The art of live music photography is one of the most satisfying, but it does also come with its challenges...
The art of live music photography might be one of the most fun, creative and challenging areas of our profession, but it’s undoubtedly also the most rewarding practice to learn and cultivate. Becoming a professional music photographer requires hard work, dedication, confidence and above all else, practice.
There’s never a dull moment when shooting a live performance, and you usually have to be on the ball to adapt to the constant light changes, movement from the artists on stage, be wary of other photographers who are likely to be in the photo pit with you, and anticipate those unexpected jump shots, fire and confetti canons, and the occasional crowd surf depending on the nature of the event or artist you’re photographing.
In other words; live music photography is extremely gratifying and so much fun, but it’s not a picnic either. There are some things you should probably know before you decide to try out this genre of photography, and jump into investing in some low-light gear, and I’ll break these down for you as we go.
Things you should know
1 You won’t be granted photo passes straight away
Unless you’re extremely lucky or have amazing music industry contacts, do not expect to be given credentials or photo passes at the very start. Becoming a music photographer will usually require several months, maybe even years, of portfolio building and learning the craft before you can dive into the photo pit. Most of us start off by shooting smaller bands at intimiate venues without any crowd barrier or photo pit, and by reaching out to local artists and musicians who may need images in exchange for granting you access.
You’ll also nine times out of ten need to be shooting on behalf of a publication, press, or media outlet to be able to acquire a photo pass. PR’s have a limited number of tickets they can issue for each artist or tour, so no matter how great your portfolio may be, you’ll need to be backed by a magazine or offer a coverage exchange in the form of a website or blog review to earn yourself a pass and credentials to shoot larger shows. Reach out to local publications first, and then branch out to online music websites that need contributing photographers to begin the process of getting yourself a photo pass.
2 You will be expected to shoot for free a lot of the time
Shooting images in exchange for “exposure” is something that every photographer dreads to hear, but unfortunately, it is something that beginner music photographers will have to endure in order to get your foot in the door in most cases. That does not mean that you can’t make money from music photography - you absolutely can! And there are plenty of successful and even famous music photographers who work full-time on tours and make a living.
But a lot of the time music publications cannot pay their writers or photographers for their time, working on a volunteer basis, and are only able to offer photo passes and credentials in exchange. This is fine for those looking to gain experience and enjoy the art of taking photos, but if you’re looking to make some money then it’s better to work with artists directly if you can, and become their own designated tour photographer, rather than obtaining access to shoot shows through a music publication.
3 Always charge for band and press photos - and use a contract!
A slight contradiction to the previous point about shooting for free, but if you ever have the opportunity to shoot some press or promo images of a band then make sure to always charge. Even the smaller startup bands will need images to kickstart their career, but you should prevision that in a few years time, that image you shot of the group down a brick alley could become their next album cover, or be printed onto shirts and merchandise. Even if this isn’t likely to be the case, you still have to factor in the time and work it will take to edit these images, and never undervalue yourself. I learnt this the hard way by offering to shoot some images for a friend’s band in exchange for pizza.
You should always have a contract or written agreement in place to establish ownership, credit, and usage, especially with a band who may be unsure of how things work without the backing of a PR or music label to negotiate for them. Charging for your time and work, no matter how little, will also raise the standards for other local music photographers, as bands on a budget will almost always choose the creative that will work for free over those who charge, and that doesn’t benefit any of us.
4 Lastly, abide by photo pit etiquette and the first 3, no flash rule
When shooting a larger show where you have the correct credentials in place, you’ll be able to shoot from either the sound board or the photo pit, which situates in front of the crowd and where security are based. This is a big responsibility to act appropriately and ensure you’re not endangering yourself or others by being aware of crowd surfers that could potentially clock you in the head as they pass over the barrier, or getting in the way of security trying to do their jobs. It’s also polite not to block other photographers too.
There’s a universal policy in place when shooting live events known as the “first three, no flash” rule. Which in simple terms means no using flash, for obvious reasons, and that you may only photograph the first three songs of an artists setlist. This rule was introduced back in the 80s to stop artists from being photographed once they become all sweaty from performing under the stage lights, but in modernity, the rule limits the amount of time photographers can spend in the pit and might be obstructing the view for the front-row of the crowd. This rule often does not apply in smaller venues without a barricade, or when a photographer has access all areas granted by the band or artist.
Other things to consider..
What type of kit is good to get started with?
Any type of camera that has a high ISO range or great low-light capabilities will make for a perfect body to use when shooting live music and shows. I started out using a Canon 700D, then upgraded to a Canon 5D Mark III, and now I use my mirrorless Sony A7 III which is amazingly lightweight in comparison to my heavier full-frame Canon body’s. I would pair my Canon cameras with a simple nifty fifty 50mm f/1.8 prime lens which offered the ideal focal length for almost any situation, whether shooting from the crowd or up close by the barrier. The optimal lens that many pro music photographers choose to use would be the 24-70mm focal length at an f/2.8 aperture.
Another secondary lens to have on hand when you begin shooting larger arena shows would be in the ballpark range of a 24-105mm, 70-200mm, or even 70-300mm lens to ensure that you have enough coverage to capture a musician in instances where you’d have to shoot from the soundboard or back of house. It can save you a lot of money by opting for quality third-party lenses of this type, from manufacturers such as Sigma, Samyang (Rokinon), or Tamron, as opposed to buying Canon and Sony lenses when first starting out, which will cost you thousands, even when bought secondhand.
How do I market myself as a music photographer and sell my images?
This is a bit trickier to answer, as every photographer (not just music photographers) have their own values, ideas, and opinions on how much a creative should charge, how to gain clientele, and how to sell prints of their work. Essentially there’s no right or wrong way to go about this, but it will definitely take some time to establish your own target market and identify your type of regular customer.
In the case of music photography, you definitely want to have an online presence, in the form of social media or an updated website portfolio. The easier you are to find, the easier you are to hire. Make your location known and specify the area you work in so any local bands or those travelling through who need services can find your business. Similarly, use tags when sharing your music images online or to social media so that any fans of the artist who love your work can contact you and purchase some prints.
If you happen to take photos of a musician at an event that you’ve shared online (it’s a good idea to watermark them!) and they reach out asking to use or purchase your photo, it’s your own discretion on how to proceed, but always establish clear communication on how and when your images can be used. There’s always the option to license out your images for a band or artist to use in certain contexts, with the copyright remaining with you, otherwise selling an image outright and having an artist buy the copyright from you should be at an extremely high cost, at least in the thousands.
The most important part of being a music photographer is to love what you do, if you find yourself becoming tired and burnt out then maybe it isn’t for you. Aim to work with artists that you resonate with and share common ground, even if you don’t necessarily listen to their music. For live shows, try not to lose yourself in the process of capturing the sharpest shot, and enjoy the moment as much as you can. Hopefully this guide has helped to point a few you in the right direction, but remember that every photographer has different methods and approaches, so find the best one that works for you.