Images of the Big E 2018 - Concert and Performance Photography

For 20 years I have had the pleasure of photographing the entertainment at New England’s largest fair, the Eastern States Exposition in West Springfield, MA.  With over 1,500,000 people passing through the gates over its 17-day run The Big E is one of the largest fairs in North America and by far the biggest draw in New England.

The Beach Boys play for a packed house on closing night, Sept 30, 2018

Over the years I’ve developed what I suppose is a distinct style of photography, and the managers, promoters, musicians and other performers have welcomed it, and invited me onto their stages, into the back rooms, and wherever else I cared to venture in search of the winning image.

In this blog I’ve shown  many of the performers who graced the stages at this year’s (2018) fair. If you performed at the fair and don’t see yourself or your group, I apologize as there were some I inevitably missed due to time conflicts and just sheer numbers.  

The pictures you will see were taken with Nikon D5 and D4S system cameras. The closeup photos were shot through a Nikon 80-400 lens with image stabilization.  Wider photos were done with a Nikon 24-70 2.8, also stabilized. All are hand-held, and no flash or other supplemental light was used. None of these shots are posed. All the performers were photographed while performing their acts.  There are no rehearsals for this kind of picture taking.  You put in your earplugs, pick up the camera, and go do it.

Most images were shot at night under stage lighting, using ISO sensitivities of 1000-12000.  It is amazing how good the images are for a speed that would have been almost unattainable 10 years ago.  Shutter speeds range from 1/80 to 1/250 of a second, with most shots being 1/100 or so.  That allows enough motion blur to make the performers look alive, but not so much as to make the whole shot blurry.

The challenge with taking pictures like this is to see the image, compose and focus in the brief milliseconds that the possible picture exists.  Since the performers are in constant motion you have to decide to shoot or not very fast, and you need a camera that can keep up.  With the exception of the flying trapeze act (which happens too fast to see) all these pictures were taken in single shot mode. Each one represents a deliberate choice; not a lucky accident of timing.

While you can crop a photo in editing, you can't reposition the spotlights behind a performer's head.  You can't remove an unsightly contrasty background, and you are going to be stuck with fragments of people and junk like cups and bottles on stage.  You have to constantly compose around all those things.  That's why I end up moving as much as the performers; it's that dance for me to get the lens lined up and they move constantly on stage and the lights move and change too.

Another thing you need for good performance images is proximity.  I'm lucky to be offered special access because people like the resultant images.  In the world of autism advocacy my books speak for me, to positive effect.  In the music and circus worlds, I'm proud to see my imagery has done the same.  In most cases I shot these performers at distances under fifteen feet. Many were shot at six feet and some even closer.  To get that close I had to creep onto or beside the stages, and into areas where audiences never go.  Interestingly, it’s the photos from those places that audiences look at and say, “Yeah, that is just how I remember it.”  It seems the closer I get, and the more surreal the composition or exposure, the more real it feels to many people. 

You can photograph an audience from within the audience, which is how the audience sees it.  Many concertgoers have seen this in real life:

Or you can photograph the performer with the audience in the background, as in this shot of Noah Cyrus.  Invariably it's the "from the stage" perspective the viewers connect with, even as it's not what they saw.  Somehow image like the one below convey a more powerful message.

Close up with Noah Cyrus, The Big E, West Springfield, MA (c) John Robison

This is another example of proximity and what it means.  For the photo below I stood three feet from funk drummer Jellybean Johnson, and shot this from a perspective few people see firsthand.  Yet people say looks real to them, and what they remember.  That shows how our imagination often means more to memory than what we actually saw, when it comes to emotional things like music.  Many in the audience are lucky to see the drummer at all, though everyone hears him (or her.)

Jellybean Johnson, drumming with Morris Day (c) John Robison 

I thank everyone in these shots for welcoming me onto their stages and into their performances, and the promoters and managers for bringing me onto the grounds.  In every case they know I’m there and I sometimes feel we are in a dance – performer and I – looking at each other, looking away, both of us moving, waiting for that perfect moment.  Sometimes people ask me how the music was, and the answer is . . . I don’t know.  When I concentrate to take the photos I don’t really hear the music.  I feel it, but I can’t recall it to you later.  Others ask what kind of music is my favorite, and the truth is, I love turning all of it into imagery.  I don’t really care what they play; it’s magic when it works.

Anyway, here are the images . . . 

Alyssa and Ruby of Sisterhood

Connecticut's own Tom Dobson

Raelynn, famous for That's Why God Made Girls

Noah Cyrus, sister of Miley and daughter of Billy Ray and Tish.

Country star Chase Bryant

Cathy Richardson, singing what was originally Grace Slick's part in Jefferson Starship

Mike Love of The Beach Boys, still filling the house after fifty-plus years.  Truly an endless summer . . . 

