A Chat with Dieter Unrath, Photographer and Merch Manager

“Behind the Show” is an ongoing series where we spotlight the work of people who help make concerts happen! Let us know who we should interview next: backstagepass@concertarchives.org

Photo of Dieter by Brandynn Leigh

This week, we talked with Dieter Unrath. Dieter is a photographer and merch manager, who has worked with bands such as Sleep On It, Save Face, and Capstan.

Backstage Pass: Can you tell us about how you first got involved in music, and how you got into photography?

Dieter Unrath: I started playing in local bands right when I graduated high school. Eventually, I joined this band called Losing Streak that played a bunch of local shows in New Jersey. I had received a small camera as a gift and started bringing it to the shows we were playing and shooting my friends’ bands. All my friends liked the photos, and I fell in love with the editing process and shooting, so the hobby just stuck!

BP: Is there a specific time you decided to pursue behind the scenes roles vs. playing in a band? Or have you followed whatever opportunities present themselves?

DU: I was playing with Losing Streak while also shooting photos for a while, and I believe it helped me with my photo career. I met a lot of bands I still work with through playing shows with them while in Losing Streak, and whenever my band wasn’t touring, I was shooting photos for other bands. Eventually, I started doing more photo stuff than drumming stuff, but it was more of a natural transition. Even as early as last year I was still playing for bands, so I never stopped playing music, but just found myself getting more photo gigs. 

BP: Shooting the same band every night, how do you keep the content unique/fresh?

DU: Luckily on tour we’re in a different city and building every single day! For off stage content, that means there’s new rooms and places around the venue to shoot. For on stage photos, that means new lights and structures so it’s fairly easy. I use different lenses and different editing too, in order to mix things up. I think it’s important to get a lot of off stage content, because those photos will always be unique compared to live shots.

A photo of Capstan by Dieter

BP: Do you find you take a lot of photos at a show, or are more reserved? What’s the process like of determining which ones get used?

DU: The answer usually depends on how much alcohol I’ve consumed. For an average 30 minute set I’d say I take anywhere from 300 to up to 900 photos. I’m not afraid to lean on my shutter because I’d rather have more to sort through then miss a cool photo.

Editing wise, I go through photo by photo in Lightroom after applying my presets to them and decide if it’s worth editing within a second and then either edit it right then or dump it. I’m looking for things like focus and exposure, but also what is actually going on in the photos. There’s plenty of perfectly exposed and sharp photos I take that are just boring and get trashed.

BP: What gear do you usually bring on the road?

DU: I use a Canon 6D with a Sigma 35mm Art Series Lens for almost everything. I also have a Canon 50mm 1.4 and a Rokinon 14mm lens. I edit on a Dell gaming laptop held together by duct tape and have a cheap flash I found off Amazon for when I need it. Plus batteries, an SD card, and my backpack to hold it all.

Capstan on Warped Tour

BP: Where do you prefer to shoot from in the venue? Any tips to keeping out of fans’ way while still getting amazing shots?

DU: The photo pit is obviously the best and most convenient place to shoot. Right next to the drummer is also a favorite of mine because you can get those unique crowd shots, and also good drummer shots which are very important!

Some venues are small and require you to shoot in or near the crowd. If I have to stand in the crowd to shoot, I just make sure I ask those around me if it’s okay and I don’t stay for more than a song. I don’t like shooting in the crowd much (especially if it’s rowdy) but sometimes it’s necessary.

BP: Beyond just live shots, what other types of content do you like to make?

DU: I love shooting just the things I see on tour. I sit shotgun and shoot landscapes out the window a lot and sometimes wander around the city and shoot things on the street. This country and world is beautiful, and a lot of my best photos are just things and nature being itself. 

BP: What are the challenges of being on the road vs. covering a single show? 

DU: There’s more of a time crunch on the road, and it’s also way less convenient. On the road, I must have my photos done and edited by noon the next morning. I like to do it even earlier, so there’s more of a rush than, say, shooting a show at home for a publication. A lot of this editing has to be done in the van or at the hotel at like 2AM, so it can get grueling. There’s also the creative exhaustion and blocks that come with creating content every single day for a month.

