Photographing Bonnaroo with Ryan Mastro

Over the years, we have seen our fair share of people who enroll in our programs because they are eager to hone their photo skills so they can apply them to their passion of photographing music. And who can blame them??!! Between the ever-changing and oftentimes dramatic lighting, raw energy, unscripted moments, and the obvious bonus of experiencing the music up close and personal … photographing live shows can be an incredible rush. It can also become a major part of your photographic career.

Perhaps more than any other RMSP graduate, photographer Ryan Mastro (class of 2005) combined his love of music with his love for photography. Today, his client list includes publications and organizations such as Rolling Stone, SPIN, Paste, Relix, Red Light Management, Nettwerk Music Group, Foundations Artist Management and many more. Since graduating, he has photographed over 30 of the largest music festivals in the country, numerous times.

With the 15th annual Bonnaroo Music Festival coming up on June 8-11, 2017 I thought I’d check in with Ryan to grill him on the experience of photographing this festival … which he has done 12 times before.


First, can you briefly tell us a bit about yourself and your history with photographing festivals. How did you end up in this world of photography?

I attended RMSP back in 2005 after serving five years in the Marines. While I was living in Missoula I decided I’d like to merge my two favorite things, photography and music. That summer I kept an eye open for any opportunity I could find that would allow me to photograph live shows. Eventually I found myself in the photo pit of a Ben Harper show at The Wilma, and later at The Adams Center as a volunteer photographer for Pearl Jam’s benefit show for Senator Jon Tester. I loved it, and I wanted more … certainly more than just the three songs pit photographers are usually allowed.

Soon after graduation I plotted my next steps with a goal of expanding my music portfolio as quickly as possible. Music festivals seemed like the most logical avenue due to the volume of artists in one place. The downside was that I had no portfolio to share other than the two shows I shot in Missoula. I also knew I wanted more access than what was provided to photographers working for media outlets, so I chose to approach the festival production companies hoping to land a job as an in-house photographer.

At that same time, I was experimenting with 360 VR photography which I had never seen done before at a music festival. With that in mind, I contacted the people behind Bonnaroo (Superfly Presents) and Coachella (Goldenvoice) and offered to come and shoot VR photos for free. My goal was never to be a VR photographer, but it got me in the door and gave me the access I needed to shoot what I wanted. In the 11 years since, I’ve photographed 30+ festivals including Bonnaroo, Coachella, Newport Folk Festival, Vegoose, All Points West & Governors Ball.

How many festivals do you think you will shoot in 2017? Is this pretty typical?

I usually shoot around 4 festivals a year, and this year will be the same. I’ll be at Boston Calling, Bonnaroo, Newport Folk Festival and Outside Lands. I’m sure if I wanted to I could shoot a festival every weekend for the entire summer, but it’s a lot of work and not necessarily cost effective for many festivals. I’m also selective of the type of work I’ll do, some festival producers hire photographers as “work to hire,” meaning they own your copyright … and I refuse to work in that manner.

Describe to our readers what it’s like to photograph a festival as big as Bonnaroo? Is it a complete mess at times, or does it just seem to click once you’re there?

As a long-time house photographer for Bonnaroo, I’m dialed in as soon as I get onsite. It’s a family reunion of sorts every June, and something I look forward to all year long. I’ve worked hard to build the trust and confidence of the people I work for, and they go above and beyond to make sure I have what I need to make the photos I do.

Do you have a specific shot list provided to you by the organizers, or is it a more free form, “get what you get” situation? Take our readers through a typical day of shooting Bonnaroo.

For my first few years at Bonnaroo I did have a shot list, but it got the point where festival producers trusted my judgment and experience enough that I now do my own thing. There are photographers who work from a shot list to produce “must have” images of the overall experience, and many others who shoot for news or stock outlets. But my goal has always been to find the beautiful, timeless & iconic images that are hard to define and often happen spontaneously.

My days at Bonnaroo are long, usually starting around 9AM and working until 3AM or even later. They’re broken up into two parts … morning and early afternoon I spend my time in the camping area making large format portraits of people in their atmosphere. In 2014, I started a project called “What does Bonnaroo mean to you?” where people write or draw their responses and I take their portrait. The final product is a nice story including fan contributions about their experiences and what makes this festival so special. For a long time, I focused on just the music, but there is so much more happening offstage and I enjoy meeting interesting people.

The rest of my day is focused on the festival atmosphere and of course, the music. In my early years, I knew many of the artists performing, so it was easy for me to decide what sets I wanted to cover. But as I get older the lineup is becoming a bit foreign … so I usually solicit friends and fans for advice on who is going to put on a great show. I’m looking for high energy, dynamic performances and interesting stage design/lighting … Cage the Elephant, Anything Jack White, Father John Misty are a few that never disappoint.

