Mark Edward Harris: Woodstock, Canadian Style

Shooting concerts is reminiscent of wildlife and sports photography. Long lenses, monopods, getting yourself into position for the decisive moment, and anticipating your subject’s movements are all part of the game. To cover the city of Québec’s Summer Festival or, as it’s known in French, Le Festival d’été de Québec, I fill two Tamrac rolling backpacks to the brim, one with camera equipment and the other with a portable lighting kit. The annual 11-day music event, now in its 48th year, attracts over a million festivalgoers for concerts by international superstars and top new talent in one of North America’s most beautiful cities.

Since I’m a one-man band, so to speak, I need to be as compact as possible, yet have all the tools needed to create both strong concert imagery and backstage studio-quality portraits. It’s a balancing act between "if you don’t have it you can’t use it" and being so bogged down with equipment that I miss opportunities.

Mick Jagger of The Rolling Stones on stage at the festival’s main venue.

My "camera" bag contains two Nikon bodies, a 14-24mm ƒ/2.8, a 24-70mm ƒ/2.8, a 70-200mm ƒ/2.8 and a fixed 300mm ƒ/2.8. Inside my "lighting" bag are two 500-watt Profoto B1 heads, 5º and 20º grids, and two small umbrellas for the backstage portraits. Each Li-ion battery that powers the B1s can generate up to 220 full-power flashes. I use the grids specifically made for Profoto B1 heads since they’re more compact than using grid adapters with regular grids. In the same bag I add two GoPros to record behind-the-scenes action. For grip equipment, I bring two compact Matthews reverse folding light stands that extend to 83.5 inches, two fillable sandbags, a small black fabric backdrop and a couple of A clamps. I also bring along a carbon-fiber monopod for use with the 300mm for concert shots and a carbon-fiber tripod for interior and low-light stock photography opportunities around the historic city of Québec.

With over 300 shows, 10 venues and 11 days of music, it’s hard to choose what to focus on, but my goal is to capture some of the greatest rock ‘n’ rollers I grew up listening to, including The Doobie Brothers, Boston, Deep Purple, Megadeth and the festival’s top draw, The Rolling Stones. Playing off MacArthur’s famous farewell speech to Congress, which included, "Old soldiers never die, they just fade away," I’ve come up with the working title, "Old rockers never die, they just jam away." While pursuing this theme, I’ll take time to check out a cross-section of today’s top new artists. For the bands that allow the work to be distributed for editorial purposes, the resulting photographs will be distributed by Getty Images.

The Doobie Brothers on the Bell Stage on the historic Plains of Abraham at the Québec City Summer Festival.

When it’s showtime and the house lights go down and the stage lights go up, my go-to base settings for capturing the performers are at least 1/250th, ƒ/4 and ISO 800. My usual setup is a fixed 300mm ƒ/2.8 on a Nikon D800E body and a 70-200mm ƒ/2.8 on my Nikon D3X. I much prefer using lenses with non-variable ƒ-stops. Even if I’m not shooting "wide open," having that fast an aperture allows enough light in for fast focus. For sports, I switch over to the Nikon D4 with its fast fps, but I don’t really feel the need to shoot like a machine gunner covering music.

Most big-name musical acts allow for photographers to be "in the pit" for two or at most three songs, so you have to be quick and have an idea of which band members you want to focus on and have a basic understanding of their performance. For instance, are the guitarists or is the bass player left- or right-handed? Do they come forward to the edge of the stage or do they tend to stay back? If the latter is the case, then at a venue such as the main stage on the Plains of Abraham at the Québec City Summer Festival, it’s important to establish a position farther back so you’re not blocked by the high front edge of the stage. Also, you’re not the only shooter in the pit, so you need to get to your key position first, then move around as needed. You might have a dozen other photographers doing the same thing. Fortunately, the photographers at high-end vetted events such as the Québec City Summer Festival usually know how to "do the dance," that is, work within a tight space and allow their camera-wielding brethren to get their shot without being blocked.

In addition to capturing the on-stage action, I was granted several small windows of time with some of the artists to do backstage portraits. The Profoto B1s have revolutionized my ability to get in and out of dressing rooms in a hurry with nicely lit portraits safely captured on my CF card.

Boston founding member Tom Scholz on stage.

The B1s have optional remote TTL units for Canon and Nikon. The 500W/s heads have a 9-stop power range, high-speed sync capabilities up to 1/8000th of a second, LED modeling lamps, and flash durations between 1/19,000th and 1/1,000th of a second, with between 0.1 and 1.9 second recycling times, depending on the power output. Part of my nightly post-concert workflow is to recharge the B1 Lithium-ion batteries so everything will be at the ready for the next portrait opportunity. I also carry a spare battery.

