In entertainment photography, few events are as exciting as the opening night of a concert tour. As a lifelong music nerd, it’s definitely one of those times I feel privileged to be in this job. A couple of weeks ago I got tapped to cover the opening night of the Rolling Stones’ “50 & Counting” tour at Staples Center. Needless to say, I was damned excited just to be there, let alone shoot it. If you can’t get up for a gig like this, it’s time to hang up the cameras.
We were told by publicity that photographers would be allowed to shoot the second and third songs of the performance. That’s one less than normal, but I had shot the Stones once before at Dodger Stadium in the ’90s, and I know that two songs of Mick Jagger is better than shooting an entire night of lesser frontmen (that would be pretty much every performer in existence). And the Dodger Stadium gig was back in the more challenging era of film cameras and manual focus, so I was definitely looking forward to taking another crack at the Stones with the benefit of autofocus and 16GB cards!
A handful of other photographers and I were told we would be shooting at the back of the “tongue”: an open pit in the shape of the Stones’ famous logo that would be about 50 feet away from the stage. Also, there was a circular ramp going around the tongue where there was a chance Mick would prance right past you.
As I only have two Nikon D3 cameras, this caused a bit of a quandary. Normally, a 300mm lens would have been perfect for a straight-on shot of Mick or Keith performing, but you really need to see at least two or three of them in the shot as well. It is a concert by the Rolling Stones after all, rather than a solo show by Mick or Keith. So maybe the wider 70-200 would be better, I thought. And then there was the ramp, so I had better be ready with a wide angle as well. It seemed to be a three-lens gig and I was one camera short.
I contacted a pair of colleagues in New York to ask if Mick had worked the ramp during the songs they had shot at pre-tour gigs the Stones had recently done there. Both of them said no, so I was set on shooting with the 300 and 70-200. I almost didn’t even bring a wide lens, not wanting to be weighed down by extraneous equipment. But at the last minute I said to myself, “you never know,” and stuffed a 24-70 lens into my jacket pocket.
When the lights went down and the band tore into the classic “Get Off My Cloud,” I was actually happy to be sitting out the first song, as per the publicists’ instructions. For a few minutes I just enjoyed the show like any other fan. The crowd was going crazy. And I have to say, the Stones sounded great. Laugh all you want about their age, but for my money they’re still one of the best live acts in the world. How can they not be with that songbook?
Then the drawling riff of “The Last Time” started, and it was time to go to work. Sure enough, it seemed like the distance to the band was right in between the 70-200, which was a shade too loose, and the 300, in which you could only fit one member of the band in the frame. I went back and forth furiously between the two lenses. Then the third song (our last song to shoot) started, and I saw Mick start heading over toward the ramp. Fumbling around in the dark, I yanked the 300 off of one of my cameras, and quickly snapped on the 24-70. As Mick strutted right past me, I made sure I zoomed out as wide as possible to fit in the spotlights on the left side of the frame. It was a tricky exposure, and I really was not sure I got this picture until I checked my monitor in the Staples Center hallway afterwards. I was pretty relieved when I saw that the focus was sharp and the exposure close enough, as it was almost as if Mick was pitching this picture right to us. And as the song goes, “this could be the last time…”