If you ever visited a concert in Belgium, and your view was blocked by a mountain-sized photographer in the first row, all the chances are you were behind Nathan Dobbelaere. Pretty much every single important band of our time was in front of his lenses, some of them even taking him with them all across the world. We caught up with Nathan and talked about photography, gear, the music scene in Belgium, and US/Canada tour with Simple Plan and The Bottom Line.
Hi! First of all, can you introduce yourself briefly and say one random fact about you?
Nathan: Hi! I'm Nathan. I'm a 25-year-old giant from Belgium. I'm living with my girlfriend in a small apartment in Antwerp which is fantastic as a concert photographer since all big bands ever on tour play in a radius of 100km. One random fact: I still play with Lego. ‘Cause Lego is awesome.
How did you get into photography and what led you to start photographing concerts?
Nathan: My dad used to be the photographer of the professional football team Cercle Brugge. Everyone knew him, and it made me feel proud as a teenager. One day I read on one of the webzines I was following they were looking for concert reviewers, CD reviewers, web designers and concert photographers. I just applied for everything, including concert photography. When they asked me which experience I had and what gear I used, I had to answer honestly I’d never shot with a DSLR in my life, but I could use my dad’s equipment if I wanted. Amazingly, the guy who was responsible for the photography team gave me the chance to try it out (Lander, I still love you to death for this). One month after our first contact he asked me if I wanted to shoot The Hives in the Ancienne Belgique in Brussels. He explained me the basics, and I asked some of my concert photography friends on what should I focus during the show. I came home, and he liked what he saw so gave me more concerts. A half year later I met the "boss" of one of the biggest (at the time) webzines in Belgium who wanted me on his team, and that gave me a lift off. The second show I shot for them was Neil Young, went to Hellfest and Tomorrowland that year, …. The least I could say is that I was extremely fortunate during those five years I’ve been a concert photographer.
How would you describe music and concert scene in Belgium? How hard is to pursue a career in concert photography in your country?
Nathan: We have a very vibrant music scene. We have great local bands who travel the country to play in smaller venues. Besides that, almost all big bands touring Europe pass through Belgium, and even if they don’t, Paris and Amsterdam are merely 3h away.
Pursuing a career in concert photography in Belgium is hard; especially when you want to make money out of it. Local bands all have their friend photographer, so it’s hard to befriend a band to tour with. US or UK based artists all have their local photographers they take on tour. On the other hand, if you just want to shoot concerts, I think Belgium is awesome. We have lots of different webzines who give many new photographers the chance to shoot shows. Even the "bigger" ones in the Ancienne Belgique. You won’t always get what you want, not in the beginning. But when you start making a name lots of opportunities will arise, especially when you’re not picky on what genre’s you want to shoot.
Do you find some correlation between the bands you personally like and your best photos? Do you think it is necessary to love the band or artist you’re shooting to get a ’killer’ shoot?
Nathan: Hmm, hard one. When I look at the photos in my portfolio, half of the bands in there I love to death, but the other half I’m less interested in. Though, being a fan can give you that extra motivational boost or adrenaline rush that helps you make awesome shots. But it can work the other way as well. Because you’re getting so excited, you lose your control, and you just start shooting on autopilot without realizing what you’ve done until you walk out of that photo pit. And sometimes photos can be awesome, but sometimes they suck really bad.
Of course, when you’re shooting a band you don’t like, and the light is awful, you’re going to feel bad, and you really ask yourself why you’re at that concert. Since you’re not motivated, you’re not going to make an effort to create something great. At those nights, the average will do. So, in a way, it’s better to like the bands you’re going shoot, then not like them. But you must be open-minded in this business and sometimes surrender to whatever comes your way, even if you don’t like it. Maybe you think you’re going to hate it, but it turns out to be one of the best bands you’ve ever seen live.
What gear do you use and how do you usually prepare for a concert?