A member of the audience crowd-surfs at a Run the Jewels performance at the Impérial Bell.

Capturing video content is becoming more and more a part of editorial assignments. The online versions of print magazines often request behind-the-scenes video content. GoPro’s new HERO+ LCD with its built-in monitor means I can hand the camera—often mounted on a GoPro 3-way arm or Tiffen’s Steadicam CURVE—to a PR person or an assistant and get very usable results. The one bit of advice I give when handing over the camera to a non-videographer is to let the action move through the scene rather than wildly moving the camera around. The HERO+ LCD features 1080p60 and 720p60 video, 8-megapixel photos up to 5 frames per second, built-in WiFi and Bluetooth, and a touch display. It’s also waterproof to 131 feet, though I have no plans to explore the depths of the Saint Lawrence River while in Québec this time around.

The GoPro cameras can be controlled remotely using the GoPro App and a smartphone. I find this particularly useful for framing up a shot on my iPhone using my other GoPro camera, a HERO4 Black Edition, especially when the camera is mounted on a GoPro accessory such as a head strap, chest mount or clamp setup.

I also can shoot video with my Nikon D800E and get excellent sound by plugging in a RØDE VideoMic Pro. This shotgun microphone has an integrated shock-mounting system that separates the VideoMic Pro capsule and electronics from its mount, in other words, isolating the sound-recording device from physical factors that can cause unwanted rumble and vibrations that would adversely effect the sound quality.

Another option is to use my Sony digital recorder and sync the sound when I do my post work in Adobe Premiere. For me, the most important non-sound recording accessory when using my Nikon D800E for video is a Hoodman loupe. This is especially important outdoors when the LCD screen is particularly difficult to se
e. In addition to acting as a magnifier and blocking out extraneous light, the loupe also is an extra point of contact and greatly assists in shot stabilization.

French singer and actor Patrick Bruel performs at the festival.

For camera work that requires follow focus and for an overall jump up in camera control, Redrock Micro’s Captain Stubling is a compact unit with high production values. Redrock Micro’s new ultraCage Scout (with integrated fingerwheel) looks like it will be an excellent alternative when working with a rig with no assistants. Because of its electronic focus system that’s also wireless, it’s more expensive than the Captain Stubling, but it’s being billed as a great rig for both DSLR and mirrorless systems.

While covering the Québec City Summer Festival, I had a chance to work backstage with one of my favorite groups, The Doobie Brothers, actually one that I covered as a bass player in my high school band. They’re not only fantastic musicians and songwriters, they’re great guys. They played on the same night as one of my other favorite bands growing up, Boston, led by founding member Tom Scholz with their new lead singer Tommy DeCarlo. DeCarlo has an amazing backstory, similar to that of Journey’s lead singer Arnel Pineda, who was discovered in the Philippines through YouTube videos. Boston’s present lead singer recorded covers of their songs and posted them on MySpace, including a tribute song to Brad Delp after the band’s former lead singer committed suicide in 2007. It got to the ears of Boston leadman Scholz, who asked DeCarlo to be one of the singers at the Brad Delp Tribute Concert in Boston. This evolved into DeCarlo becoming the band’s lead singer. DeCarlo left his job at Home Depot to become a rock ‘n’ roll star about a month before the 2008 tour and has never looked back.

Boston and The Doobie Brothers performed at the festival’s main venue on the historic Plains of Abraham, where the British defeated the French in 1759 in a battle that brought major parts of what’s now Canada into the British realm. While the battle is long over, the British invasion on these same grounds isn’t. This one, however, is led by Mick Jagger and The Rolling Stones, who this time are greeted by the Québécois with open arms. Any resistance to Jagger’s energy would be futile anyway. The septuagenarian’s incredible high-energy performance necessitated my bumping up my shutter speed to 1/500th of a second and, therefore, out of necessity, my ISO to 1600 since I didn’t want to open up my lenses to ƒ/2.8. Even though the sensor of my Nikon 800E can easily handle the ISO, producing little digital noise, I’m old school in terms of avoiding ISOs over 800 whenever possible.

Since I wear a number of photographic hats, including that of a travel photographer, I took the opportunity in Québec to shoot some stock photography and illustrate two travel stories on the city’s fascinating history. For this work, my carbon-fiber tripod with a ballhead, a cable release (for shooting with the mirror locked up to avoid any vibration) and 14-24mm lens were called into service.

A portrait of Dweezil Zappa in his dressing room before his performance of Zappa Plays Zappa, in part a tribute to his late father Frank, on the festival’s Loto-Québec Stage.

While next year’s Québec City Summer Festival lineup won’t be released until later this year, one thing is for sure, there will be a whole new set of photographic opportunities.

See more of Mark Edward Harris’ work at and follow him on Instagram @MarkEdwardHarrisPhoto

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