What to Do When You Don’t Have Access

If you photograph anything that has to do with people, you will inevitably come across this word: “access.”

Access is the difference between getting close enough to make a decent photograph and being so far away that you can’t even see your intended subject. It’s the difference between being given permission to bring a camera on the grounds or keeping it in your trunk.

Having been on the “inside” in my previous life as a newspaper photographer, I’ve found myself on the “outside” from time to time since then. Here’s how to overcome the obstacles to capture the images you need.

Political Rallies

In 2003, Arnold Schwarzeneggar was campaigning to oust California Governor Gray Davis. Schwarzeneggar had scheduled a brief stop in Riverside — and boy, was it brief!

I thought I would take my wife and two children to see what the fuss was about. We arrived two hours early at the Fleetwood Industries compound. I brought one camera with an 80-200 zoom lens.

I guess I didn’t blend in enough.

I caught the eye of one of Schwarzeneggar’s campaign staffers and he insisted I move all the way to the back. His reasoning: I was a professional and wasn’t allowed up front where mothers with their point-and-shoot cameras were.

When I contacted Lou Monville, the PR person who was handling the event, he claimed he had no control over Arnold’s people. Nice.

I didn’t understand why I was told to go to the back. Wasn’t I there as Joe Citizen? What does what I do for a living have to do with where I can stand at a political rally?

I wasn’t heckling. I had brought my kids to see if they could get a glimpse of the future governor of California. The hecklers, by the way, had been relegated to the outside of the Fleetwood Industries compound.

That’s right; sometimes, you just can’t get good access.

Still, from the best vantage point I could find near the back of the crowd, I was able to capture the image below, of Schwarzeneggar and John McCain, by switching my quality setting to RAW. Having the extra megapixels in RAW is like giving you a longer lens in that respect; it allowed me to crop in the image significantly.



When I covered the Skins Game in California’s Coachella Valley, the issue of access was frustrating for both photographers with press passes and for the general public.

Golf enthusiasts would pay big bucks and wait hours and hours to have the best view at each hole. Then, the photographers with press passes would saunter up to these holes along with the foursomes like an invading army, and just plop down right in front of the spectators.

Understandably, the fans were not happy campers. Who would be? If you pay some ridiculous amount of money and wait hours for what you think is a front-row seat, and the next thing you know, some schmuck stands in front of you with a camera, there’s little you can do — except hurl insults.

When I was on the receiving end of those insults, it bothered me, but I had a job to do. I had to walk all 18 holes.

PGA golf tournaments have all kinds of restrictions, not just for the fans but for the photographers covering them. Marshals hold up signs that say “Quiet” before the golfers strike the ball. Photographers can’t be in the golfer’s line of sight and may not fire their shutter until the golfer strikes the ball.

Every sport, and every sporting event, has different rules for access. If you don’t have press credentials, a good way to start covering sports is to shoot amateur events. There’s rarely any restriction on those. As you build a portfolio, you can show some nice enlargements to athletic directors and other credential-granting officials, and eventually begin getting credentials to the events you really want to cover.

That’s a much better approach than sneaking a camera in where it’s not allowed — like PGA events, for example. You will be asked to leave if you are caught, and it could spoil your relationship with the venue permanently.



“First 3 songs” is the mantra of most concert photographers. That’s the timeframe they are allowed to shoot most of the time, from their usual vantage point in the front of the pit.

Not sure why, but someone in the music industry must have dreamed that rule up. Three songs go by rather quickly if you are working.

Sometimes, you can fudge the rule a little bit. But other times, you’ll cover an artist who insists on strict enforcement of the three-songs rule.

One I remember is Bob Dylan. At a concert I was working, he threatened to stop the show if he saw any photographers working beyond the three songs. I’d like to see him try to enforce that with today’s cellphone cameras.

To gain press access for concerts, you can use a strategy similar to the one for earning access to sports events. Shoot some local bands and build on that.

As you build your portfolio, you can use it to showcase your work and begin to offer bands, performers or venues prints in exchange for access to events. Over time, the word will get around and you’ll be able to earn credentials to just about any concert in town.

2 Responses to “What to Do When You Don’t Have Access”

  1. The things truly worth covering and give you the most unique images don't require this kind of access. The best photos are of regular people in the places of work, worship and with their family and friends.

    If you ever cover the Master's you don't get to walk and plop in front. You must also be behind the ropes.

    There is something also to be said for some of today's point and shoots which rival some of the professional equipment. They have the zoom range and mega pixels to match. Some of them even have the high iso to compete.

    Erich Salomon, German photojournalist, is best known for his candid photographs of statesmen and celebrities. While others were using bulky cameras he was using small cameras. If he were alive today, I would guess he would most likely be using something like the Canon G10, Leica C-LUX 4, or a Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX3.

  2. Stan,
    You're absolutely right about events that are truly worthy of coverage requiring no special access.

    I tell my students that all the time.

    Why hassle with the crowds? I tell them to have their point and shoot with them all the time.

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