Interview: Claude Sawyer Talks About His Journey To Success With Concert Photography

Interview: Claude Sawyer Talks About His Journey To Success With Concert Photography

There are many important roles behind the scenes in the live music industry with one of them being the concert photographer. The photographer is responsible for capturing images of the music and fans that last for a lifetime. We are blessed to have many of these folks in the Capital Region and they are all talented in their own way. One of those photographers being Claude Sawyer. Claude captures some of the sharpest images around from shows at the Arena level and club sizes and is an all around great human being. We wanted to start highlighting our fellow light capturers in the Capital Region and figured there was no one better to start with than with Claude! Read our full interview with him below and don’t forget to give him a follow on instagram and also check out his website!

You had a stellar year photographing everywhere in 2022, what were some stand out moments for you?

Between shooting for Nippertown,, Mirth Films, Hazy Eye Media and Live Nation I photographed 125 national touring artists in 2022. I got to cover some of my favorite bands and artists, but the one set that stands out most for me was Jelly Roll opening for Shinedown at Saratoga Performing Arts Center. I had the sense that I was witnessing a superstar on the rise. Photographing the sold out Morgan Wallen show at SPAC was another great moment for me. I have only been to a handful of truly SOLD OUT shows at SPAC in my lifetime. The atmosphere at the Wallen show was electric, with over 25,000 fans in attendance. His opening acts, Lainey Wilson and Hardy would be headliners on any other tour. I was lucky enough to be able to cover Wallen in Syracuse as well as at SPAC. I really enjoyed covering Tenacious D in Philadelphia as well. They are great musicians and absolutely hilarious.

What made you want to start shooting concerts? I remember meeting you at a drive-in show during Covid-19 and then led to checking out your incredible work.

I have been interested in concert photography since I was a kid. I was a little metal head when I was a kid. I bought magazines like Circus and Hit Parader to see my favorite bands of the time. I admired the work of guys like Mick Rock and Mark Weiss. From my very first concert when I was 8, I knew that I wanted to capture moments from the shows. I remember sneaking disposable 35mm cameras into concerts, just hoping to grab one or two usable pictures. Countless times they would get confiscated by some over zealous security guard. Who knew that one day everyone would have a high definition video/still camera in their pockets? When digital photography became affordable I jumped in and
bought my first Canon DSLR. I mainly took photos of local bands like Skeeter Creek. I dropped a ton of money on gear right before COVID and I was really looking for ANYTHING to shoot. Those drive-in concerts were a much needed lifeline during that time.

What was the first national act you got to shoot and what did it feel like having the privilege of being so close to potentially one of your idols?

My first national act was country superstar Luke Combs with Morgan Wallen opening. There really are no words to describe the feeling of being in the photo pit when the lights go out and the crowd goes nuts. You have a better spot than the people in the front row. It doesn’t get much cooler than that. I was able to shoot this show by taking a class
from David Bergman, the touring photographer for Luke Combs. Bergman is a Canon Explorer of Light and was Bon Jovi’s tour photographer for a decade. His site, gives hopeful concert photographers everything they need to get started. I spent the entire day with Bergman, taking classes in composition, editing and workflow.

Once the bands hit the stage, students are allowed to photograph the entire show from anywhere in the arena. The usual “first 3 songs, no flash” didn’t apply. I was able to use the photos I took at the class to bolster my portfolio.

Is there a certain genre of music that you like photographing the most and why?

My favorite genre to shoot is rock or metal. I love the challenge of getting photos of fast moving subjects in less than ideal lighting. Catching all of the members of Avatar whipping their hair in unison makes for an interesting photo. Shooting the Korn concert at MVP Arena was a lot of fun, but also super challenging. The photographers were all sequestered at the rear of the venue behind the soundboard. Getting interesting images under those types of conditions can be difficult. New Found Glory at Empire Live was a really fun show to shoot. My favorite genre to listen to is country. I recently got connected with Country 107.7 WGNA and I do photos for all of their live events. I love shooting country artists but there is not a lot of challenge there. The shows are usually very well-lit and most country artists don’t stray too far away from their microphones.

You have one lens to choose while in the pit for three songs, what is it and why?

