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The Sport of Concert Photography



Nikki Cardiello ‘pregames,’ studies performer ‘plays,’ and anticipates the action onstage with her Tamron 28-200mm Di III RXD all-in-one-zoom.


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By Jenn Gidman
Images by Nikki Marie Cardiello


When Nikki Marie Cardiello was a young teen, she started going to concerts, taking pictures from the nosebleed sections to document her night out. “Music was my life, so it was natural I took pictures of every show I went to,” she says. When she was around 15, the Long Island native happened to photograph a concert in New York City of a German glam-rock band called Cinema Bizarre, as well as their opening act, After Midnight Project.

“I met Jason Evigan, the lead singer of After Midnight Project, afterward at their merch booth, and later on I sent him the images I’d taken with my little point-and-shoot camera,” Nikki says. “He loved them and said, ‘So, you’re going to photograph us on our Warped Tour, right?’ I couldn’t believe it—I was 15 years old! But he got me a press pass, and I went and took pictures of them, and to this day, those are some of my favorite images. I didn’t know anything about editing, I had no professional equipment, but those photos are so raw and real.”

Over the next few years, Nikki continued to photograph concerts all over Long Island and NYC, building up a portfolio, learning how to acquire press passes, and slowly building up her photographic inventory. “Along with the portrait work I did on the side, that portfolio helped me get into the Parsons School of Design,” she says.

© Nikki Marie Cardiello
28-200mm (28mm), F/2.8, 1/800 sec., ISO 3200
Click image to view larger

More than a decade later, now Nikki doesn’t head off to a show without her Tamron 28-200mm F/2.8-5.6 Di III RXD all-in-one zoom lens. “I started out renting this lens and became obsessed with it,” she says. “I couldn’t outright buy it at first, but after renting it many times, my aunt, who’s the best ever, finally surprised me and bought it for me. One of my biggest issues before I had the 28-200 was being in the crowded ‘pit’ section of the floor and having to constantly switch lenses out. Sometimes I’d only be at a show for three songs, and I was wasting so much time doing that. Now, with the 28-200, I can achieve my wider shots and then simply zoom in to photograph a performer’s facial expressions or instrument. I love the depth-of-field on this lens, and I’m capturing insanely gorgeous photos.” Plus, I absolutely love being able to shoot at F/2.8 on the wider end. The lens focuses so fast when I’m shooting at 28mm, and I’m impressed with the sharpness I get even when shooting wide and cropping down the image.”

© Nikki Marie Cardiello
28-200mm (28mm), F/2.8, 1/200 sec., ISO 3200
Click image to view larger

In terms of local work, Nikki has taken pictures at most of the major concert venues in New York City, but when she’s set to head to a place she’s never photographed at before, she’ll do what she calls her “pregaming.” “If I can’t visit the venue beforehand in person, I’ll look up concert photos from that particular venue to see what the lighting is like,” she says. “I try to figure out where the best spot will be for me to stand, as well as to anticipate how I might be editing my photos afterward, as editing is a huge part of my process.”

© Nikki Marie Cardiello
28-200mm (99mm), F/5.6, 1/100 sec., ISO 1250
Click image to view larger

Sometimes, when the lighting isn’t ideal, Nikki tries to make of it what she can. “I shot at a Brooklyn venue where the lighting wasn’t my favorite, and I got decent images, but they were grainy,” she says. “I figured there was no point in fighting it, so I went all in on that grainy feel, and I liked the vibe I came out of that shoot with. I also try to stay up on the newer styles that people seem to like, such as using dream effects and starburst filters, which allow me to experiment with ways of shooting I may have never tried otherwise.”

Anyone can whip out an iPhone during a concert and start taking pictures, but Nikki approaches her subjects with careful study and an anticipation of their movements—much the way a sports photographer becomes expert in the games and players they’re photographing. “You have to learn how to predict where the performers are going to go and what they’re going to do,” she says. “I’ll often watch YouTube videos of the band or performer before the concert to analyze their style, what they do on the stage, the songs where things seem to happen. Anyone can capture a picture of a singer behind the mic, but it’s those ‘unexpected’ moments that can earn you some wonderful images. This type of photography is a craft.”

© Nikki Marie Cardiello
28-200mm (160mm), F/5.6, 1/160 sec., ISO 1600
Click image to view larger

© Nikki Marie Cardiello
28-200mm (200mm), F/5.6, 1/160 sec., ISO 1600
Click image to view larger

By anticipating those moments, Nikki is able to capture her “money” shots, the peak of a performer’s emotions as they’re laying themselves bare for their audience. “I have this kind of intuition when it comes to emotional moments on the stage, especially if I know the band or performer’s music well,” she says. “And so I prepare for a certain song, for instance, knowing I’m going to get the reaction I want captured during that song. I also never stop taking. I’ll come home after photographing three songs and have 2,000 images. And in those 2,000 images, I know I’ll have some great shots.”

© Nikki Marie Cardiello
28-200mm (86mm), F/4.5, 1/500 sec., ISO 2500
Click image to view larger

Nikki also tries to find a way to portray an artist in a way they haven’t been seen before. “It’s a balance, because you definitely don’t want the photo to be so unrecognizable that you don’t even know who the performer is,” she says. “But to be able to show them in a completely new way is what can make your work stand out.

What Nikki really feels makes her work stand out, however, is how much time and effort she puts into the editing process. “I'll stay up like all night editing, until the birds are chirping the next morning,” she says. “I won’t even realize how long I’ve been in front of the computer because I hyperfocus on creating my art. I’m not the type of photographer to simply buy a whole bunch of presets. I’ve become fascinated with light manipulation, playing around with different colors, blurring and filtering. There’s nothing like the feeling of finishing an edit on a photo after I’ve spent hours on it and just knowing it’s going to go over well.”

Taking photos of the audience adds another important component to Nikki’s images. “You want to pick up on the crowd’s energy,” she says. “I started off as a fan girl—and I still am, when I’m not behind the camera—and that’s the same feeling I want my viewers to get when they look at my images. I want them to see the other side of things, especially if the performers tend to interact a lot with the audience. The crowd is half the show.”

© Nikki Marie Cardiello
28-200mm (200mm), F/5.6, 1/160 sec., ISO 3200
Click image to view larger

And that’s the key for Nikki in producing compelling, captivating concert imagery: a love for the music and performers she’s photographing. “Music is everything to me, and I feel you have to be really passionate about it for this type of photography to work,” she says. “If you’re in it just for the money or status, it’s true you might be able to capture some good photos, but something will be missing. I’m a daycare teacher, plus I work several other jobs to make ends meet, just so I can take pictures the way I want without having to worry about the money end of it. Of course it’s great when I get paid for it, but I’d do it even for free.”

To see more of Nikki Marie Cardiello’s work, check out her website or Instagram.







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