For many, large crowds, roaring music, and uncontrolled lighting make concert photography an intimidating field. But, for NYC-based photographer Sachyn Mital, these aspects are where he thrives in his art. With over 10 years of experience as a music journalist and live concert photographer, Sachyn has built an impressive portfolio working with reputable music outlets, publications, and bands. His "cultural documentary" style allows him to capture up-close and fully key moments of the performance. Equipped with the Petzval 55 MKII Lens, Sachyn set out to the Newport Folk Festival and the Westville Music Bowl to photograph some artists in action.
Hi Sachyn, it’s a pleasure to have you here. Can you tell the readers a bit about yourself?
Hi Lomography readers, outside of my day job, I am an analyst at the International Rescue Committee, I find photography has been a way to immerse myself in all that New York City has to offer. I picked up my first DSLR, a Canon Rebel XSi, in 2008 and, through a connection, I started shooting events for SPIN while picking up photography skills as I went. I have since covered events for publications like PopMatters, BrooklynVegan and Village Voice and have done work with LiveNation NYC, the Town Hall and other venues/promoters.
Prior to any professional work, I mostly played with various point & shoots to photograph friends and family; my first digital camera was the Olympus D340R around 2000 and my first Lomography camera was the Fisheye model around 2004.
What do you feel makes the music photography community special?
I think the fact that New York City's music photographers are a community is special. It may not be surprising to some but after seeing so many of the same faces at shows, I've become friends with many photographers. The community helps each other with gear suggestions or finding contact info and we sometimes get together to hang without live music.
What is the most rewarding aspect of concert photography?
Over time, earning some name recognition from venues or bands has been most rewarding. I became a fan of Jukebox the Ghost back in 2009. I've stayed friendly with the band and their team over the years. Earlier in the summer, they asked if I could take some street portraits for them. I was a little nervous going in but it turned out to be fun and the lads liked the images.
How would you describe your style of photography? Who/what influences you?
I believe I veer more towards photojournalism as I document events for posterity or newsworthiness. Two peers that inspire me to see differently are: Nina Westervelt as she applies her own distinct style to every image and captures moments I never noticed (when we are at the same event) and Joshua Mellin because he documents dynamic moments in his city of Chicago and has done some exciting work as a travel photographer.
How was your experience using the Petzval 55 MKII Lens? What details do you like about it?
I will first say that the Petzval 55 MKII Lens was quite the head-turner (among photographers at least) at Newport Folk Fest. I was told that it's gleaming brass construction echoed that of nautical instruments on ships.
At first, I struggled with getting the rings, both manual focus and bokeh control, just right since I experienced a notable focus shift [if that is the right term] when adjusting one or the other. I tried to start with the highest bokeh control to get the most swirl but, within the constraints of the photo pit, I was limited to how far I could be from the performer so I just landed what I could.
But once I got the hang of it, I really enjoyed the depth of field the Petzval can achieve as it created a lot of separation between the artist and the background. The rings themselves are super smooth and it's quick to adjust so manually focusing on a moving performer was possible.
For portraiture, I took advantage of the Petzval's shallow depth of field and the spin effect. I need to spend more time with it in a controlled environment to understand all its possibilities but I liked that the effect is so distinct.
What position/angles do you like to take in a concert?
Generally, I start off house-left/stage-right in a photo pit. That allows me to photograph the artist with their instrument, like the guitar, the trumpet, the violin, fully in the frame or at least not blocking their face. But when the performance starts, I just have to think on my feet.
From the multitude of concerts and events you’ve been involved with, there must be some good stories that come out of it. Do you have a favorite story to tell?
Concert photography can often be ephemeral -- bands keep touring and photos are continuously taken. So it was exciting for me when, earlier this year, Brandi Carlile's team reached out to me to license an image for her first NYC area show since the pandemic started. It was great that a favorite image of mine was granted a longer life.
One fun memory from Newport Folk, I had a few minutes to shoot a portrait with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. When we got to this little corridor I had in mind, the band started playing. I was confused at first since I expected them to just pose, but I got my own mini-concert first!
What are your top three must-have items for a shoot?
For concerts, it depends on the venue, but I would stick with my DSLR (primarily a Canon 5D Mark IV) and the 16–35mm and 70-200mm lenses (both f/2.8).
What does a typical day of shooting look like for you?
Sometimes I cover festivals, but mostly I'm shooting concerts that run for at most two hours, depending on if there are any openers. So, aside from packing my gear, there isn't necessarily a lot to a day. It does help to be familiar with the venue and any policies they or the artist may have in place (e.g. shooting from pit or front of house, or only the first three songs permitted).
For bigger tours, it has been helpful to look up what songs a band opens with or even see other people's images. Green Day is currently starting with "American Idiot" and "Holiday", which could mean that I have about seven minutes in the photo pit. But, by familiarizing myself with other images from the tour, I saw that a pink bunny mascot came out before Green Day, so I was aware that I would have additional time to capture its antics.
Any pointers for those wanting to start out in music/live photography?
With COVID still floating around, it may be a challenge to get to shows. But live music is making a comeback. My first tip would be to get vaccinated -- you can't expect any social distancing at a show. People are breathing on you and you may even be breathing on the artist, so keep them safe!
Otherwise the best tip is to just get out there. Many smaller venues don't have a strict camera policy in place (so a prearranged photo pass isn't required). Bring your gear (an affordable "nifty-fifty" is a good place to start) to gigs and then tag the performer in some images or email them directly and introduce yourself. Even cover bands in bars like to look good. You'll build your portfolio as you develop connections.