So You Want To Be A Rockstar Photographer? (Part I)

Cissi Tsang by Cissi Tsang on

One of the more revealing attitudes about how people generally see photographers can be seen at a party. Casually mention you are a photographer and people’s attention will perk up. Then mention you are a wedding or portrait photographer and you will likely receive polite nods before the conversation turns away.

On the other hand, mention you are a live music photographer and suddenly the attention is focused on you. You’ll be peppered with comments from others about how envious they are and you will be asked about your experiences. Throw in some of the bands you have seen and the venues you have been and you become the coolest kid on the block.

Live Music Crowd

Being a live music photographer is exciting. It allows you to be up close and personal to some of your favourite bands. It allows you free access into gigs big and small and music festivals. It allows you to watch some of the best local, national and international stars. It allows you to develop a camaraderie with fellow photogs where you can share war stories while chilling in the media tent.

It allows you to make friends with local musicians and writers and you can quickly find yourself immersed in the local music scene. You get to meet some very interesting characters in the crowd, who may do such things as profess their love for you. You will get your name out there.

It is not without its pitfalls. The majority of music festivals happen during the height of summer, so you will have to battle high temperatures. You will have to run from stage to stage. You will find yourself on your feet for 10-12 hours, contorting yourself into uncomfortable positions to get the best shots. If you are taking photos at a local gig, you will find yourself having to battle through crowds to get to the front of the stage, and not everyone is sympathetic that you have a camera.

You will have late nights and tight deadlines. Performers are constantly on the move so you will have to think fast about framing your photo. You are not likely to be paid.

If, after reading all that, you are not put off by the idea of being a live music photographer – then read on. I will outline the process of becoming a live music photographer, from the very beginning to tips on how to take the best live photos you can.

Part 1 – Starting Out

So, you have just gone to a gig or a music festival and noticed these photographers at the front, snapping away. You think it looks fun, and you’d like to join in. Or maybe you have seen photos of live shows and feel inspired. Now it’s time to figure out how to break into the field.

Firstly, I recommend that you start with a point and shoot camera. If you have one already, great. If not, an inexpensive point and shoot camera will do. Most point and shoot cameras have manual functions, so you can learn the concepts of such things as ISO, shutter speed and aperture. You can also practice taking photos of live gigs, and to see if you feel comfortable.

An in-depth look into ISO, shutter speed and aperture will be covered in other articles, so I won’t go in too deeply. A basic summary is – the ISO in a digital camera controls how sensitive the camera is to light. The lower the number, the less sensitive the camera (and vice versa). The shutter speed controls how fast the camera shuts its lens to capture an image – the higher the number, the faster the camera. Aperture controls how wide the lens is, and affects depth of field.

Once you are comfortable with the manual settings on your point and shoot camera, then it’s time to shop for a DSLR camera. A DSLR camera is an essential gear for live music photographers. At some music festivals and large gigs, it is a written requirement. Show up with a point and shoot camera and they will throw you out of the photographer’s pit and remove your media accreditation.

You don’t necessarily need the latest and best DSLR camera. You do, however, need to choose a camera that you find most comfortable, which then entails trying out various models in a camera shop. When you are starting out, you will be taking photos at small, local gigs usually held at a bar. Such places don’t have optimal lighting, so the first lens you should consider adding to your gear is a f/2.8 lens with a range of about 17-50mm. That way, you will be able to handle the poor lighting conditions better, and you will be able to take a variety of shots.

Next on your list should be a lens with a range that extends to at least 200mm. There are some lenses that have a range of 18-200mm, which make them convenient because you can take close-ups of bands and wide-angled crowd shots, although the drawbacks are they tend to be heavy and can be unstable when focused. You can also buy lenses with a range of 80-200mm, which are lighter and more stable when focused, at the expense of a limited ability to take wider shots unless you are willing to constantly change lenses (or have two cameras, but that is very expensive).

After you have your gear, it’s a good idea to do some practice runs to get used to the camera and controls.

Part 2 – Finding A Publication

Congratulations, you are now a hatchling live music photographer!

A guaranteed way of getting into gigs and festivals is to be working for a publication. It should be an active publication, and most definitely not a blog. Taking photos for a blogging site has little credibility in music circles, and neither do freelancers.

It is generally hard to break into printed street publications. They tend to have a small, stable group of photographers so opportunities are limited. Your best bet is to look into local, online publications. Have a search for these publications. They are willing to accept anyone as long as they can take decent photos and have a good attitude. Some publications will ask for sample photos – if so, it’s a matter of going out to some gigs with your DSLR camera, taking some snaps and uploading your best ones. Showing enthusiasm for the local music scene will earn you brownie points, because they tend to be hard-up on photographers willing to cover local gigs.

If there are several online publications in your area, I would recommend applying to all because then you can pick and choose which one suits you best. You can tell the size of an online publication by looking at the photo gallery and checking out their reviews to see what sort of live events they have covered.

The larger the publication, the more clout and reputation they have with promoters, which means they are more likely to get opportunities for international artists and music festivals. Larger publications, however, tend to have more competitive submission processes. You may be required to fill out a form, stating why you enjoy live music photography and why you want to be a contributor. Smaller publications tend to focus more on local shows. Those tend to be less competitive – you may only need to send a short email with some attached sample photos – but it is harder if you want larger opportunities.

The rule of thumb is – if you are confident with your work, then a larger publication may suit you. If you still want to practice your photography before going onto larger assignments, then a smaller publication might be better.

In the next article, I will discuss getting assignments, and how to prepare yourself for taking photos at bars and small to medium venues.

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