This is a tough question… If I am in a legit pit, between the stage and the front row I love my 28-70mm f/2. 28mm is wide enough to get full body shots but the 70mm has enough zoom to get close ups. The super fast f/2 aperture allows me to shoot at faster shutter speeds, freezing motion. The new Canon glass is the sharpest that I have ever seen. Now
if I had to pick just ONE lens for all occasions it would be the 70-200mm f/2.8. It is just such a versatile lens. As more and more artists switch from pit to soundboard access, a longer lens is key. I have found the best of both worlds. I have a dual camera harness and I carry two camera bodies. One will have the 28-70mm and the other will have the 70-200mm. It gives me the ability to quickly decide which lens I want, without having to physically change lenses. For soundboard shoots I will generally have a 70-200mm on one body and a 100-400mm on the other. I recently picked up a really nice 300mm f/2.8 prime lens that makes incredible images.

What is it like to be a part of the collective of many talented photographers in the Capital Region?

It is challenging and rewarding. I admire so many of the other local photographers. I like to share my knowledge with newer photographers and pick the brains of the veterans in the area. For the most part the other local photographers are friendly and helpful. I try to reciprocate whenever possible. Some shooters are not as open as others. When I was starting out I reached out to a fairly well known local photographer. I liked his studio work and I had a few questions about his process. His response? “I don’t need anyone as good as me out there. It would be like a magician teaching his tricks.” He wasn’t kidding. After my concert work started taking off I got a message from the same guy, asking ME for help shooting concerts… Needless to say, I was less than helpful to that individual. I do pride myself on being an open book to new photographers. I like to “pay it forward.” Veterans
like Jim Gilbert of Nippertown and Frankie Cavone from Mirth Films helped me when I was starting, so it is only right to continue that tradition. I have met so many people interested in becoming concert photographers. Several of them are now regular contributors to the aforementioned sites.

What is something people might not know about you?

I play guitar and sing (poorly.) I also dabble in graphic design. I designed most of Skeeter Creek’s graphics. I always get a kick out of seeing one of my designs on someone’s t-shirt. I have been fascinated by concert poster art since I was a kid. I have way more concert posters than I will ever have wall space to display them, yet I keep buying them.

What are some bucket list bands you would like to shoot one day?

I would love to shoot legends like Nine Inch Nails, Metallica and Red Hot Chili Peppers. Rammstein is such a visually interesting group. I would love to shoot their show. I have already covered most of the biggest names in country music, but I want to get Garth Brooks, George Strait and Eric Church checked off my list. Bruce Springsteen is coming to town soon, I would really like to cover that show as well. I will cover just about any band or genre. To me it isn’t about only covering music that I enjoy. Some of the best photos I have made were of artists that I don’t listen to. I can focus on making an interesting image when I am not being a fanboy. Stevie Nicks was my first crush when I was a kid so I would love a chance to make photos of her.

What goals and plans do you have for 2023?

I would just like to keep going. I am not sure I can top 2022, but I want to get out there and get shooting. I want to continue making contacts with publicists and record companies. I want to start doing multiple day festivals. I am planning to cover the Tortuga Music Festival in Florida in April.

What are some of your biggest pet peeves while shooting in the photo pit?

Oh boy… I am going to sound like a total dick but here we go… The pit is tight to begin with. There is barely any room to move. I hate when photographers bring their backpacks into the pit. Trying to discreetly sneak behind someone while they are making photos is so much more difficult when they have all of their gear strapped to their back. It is 3 songs and out. Just bring the gear you need for those 3 songs. I also can’t stand when one photographer grabs a prime spot and stays there for the whole 3 songs. Keep it moving. We all need to get our shots. I hate to sound elitist and snobby but I really hate “iPhone Photographers” in the photo pit. You don’t need to have a $5000 camera but you shouldn’t be taking media credentials that could go to someone with an actual camera. For some reason these guys are almost always the same ones that camp out in prime real estate too. Last but not least…deodorant is NOT optional. Don’t be the smelly guy.

What is your biggest advice for photographers just breaking into the concert photography industry?

Shoot. Shoot Shoot. Just get out there and make photos. Experiment with your settings under less stressful situations so when you find yourself in the pit at an arena show you are prepared. The best advice I can give is to be friendly and to be teachable. Make friends with the security guards and the fans in the front row. Make as may contacts as you can. Promoters, venue staff, tour managers and publicists remember the photographer that’s not a pain in the ass. Start local. Shoot local bands and local venues. That is the quickest, easiest way to build a portfolio. Never skip an opening act! Today’s opening act is tomorrow’s headliner. ALWAYS tag the artists in social media posts. I have made so many great connections this way. The artist and their management get to see your work and attach a name to the photo. I wish anyone wanting to do this the best of luck and I invite anyone to contact me directly if they have any questions.

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