How to gear up to photograph
mosh pits, rogue artists and
As a friend and fellow creator in the scene, Tod Seelie is given access to situations in which other photographers are not aware of or welcome to. Seelie is constantly taking his camera into extreme conditions to both document and participate in exceptional events—from punk shows to a firecracker festival, to seaworthy rafts of found materials floating in the Adriatic sea, to a plane crash on an isolated beach in Iceland in the dead of winter. In 2013, he published Bright Nights, a book of his photographs documenting the underground New York art and music scene.
Black T-shirt, Black Hoodie: "I tend to wear all dark clothing to try to be as invisible as possible, whether it's avoiding detection or it's trying to be inconspicuous while covering an event."
Messenger bag: "I only use waterproof bags. It has a very slim profile and is extremely good for quick access, I can swing it around my body and get it open very easily. At a crowded concert I will often start with it in front of me so it's a bit of a buffer from people banging into me. Sometimes when you're climbing, you need to be able to shift your bag to be able to clear something. Sometimes I'll switch it out for a backpack since the weight distribution with a backpack is much better for my back and shoulders."
CAMERA POUCH INSERT: The camera pouch is how I'm able to use waterproof messenger bags for my camera gear bags, since they're not padded and don’t have much structure. But I use these padded inserts (like this one) to a place for my gear that protects it and keeps it compartmentalized.
DENIM VEST: "A lot of very serious photographers have these very ugly, usually beige, photographer vests. My punk vest was actually a really good version of a photographer's vest. It has the standard outside vest pockets that are great for batteries, but I had the inner pockets added that are great for a water bottle or even a flash."
Camera: "It's all digital. When I'm carrying my Canon 5D Mark III digital SLR, I try to always have a back-up camera, usually a smaller point-and-shoot. I'm kind of past the stage of wanting to carry a heavy digital SLR on my back every day. Today I have the Panasonic GM1, which is a tiny camera with removable lenses. It's very small and discreet, silent shutter, decent zoom lens, and it still has a flash in it."
Flash (Canon 580 EX 2): "There's a newer one that is ridiculously overpriced. I'm very happy with the 580."
LensES: "A 24-70 covers all of the major focal ranges that I like and use, the 16-35 is good for the tight spaces I end up shooting in a lot. So there are some times there has been no other way to get a decent shot without a really wide lens."
Camera strap: "The camera strap has a great affect on your comfort and if it fails it can really mess things up for you. This is a stretchy neoprene that actually has pockets built onto it where I keep spare memory cards and lens cloths, because often when I need to quickly change a card or clean my lens I don't have time to even go into my bag. I like the neoprene because it’s very thin and flexible when I wrap it around my wrist."
Pants: I can't have something binding me up when I'm trying to climb a wall. I stick with pants that have some spandex give and a slimmer cut because I don't have to worry about getting caught in a bicycle chain.
Bandana: "Common uses are covering my face when it's cold to circulate my breath or to avoid detection or recognition. Sometimes you just really need to clean your hands and it's way nicer to have something to do that with so you can get back to shooting."
BOOTS: "If you're going to be on your feet all day or if you're going to be hiking five miles in the desert to find this abandoned thing, good shoes are going to make a huge difference. I wear leather boots, because they can be waterproof and you can re-waterproof them. I only wear boots with gusseted tongues, which is where the tongue is seamlessly joined with the shell of the boot so they're waterproof as high up as that weld goes on the boot. I also get insoles. You need to take your footwear almost as seriously as your camera gear."
As time has gone on, Seelie has acquired an arsenal of equipment that helps him both get the shot and stay alive. Here are his tips:
Be Comfortable. “Sometimes the events I cover are 12 hours and I’m not going to do as good a job if I’m exhausted and my feet hurt.” Many of Seelie’s gear choices begin and end with comfort. He spends more insoles than you would think and wears clothes that keep him dry and warm (or cool, depending on the season). His camera strap is neoprene, which won’t cut into his neck. He’s begun wearing backpacks because the weight distribution is better for his back and shoulders. If Seelie needs a hat, he wears a knit cap when it gets cold, or a bicycle cap, which has a short, flexible brim that won't interfere with a flash.
Be Discreet. Sometimes Seelie photographs events at clandestine or outright illegal locations, so he usually dresses plainly in dark clothes to be indistinguishable and undetected. At shows, he wears his denim vest covered with patches—though everyone else’s vests probably don’t have the customized the pockets for camera accessories. Photographing in dark or low light with a flash can draw too much attention to himself and the camera, so Seelie will use a continuous light source instead, like a headlamp.
Be Prepared. Before the firecracker festival, Seelie’s research indicated that the risk of getting hit by live fireworks was real—and highly probable. He brought a pair of a double layer Carhartt pants to protect himself. His camera accessories always include a cable release and polarizing filters—items he does not use frequently but, as Seelie says, “when you need it, you need it.” When he was hiking in Iceland in winter, he made sure to carry many extra batteries since they drain more quickly in the cold. He carries multiple lens cloths to clean stubborn beer smudges off the lens. Finally, he always carries his ID: “Getting into trouble without an ID is way more of a headache.”
(Bonus) Be part of the scene. “I'm just shooting my life and where I end up, who I'm friends with, and what I'm doing anyway,” Seelie explains. “The underground music scene, and the mutant bike scene, was really just where I happened to be... I wasn't just there to capture the photo, I was there to help build something and be a part of something and I wanted those people to be able to talk about it,” he says. He aims to capture the energy and spirit of these experiences in a single image. Having a dual role can sometimes make getting that shot difficult. “When we first started doing the Swimming Cities raft trips, I really didn't take many photos because that wasn't the priority at the time--the priority was getting the boat down the river and not dying.”