14 Mar How to become a music photographer
Become a music photographer with these top tips
With my photography website up and running, I felt I had some credentials to request photo passes.
I have no idea why I thought this, but as I said, having balls helps. I decided to only photograph bands that I really loved. It was my ability to know a band’s stage moves that made my photos stand out. So, I didn’t want to photograph bands that I was unfamiliar with.
The White Stripes is one of my favourite bands of all time.
I think I’ve seen them over ten times now. When they announced their tour back in 2004 I emailed their management (all of this info is easily found online), and I sent them a link to my website. I told them that my photographs were just for fans. I then asked if I could have a pass to their upcoming Liverpool gig. They said yes. It really was that easy.
So, off I went to Liverpool to take my first set of photos from the photographers pit with all the professional photographers. To try and look professional I borrowed a more impressive camera to use at the gig. When I got there, I felt so out of place. Everybody was dressed in black so as not to distract the band. I didn’t know this was a thing. I was in jeans and a bright top. Big no-no. I also didn’t really know the protocol for working in such tight quarters with people. I walked in front of their lenses and bumped into them. It was so awkward. To make matters worse there was no flash photography allowed. I didn’t know enough about photography or the camera to adjust the settings for shooting moving subjects in low light. The results were a blurry mess, or so I thought.
A Canadian music website called Caustic Truths got in contact and emailed the following:
Hey there Melaniemay
I’m the webmaster of caustictruths.com which is a website for our print magazine. We have a featured story on White Stripes which is on our web site and potentially in a print edition. Your site was suggested as an addition to our very popular collection which will be useful for our visitors/readers. You can find the link to your web site here:
I also photographed the opening act; a band called Blanche. A woman who ran a fan site for Blanche contacted me via my website to ask if she could link my website to her website.
Again, I felt delighted. I thought my photos were shit but others liked them. Therefore, what turned out to be a disastrous night, turned out rather good.
Let me tell you a story
For the next few years this is how I went to gigs for free and how I photographed bands that I loved. I emailed bands or their management and told them that I ran a music photography fan site for different bands. I would then ask if I could have a photo pass. The answer was usually ‘yes’. I always peppered my emails with humour and enthusiasm for the bands, and I think people appreciated this. They also knew I was just starting out and people generally do like to help others just starting out.
As soon as the gigs were over, I put the photos up when I got home and sent the link back to those who gave me the pass. I wanted them to see that I was making the most of their generosity. I sent the links to the bands as well. From this, I eventually got to know many bands and really enjoyed doing this type of photography. I got many perks too. I was invited to Kelly Jones’ birthday party where I drank vodka and orange juice from a flower vase with Rhys Ifans and where I was rude to Howard Marks a.k.a Mr Nice, as I thought he was just some creepy old man hitting on me.
Ok, one final story, and I’ll stop, but this is my most cherished moment of all.
One night, after a gig in Shrewsbury, I ended up in a room in a flat with Pete Doherty. He opened the window and began singing the Beatles’ Love me Do to a bunch of fans outside. I was madly in love with Pete Doherty. He was the nicest, kindest person I had ever met and he was very charming and so good-looking. I couldn’t believe it. There I was sat beside him, he was topless and I do not know how I kept my composure. I just kept pressing the camera shutter and snapping away when all I wanted to do was love him do! Such a wonderful night.
So, how on Earth can this post help you become a music photographer?
Well, here are some things that I feel helped me and gave me an edge over other amateur fan photographers.
14 top tips for becoming a music photographer
Try to get to know the crew and security people who work with the bands. If you are nice to them, they will be nice to you. They may just be the ones to get you to the front or over the barrier or back stage so you can get the photos that others can’t.
If you don’t have a pass for a gig, get there early. Queue up, and when those doors open get to the front. Position yourself just to the side of the microphone that the lead singer will be using. Don’t stand in front of the mike as the stand will be in the way of getting a clear shot.
Get chatting to those who are queuing up beside you. If they are at the front with you then they are obviously mega fans. They will be your allies in holding your place when you need to nip off to pee or get a coffee. They will be the ones who will interact with and promote your website. Also, they will be the ones most likely to know the crew and band and will introduce you to them.
Know your subjects and where and what you will be shooting. Watch old concert footage and note when the singer moves away from the mike, when he goes to the crowd, when he poses, or does a signature move. Make notes on each band member as sometimes there is a lack of photos of drummers, keyboardists and bassists. Don’t just shoot the front man. If you have clear shots of the other members perhaps a magazine or website will want to use them as they can’t find them anywhere else.
If you can, be brave and ask one of the crew if you can watch the sound check. Tell them you won’t take photos or disturb anyone and keep to your word! Don’t take a single photo if you said you wouldn’t. If you are trustworthy, you will get further with the crew and band. By watching the sound check, you will be able to scope out the venue, the lighting, the band positioning and the set list. You can then use all this information to inform your photography, where you will stand, when the lights will change, when the band will do something interesting. Of course, you also get to enjoy listening to a band sound checking and feel a little smug that you earned that privilege.
