Many years ago I was out with a friend at a small gig and was enjoying the music when I saw a photographer running back and forth trying to capture images of the band. The photographer was dripping in sweat, looked exhausted, and strangely enough, looked like he was having the time of his life.
Seeing the photographer work made me think that I would love to do the same and the very next day I went out and bought a starter camera kit. A Canon 1000D with a kit lens. Not knowing anything about photography or that a kit lens is generally terrible in low light conditions I was ready to go.
In my rush to go out and buy equipment, I had no idea what to do next, and as there is no school for concert photography I just had to blag my way along. I don’t think I have done too bad either, In a short space of time, I went from shooting unknown bands in unlit pubs to photographing stadium tours of artists such as One Direction, Coldplay, Noel Gallagher, The Vamps, and so many more.
This is how I started as a music photographer and hopefully, it can help you too.
Getting Started & What You Really Need
After my first gig, I knew that this lens wasn’t going to cut it because the aperture level of f/3.5-5.6 was struggling to let in enough light in the conditions available. Your first shows are going to be in places with very little light and you are going to need to shoot at the highest ISO levels that your camera allows without ruining image quality.
For me, I have always used Canon cameras, not because I think they are the best, but that’s what I am used to so if you’re thinking why can’t I use another camera then you can. My suggestion would be to get the camera you can afford, make sure it’s a DSLR and get a good low light lens to go with it.
For Canon cameras, a good low light lens which I love is the Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 lens. This lens is affordable, works amazingly in low light, and can create some beautiful bokeh shots which is a great effect to play around with.
In my experience, a low light lens is a must-have item as a music photographer. As your career progresses you can then look at the L series lenses from Canon which produce sharper images and come down to lower apertures.
It’s worth noting that many venues will have a no flash policy so this is why I stress that you need a low light lens. If you don’t have one the kit lens is going to struggle to capture well exposed and sharp images.
When you have your equipment, you now have to find music venues in your area. My tip would be to add them all on social media and direct mail them asking for a photo pass for upcoming shows.
When starting out most venues will require you to pay an entry fee just like everyone else so keep that in mind when budgeting your money. As you shoot more shows and you become more well known you won’t be required to pay entry and you will often be given access to all area passes which is really cool as you get to see behind the scenes shots and get to meet many of the artists.
Music Photography Tips
Depending on the size of the band or the show, they will all have different rules on what you can and cannot do as a photographer, but this will be run through by security or the events manager at the time of the concert. Medium to large shows will often have a 3 song rule where you are allowed in the pit for three songs to take your photos before security will come and collect you, usually moving you off to the side of the stage.
Therefore you will want to make sure you take as many photos in your allowed timeframe and should have backup storage for your photos as well as backup power packs. I can’t tell you the number of times that I’ve filled a memory card or my power was cutting out on my camera so having spares is going to do you well.
When it comes to camera settings in a concert environment all lighting situations are going to be different but as a general rule of thumb, you may want to shoot between ISO 800 and 1600 as that will allow you a quicker shutter speed which will capture sharper images. I would personally shoot in RAW mode too as it allows for more flexibility when editing your images and if you do mess up your exposure levels you can get them inline a little better.
For those of you who are new to photography, RAW is a file format that captures all the data recorded by your lens while not compressing this data. This allows you to take better quality photos and overexposing or underexposing photos because of quick lighting changes can be overcome.
Building Your Brand
In the beginning, you are going to be spending money on equipment, getting to shows, and getting nothing back financially at this point. I had spent upwards of £2000 before making any money from photography, and while I would photograph concerts for free because it is a passion of mine, it’s always nice to pay the bills.
To start making money from Photography you are going to need to build a brand for yourself. I started many years ago and I didn’t have a website, but these days I really think you are shooting yourself in the foot if you don’t have one.
Websites can be expensive so if you don’t have a budget for one then use a free website builder such as Wix. You can get some nice themes on there to make your website look professional and really show off your images. In the future, you can get a website professionally made when you are making more money from your photos.
As well as websites you should sign up for Twitter, Linkedin, Instagram, and Flickr which got me noticed by Getty images, which I would later sign up as a contributor for and would allow my images to be used in newspapers all around the world.
Being on social media as a photographer is going to get you noticed and will generate interest in your services. I’ve had many people reach out asking me if I wanted to photograph their band, wedding, or kids party. Some of the requests you may get are strange but you never know who’s out there looking at your photos.
One of my photos was shared and liked by George Clooney’s ex-girlfriend and former WWE star Stacey Keibler, how cool is that?!
If your time is stretched and you can’t run multiple social media accounts I would pick two and use them. For me, Flickr and Instagram have been brilliant at generating interests in my services. From Flickr, I was contacted by a rep from Getty images where I would start to make money from my photos, and because of the access they have, I was able to photograph some of the biggest bands and artists on the planet.
With a company such as Getty, I have been paid upfront for a show and I have also been paid on commission when my images sell. I prefer the later as world events can make a band or artist be all over the news and a lot of the time your images get picked up meaning you can make money from your photos for many years to come.
When I started photographing concerts I would look at the other photographers as competition, maybe that’s my personality of being competitive but I now know this was the wrong way to look at the situation. In my experience photographers are some of the nicest people you will ever meet.
If you work enough concerts you will begin to see the same faces over and over again, so don’t make the mistake I did initially and be cold to these people as you will more than likely get along with them and it opens up the opportunity to photograph more shows. There have been times when I’ve not had any shows booked in only for another photographer to call me and ask if I could shoot a show with them and vice versa.
Some of the photographers you will meet have been doing this a lot longer than you. Their advice and career experiences can help you learn more than a book or video tutorial ever could.
Don’t Panic When Things Go Wrong
Things will go wrong when taking photos, so you just have to go along with it, and don’t let the mistakes play on your mind for too long as you will miss more opportunities.
A mistake which sticks in my mind is when I was photographing WWE’s Chris Jericho and his band Fozzy and he came right up to me and reached out to my camera and pointed at it, the shot was brilliant and just as I was going to take it my memory card was full. Chris Jericho stood there for a few seconds giving me an exclusive shot and I had to pretend that I was taking it. It still haunts me to this day.
Be prepared for late nights and the need to work a second job.
As with nearly every job in photography, the photos being taken were needed two days ago. With music photography, you will often need to edit the photos and send them off to the company you are shooting for in the same evening.
Quite often I will photograph a show, edit the images till late in the evening and have to go to my day job the very next day leaving me with hardly any sleep.
If you are thinking of getting into music photography you should know that the deadlines are horrendous and quite often you will need a second job or will need to provide additional photography services to make enough money to get by. I’ve been fortunate enough that my images have sold and when an artist is trending it can make you a nice profit but there will be times where your photos don’t sell or they don’t make enough sales to cover all of your bills.
I’m lucky enough to have a job that allows me to stay in the world of photography and videography which is also flexible enough to let me travel up and down the country to photograph some amazing artists.
When not photographing concerts James Mathews is the head of content at BounceColor.com a website that allows photographers and videographers to edit their content quickly through the use of digital presets.
*Content shared with permission