Guardian Masterclass with David Levene


This weekend I had the opportunity to shoot behind-the-scenes at the Field Day Music Festival at Brockwell Park in South London, as part of a Guardian Newspaper 'masterclass' with award-winning Guardian photographer David Levene.

I woke up a bit grizzly and bleary-eyed on Sunday morning.  It had been a late night. Being eager to the milk my press pass for all it was worth I had stayed back shooting pictures at the Field Day festival until a long line of cleaning crews had begun scouring the Brockwell Park grounds for rubbish and bottles.

By 1:30 am I was home to run through my shots, and by 4 am I had processed some selected images sent them off to the course instructor in time for the 8 am cut-off time - necessary if the images were to stand a chance of publication in the Guardian.

Struggling awake around 11am the following morning, I checked my e-mail:  No messages.  Hmm, oh well.  'It was a great day anyway', I thought - though admittedly I felt wee-bit deflated.  'Perhaps it might be an idea to check the Guardian website?', my wife volunteered.

Meeting Levene

The masterclass I had been on the following day had been run by veteran Guardian photographer David Levene, a guy who's fairly unassuming nature belies an impressive CV.  Twice-winner of the Press Photographers Year Awards and a 20-year career shooting both arts and news for the Guardian; he has built up a stunning portfolio across a number of genres, and has done portraits of celebrities as diverse as Rag n' Bone Man and Tony Blair.

On the day though, it was all about shooting festivals.  There were around 14 of us on the course, who initially gathered in the press tent inside the VIP area not far from the main-stage.  The skill level and experience of the participants varied from enthusiasts to working professionals.  Levene quickly determined that everyone had a working technical knowledge of photography and was able to shoot in manual on a DSLR.  That was great because he was able to focus primarily on more practical techniques and style, as well as some of the particulars of shooting in a festival environment.

Photographer David Levene stands at a table presenting to other photographers

Photographer David Levene stands at a table presenting to other photographers

David Levene Masterclass by Mike Best

Levene began by taking us through an overview of his own festival work (primarily from Glastonbury),  and discussing the kinds of things he is often asked specifically to bring back - beyond the obvious shots of the performers - such as: 'epic' shots of the crowds from a high angle, shots featuring the famous mud fields, people cueing at the gates...even the notoriously grim loos are a popular subject apparently.

The unpredictably of the weather is always a factor, he said.  This Saturday, for example, it was a very bright sunny day, so he discussed how to combat the severe shadows you get which are not at all ideal for portrait work (bring strobes, use reflectors, try to get people into shaded areas...)

Levene said he often carries portable lighting kits, even when walking around the grounds.  'I don't make it easy for myself', he said.  But the results are clearly worth it.  He also advocates working with a tripod with a ball-head even when shooting portraits. In days of high-resolution digital images, there is a real thirst for tack sharp images so anything that can be done to reduce camera shake is going to help.

Portrait Sessions

We had two performers come by for portraits sessions during the afternoon.  It invariably a bit of a scrum with a largeish group trying to get in a picture, but I did get a chance to do a couple shots with DJ Barely Legal.

Portrait of young female DJ Barely Legal

DJ Barely Legal by Mike Best

In the pits

As part of the class package we received press passes which included pit access.  Levene said it tends to be the first three songs that photographers are allowed to get in and grab their shots - though it varies.   He took us in for a couple of the performances,  running through a few more tips and things to look out for, then let us at it.  It's quite a buzz being front and center for a gig with thousands of people behind you (especially without feeling the crush of a mosh pit).

Rappers performing on stage at Field Day Festival in London

Rappers performing on stage at Field Day Festival in London

Rappers supporting AJ Tracey by Mike Best

Back at the VIP area later in the day, Levene offered one last piece of useful advice before wrapping up the practical session:  'Don't be afraid to ask for access', he said. 'Often they may say no, but it never hurts to ask'.

Working the crowd

As much fun as it was shooting the performers, it's also great walking around shooting the fans.  Most were all pretty relaxed about having their picture taken, particularly when seeing the press pass.  I spent another hour or so shooting the crowds before heading over to watch the DJ Floating Points' performance.


Festival Goers at Field Day 2018 by Mike Best


Fan watching Thundercat by Mike Best

Getting the shot

By the time I arrived at 'The Barn' the crowds were already really starting to build up.  Even from the pit, I couldn't get a great vantage point on the performer, so I decided to pack it in and head back outside. As I walked out past the stage entrance I paused for a moment and thought 'well it couldn't hurt to ask', and went up the security guard asking if I could get backstage. A moment later the floor manager emerged and said '5 minutes, side of the stage, don't go onto the stage or get in the way of the performers'. Fair enough.

From where I was standing I still didn't have much luck shooting Floating Points but, as it turned out, the headliner Four Tet was cueing up offstage.

The DJ Four Tet huddles over the light of his mixing desk at a Field Day Festival in London.

Four Tet at Field Day by Mike Best

It turned out to be a bit of good luck - for me at least - as one of the talking points of the festival was that his set had to be cut short due to overcrowding at the venue.

You can read about that and a full review of the Field Day Festival on the Guardian site here. I read it myself the following morning and was pleasantly surprised to see my image featured in the article.  Result!

Final thoughts

Whether having a published shot or not, I can definitely recommend the course for photographers looking to up their game and try something new.  It was a great chance to work alongside Levene who I found personable and engaging and to meet with other photographers sharing a new challenge.

You can check out some of Levene's work on his website: