A few days ago, I wrote about the reason I decided I wanted to try my hand at music photography. If you’ve not seen that post, you can catch up with it here. If you have read it, you’ll know that having explained the why, I intended following up with the how. Strap yourselves in. This is the how.
It’s obvious, but the most important thing for any aspiring music photographer is to practice and to do that, you need to get out and take photos. Trouble is, music photography can seem a bit daunting. At one extreme, as a rookie it’s hard to imagine how photographers end up at the front of the O2 with a big lens when zealous security personnel prevent you as a punter taking a camera any bigger than the one attached to your phone. At the other extreme, in a small venue you might be able to get in with a proper camera but it’s hard not to feel excruciatingly self-conscious taking photos right under the nose of the band.
There is also a major conundrum which needs to be overcome. To obtain the opportunity to photograph an artist at any reasonable level, you need to be able to prove that you’re a credible photographer – to have built up a portfolio of images. Trouble is, you can’t obtain the portfolio without first attaining the access. It’s a tricky one.
So how do you go about squaring this circle? The only way really is to accept that you must start at the very bottom and just have aspirations to work your way up. In my case, I made contact with bands playing small, local venues – usually via their social media feeds. I would explain that I was going to one of their shows, that I was actively looking to build a portfolio of images, and I would ask if they would mind if I took some pictures. During these overtures, it was always important to stress two things: 1) I was actually a fan of the band and was already a paying punter at their gig – the last thing I wanted was for the musicians to think I was just after a free night out, and; 2) If I did get any decent pictures, I’d happily give them to the band for free. I soon become painfully aware that there’s very little money at this end of the music business and the thought of free publicity shots (even if they might actually be rubbish) was generally welcomed.
So, here’s a picture from my first shoot. This is Tom Potter, guitarist from the band Toledo Steel. The venue is The Talking Heads, Southampton. The band are still a going concern. Sadly, the venue isn’t.
At the time, I was proud of this photo. I know, I had a lot to learn.
I kept going like this for a few weeks – shooting small-scale gigs in small-scale venues. The cool thing about small-scale gigs in small-scale venues is that you stand a chance of photographing artists that might one day end up playing large-scale gigs in large-scale venues. Here is the band King King and secondly blues guitarist Laurence Jones, both performing at The Cellars At Eastney, a fabulous little venue on the outskirts of Portsmouth.
King King have since played the SSE Arena, Wembley and Jones the Royal Albert Hall. The Cellars has gone out of business. Recognising a trend here? Unless you want your new music choices dictated to you exclusively by Simon Cowell on Saturday nights, you have to go out and support small, local venues. Assuming that any survive, do this as soon as the current crisis is over. Please.
And… relax, back to the story. Once I had put together enough vaguely credible photographs that I could loosely call a portfolio, I started to email it to people. One rich vein to tap were venues that might have liked photography for social media promotion. After many emails (all of which were ignored) I finally got a positive reply from the MAMA Group, who at the time managed a number of well-known London haunts. Within the MAMA portfolio back then were: The Barfly, The Borderline, Hoxton Square Bar & Kitchen, The Jazz Café, The Garage and The Forum, Kentish Town. As a generic MAMA photographer, the first five of these were available as venues in which to shoot. The Forum, having a much bigger capacity was off limits with an established, dedicated house photography team. Back then, the thought of shooting a venue the size of the Forum was but a pipe dream.
Something else that was but a pipe dream was the notion you might actually get paid for your pictures. Whilst those of us on the MAMA team did get welcome free entry to the gigs, the reality was that although you were the only member of staff turning up with expensive equipment, you were also the only member of staff not being paid. The sad truth is that we were all there to build portfolios and for every one of us prepared to work for free to do it, there were five other aspiring photographers behind us waiting to do the same.
I continued shooting gigs at the smaller MAMA venues and really enjoyed my time doing it, but I was still anxious to try and expand my horizons. Armed with a great deal more practice and experience, and a correspondingly improved portfolio, I approached other venues and received an offer to take photographs at KOKO, once the Camden Palace Theatre – and if you’ve read part one of this tale, you’ll know that KOKO was close to my heart – it was the place that inspired my music photography journey.
KOKO had a lot going for it. With a capacity of fourteen hundred, it was significantly bigger than any place in which I’d previously taken pictures. It correspondingly had a far bigger stage and far better lighting.
