Photographing music festivals is a dream of many photographers, and in many cases leads to some amazing images. However, photographing festivals isn’t as glamorous as it seems, and in many cases comes with lots of rejection and missed opportunities.

In this guide, we will break down how to get an assignment or otherwise get access to shoot a festival, as well as a few general pointers to know ahead of time.


Which Festivals To Apply To

Festivals are all different, but for the most part we can split them into a few main categories.

At the top, we have Coachella, Governor’s Ball and other big, three day festivals that bring in photographers from around the world and have top talent to match. These festivals can be incredibly appealing, but also are a tough situation, especially for newer photographers. Huge grounds, long days and limits in who and what you can shoot (more on that below) add an extra challenge. However, you may also be rewarded with free drinks or meals, and the access to top talent can be a life-changing opportunity.

Next, you have second-tier festivals, sometimes split over two days and often on slightly smaller grounds and with less stages and less acts. If you want great images with less barriers to get those shots, these can be your bread and butter. During the busy festival season, several events will happen during the same weekend and your chances of access to a smaller festival may be much higher than some of the bigger named events.

Finally, you have an eclectic mix of radio festivals, smaller one-day festivals, and a slough of other events that just seem to pop up. Shooting these is really hit or miss, and there is no telling how much access you will get or what the vibe will be on site. Oftentimes, these smaller festivals bring in a few major names and can be a great chance to shoot major talent on a smaller stage, however you may also find yourself dealing with tough environments if the festival is not well run or security is not well-versed on working music events. Throw in an application if a festival in this range appeals to you, but don’t have high expectations.

If you are on assignment for a legitimate publication, you should be OK applying to any of the festivals on the market, but know that your chances of approval will be much slimmer the bigger the event is, unless you are working for a large, national publication or one that specifically appeals to the local market. For example, a Boston student newspaper may be able to get access to Boston Calling, but will be passed over for events outside of New England.

On one hand, there is no harm in applying to as many festivals as your editor allows you to, but know that you may be better served targeting mid-tier festivals and will likely get better images there anyways.


How To Apply To Cover a Music Festival 

First, like with any show you want to shoot, you will need an assignment from an editor. With festivals, your coverage plan should be more robust than a simple gallery of images. Talk with your editor or develop a plan yourself that includes pre-event coverage, several on-site posts and galleries, and a larger recap or review. Festivals value coverage that comes out before the event the most, because it publicizes the event and in theory, helps them sell tickets. Interviews with talent, guides for how to survive the festival, and lists of lower-billed talent to catch are a few ideas that tend to work well for pre-event coverage.

Next, most times you will find an application online, not different than a job application, that asks for your publication and assignment details, a bit about you, and the scope of your publications reach. Take these applications seriously, but do not lie or exaggerate. It is easy to verify social reach or website stats, and also easy to verify what assignment details are real and what is not actually going to happen. Press for festivals is handled by professionals who can see through a pumped up application. In many cases, it can serve you to publish pre-event coverage before you even submit your application.

If you cannot find an application, you are either too early, too late, or will need to find a direct contact (who will probably send you a link to an application or a list of questions to answer). Typically, applications open from about 60 to 90 days before the event and close two or three weeks before so there is time for the staff to approve or deny applications. If a deadline has passed, unless you are working for a top publication, you will not be approved.




Understanding Approval

Congrats! You’re in! Now what? Festivals offer a few different types of passes for press, and just because you are approved does not mean you will get to shoot all your favorite acts. The most fundamental difference is a press pass vs. a photo pass. Both allow you to bring a camera into the venue, but in most cases you will need a designated photo pass to get photo pit access. Many festivals cap photo passes at a much lower number than press passes.

If you didn’t get photo access, you can still work to shoot portraits, try to shoot from the crowd, or maybe find a security guard who will let you shoot from the pit at some smaller stages. Use this opportunity to get great shots of fans and try to find a few artist to shoot portraits with.

Photo passes at bigger festivals also come with limitations, as many top headliners only allow certain photographers into the pit for their shows. Throughout the day, you may also find artists close the pit entirely. At festivals like Coachella, Austin City Limits, and others that grab big headlining talent, expect to not be able to shoot the top headliners and feel lucky if you are able to. Hopefully, there will be a second stage headliner that you can shoot instead, or just put your camera away and enjoy the show. If you don’t get access to a headliner, your editor will understand and the event will provide press images of the set for you to use with credit.


How To Prepare Ahead of Time

In addition to writing and publishing any pre-festival coverage you agreed to, use the time before the festival to research who you will want to shoot. You may get a list of artists to capture from an editor, but if it is up to your find past coverage of shows and see who will have the most engaging shows. Also consider the stages talent will be on — early in the day, shooting smaller stages can be advantageous, because main-stages may have headliners gear or backline already set up and lead to distracting shots.

Also use this time to set up a few interviews or portraits on site if you are interested in doing that. Be considerate and know that talent is doing you a favor by agreeing to portraits. Don’t take up too much of their time and be flexible, knowing that on the day of the event, they may be running behind schedule.

Make sure your kit is set, with a few different lenses and enough batteries and memory cards. Then, get ready for the big weekend. This is gonna be fun.