A quick post about a menacing problem for event photographers. Blogger shares trade secrets.

Hear ye.  Hear ye.  Proceed with caution.

I've photographed a lot of events.  Over twenty years worth of events.  And I always seem to over pack, over prepare and carry around a lot of pre-event anxiety that has to to do getting all the gear just right.  Yesterday evening I photographed a reception for two really great kids, James and Debra.  The come from well to do families and had gotten married in Napa Valley.  But they wanted to have a party for friends and family here in Austin who were unable to get out to California.  I'd been booked on this event for the better part of a year by one of my favorite meeting planners.

I spent hours trying to decide on just how to use flash in this instance.  We'd start out the evening with good natural light but the sun would be fully gone by 8:15 and I'd need to add flash.  I tested five or six modifiers before settling on a small, Speedlight ProKit soft box.  I went thru my collection of brackets and decided on the Alzo bracket that extends up.  After an hour of actual use I jettisoned the bracket and went hand held with the flash and the box.

I packed cameras three times.  Finally went with two Canon 5Dmk2's and mainly used the 24-105L lens.  Four extra batteries and 60 gigs of memory cards in the bags.  Extra cameras and lenses in the car.  All this for a four hour, low key reception.  But I wanted to look good.  The father of the groom is an old friend who is also the CEO of a bank chain.......

So what was the horrible menace?  What do I want to save other photographers from?  HEARING LOSS.  While the guests may go to a big party with an amplified band once or twice a year event photographers tend to go to these things about once a week.  And if you brought a decibel level meter with you to most venues you'd find that they all exceed the safe limits to prevent hearing loss.  All of them.

If you are a young photographer you've probably chalked this blog up to the philosophy of:  "If it's too loud you're too old."  But you'd be fooling yourself.  All hearing loss is cumulative.  Happens over time.
I used to not pay attention to this either.  We'd be doing a photo set-up next to the band or across the ballroom from a band and get pounded for hours.  One evening I went home with my ears ringing and I did some research.  I won't bore you with it but a few exposures like that and you'll have trouble hearing your kids talking when you hit your thirties and forties.  Really.  Just about everyone.  Few are immune.

So twenty years ago I started wearing in ear ear protectors anytime I was in an environment where people had to shout at each other to be heard.  I pass em out to my assistants too.

Well, back to last night.  The last three years have been more about book writing and advertising jobs for me and I'd done very few social event functions.  I meticulously packed up all my stuff and headed to the venue.  I got there early.  Just in time to hear the band warm  up.  They weren't over the top but you had to lean in and shout to have a conversation with anyone.  I started looking for earplugs.  The venue was a big golf resort and corporate meeting center west of downtown Austin.  I hit the gift shop in the lobby.  No dice.  I found the A/V department hidden away in some back hall.  No plugs.  I even went to the catering department.  Again, no luck.

Finally, over chicken sandwiches in the green room I asked the members of the band (sheepishly) if anyone had any earplugs.  Great Luck.  The lead singer had a set in his bag and he was happy for me to use them.  In my head I thanked him a dozen times as I angled myself between the speakers in front of the stage and the subjects I wanted to shoot.  Thank you, lead singer.

When the evening wound down I  pulled the plugs, so to speak, and instead of that dull wongy feeling you get when you've been listening to loud music, unprotected, I was able to hear accurately and crisply again.  I know I'm losing some hearing as I get older but that makes it even more important to keep what you have.

Every live music venue in the world should have ear plugs available.  But they don't.  Head to the drug store and buy in bulk.  Or find a supplier of safety ear plugs for industrial use.  Keep a stash in all of your camera bags.  Use them early.  Use them often.

But if you forget, and no one else remembered either some dampened Kleenex, rolled into a small cone will work better than nothing.  When you can hear your child's voice clearly you'll thank yourself for having JUST THE RIGHT GEAR.

And that's what I re-learned last night.

Lest anyone think I'm just a music hating grouch I must say I've been to more live concerts in my life than movies.  And I don't think anyone doubts that I love live theater but during dress rehearsals for big rocking musical shows I always try to remember to pack "foam".  I don't want to unfairly accuse Ben of mumbling........


Daniel Fealko said...

I hear ya on this one, Kirk!

I too use earplugs to protect what hearing I have left. My hearing loss has been gradual over the years and the constant buzzing I hear doesn't help.

Many don't realize just how damaging the trend is until it's too late. Unfortunately, we live in a society filled with noise pollution. (No, I really don't need to have music blasted at my while I'm filling up at the gas pump!)

This may be your most important message thus far.

Nathan Hulse said...

I do some music gigs in London. Recently I've taken plugs with me, if I'm there more than the usual 3 songs. Normally it's the audience that my ears need protection from.