Nathan: I use two Canon 6D’s. I wanted to have two of the same bodies because otherwise you’re just choosing your favorite one and you have to think before every band and every situation which lens you’re going to put on which body. Having two of the same bodies takes away that choice to make. On those two bodies, I mostly use a Sigma 24-70 f/2.8 and a Canon 70-200mm L f/2.8 lens. In most cases, only one of those two would do the job, but I found myself in situations at bigger shows and festivals where having two bodies is indeed lifesaving. I still remember the first night I used both camera’s, which was at Imagine Dragons in Vorst Nationaal (9000 cap venue in Belgium). I mostly used my 70-200mm lens that night until the singer walked on that catwalk and dropped down in front of me for a couple of seconds. If I haven’t had two bodies, I wouldn’t have shot what is still one of my most favorite photos so far.
Other gear in my bag are a nifty-fifty (Canon 50mm f/1.8) and a Speedlite in case of emergency. Since I’m still a student, I don’t have the money to buy more lenses, but the moment I start working I’m sure I’ll buy some of that Sigma Art stuff.
I’m lazy when it comes to preparing. Since I only use one bag and I carry around all my gear all the time I just check if I have SD-cards on me and if the batteries are loaded. When I arrive at the venue, I meet with the other photographers, or I walk to the photo pit and talk to the people in the first row. In certain genres, the front row is filled up with the same people every night, and it’s good to keep contact with them since it’s them who like all the stuff you post.
What would you describe as a highlight of your concert photography life so far?
Nathan: There are a couple of highlights so far. The first one was shooting at Rock Am Ring. It was always my dream to go to that festival and to be able to do that as a photographer was crazy. At the main stage, they have a special platform so you can stand close to the stage which was awesome for photos. Plus, they let almost all photographers shoot the headliners too, so I was able to shoot The Prodigy and Slipknot which was crazy at the time.
The craziest thing was shooting Foo Fighters. All photographers had to stand at the end of the 80m long catwalk they had on the tour, and Dave Grohl ran to the end and stood there for only 30sec. I was lucky I was one of the first photographers in the pit, so I had the best spot to take photos from. Plus, I rented an extremely wide angle lens for that festival which came in handy at that moment. I don’t remember anything from those 30sec, but I remember walking out of that photo pit and checking my photos and finding that one I knew would be my best photo for probably forever. I ran to the press room, edited that photo and posted it online. Still my most favorite photo I’ve ever shot.
The other highlight has to do with my goal I’ve put up for myself when I started concert photography. I wanted to shoot the two most important festivals in Belgium, Pukkelpop and Rock Werchter. Both are extremely hard to get accredited. This year I was able to shoot Pukkelpop for the first time which made me feel proud. The line-up wasn’t great in my opinion, and I only shot one band that day that I didn’t shoot before, but it was still a crazy experience.
The last highlight started two days after the Pukkelpop one. I went on tour through the USA and Canada with The Bottom Line and Simple Plan and continuing in the UK with The Bottom Line supporting Waterparks. Never thought I would ever be able to tour in my life since it’s hard to find bands who don’t have a photographer yet. But sometimes, dreams come through I guess.
How was the whole experience? Can you name some best parts of the road and some not so pleasant moments?
Nathan: It was insane. The most fun and thrilling experience in my life, by far. Since that first concert I’ve shot, I’ve been dreaming of going on tour. Being able to do that with a band you loved as a 14-year-old made me feel incredibly proud. Especially since the tour was through the US and Canada, which I always wanted to visit.
The best part of touring through the US and Canada is being able to visit all those places you always dreamed of. The Grand Canyon, Las Vegas, Seattle, Montreal, Quebec, Toronto… I felt like a tourist who had to work for a couple of hours a day, and the rest could do what I wanted. Another amazing thing about touring, and in general that is, is meeting all those fans who wait hours to be on the first row. I love talking to people and meeting new people. It feels good to know that I now have a place to sleep, or someone to have a drink with if I ever revisit those places.