BP: What’s your favorite thing about what you do?

DU: I love meeting new people all over the place. I can say I have friends in every city and many countries now which is pretty amazing. People in this music scene are really kind and supportive. I love seeing people having a fun night which could be the highlight of their month or even year. 

BP: On tours where you’ve done both content and merch management, what (if anything) did you have to do differently to successfully complete both roles?

DU: Doing both requires more time management and discipline. You’re really non-stop from the time you get to the venue until you go to sleep. You also have to be more creative in getting off stage content because you’re spending a lot of the time you’d usually get those shots behind the merch table.

For a week on one of Capstan’s recent tours, I was shooting photos for Capstan and Set It Off (including their VIP session) and doing Capstan merch. This was a ton of work and really required me to sneak in editing whenever I could. I always had to have the VIP photos done before doors were even open in order to stay ahead and did some editing while physically behind the merch table when I could.

Merch can get busy, though, and I also had to pack up and load it out every night, so I was up until 3AM or later some of those nights just finishing photo edits because I had so much. It would be easier to put edits off until the morning and I know Capstan wouldn’t mind if I ended up a day behind on photos if I needed the time, but I don’t like to work like that and would rather just sleep less. 

BP: Besides handling money, what other skills/tasks are necessary for managing merch?

DU: I think being welcoming and a social person is a big help. You’re kind of the connection from the fans in the room to the band themselves and you have to be able to make friends out there. I feel like I’ve had some rude experiences with merch people when I was young and never understood why. Being kind and patient to fans and new fans is not only what anyone should do, but it’ll also help your sales and tips! It’s fun because I get to meet and interact with bands’ fans on a level I never got as a photographer hanging backstage and it makes the job feel even more fulfilling. 

BP: Just for fun: Any bucket list artists/venues/events you’d want to photograph?

DU: I think shooting a band like Slipknot or something with a huge production would be so fun. The 1975 would be cool. Fall Out Boy is one of my favorite bands of all time and I’ve yet to shoot them as well. The House of Blues in Chicago was always my bucket list venue to shoot and I got to check that off on the Silverstein tour so that was really rad!

BP: Any cool/funny/interesting stories from the road you want to share?

DU: All my time on the road is so blurred together, it’s hard to think of specifics. Some highlights were going to Europe with Capstan and experiencing all the small towns we stayed in and all the different countries. I felt like we got an authentic experience rather than hitting touristy spots or staying in hotels. Getting a tour of the Taco Bell headquarters with Sleep On It was definitely a highlight. Also, seeing stuff like the Grand Canyon and Banff while on the road is amazing. 

I feel like I have more grueling stories than anything, like having our van break down 16 times (seriously) in a month on Warped Tour 2015, or narrowly avoiding being pancaked by an out of control eighteen wheeler during a Massachusetts snowstorm. It’s so worth all the tough stories to get to do what I do though. 

Save Face by Dieter

BP: What advice would you give to someone who wants to tour as a photographer or merch manager?

DU: Just focus on improving your work and finding your style. Obsess over learning lightroom and save up money for decent gear. The amount of work you put into your photography is what you’ll get back.

For someone trying to pursue touring, just be yourself and don’t try too hard to make connections. There’s a certain amount of business involved in this, but the goal should never be to make a band take you on tour. If you put out good work and just be a decent person, someone will notice and take you out eventually.

Also, invest in bands while they’re young, and be patient. All the bands I tour with, I met when they were playing to nobody. The first time I shot Sleep On It was in a pizza shop in front of ten people. I met Capstan in the living room of a house show they were throwing. I paid Save Face 20 bucks to play a VFW show I put together in 2014 and met that way. If you support bands while they’re young, you’ll be a no brainer to work with when they get big. 

Big thanks to Dieter for taking the time to talk with us! You can find Dieter on Twitter and Instagram. Like what you see? Get prints via Patreon or Darkroom.

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