Anonymous said...

Keep it coming. I just learned something new. Time to stock my camera bags.

John F. Opie said...

Amen. I have friends in the military and in the music business and have learned from them: on the flight line, it's oropax+mickey mouse protectors, in concerts it's oropax. Not wearing ear protection isn't a sign of strength, it's a sign of stupidity...

And I love noise-cancelling earphones on any kind of flight. Sometimes I don't even listen to music, just turn them on so that I don't have to hear all those high-frequency harmonics.

bill said...

Excellent advice. I hope the young folk listen to you while they still can hear you!

I covered a Kiss concert years ago at Tiger stadium in Detroit and...not kidding here...the speakers were two stories tall!! Guess where the pit was? For three songs I was about 5 feet away from them and I didn't have any earplugs. I'm sure the hearing problems I have today started right there.

Mike said...

I don't leave home without them in my bag. I learned this as a newspaper photographer who used to shoot basketball games and had to sit in front of the pep band.

Waytao said...

Walmart carries Hear-O's and they cut like 30+ db. Some of the best I have seen that are just the cheap foam kinds.

If you are constantly in a loud environment. Go to an audiologist and get a ear mold taken and get a hard ear plug which will reduce even more db's.

Its one thing I never understood about music photographers. They love the music so much, yet they go without hear protection and down the line they won't even get to enjoy what they love.

Bold Photography said...

Blogspot needs a big "fave" button.. lol...

I can't agree more. I reached into my bulk bin of earplugs right before I started the weed whacker and lawnmower today (yes, I know, I should get a service, but I really do find mowing to be therapeutic...).

I also got some great birthday presents - a book about photographic lighting equipment, and a book filled with poetry and the faces of the down and out. Powerful stuff. Gripping images. I'm so glad you talked about it!

Anonymous said...

Audiologist can supply or advise on different types of ear plugs. i am thoroughly sick of "shouting at me" whether its PA systems in stores, TV commercials(i hit mute for all ads..)
and so called music at functions.Noise can affect balance and one's ability to shoot pix!

Ed Buziak said...

Slightly off thread but not off topic... I wonder if the bad vibrations kept your Canon's sensors dust free?

Ct Photo said...

I worked in sweat shops as a kid and the last few years I have had hearing loss. I have a hard time hearing a conversation where there is background noise.

Anonymous said...

Good point but more than hearing loss (when you are young you are not afraid of it), anybody should be scared by tinnitus a freaking little noise in your ears, no way to turn it off, it can happen anytime, one concert is enough...so anybody should take care.

Patrick Snook said...

Funny this should come up. Last Saturday night, I was beckoned over by three different guests at an event and asked if I had any more ear plugs in my gear bag.

Not only do I find it exponentially more comfortable blocking those exponential sounds, it also encourages in me a more detached and observant frame of mind. I think I see better. I feel calmer. I'm happier.

Nothing like muting this season's fourteenth iteration of "Forget you" as chorused by forty very exuberant 13-year-old girls at a Bat mitzvah. Especially if they're singing the ruder version:-)


Anonymous said...

In an emergency you can use the filters off a couple of cigarettes. Even if you don't smoke, there's always somebody around who does or, failing that, you can still buy a pack just about anyplace.

Bruce Williams said...

I'm a 24 year veteran of the pro audio industry s well as a photographer.
Kirk, awesome to see you write a post about this, as hearing protection has been crucial to protecting my income-producing assets (my ears).
I'll go (briefly) where Kirk didn't go... into the science and the numbers.
Sound pressure level (SPL) is measured in decibels (dB), but what most (non-pro audio) people don't realise is that it is logarithmic. Every 10dB increase equals TWICE the volume. So, 80dB SPL is twice as loud as 70dB SPL.
Also, exposure to 80dB SPL (constant) will cause a small amount of PERMANENT hearing damage after just 8 hours.
And every 10dB increase HALVES that exposure time.
So, if you're subjected to 90dB SPL constantly, you've got 4 hours.
And when you consider that most rock bands playing in a pub are up around 110dB SPL, that gives you just 60 mins before you start doing permanent damage to your hearing.
Now, as Kirk quite rightly pointed out, it is cumulative. After one night, you might not noitce much beyond a temporary ringing, but do it often enough, and you slowly start to realise that your high frequency perceptibility is diminished, and the ringing may not completely go away. And once the ringing sets in, you have what's called tinnitus, and IT NEVER GOES AWAY... EVER. FOR THE REST OF YOUR LIFE.
I'll get off my soapbox now, but again Kirk, well done for spreading the word.

kirk tuck said...

Thanks Bruce. This is one of those preventable tragedies. People can't be warned often enough! Thanks for kicking in.