This is a continuing series dubbed “Interviews with Photographers”, in which I will be interviewing many great concert photographers such as Frank Yang, Pete Nema, Mike Bax and recently Igor Vidyashev. While the actual shots are always the most important aspect of a photographer’s body of work, the story and technical craft in bringing those photos into reality also deserves attention.
Today, I am excited and pleased to induct Sarah Rix into this exclusive club of concert photographers that inspire me. She’s actually been in the Toronto music scene for longer than most people think, works at NXNE and is Live in Limbo’s Senior Concert Photographer and Reviewer.
Sean Chin (SC): Hi Sarah. Thanks for taking part in this series. Where did you grow up and where are you based now?
Sarah Rix (SR): Well thanks for asking, Sean! I was lucky enough to have been born and raised in Toronto, so I’ve been here my entire life. It will never escape me how fortunate I’ve been to grow up in a city with such a vibrant music scene.
SC: When did this love for live music begin for you?
SR: I guess it really became an important part of my life while I was in high school. It was around that time I started developing my musical tastes and discovering new things for myself, outside of whatever was on the radio. Concerts were always things I looked forward to… In fact, the only time I ever actually skipped school was to either go to a show or stand in line for one. It wasn’t an act of rebellion since I had my parent’s permission, but I guess I was clearly getting my priorities in order. That said: I definitely didn’t go to as many shows as I do now.
SC: I actually consider you a kind of “veteran” in the Toronto music scene. Briefly discuss the outlets you’ve worked with in the past? And some highlights.
SR: Oh boy, veteran? That’s a big word and not really something I’d apply to myself, since I’ve still got so much to see and learn and get involved with. But I guess I’ve definitely racked up a surprisingly large number of years…
My experience with music journalism and photography started in 2007, when I was in first-year university. I was taking cinema courses and writing about film. They sent out a class wide email from a publication called A’n’E Vibe, asking for contributors. I figured I could at least develop a portfolio through there – I had always wanted to go to journalism school – so I started writing film and television reviews for the site. A’n’E switched names to Press+1 and I moved into writing album reviews, which I felt infinitely more comfortable with. Album reviews moved into concert reviews and, inevitably, concert photography, and I became their senior music journalist.
Press+1 eventually shifted focus back to its roots of film and television, changing its name to the Canadian Film Review, so my time writing for them came to an end. It was an invaluable experience and I got to learn photo skills at my own pace, practice my interviewing skills, cover red carpets and the JUNO Awards, and meet a lot of great people by being a contributor.
At the same time as Press+1, I was also contributing written work and photos to sites like BlogTO and Live ‘N Loud. Then in 2011, when I was finishing up my undergrad, North by Northeast posted on Twitter that they were looking for interns. I applied and luckily landed a position. I helped out with their social media and also got a chance to photograph shows for them – something I still do today. That role also expanded into providing the majority of NXNE’s written content. So, broadly, I help out with their website, magazine, and gig guide. I love it and I love the festival, so it works out pretty well.
Uh, outside of that… after university I got a diploma from Humber College in journalism, started shooting and reviewing for Live in Limbo, occasionally contribute to other publications, and work in social media marketing. So it’s been keeping me pretty busy – but I get to do things I enjoy.
SC: Did you ever take formal photography classes? If so, did it help you in anyway? If not, do you ever wish you took some courses? If so, do you feel it was instrumental in your current status?
SR: The only time I’ve ever taken formal photography classes was at Humber College, as part of my journalism program. It was pretty rudimentary and there were some basic PhotoShop skills. Most of the camera work was already familiar to me by that point. The majority of my learning came from trying as I was going and through a friend who also bought a DSLR around about the same time as me.
I think it’s great that people take photography classes and I’m sure there are thousands of things I could be doing better or differently. I’m also sure that if I took photo classes, I’d be a lot more comfortable shooting scenarios that weren’t just concerts. But I guess I also don’t think it’s absolutely necessary.
I like to think I’ve got a strong enough visual eye to figure out the shots I want and that, for the most part, I’m able to capture them. I kind of like that I’m self-taught. I don’t worry about all the technical aspects and I’m approaching things in a different way. It gives some variation to what happens in the photo pit.
SC: Who and when was your first “official” gig with a fancy photo pass?
