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PPD Master Series: Chad Wadsworth Pushes the Limits in Austin

By Jeff Wignall   Wednesday March 9, 2016

Chad Wadsworth (chadwadsworth.com) has had a lifelong passion for two things: music and photography. Fortunately for the Austin, Texas-based photographer, he found a clever way to bridge the two worlds and forge a very successful career path—he’s become one of the city’s (and the country’s) most respected music photographers.

Shooting in venues ranging from festivals to Austin’s legendary nightclubs, as well as haunting the tour buses and backstage areas of Texas’ most music-centric city, Wadsworth devotes his creative energy to capturing the eclectic excitement of the live music scene. His photographs have been published in a variety of prestigious national music publications including Rolling Stone, SPIN, Billboard and Pitchfork. He is also a global Red Bull photographer and Sound Select  contributor and spends much of his time documenting emerging artists at venues throughout the South, as well as photographing Red Bull motorsport events, Formula One drivers and X-Game athletes.

Wadsworth’s interest in both music and photography began in high school and, in fact, it was in a high-school art class that the says his vision to marry the two interests first began to emerge. “Early on I was more tuned-in to album art. Like most teens, I was absorbing new music at a ravenous pace and would spend hours analyzing artwork, reading liner notes, etc.,” he says. “My high school photography instructor asked the class what type of photography they wanted to do and I happened to have the latest U2 CD in my bag which I held up for him to see. It was The Joshua Tree and featured the dreamy low-fi black-and-white photos by Anton Corbijn. So Anton was probably my earliest influence but I later appreciated the editorial portraits of Danny Clinch and the live work of Jim Marshall.”

Of course, living in one of the hottest music cities in the country has surely not hurt his career choice, says, Wadsworth. “Austin has definitely been an enabler for me,” he says. “The creative class in Austin is so vibrant and tightly knit that we support each other, so it has been the perfect incubator for my work.” Like a lot of the musicians that he photographs, Wadsworth mastered his craft by studying the work of photographers he admired and just getting out there and shooting. “Other than that high school photography course, and a weekend seminar, I am self taught,” he says. “I briefly flirted with the idea of attending the Brooks Institute when I lived in California but decided to do it on my own.”

Wadsworth, a Sony Artisan, and an outspoken advocate of mirrorless camera technology, recently spoke with writer Jeff Wignall  about his approach to live music photography, his involvement with Sony mirrorless cameras and his recent winter shooting trip to Iceland.


PPD: How long have you been shooting concerts and do you remember the first concert you ever shot?

CW:  I’ve been taking cameras to shows for a long time but didn’t start shooting them professionally until 2005. One of the first concerts I remember photographing was the band Heart back in the late 80s. I had a little Kodak 35mm point and shoot and was able to walk up to the stage to take some photos. Security grabbed me and yanked all the film out of the camera so those didn’t turn out so good.

The first real shoot was here in Austin, a couple months after I moved to town. A local radio station was sponsoring a concert with one of my favorite bands, Spoon, so I called them to see if they needed a photographer. They declined but I brought my camera anyway and was pleased with the results. I sent the photos on to the station and I guess they liked them too and ran them on their website. They started providing me with real media credentials for more shows after that.

PPD: What is the toughest part of shooting live shows, technically and otherwise?

CW:  I think the answer depends on the individual and for me personally that has changed over the years. Initially it was the technical aspect and handling low light and fast moving subjects. Next, it became access and how to improve it so that your content has more variety and finding different perspectives, perhaps working from side-stage or shooting in a green room. These days, I am most challenged with finding new ways to shoot familiar venues and scenes. What I try to do is shoot each event as a photographer, not a “concert photographer” and look beyond the stage shot for moments of interest that may not be directly related to the performer on stage.    


PPD:What is the most fun part of shooting live shows?

CW: The adrenaline you get from shooting a really good show or a favorite act is like a drug. Some shows, when the crowd is really responding and the energy is high, become a near religious experience. I’ve been on stage for a couple of those type sets and had a hard time keeping calm enough to shoot. One time I was shooting a reunion show by the West Texas band At the Drive-In for SPIN magazine and the crowd got so wild that they had to pull the photographers up on to the stage in order to get us out of there – it was nuts.

PPD: What do you think makes a really good concert photo?

