I recently talked to my friend Nancy from Midlife Mixtape on her podcast about my route to concert photography, and it brought me back to this post. I have been keeping notes for a long time, compiling them – because people often ask, “how can I become a music photographer?”
Who Will You Photograph For?
The first thing to consider is who you want to shoot for. Obviously, in my case, I photograph for my own site, Greeblehaus. Another route is to photograph for established media outlets and sites. There are pros and cons to each way, and you have to decide which is best for you.
For example, I had to build up my site’s traffic to be granted photo passes myself versus under the wing of say, local media like Westword, 303 Magazine or The Know. But, I also answer to myself and generally don’t have the same hard deadlines that photographers who work for others do.
Making Money As A Concert Photographer
Making money in concert photography is a complicated question. For me personally, it’s wrapped up in the benefits I get from this blog, which is both tangible cash and the intangibles – like fun events, travel, etc. But please understand that usually, music photography is a passion project and it’s woefully underrated in terms of budget.
Most people earn the best living by working their way up in media outlets or going on tour with bands (while helping with other things like merch). Selling photos (on a mass scale, at least) is generally not an option due to copyright laws, which is a whole ‘nother post in itself (but see more info below).
I wouldn’t have it any other way, though. I have been shooting concerts for a long time now and it’s one of the most fulfilling things in my life.
Below are just some general tips that I have learned over the years. Hope you find them helpful too.
Header photo by Mark Tepsic. This post generally applies to photographing in the United States.
Tips for Becoming A Concert Photographer
Know The Rules
First, you generally need a photo pass (below) to photograph almost any band. That could come in the form of just being on the list, or actually receiving a pass or wristband you must wear. You also need professional photography equipment, meaning a DSLR. Some photographers have a mirrorless as a second camera, but phone cameras are nixed, except for perhaps a quick shot or two for social media. The golden rule is “three songs, no flash.”
That means you will be allowed to photograph the first three songs, either from the pit up front, or front of house (FOH) – which is actually near the soundboard in the back. Confusing, I know. At bigger shows, you are escorted in by the media contact and escorted out after – and may not be able to stay for the rest of the show. (Heck, at least it’s an early evening then, right?)
How To Get A Photo Pass
Generally, to get a pass, you need permission from the band, their PR, or the promoter of the show. Who you ask is something you learn from experience, but usually: a small show is the band, a medium show is the PR, a large show is the promoter. Google is your friend here, but as you gain a reputation, bands and PR professionals will start reaching out and asking you to cover shows.
Request your photo pass 2-3 weeks before the show and follow up, although you may not get your answer until the day of (sometimes just hours before the show). An accompanying ticket may or may not be included and may or may not be necessary depending on the size of the venue. This again, sadly, is just something you learn with experience.
Tip: Don’t photograph your photo pass and share it online. That makes it prone for copying in other cities, could be a security risk, and makes PR people mad at you.
Shoot Local Bands and Free Shows
Here in Denver, we have a great music scene, so there are a plethora of great bands to photograph. This is how I started, requesting to photograph locals, building my portfolio and learning the ropes. I was then able to show PR people my work and request bigger and bigger shows. Also, free outdoor concerts such as Denver Day of Rock are a wonderful opportunity to practice and also photograph bands on bigger stages from the audience without needing a pass.
Get to Know Other Photographers, Staff and Security
After a while, the photographers in a scene get to know each other, as well as nationally touring ones. Here is a post of Denver concert photographers on Instagram. The benefits of this are many. Obviously, it’s nice to be friends with the people you see all the time, but also you may need an extra photo card in an emergency or some earplugs.
Sometimes I am in the zone when I step into the pit, but I really do try to say hi to people I don’t know when I can. Same goes for security and staff. In the case of security, they are there to protect the fans – and us. So, sometimes they may yell at us to get out of the way, but it’s usually because someone is crowd surfing up and about to kick you in the head!
Learn Pit Etiquette
Here are some general points that most photographers I know appreciate:
- Put your camera bag down out of the way – don’t wear it around the pit where it bangs into everyone. (Unless the staff specifically asks you to keep it on for security purposes.)
- Keep an eye out for other photographers. Move around in the pit to allow everyone to get their shots.
- Move cautiously back and forth. Moving very fast can cause collisions.
- Duck under other lenses as you walk in front of other photographers.
- Don’t lean in far onto the stage as it obstructs other photographers as well as interferes with the band.
- Don’t hold your camera over your head to photograph, especially in front of someone else.
- If you are tall (like me), let the shorter photographers work in front of you.
- Elbows in while shooting.
- Only bring a step ladder to large shows where you have been placed at the soundboard.
- Count the songs in your head and promptly leave the pit as the third one ends.
- Be mindful of the fans behind you.
- Have fun! This is supposed to be fun, right?
Get The Shots
This kind of goes without saying, but concert photography is different than portraiture, wedding and other photography avenues. You have low lights, downright bad lights, moving objects and limited time. Think about what kind of music the band plays; their personality should be reflected in the photos. Learn your equipment inside and out. Go for lens quality over bodies at first – the glass is most important. Finesse your editing style and streamline your process in professional software like Lightroom or Photoshop. Kill your darlings and put your best photos forward.
I always send the link of my post back to the person who approved me. This shows reliability, builds the relationship and when appropriate, I ask for them to share the link to my blog too. I share on my social networks and try and get the event the best exposure I can. This last step really helps make every show a stepping stone for the next one I would like to photograph. What social networks you focus on will depend on your goals, but obviously, Instagram is a vital photography platform.
Tip: Get all members of the band, especially the drummer who is usually forgotten!
Sometimes before photographing a show, you will be asked to sign a release. Usually, these are benign, asking you to adhere to the general rules I mentioned above. Sometimes they will ask for copyright release for the photos, which frankly, I never do. This issue has been in the news with high profile acts like Taylor Swift and Ariana Grande, but my feeling is there is no band big enough for me to hand over copyright without additional compensation. This also requires you to understand copyright to begin with, which is legal stuff and complicated – but boils down to this…
You click a shutter, no matter what camera, you own the photo. If you have a photo pass, you have permission to use that photo in an editorial sense (like a newspaper, magazine or blog). You do not have license to sell that photo – you need a release from the band to do so (the exception to this generally being gallery shows). Also, technically, the band does not have the right to use your photos in any way, although there has been a general sense of agreement that sharing photos (individually, separate of the posts) with credit is OK. However, as with this example, it can get tricky. Re-read that paragraph a couple times; it’s complicated.
Point being, learn the law, follow it, and be prepared in advance for what you are willing to share with bands and publicity folks.
Whew. That was a lot of do’s and don’ts, huh? I hope you found it helpful and not discouraging. As I mentioned, photographing concerts has changed my life dramatically for the better. I have seen so many bands I would never have and met some of the best people in the world. It’s a total blast.
Hope to see you in the pit sometime soon!