It’s impossible to choose one moment that sticks out, but there are a couple I’ll remember ‘till the end of my days. The first one is seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time (and even the second time). I slept in the van with Max (The Bottom Line guitarist), so we could get up early and drive to the Canyon from Flagstaff so that we could see the sunset. The rest of the band wanted a good night sleep so slept in a hotel. We woke up at 4 am and drove for 1.5h. You drive through a pretty boring landscape. No big hills, even the road you drive on is pretty flat. You arrive at a small village, drive through it and arrive at the National Park. Since we arrived so early, we didn’t have to pay entrance, so we drove to the parking. You have to walk the last 100m to the viewing point. Approximately 30m from the edge you finally see the Grand Canyon, and it gives you the chills. No words, nor photos can explain how amazing that view is, even when it was still dark. The magnitude of it is unreal. Ten minutes after arriving the sun started coming up from behind one of the mountains in the distance, and the Canyons start to light up in a moody orange color. By far the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen in my life. We stayed for an hour, climbed over the fence and sat on one of the ledges, feet dangling more than 1km above the ground before we returned to get the other guys and drive back. Even the second time walking to that ledge gave me goosebumps. I recommend everyone who can afford it to at least visit it once in your life.
The second thing I remember is arriving in Las Vegas in the cargo area of a pickup truck. When driving through the desert between Arizona and Nevada, about 160km before Vegas, The Bottom Line’s van battery caught fire. We unloaded it as quickly as possible in case the van would burn down. It was about 43 degrees Celsius, we had no water and had a show to play 6h later. The other bands already were in Vegas, so that wasn’t an option. One hour later a big white Ford pickup truck with a trailer stopped. Four stereotypical Americans got out and started helping us out. They gave us water and tried to fix the van but quickly realized it was impossible. The offered us a ride to Vegas, which was a 300km detour for them so that we could make it in time for the show. We loaded all the gear in the trailer, and five of us jumped in the cargo bay of the pickup truck. The ride itself was uncomfortable. The bay was black and because of the desert sun was insanely hot to sit on, plus we had to cover ourselves in blankets so we wouldn’t get sunburned. Two hours later we arrived in Vegas, drove onto the legendary Strip. We made people turn their head, which in Vegas is really hard to achieve I guess. By far the craziest experience of my life, hahaha.
In general, the whole tour was a positive thing. There wasn’t a mentionable fight between band members, nor moments I wanted to go home or got angry. I only got angry once, and that was because our merch guy drunkenly threw a cat on me which had his nails out and gave me some nice scars. But that was it. I have to add that both The Bottom Line and the whole Simple Plan crew were the friendliest people ever to tour with, which made it a lot easier of course. Plus, I had an unlimited mobile data plan so I could watch Netflix or listen to Spotify while on the road so I could close myself off when I wanted some alone time.
You had to shoot many artists, but are there any that you didn't have a chance, and you would love to? Or maybe artists that you would like to expend your work with?
Nathan: I’ve always had a top 5 list of bands I wanted to shoot. Linkin Park, Green Day, Rammstein, Iron Maiden and System Of A Down, in that order. This year I was extremely lucky to shoot Linkin Park at Download Festival. It’s always been one of my all-time favorite bands and shooting them was a dream coming through. Little did I know what would happen a month later. It still breaks my heart when I listen to them.
Now that I got a taste of the touring life I would love to work with other bands. I love shooting the backstage photos, getting to know the members and trying to capture how they are in the photo is an amazing thing to do. There are three bands I would love to do that with but probably will never happen because they have a photographer or are just too big: Beartooth, Parkway Drive and Bring Me The Horizon. But to be honest, I wouldn’t care too much which band takes me with them. I’m open for everything.
Are there any bands or artists you think you could photograph every single day and never get enough?
Nathan: The bands I’ve mentioned above definitely, but the list is endless probably. I enjoyed all 19 concerts of Simple Plan I shot this year, and I wouldn’t mind shooting another 19 for them in the near future. Shooting the same concert every night gives you the opportunity as a photographer to get to know the set through and through. With Simple Plan and The Bottom Line, I could precisely say what was going to happen when. Every jump, every dance move or whatever. That gives you the opportunity to try different angles, different kind of shots.