SR: Well, it’s hard for me to pinpoint exactly because I was usually in the crowd, shooting with my dinky point-and-shoot camera. It wasn’t as powerful as a DSLR, but it gave me a pretty good idea of how lighting worked and how to capture bands. I was also shooting things unofficially or at venues without camera policies, and covering festivals rather haphazardly with my DSLR.
Legitimate photo pass wise… This is a little embarrassing – especially if you consider the fact that my musical taste is 100 per cent not EDM or DJ culture. The first show I got a real, official, stick-it-on-your-pants photo pass was for Tiesto at the Ricoh Coliseum in April 2011. I think a promotions person asked me to cover the opener and I agreed to do it. Definitely weird and such a massive (but thankfully brightly lit) scale to start things out on.
SC: How many gigs do you currently shoot in a month?
SR: It’s a good thing I keep a list… This year, I’m averaging 12 shows a month and I’m probably shooting about half of those and either going to the other six for fun or for reviewing purposes. My record from last year was 26 photographed shows in one month.
SC: Who and when was your most memorable gig to photograph?
SR: I’ve gotten to the point where a lot of them blur into one, but Janelle Monae will always stick out for me. I’ve shot her twice now and she’s a dream to shoot because she’s such a conscientious performer. She’s there to put on a show and she’s respectful to both the photographers there to do a job and the audience there for her performance. Everyone needs to see her, and every concert photographer needs to shoot her. She’s brilliant and so much fun. Bruce Springsteen and The Flaming Lips are also up there.
SC: Who is your dream gig to shoot and why? Current and/or disbanded.
SR: I’d love to shoot The Rolling Stones. I’ve never seen them and they’re on my bucket list. I would also love the opportunity to photograph Radiohead, Arctic Monkeys, Muse, or Gorillaz. All huge stadium bands, I know – and all bands I’ve already seen, just never with a DSLR in hand. I guess I’d add Kanye West to that as well, just because of the spectacle he puts on.
There are also certain bands I know I can’t shoot (see: Franz Ferdinand and Cut Copy) because I’d be too preoccupied singing along in the front row.
SC: How would you describe you style of photos?
SR: I don’t know if I have a set style of music shots because what I capture is entirely based on the band I’m shooting. Hopefully it captures emotions though.
SC: You’re a rare breed that not only pushes out high quality photos, but also produce some of the best concert reviews. Do you find the written part just as important as the photos?
SR: Well thanks! I think being able to both write and photograph is a good skill to have, in general, and is probably what I would tell younger people wanting to get involved with concert photography or music journalism. I think giving your photos context is important and vice versa. The two go hand-in-hand with one another. There are times when I just want to photograph or just want to review – but if I can do both then I’m happy to. It also definitely helps me remember shows. I go to so many that they tend to blur into one, so having a review to look back on definitely helps.
SC: What do you try to reveal about a concert in your written reviews?
SR: I guess I try and capture the atmosphere with the audience, the band’s behaviour, and give a good summary of how their show is. I try to be critical of what they can and can’t pull of on stage… What’s missing, what differs between their live show and their recorded material, and why they are or they aren’t worth seeing live. That kind of thing. I take detailed notes when I’m at shows, so if you ever see me on my phone – please don’t get offended because I need something to work off of when I get home. I swear I’m enjoying myself!
SC: What is the wildest thing that’s ever happened to you while reviewing or shooting a show?
SR: Weirder things tend to happen to me when I’m just at shows for fun, but I guess the funniest thing was photographing Bran Van 3000 for NXNE. One of the members of the band offered me $20 to get up on stage with them. I didn’t take him up on the offer because a) I’m chicken; and b) my job was worth more than $20. I’ll also never forget the time a roadie for Third Eye Blind fell off stage on top of Kayley Luftig, who was also photographing the show. He was fine… but poor Kayley.
SC: The team at LiL love your work. How did you eventually end up with LiL?
SR: Thank you! I met Randall Vasquez, LiL director of photography and editor, when I was shooting shows for other publications. I was a big fan of his work and he ended up sending me an email asking if I might be interested in contributing to the site. It was fortuitous timing because it was round about the time my work for Press+1 was wrapping up, so I got to jump in pretty quickly.
SC: What do you love the absolute most about shooting concerts?
SR: What’s not to love, really? I guess when I’m at a show, whether I’m shooting it or not, I’m always looking at the way performers carry themselves, the way the stage is set up, angles, and lighting. I love shooting concerts because I love capturing all of those elements and I also love having a reminder of all the shows I’ve been fortunate enough to attend. Pretty photo passes are also nice mementos.