Late nights bring a completely different dynamic. Many of the bigger artists restrict every photographer to shoot just the first three songs, or even fewer. So I usually break out my tripod and walk around documenting anything that peaks my interest … art installations and people in a state of bliss never fail to be interesting subjects.

Walk us through your process of getting ready for Bonnaroo from A to Z. I mean, how do you prepare physically and mentally while still at home?

I start planning for Bonnaroo about a month in advance. I still shoot mostly film, so I’ll start by checking my inventory and order what I’m low on … generally I’ll shoot about 30 rolls of 35mm, 30 rolls of 120 & 50 sheets of 4×5. I usually rent some new gear or try a new film that I’ve never shot before. This year, I’ve got some color infrared film that I’m super excited to shoot. I work hard to produce something unique and different every year which can be challenging at times. I’m always on the lookout for interesting work and inspiration on Instagram and other photography websites.

I’m sorry. I thought you said that you shoot mostly film. Are you serious!?!? Talk a bit about that decision. Why not go 100% digital?

This is a tough question and one that I struggle with at times, yet I know I’ll never go 100% digital. Back in 2005 when I was at RMSP, I arrived with my Nikon D70 and the same question … why not shoot 100% digital? It wasn’t until I was exposed to the creative depth of film photography that I saw the light … thank you, Elizabeth Stone! There are so many interesting cameras and films available that one can go a lifetime and not use every tool out there.

When you shoot film, you need to know your craft inside and out, and as a professional that’s something my clients value. I also find the immediate feedback provided by a digital camera distracting. Manual film cameras allow me to be present and really connect with my subject. I’ve seen so many photographers checking the back of their cameras while some crazy shit is happening onstage and they miss the shot.

If I may steal a quote from Jack White that perfectly sums up my thoughts on digital photography: “Technology is a big destroyer of emotion and truth. Auto-tuning doesn’t do anything for creativity. Yeah, it makes it easier and you can get home sooner, but it doesn’t make you a more creative person. That’s the disease we have to fight in any creative field: ease of use.”

I assume that you aren’t trying to supply the event organizers with in-the-moment images for social media. Or are you also shooting digital for this?

No, I don’t even bring a laptop! But I may fire off a few iPhone images and send those in for social media use if requested.

Elaborate a bit on all your pre-show routines as they relate to your gear. What do you pack and how do you do it? Is getting from point A to point B a challenge with all your film gear?

Working as I do can be challenging from a travel perspective. When flying I always have my film hand checked by TSA and I carry on all my equipment, which requires pushing the limits of what’s allowed. I have a large LowePro camera backpack that I wear and I also carry on a second bag with my large format gear.

What gear do you take with you to Bonnaroo?

Although it varies a bit from year to year, my “kit” generally includes the following:

That’s a healthy amount of “stuff” to manage. I assume you aren’t tossing it all in a hot tent and hoping for the best? How do you manage it all on site?

There is a photographer trailer just behind the main stage … so I can safely store my gear there. I share the trailer with other house photographers and the Getty editors who are working to get photos on the wire.

What happens to your images after the dust has settled? Do you have to deliver by a certain date? How do they get used?

I do not process my own film, but I scan everything with my Epson V700. It generally takes me about 6 weeks to scan and retouch everything. My images are used by the festival for promotional and marketing purposes and used in merchandise items like posters and books. I retain the copyright, but the festival has also negotiated rights to use them as they see fit.

What other avenues do you pursue to get your images published or licensed?

This is an important question and one that I’m still trying to work through. I have yet to find a lucrative market for the photos I produce due to the time it takes me to process, scan and retouch my work. There is a high demand for photos of Bonnaroo during and in the week after the festival, but as a film shooter, I have nothing to offer until much later. Occasionally my work is published in magazines and I do sell prints. Someday, I’ll produce a coffee table book!

So you’ll be heading to Bonnaroo pretty soon. What are you most excited for this year, both photographically and musically?

Great question … I still need to do some research! Musically, I’m looking forward to U2, Cage the Elephant and Portugal. The Man to name a few. But I’m looking forward to being with the people I’ve known and worked alongside for over a decade now. Bonnaroo is a music festival, but being amongst such a large group of happy people is refreshing and a nice change of pace!

Lastly … since I have to ask … can you get all of our readers press passes?

Hmm, I’m sorry to say but probably not. If anyone is interested in this line of work and is wondering how to get started, I’d say just go! I am not a concert photographer, but a documentarian, and there are so many stories to be told off stage where you won’t need special credentials. Feel free to email me with any questions … ryan@ryanmastro.com.

 

 

Here is a gallery of some of Ryan’s images from his years photographing Bonnaroo. Click the thumbnails to see them larger. Then, if you are inspired to learn how to photograph festivals (or anything else for that matter), consider joining us for our Summer Intensive or Professional Intensive courses.

 

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