If you get backstage, don’t take loads of photos or annoy anyone. Backstage is usually reserved for the band and their friends and family to relax away from fans. Be cool and casual. If you get talking to the band, tell them that you enjoyed their set and you hope you got some good shots. This lets them know you are interested in photography and then see where the conversation goes. Let them be the ones to ask if you want a photo or autograph, if that is what you are after. The only time I ever asked for a photo or autograph was outside the venue with all the other fans. I never asked for anything backstage, well apart from a Jack Daniel’s and Coke.
Build some sort of website or blog, be it a WordPress.org, WordPress.com, Blogger, Squarespace or Tumblr music photography website. Do this as soon as possible. I got the most photography passes once my website was up and running and people saw that other bands were letting me photograph them too. It will help get you established and act as your portfolio and music photographer business card. It doesn’t have to be a fancy expensive site, mine was shit and so basic but it got me the passes. I just wish I had built it sooner. (As a note, I changed over hosts from a UK host to Irish host and in the process lost my music photography website. I am gutted. It means I can only show you how basic my old site was via Wayback Machine web archive.)
If you can use Photoshop or Pixlr, which is free or any other editing software, then do so. Make the photos look as good as you possibly can, but don’t go altering them beyond recognition. Most musicians like to see how they really look when they are in action and fans love to see natural photos of their favourite musicians, not ones that are Photoshopped to bits.
When your photos are up tell people about them. Twitter and Facebook were not around when I was getting started so I had to rely on emails. I emailed management and bands directly to tell them about the photos on my site. You can send tweets to fan sites, band pages, musicians and other photographers, etc. Post some photos on a musician’s Facebook page and other fan pages. Nowadays, the possibilities for getting your content out there are endless. Consider Photobucket or Flickr etc. Don’t forget the importance of SEO when it comes to adding file names, titles, alt tags, descriptions and captions to your photos. Fill all these details in with the keywords – band name, venue, town, date and individual member names etc.
Know your equipment and study your camera’s manual. Know what to do in all situations and shooting conditions – with flash, without flash, what to do to make the most of the stage lights and how to make them work for you not against you. You can find all this info online. Watch as many YouTube tutorials as you can on relevant topics to help hone your skills (obviously, I needed to do more of that).
If you don’t ask you don’t get and all that. The worse thing a person can say is ‘no’ so don’t be afraid of this one little word. You will hear many people say ‘no’ but don’t let this deter you. Keep at it and be persistent but always with a sense of humour. Don’t become pushy or obnoxious. Be graceful and charming and polite to everyone you are dealing with. Personality goes a long way in this sort of business and so does a great big genuine smile.
Intimate gigs and venues will give you a chance to practice with less stress and pressure. You will be able to study more closely how bands move. You will most likely also get to talk to the band who will be interested in the photos you took of them. Use this opportunity to network and offer your photography services if you are confident enough to do so (alas, I never was and missed some great opportunities to take my work further. Don’t be a wuss like me).
Don’t just rate your photographs yourself; we are our own worse critics. Get others to give honest feedback on your work. Other people loved the photos that I thought were awful. Pennie Smith, the music photographer who took the cover photo for the Clashes’ album London Calling, thought the photo was crap and was too out of focus. Good job she overruled her own opinion, as it is a classic and fantastic example of music photography at its most raw and finest.
Look at examples of great rock and music photography and examine them to see what makes them great. What do you like about them and what don’t you like about them? Use these examples to inspire your own photography in terms of composition, angles and elements that make a great music photograph. Get to know the work of other great music photographers, there is a list here. I had a frame filled with examples of rock photographs that I really loved, which both inspired and encouraged me when I went to gigs.
And in the end
These are the main things that I did, and although I never got any paid work out of it, that didn’t matter as that wasn’t my goal. What I did get out of it was lots and lots of free gigs, amazing after parties, and a lifetime of unforgettable rock and roll experiences that I could never write about on here!
I have a huge stash of memorabilia, signed this, that, and the other and passes and set lists are framed all over my room. I also got out of the whole experience a shitty little website that I built myself to show off my own photos. That in itself gives me such a sense of pride and achievement. Of course, I also learned loads of coding, SEO and digital marketing skills during building and maintaining my website, which now help with this new site.
My photos can be found on many other sites across the web but I have never had one published in print, but that’s ok, that would have been nice, but what I got out of this whole chapter of my life is worth so much more to me.
Photographing musicians is a great experience.
It gave me a love of photographing moving subjects and has developed some skills that I apply to my photography today. If you are interested in this line of work, all I can say is ‘go for it’. It is totally worth all the hard work, effort and long nights. The experiences are ones you will never forget, and sometimes never be able to remember.
If you have any questions or want to know more about my experiences please leave a comment below. I’d love to answer them.