in a good humoured way).

My friend (who’s a full-time press photographer) arrived shortly after 9, and before long later we were all escorted back into our tiny pen. The desk I was leaning against previously had been cleared away, and we had more space! This did me precisely sod all good, though, as there was nothing to lean on, everyone was on their feet, and EVERYONE in the few rows in front of the mixer appeared to be a rather tall, wide, bloke. Worst case scenario.

For the first song my view was that of a tiny disembodied head appearing randomly between the shadowy shoulders of giants. I contemplated giving up, then gave myself a talking to and tried moving around to get a better view. Progress! I manage half a torso and the top half of a drum kit. Then a hint of saxophone. In despair, I started to take pictures of the video screens. This went on for the rest of the first song, and I started to giggle at the absurdity of the situation. I envied the really tall photographer who had also bought a step elevating him to 7’6”, and started to covet the monopods and big stepladders that usually annoy the crap out of me when I see them being used in places where they're not necessary - all of a sudden they seemed like entirely reasonable things to bring to a gig (I have now resolved to buy myself a shiny new step the day I am next confirmed for an arena show).

During the second song, ny friend came to my rescue and shared her step, and I had a 90 second frenzy of trying to make sure I had some semi-usable shots in the bag. I thanked her profusely and offered to donate a kidney if she ever needs one. We repeated this step sharing for song 3, and miraculously a few of the taller blokes also took their seats, so I was briefly able to see what the band looked like. Technically, somewhere during all this I also got a jump shot, but due to the obscured view, you can’t see any legs. But I know I got it :)

What happened next? We were escorted back to the arena entrance, so I talked to security, exchanged my camera bag for a cloakroom ticket (having first taken out and pocketed my purse, phone, door keys and memory cards), and ran back in to find my seat. My seat was freaking brilliant and would have set me back £120 at full price, so Mr Artist, if you do use one of my shitty blurry photos taken from half a mile away from a borrowed step, I’ll just consider that to be payment. But I won’t hold my breath for your call!

The set was everything I could have wanted, songs I have been listening to for practically my whole life, complete with the Vegas-y razzmatazz of pyro and confetti cannons and even a bit of a marching band interlude, and I spent the almost hour that remained bopping around in my seat and having a whale of a time.