SC: What do you absolutely dislike the most about shooting concerts?
SR: At 5’11, I’m safely classified as being “fairly tall.” That’s why I always find it so unbelievably awkward shooting without a photo pit and having to squeeze my way past fans that have been waiting around for a long time to see their favourite bands. I’ve been on the other end of it and I know how much it sucks – even if it’s only for a couple of numbers. I try and be polite about it, but apologies to anyone I may have ever inadvertently offended. Sorry sorry sorry. Also no lights or red lights and only red lights, obviously.
SC: What gear do you currently wield?
SR: Right now it’s a Canon T1I with four lenses I switch between: Canon 50mm f1.8, Canon 85mm f1.8, Tamron 17-50mm f2.8, and a Tamron 70-300mm f4-5.6. It’s a little embarrassing how ridiculously basic my equipment is, but it’s been good to me and I’m comfortable with it.
SC: What gear would you like to have and do you feel equipment matters?
SR: Oh gosh. I know I’ll need to upgrade my Canon body eventually but I’ve given it very little thought. I’m sure by the time I actually take the plunge and do it, there will be different models out on the market that have yet to be released.
Equipment matters to a point, for sure. I know there are times when I’ve been in super low-lit situations where I’m cursing the ISO gods. Focusing is also tougher when you’re working with the basics. But equipment isn’t the end all, and you can learn to make do with what you have. Actually, it’s a pet peeve of mine when people just talk about gear. It’s cool that you have the latest and the greatest camera with all the bells and whistles, but I think that in the end what matters is having a strong eye.
SC: What are some tips and tricks you’ve learned over the years to obtain the best concert photos possible?
SR: From a technical standpoint, it’s important to take in the entire situation and pay attention to things like framing your subjects properly and waiting for the best light or action. But probably the biggest trick is: be nice to everyone. Everyone. Security guards, media contacts, other photographers, people in the crowd, everyone… It goes a long way and it makes doing the job much easier. Plus you should just be nice to everyone in general, I think.
SC: Are you a Mac or PC?
SR: Apple Apple Apple. Except for iPhones. I was late to that party. I switched over to Mac when I started university and haven’t really looked back. I just find it easier to use and more intuitive than the PC operating system.
SC: What blogs or sites do you visit the most?
SR: I’m always on Twitter – both personally and for work. So it depends what people are linking to, really. Also http://nxne.com, obviously.
SC: You must have a lot of photographer friends as well. Who would you like to give a shout out too?
SR: This city is full of talented music photographers. It’s intimidating, so thankfully they’re all (mostly/usually) friendly! I don’t really see Kayley Luftig in the pit anymore, but she was one of the first people I ever met when shooting shows. Kayley was very encouraging and someone I felt comfortable asking advice from. It makes a big different when you meet someone like that. You also can’t talk about concert photography and reviewing without talking about Frank Yang. He inspired so many people – myself included – to pay attention to Toronto’s music scene via his Chromewaves blog. I also run into Stephen McGill a lot and he’s just ridiculously talented and a pleasure to shoot with. I also love seeing the final shots from people like Randall Vasquez, Steve St. Jean, Brian Patterson and Dave Logan. Again, so much talent.
SC: What are some ways that you market yourself?
SR: This is probably a bit ironic coming from someone who’s in the process of answering a whole bunch of questions about themselves, but honestly? I’m not much for shameless self-promotion. I would have done so well at Arrested Development’s Milford School. Buster would have had nothing on me.
I guess I tweet a lot, but I’m not a fan of selfies or anything that involves putting yourself out there in that way. This is probably something I should work on, since it’d be nice to have a bit more of an online presence… but most of the time I just want my work to speak for itself.
So yeah, it’s always a surprise to me when people are familiar with my writing or photography. It’s a weird thing to talk about, but really flattering when people mention it out of the blue.
SC: What is your dream? Where do you want this path you’re on to eventually end up?
SR: Well isn’t that the big question. It’s not one I really have an answer for. I love live music and photography, so as long as I can continue to balance that with everything else going on in my life… then I’ll be a happy camper. That’s probably a cop out of an answer, but it’s the only one you’re getting. Sorry.
SC: Thank you for joining me Sarah!
SR: Thanks for letting me go on and on and on about myself, Sean!
SC: Where can readers find you online? Twitter etc.
And so much more of Sarah’s work can be found right here on Live in Limbo.