The King Charles Troupe - basketball on unicycles in the middle of the circus

There views of the Mardi Gras Parade

Sixteen-year-old Jacob Sartorius, who's had a string of hits since 2016's Sweatshirt

The King Charles Troupe was the first all-black Barnum and Bailey act, back in 1954.  Many of today's members are descendants of the founders, and tell that story with pride.

Trent Harmon

Robby Krieger of The Doors brings us as close as anyone get get to 1967 without time travel

Eliot Sloan of Blessid Union of Souls, singing his 1995 hit I Believe

Sometimes people ask how they can get a gig like this, writing stories and taking pictures.  The surest path is to write stories people want to read, and take pictures that evoke strong reactions, and cast them out into the world.  There are millions of photos taken on cell phones every day, and 99.9% are throwaways, for all practical purposes.  The photos we remember take more than a casual snap.

It's very hard to make any kind of living as a photographer.  It's much easier to be a storyteller, with words and pictures.  If you succeed, your income is likely to be in the form of royalty, based on how many times something is read or downloaded.  Or, if you are so lucky, how many books people buy.

I've been very fortunate that my books, articles, and photos have all been embraced by the public, to enough of an extent to keep going.  With any luck, you can have the same success.

Flutes are not too common on rock and roll stages.

Marcus James Henderson and Chris Hicks of The Marshall Tucker Band

Matthew Ramsey of Old Dominion

Melody DeVevo of Casting Crowns.  This Christian group drew a huge crowd at the Fair.

Morris Day of M.D. and the Time

Tony Orlando, famous for Tie a Yellow Ribbon, Knock Three Times, Candida and more.  He was accompanied by Toni Wine on keyboards.  Toni was the songwriter for many of Tony's biggest hits.

Circus star Bello Nock

The Voice, performed live on the Big E stage. This stage show featured stars of the television series.

Tito Jackson

Ice T

Terry Adams of NRBQ.  When I started my musical career as member of Fat's road crew it was the mid-70s and NRBQ were the kings of the club scene in New England, along with James Montgomery, James Cotton, and a few other bands.  It was great to see they are still on the road today.

This year the Fair hosted The Drifters, who I first saw when working Studio Instrument Rentals in NY in the 70s.  The band members were all new, but the music and the dance moves were all the same.

After The Drifters, The Platters took the stage.

The Beatles Tribute

And the Official Blues Brothers Band, the continuation of John Belushi and Dan Akroyd's movie creation.

As they said, War has been low-riding funk since 1966

Jenny Tolman, up from Nashville for a single show

Hanson dancing on stage

And finally, Reel Big Fish

The photos above were all taken with long-lens SLR cameras, which are now the tools of choice for professional sports and performance photography.  In earlier days photographers used manual focus cameras with shorter lenses.  That was exemplified by the Leica which dominated news and documentary photography into the 1960s.  I always shoot some images with rangefinder cameras for that "retro" look.  Here are a few shots from a Leica M10 with 50 1.4 lens.  No automation in this camera; every picture is focused in advance with preset aperture and exposure.  Leica photography is much more deliberate, and tends to show a wider field of view.  See the difference below:

Without tracking autofocus the Leica could not capture sharp closeups with any degree of reliability.  Back in the day, Leica photographers would preset their cameras for a certain subject position, and shoot when the subjects moved into place.  That limits what you can do, unless you are really fast on the manual focus.  It would be possible to photograph stage performances with a Leica-style rangefinder (the Fuji X-Pro is another example) but the images would have a very different "wider angle" character as you see.  Some would prefer that, but the closeup shots returned by the SLRs and long lenses seem to be most viewer's choice.

In the final analysis, the best camera is the one you have in your hand when that moment comes along.  The better a tool you have, the better you can capture it.  But beyond that, a great deal depends on you.  Cameras will not compose images.  They will not choose what to focus on, or what depth of field will look best.  On a concert stage the lighting will overwhelm the metering, and overdrive the sensors.  Exposures must be set by experience.  To do those things well there is no substitute for long practice.

I can't say how many pictures I took while developing this style, but my techniques continue to evolve 20-some years later.

Your thoughts and comments are welcome.

(c) John Elder Robison

John Elder Robison is an autistic adult and advocate for people with neurological differences.  He's the author of Look Me in the Eye, Be Different, Raising Cubby, and Switched On. He serves on the Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee of the US Dept of Health and Human Services and many other autism-related boards. He's co-founder of the TCS Auto Program (A school for teens with developmental challenges) and he’s the Neurodiversity Scholar in Residence at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia and an advisor to the Neurodiversity Institute at Landmark College in Putney, Vermont.  

The opinions expressed here are his own.  There is no warranty expressed or implied.  While reading this essay will give you food for thought, actually printing and eating it may make you sick. 


timwheaton said…
These are great images, John.

Is there a way to contact you directly in regards to a podcast I would love to invite you to be a guest on?

Thanks so much. Tim Wheaton at

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