CW: Like any form of photography, a good photo is defined by many different elements but if I were to pick one I would say that capturing the emotion or energy of a live performance is a pretty good place start. I try to do that by selecting the right moment but also in the edit, whether it be through color or black and white. I touch every single image in post and try to match the tone of the moment to the tone of the image, if that makes sense.

PPD: Stage lighting is often overly saturated, do you set a white balance to neutralize it a bit or do you work with the saturation?

CW: No, I shoot RAW and make adjustments in post. The great thing about concert lighting is that it is so variable and the viewer of a photo will not know what the scene “should” look like so you have a bit if artistic license in how you want to edit. Some photographers like to change colors when the stage is washed with magentas and blues to bring out some skin tone, or you can just enhance the colors as they are.

PPD: Do you have a favorite Sony camera and lens combination for shooting live shows?

CW: The Sony a7R II with several fast primes is pretty much my dream setup at the moment. I use the Sony Distagon T* FE 35mm f/1.4 ZA, 55/1.8, and the Zeiss 85mm f/1.8 Batis as my holy trinity, with the Zeiss Touit 12mm f/2.8 Lens for the ultra wide stuff. A lot of concert photographers rely on the big 70-200 zooms but with the ultra high resolution of the a7R II I can get by with just the 85mm and have a super fast and compact lens solution. Once the new G Master 85mm f/1.4 is released I will be replacing the Batis to add just that extra bit of speed and subject isolation. I also just added the Sony RX1R II to my kit and will use it extensively to replace my older Sony RX 1.   

PPD: You recently wrote a blog post called “In Defense of Mirrorless.” Do you have any thoughts about why mirrorless camera designs are gaining popularity?

CW: How much space do we have to talk about this? Mirrorless has been a great disruptive force in the industry and I think it will continue to grow in popularity until it becomes the standard. The benefits are multifold and the constraints diminishing with each generation. Here is the big driver that I think has a lot of photographers excited about mirrorless: Ask a DSLR user how often they grab their camera when they aren’t shooting a professional assignment. I know that when I was shooting a DSLR it stayed at home unless I was shooting a show and what a pain it was to haul it around for family or travel.

With mirrorless, you can configure your kit however best suits the job at hand. I use the same camera as both a compact travel solution with tiny rangefinder lenses and as a music festival workhorse with a battery grip, larger primes and zooms. That argument only works though if the quality of images produced by a mirrorless system is as good as those from a DSLR and I can say with zero hesitation that the quality with the Sony cameras is as good if not better.

PPD: You also wrote an interesting story about adapting other lenses to your Sony bodies. Is that something that you have done frequently?

CW: Absolutely. Adapting lenses, specifically small, high-quality rangefinder lenses, has been a huge draw for me personally. At the risk of this sounding like an infomercial for mirrorless, I think this is another great argument for the platform. Lenses are a photographer’s primary tool to draw our subjects and there are so many outstanding compact rangefinder and smaller manual focus SLR lenses that offer unique characteristics not found in a modern lens. How a 1947 Leica Summitar 50mm f/2 renders a scene is completely different to the way that the Sony Sonnar T* FE 55mm f/1.8 ZA does. Both lenses are fantastic so wouldn’t you want the option to use either/or, based on the image you want to create?

PPD: Do you think this capability is going to put a lot of classic lenses back into play?

CW: Well, admittedly the world of rangefinder and classic lenses is fairly niche but that has been in part due to the limitations of manual focus, which many photographers are not comfortable with either due to skill, or eyesight that isn’t as good as it once was. That is changing due again to mirrorless. The Chinese company TechArt has already released an adapter that allows autofocus with classic Zeiss lenses made for the Contax G system from the 90’s.

Even more impressive, TechArt recently announced the world’s first autofocus adapter for Leica M-mount lenses. This adapter will use the fast on-sensor phase detection pixels in the Sony a7 II and a7R II cameras to deliver an adapter that can quickly autofocus classic rangefinder lenses. Even more exciting, you can stack adapters to obtain autofocus capability with most 70’s and 80’s SLR manual focus lenses. I think these developments will definitely drive up the market for used classic lenses.

PPD: What Sony cameras/lenses are you using now?

