Working as a music photojournalist can be very rewarding and a great way to develop skills in demanding situations. This simple 15 step guide aims to give you an insight into the world or music photography, both for promo portrait shots and in a live setting.
Step 1 - Finding a Band
There are always bands looking for photographers for promo shots, so all you have to do is make sure they find you! It’s pretty much a given that a band has a MySpace page or website, hopefully with contact details, which will enable you to offer your services. You can either search for bands in your locality or artists that take your fancy and would be interesting to work with. It’s great to work with young bands as they’ll be excited by the prospect of a photo shoot and want to do something exciting. On the other hand, bands with a higher status will be able to showcase your work to a larger audience.
Step 2 - Organisation and Payment
Once you’ve got the job, ensure that you communicate with your clients. Bands aren’t always great at maintaining correspondence, so try to organise the time, date and location well in advance.
It is also important to organise payment at this point. The majority of smaller bands won’t have a lot of cash to spend and if you’re just starting out, it is hard to charge significant amounts. At the least, ensure they cover your costs. Once you’ve built up a positive reputation, you may feel more confident in charging the bands you work with, especially if you’re trying to make a living from it!
Step 3 - What Is the Shoot For?
Artists will always need photos for general use on the web and press articles, but there can be a specific need for photographs – possibly a record insert or a particular magazine article. If this is the case, it is important to ensure you know exactly what the requirements are. If the shot is for a specific magazine it may need to be a certain shape or size on the page, or if it’s the cover, there may need to be space for the magazine name across the top. It is also important to know if there are any requests from the bands management or PR company. You don’t want to be spending time on a shoot, just to find out that it’s not what the people in charge wanted!
Step 4 - Develop a Theme
Depending on the purpose of the shoot, you will need to develop a theme. When communicating with the band, put forward some suggestions of concepts and ask them to think about the type of images they’d like. Some bands prefer rather standard (and possibly cliched) shots of themselves wearing their favourite clothes in an industrial estate, but try to be more imaginative and try something new. Props and costumes can work well and often the lighting and location offer a significant amount of interest. Try to create something unique that will mean both you and your clients will get noticed.
Step 5 - Find a Location
Location is all-important when working with an artist. For shots that require clean backgrounds and a sole focus there is always the studio option, but it is far more interesting to find a location that will help to enforce the band’s image and style. Once again, ask the band whether they have any ideas of accessible places which they think might work, but be sure to think up a few of your own options.
Make sure you listen to the artist’s music so you can get a feel for what might be suitable. For bands that operate within cities, it can be good to epitomise this by finding an urban location that supports their image. Artists with a more refined edge might like to use an old country manor for example, but wherever you end up choosing, ensure that you have access so you don’t end up trespassing. If you know that the location you’ve chosen is private land, it’s always best to ask the landowner before you start trooping bands and camera equipment around!
Step 6 - Capture Personality
After you’ve got everyone together, found your location and decided your concept, it’s time to actually start taking some photos! There’s a lot to think about on the day, so try to make as many decisions as possible before getting the camera out. Once at your location, select a few hotspots that you’d like to use, places that will work best for you and the image.
Don’t be afraid to take charge and tell your subjects what you’d like them to do. The composition of the shot is vital, try to organise your band members into interesting shapes. The chances are they’ll create a natural formation, but it’s good to make sure that if there is a front man or leader that it’s decided with the band whether or not he/she will take centre stage. Remember that a band consists of as many personalities as it does members and if you can, aim to capture each of those within the shot.
Step 7 - Be Creative With Lighting
Each shot will have it’s own lighting requirements, but when you’re shooting, consider it a multiple portrait shoot, so you should aim to have enough light to see each subject’s face and features. This will depend a lot upon location and time of day, but almost regardless of that, it is good to have a flash with you to highlight faces. Try to u advantage se the light sources available, be it through a window or direct sunlight, to your. Experiment with different angles and get your subjects to move about to see what works best. There are always ways to be creative with lighting, particularly when working with a particular concept or theme.
Step 8 - Picking the Best Shots
Choosing the final shots is always difficult, as there are often many to choose from and a huge range of post-production possibilities. The best shots are usually the strongest compositionally. Look for the shot with that extra sparkle, for example, a special connection with the eyes of the subject. However, it’s essential to remember that it’s a joint decision between yourself and the artist. They are employing you and although you may have a considerably better photographic understanding, bands often know what they want. Choose a good selection of shots to propose to the artists and work together to pick the best ones.
Step 9 - Live Performance Photography
Live photography of musicians are a completely different practice. There are far more constraints on what you can do, and how you can use your camera. For small-scale shows, the lights are often quite primitive and you won’t have much space to work in. Bands might specifically ask you to photograph them at a show, or you could just head down to your local venue and take some shots. You can then offer the band your contact details and a website to view and buy/download images.
For large scale shows you’ll need a photo pass (usually obtained by newspapers, magazines and websites), which allows you between the stage for a pre-determined number of songs (usually the first three). You may not have much time to get your work done. Make sure you go prepared – you’ll need a zoom lens and sometimes even a small stool will help, so you’re not breaking your back to get the shot you want.
Step 10 - Be Familiar With the Music
Every band and artist is different and although you can apply many of the same photographic principals, the way a band plays and moves on stage will coincide with the music they are making. It helps to familiarise yourself with the music so you know what to expect on the day. Some bands will just stand still, others will leap around for the whole evening. You want your shots to capture the essence of the music visually, by freezing the artists and mood of the show all in one frame.
Step 11 - Focus on the Front Man
There are many ways to make your shots interesting and it helps to have a few ideas up your sleeve before you start shooting. Find a good vantage point, from which you’ll be able to see the key members of the band. Try to focus on one band member at a time, the most important being the front man/woman. They often act as the face of the band, the person that the public will recognise, so ensure you have a an interesting angle to shoot them from!
Step 12 - Embrace Coloured Lighting
At large shows, flash is not permitted, so you’ve got to do your best with the lighting available. There are usually vast amounts of coloured lights above the stage, so take them into account when positioning yourself, they often work well when trying to silhouette band members. The variety of lighting isn’t something you can necessarily plan for so don’t be afraid to experiment.
Step 13 - Consider Settings in Advance
The biggest challenge for photographers at live music events is darkness. Lighting is very specific, leaving large areas of darkness on the stage, and the way to combat this is by using the ISO and shutter speeds effectively. To let as much light in as possible, push up the ISO, decrease the shutter speed and open up the aperture. Shooting in RAW helps, but by no means is it a get-out clause for taking underexposed shots on the day. The best thing I can suggest is to know your settings before you start. If you’ve only got 3 songs, you can’t afford to be spending too much time playing with settings.
Step 14 - Pick the Moment
It’s really important to learn to shoot instinctively. You have to be patient, ensure that your camera is ready, and track your subject. Wait for the perfect moment and then take your shot. It’s such a horrible feeling to take a shot and then have to wait for your camera whilst watching the front man pull off his best move. You always have the option of continuous mode, but be careful – this is no substitute for your instinct and knowing when to press the button!
Step 15 - Get Credited
Whether it be in print or online, make sure that the right person knows that you took that shot! It’s a great way to make a name for yourself, and you can even ask whether than can put your web address as well as your name. The most important thing is to enjoy it. It’s a great feeling to photograph your favourite bands, but remember, you’ve got a job to do. You can start singing along when you’ve got your shots!