What is the most beautiful venue you’ve been so far? Regarding the sound, lighting, and space in general.
Nathan: I have to split this up into different parts because all three categories lead to various venues. The best one regarding sound is definitely the Ancienne Belgique in Brussels, Belgium. Visited many venues in my life but not a single one sounded as good as the AB. No idea how they do it but of all concerts I’ve seen in there, I only had one that had bad sound, and that was probably the band’s fault.
Lighting is tricky because it depends more on the band than the venue. Had some amazing light in the Ancienne Belgique (Biffy Clyro was insane), but also concerts with no light at all (Thy Art Is Murder and Architects supporting Parkway Drive). The best light you can find is at Sportpaleis in Antwerp, Belgium, but that has to do with the concerts that take place in there. Since it’s a 20.000 cap venue, only the biggest artists play there, and they almost all have a high production. The downside of it is that more and more concerts are "Front Of House" shoots, which means you have to shoot from the sound deck, 50m from the stage.
Space, in general, would be TivoliVredenburg in Utrecht, Netherlands. It’s a massive building housing five different venues. The backstage is nine stories high. The loading bay is -2, and busses and trucks have to drive in the basement two blocks away to get to it. It even features various escalators to bring you to the right floor. There are two main venues, one for sit down gigs and one for more mainstream bands and can hold 2000 people. The best thing about is that it features a huge balcony which gives you great views, plus there is a viewing platform, side stage. You can literally stand on stage while watching your favorite band. How cool is that?
Do you have any favorite venue for photographing, and how vital is the location itself for you and your work?
Nathan: Ancienne Belgique. It was the venue where I shot my first show, done my first interview, did my first photo shoot and it’s the venue I visited the most in my life as well. No idea what the exact number is but I wouldn’t be surprised if I’ve seen more than 200 concerts in that venue. There was a moment, a couple of years ago; I visited it the AB for nine nights in a row. It’s also a venue where I made many, many friends, moshed my life away, drank my life away and lost myself multiple times to the music. In general, the AB was indirectly one of the biggest influences in my life.
Do you see concert photography as a form of art or documentary photography?
Nathan: I’ve never seen myself as a photographer to start with. That’s maybe a weird thing to say as a concert photographer who shot so many bands, but I can explain. I don’t have an eye for good photos. I can’t walk around in a city and think “damn, that would be a great photo.” I trained myself in concert photography to shoot what I think are good photos by looking at many different photographers. I looked at what they did and tried that myself until I became comfortable enough to try new stuff. Now I rarely look at other photographer’s photos anymore because I want to keep being myself. And luckily there’s Adobe Lightroom, in the end, to help me out!
If I needed to choose between those two options, I would go for documentary photography. I shoot what happens on stage and only do some light post-editing. For me, art is something that requires time, and that’s not what I do. I shoot, I edit, I select, I upload. As fast as possible.
You have been active for quite some time, do you have plans for any exhibitions or some other form of showcasing your work in the "offline" world?
Nathan: As a student, I don’t have the money to invest in printing photos, so exhibitions are definitely a no-go for the moment. But I would be interested in combining forces with other photographers and partners in Belgium to make one big concert photography exhibition in an A-location. Photography is an expensive thing, especially in the music scene where there isn’t much money. I can’t even afford to buy new lenses and am extremely lucky friends lend me some of their gear when I break mine or need a special lens for a special occasion.
What I do know is that some of my photos are going to be used on something, but I can’t tell you yet what for since it’s a big secret!
Do you have any upcoming project you would like to share with us?
Nathan: Going to shoot lots of shows in October and November. After that, I’m not really sure what I will do. If everything goes according to plan I’m graduating in February, so I’m free for the first months after that, so let’s hope that The Bottom Line or maybe Simple Plan goes on tour again in that period and are looking for a photographer! Or if anyone of you readers would know a band who need a photographer, feel free to hit me up!