CW: I use the Alpha a7 II, Alpha a7R II and the RX1R II. I previously used the a6000 for high speed action and am excited about the new a6300 I have on order. For lenses, I use the Sony FE 28mm f/2 which is a tremendous performer for the money, the excellent Sony Distagon T* FE 35mm f/1.4 ZA, the Sony Sonnar T* FE 55mm f/1.8 ZA and the Sony FE 70-200mm f/4 OSS. I also adapt the Sony A-mount 135mm f/1.8.

PPD: Are you using the Sony RX1RII for and what it is that you like about that camera? What types of things do you use it for?

CW: It’s hard to explain to a rational person why the RX1R II is so special but it is my desert-island camera. I literally grab it every time I leave the house. For a while I was addicted to the luxury film compacts of the 90s like the Contax T3, Konica Hexar AF and the Leica Minilux because they had these amazing fast prime lenses but could fit in your jacket pocket. The RX1R II is the reincarnation of this concept except it is so much more capable than those cameras ever were. I shoot just about everything with it that doesn’t require a long lens: travel, portraits, landscape, street, music, etc.

PPD: For a lot of SLR photographers there is some fear about switching from an optical viewfinder to an EVF. What are your thoughts on the SONY EVFs and how they compare?

CW: I think the technology has progressed very rapidly over the past several years so we are at a point where the transition for a traditional optical viewfinder (OVF) user is going to be minimal. Most of my friends that look at a Sony EVF for the first time are really impressed. They are very neutral and people will comment about how organic they look. The EVFs are super helpful in my concert photography when I need to dial in exposure compensation, for example, in a scene where strobes are heavily back lighting my subject. With the EVF I get to see the results in real time, a feature called “what you see is what you get” or WYSIWYG. Beyond that, this current generation of EVFs can see in the dark, resolving details that I couldn’t see through a traditional OVF.   

PPD: You recently took your family on a trip to Iceland in December and used a RX1R II as your primary camera. What did you think of shooting with just a single focal length?

CW: I cheated and took the Sony a7R II as well but I did use the Sony RX1R II as my primary tool. As I mentioned before, the RX is my dream camera and 35mm is a flexible field of view for travel photography where you are capturing both details and scenic vistas. I used it for portraits, landscapes, street and even underwater. Having such an easily accessible compact camera that I could protect from the elements in my jacket pocket, freeing my hands for outdoor activities was pretty liberating. Plus, the family didn’t have to suffer the stigma of traveling with Mr. Tourist and his bag of gear.  

PPD How did the camera’s weather sealing perform?

CW: Impressively. I used it in wet, sub zero conditions without any issue.

PPD: What prompted you to choose Iceland for a family and shooting trip and was it an interesting place to visit?

CW: I’ve had a crush on Bjork since college so I planned the whole trip on the off chance I would run in to her. No seriously, Iceland has been on my bucket list for a while and my family is just crazy enough to agree to a trip there in the dead of winter. It lived up to the hype in every way and for a photographer, presented almost endless content to capture. I’m missing it now. Iceland is getting to be quite popular with both tourists and photographers but the winter light imparted a unique tone to the images that differentiated them from so many of the summer scenes you normally see. There was a soft, dense, quiet mood to the days that I hope came through in the photos.

PPD: One of your other favorite subjects is motor sports. What types of events are you shooting?

CW: I kind of fell into motorsports through my work as a Red Bull Global Photographer. The dirty secret is that I normally shoot music for Red Bull but I’ve talked them into some assignments for X-Games which is held here in Austin, TX as well as the MotoGP and Formula One races at Circuit of the Americas. Most of my work has been more day-in-the-life coverage where I get to follow around Red Bull athletes but I do get to grab some on-track action as well.

PPD: What is it that attracts you to shooting motor sports?

CW: I’m a speed freak and have always loved fast cars so it was a natural fit. The adrenaline and spectacle that surrounds motor sport is similar in many ways to music festivals so it wasn’t much of a stretch. I will say that panning on vehicles moving at close to 200mph is a real challenge and something I am still working on.  

PPD: Do you have any thoughts for someone who might want to get started in concert photography?

CW: I would simply say get out there and do it. I shoot next to fresh kids in their teens and 70-year-olds that have been photographing music for fifty years. There are more opportunities than ever to get your foot in the door; just bring your camera to a club or show and start practicing.

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