Spotlight: Capturing Coachella's Emotion On and Off the Stage With Photographer Greg Noire
"In every set, there's a particular moment that happens and everybody walks away remembering a specific thing -- if you didn't capture that specific thing, then you failed to do your job."
Photographer Greg Noire has a few rules when it comes to shooting a big festival like Coachella. "The number one thing I try to capture with these performances is some type of emotion," he says, taking a few days off between the event's back-to-back weekends in Indio, California. "I try to go in with a clear head and the morning before the weekend starts I write in my journal a few things that I would like to capture there or what's the tone I'm going for and what stories I want to tell."
Another thing is audience participation. "So besides capturing the performance -- the scale as well as the emotion -- then I think it's important to get the showgoer's perspective as well and see how into it they are," he adds. "You'll have several fans just lose their minds freaking out and crying because this is somebody that they've waited their entire lives to see."
Since 2015, Noire has made a full-time career out of capturing those moments on and off the stage, shooting other major festivals such as Lollapalooza, Austin City Limits and the Voodoo Music + Arts Experience, traveling around the country from his home in Houston. He has also worked with Apple and Tidal, as well as with Drake, Chance the Rapper, Kendrick Lamar, Childish Gambino and more artists. And as his performance and behind-the-scenes shots are frequently picked up by press, he has become an influencer of sorts. Mostly, though, he's just stoked to be here. And, along the way, he has worked out a few tricks to capturing the perfect moment.
"The more shows you do, you get more acquainted and adjusted to how the typical music set goes," he says. "There are a lot of cues that will let you know that the audience is about to go crazy. For EDM, it's crazy easy because they there's always that beat drop. For the bigger DJs, they have that three count and then bass drop and then, you know, obviously, the crowd is going to go crazy. So when you hear that, you just turn around and know that there are going to be hands in the air, people throwing stuff in the air or you might get fireworks or CO2.
"So there's several different ways you can capture that: What I like to do is stand on the risers and then look down upon the audience and have them look directly at me. I'll just be like, 'Yeah, go crazy.' And they're looking directly at my camera and all the hands are in the air and I'm capturing just their faces in the photograph and it has a shallow depth-of-field effect to where their face is totally in focus but their hands are kind of blurred out -- it helps with emotion because you're only focusing on their reactions."
Aside from knowing how a typical show goes, Noire says it's important he actually follow along to the music itself and listen to the lyrics so he can understand what emotions the artist is channeling and help translate that to his imagery. As well, genre plays heavily into his technique. "If it's a slower set then, for me, you want to shoot that tight because they're usually singing directly into that microphone and they're gonna pour all that emotion directly to that microphone. ... As far as if it's a rapper who's jumping around and stage diving, you want to shoot a little wider because there's no telling where they're going to go."
At Coachella, as well as most other events he shoots, Noire works for the festival, rather than a publication or the wire service (Billboard has used images from Getty and AP in its Coachella coverage this year). And he says that in order to get photos onto social media in near-real time, event staff runners will grab his digital camera memory cards from him mid-set and run them backstage for posting, repeating again later once the set is finished. Being with the festival allows him greater access, which results in better shots as well as lasting connections with artists and their teams.
When he can, the Dallas native documents his experiences as a photographer on his podcast, simply called The Greg Noire Show, where he dishes about everything from photo pit etiquette to sexual harassment in the industry to reflections on his own career. Noire discovered photography while in college at Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas, with a job -- by pure chance -- in the photo department. "I kind of fell in love with the images people were bringing in," he explains. "And I was like, 'Hey, if they can do this, I'm pretty sure that I can.'" So he bought his first camera, a point-and-shoot Fujifilm FinePix, and soon Noire estimates he was taking about 500 pictures a day around campus. From there, he landed a position at the Lamar University Press and, he says, "went crazy" with the loaner Sony DSLR camera, shooting events around town and entering his pieces into local contests. (He now uses a Canon EOS 5D Mark III but emphasizes that his eye is far more important than the gear he uses.)
In 2014, things began to take off with an email to Lollapalooza asking to shoot the festival, but he never expected to hear back. To his surprise, he received a response from the event's photo lead asking if he'd travel to Chicago for the weekend, an offer he accepted without even knowing he'd get paid for the job. "I just wanted to shoot live music," he says. "So when she sent me the rate, I was like, 'Oh my God, that's so much money for doing something that I love.'" He says he was later surprised again when that initial rate wound up just being his daily pay.
From there, Noire went on to shoot the iHeartRadio Music Festival, Austin City Limits and more, leveraging his work from the last event for the next. By the following year, he was able to quit his day job working as a liaison between compliance and oil and gas companies, which he calls the "most boring job in the world." Much like with Lollapalooza, Noire credits his early successes to unsolicited outreach and says he still tries to make a new connection every day. For instance, in 2016, he emailed Drake's management team and wound up with a job shooting the hip-hop star's Summer Sixteen Tour opener in Austin, Texas. He has similar stories with Vic Mensa, Big K.R.I.T. and others. His job with Coachella -- which he calls "the Super Bowl of all festivals" -- even worked out this way.
"I never wait around for an opportunity," he says. "If there's something I think I'd be good at capturing, then I do all I can to find whatever contact that is. I spend a lot of time on LinkedIn and Google figuring out what email belongs to who and who do I need to contact to get this?"
Asked how he he has has gotten "better" as a photographer, Noire bucks the term. "I don't think it's about being 'better,' I think it's just about being there," he says. "I think that's the most important thing -- being present in the set leads to you being able to capture the moment, and I think in every set there's a particular moment that happens and everybody walks away remembering a specific thing -- if you didn't capture that specific thing, then you failed to do your job as a photographer. So I think getting 'better' is a weird thing, I think being able to capture certain moments is a mental thing, and as soon as you conquer that, then you can only go upwards from there."
When Noire still had a day job, he says he started looking into the philosophical idea of the law of attraction and the idea that by focusing on positive thoughts, he could bring positive experiences into his life. It paid off. He recalls one day at work, while he was probably supposed to be doing something else, he was going through his photos and giving himself critiques. He wrote himself a note saying, "You will shoot Coachella for Coachella," what he estimates was 70 times over and over again, folded it up and put it in his wallet.
And with a smile he says, "Here we are today."
I've learned that failure is necessary for growth. If you're always succeeding at what you do, your goals just might not be big enough.
When you're coming up don't be too proud to do work for free. You can't build a portfolio without photos and you can't get hired without something tangible to show off. It pays and pays off in the long run.
The best advice I've received was actually recent, though it wasn't directed towards me, specifically. In a recent Quincy Jones interview, he stated that God walks out of the room when you're going after the money, which kind of reaffirms my belief that one should focus on the work before focusing on the payday. That will come once you prove you're worth the coins.
What's next is JMBLYA festival! It's a three-day festival in Dallas, Austin and, newly added, Houston -- my home. I'm super excited to shoot Cardi B and J. Cole.
A good idea is only as good as it's execution.