KOKO also had a photo pit (a gap between the front of the stage and the front row of the audience reserved for photographers). This had two benefits. Firstly, it meant that you didn’t need to establish a position in the crowd hours before a band played to ensure an uninterrupted view. Secondly, it meant that you could actually take decent photographs of the audience. The venues liked these kinds of pictures for their social media streams.
I carried on taking photos for the MAMA venues and for KOKO for quite some time – but exclusively shooting for venues has one obvious limitation: you’re always going to be limited by the ceiling of the venue you’re shooting for. KOKO is a beautiful place, but in footballing parlance it’s at the top of the EFL Championship of London venues, not in the Premier League. So, you need to cast the net a little wider to progress and there are three primary ways in which to do it:
Firstly, get commissioned to shoot directly for an artist. This has one advantage in that you’re actually being paid to take photos. I’ve done a few paid shoots, though all bar one have been at the lower end of the spectrum. The exception was former Deep Purple guitarist Ritchie Blackmore, whom I photographed at the O2 Arena when he was performing with Rainbow. I was lucky here; it turned out without realising that I knew somebody close to his management in the US. I can’t post pictures of Blackmore as part of the commission was the buyout by his management of exclusive Rights to the photos – you’ll have to imagine a bloke with a moustache playing a Fender Stratocaster – but here’s a picture from that gig of Rainbow frontman Ronnie Romero.
Secondly, find a publication for which to shoot. So this is how the music press works: Musicians/bands/solo artists of note employ Public Relations (PR) agencies to look after their interests and to ensure that any forthcoming music releases or tours receive suitable publicity. Publicity comes not only in written form but in photographs too so the usual route to photographing an artist is via their PR – but herein lies a couple of problems. Firstly, you need to know which PR agency looks after each artist – and that information can sometimes be a bit tricky to track down. Secondly, and far more importantly, the first thing the PR want to know if you seek to photograph one of their artists is how many people will see the pictures. I’ve got a personal website; you can find it here. It’s a lovely site but it doesn’t attract a great deal of traffic. If I stick a picture of someone famous on it, not many people are going to see it. This is why, if you want to progress in music photography beyond shooting personally for an artist or on behalf of a venue, you need to find a publication with some clout who will publish the pictures.
Publications range from national newspapers and print music magazines at one end to personal internet blogs at the other. The former have photographers on staff and are a bit of a closed shop to an aspiring snapper and the latter have the same problem as my website – not enough traffic. However, there are plenty of online music magazines that occupy a furtive middle ground and following a bit of Googling, I fired my portfolio in the direction of as many of them as I could find.
The response to my many emails was no response. You get used to this and it didn’t come as a great surprise so I just carried on taking pictures for MAMA and KOKO. Then, several weeks later and completely out of the blue, I got a reply from the editor of RockShot asking me if I’d like to join the team. This was an extremely welcome surprise because of all the overtures I’d made, it was one of the magazines I’d really aspired to be a part of. As the name implies, RockShot is as much a photography magazine about music as it is a music magazine with photography. RockShot is run by a professional photographer and the standard of photography within it is high so to be deemed good enough to be asked to contribute was humbling and it certainly felt like a watershed moment.
In terms of reach, RockShot attracts circa twenty-five thousand unique visits per month and this is enough to interest the PR agencies. This has resulted in some great opportunities to shoot some brilliant artists in some fantastic venues. A few live examples: Carlos Santana, ZZ Top, Noel Gallagher, Paul Weller, Elbow, Jeff Lynne.
We also occasionally get the opportunity to shoot backstage portraits. Here are The Amazons, backstage at Dingwalls.
Whilst ninety percent of my photos at this time were for RockShot, it would be remiss not to mention a couple of other excellent online magazines for whom I also occasionally provided content; these being Flick Of The Finger and Popped Music. Without them, I’d have missed out on experiences such as The Manic Street Preachers at The Royal Albert Hall and The Kooks at Alexandra Palace.
Thirdly, shoot for a photo agency. Taking pictures for a photo agency might be considered the holy grail in terms of opportunities to shoot live music. Whilst some artists do have a generic ‘no agency’ policy, photographs which reside on photo agency platforms have potentially the biggest reach of all and therefore approaches from agencies for photo opportunities are usually met with positive responses from PR. This is likely to apply for artists that might just be too big to receive photo coverage in an online music magazine – even one with a very respectable readership such as RockShot.
In keeping with my desire to climb the music photography ladder, I made approaches to a number of photo agencies, all met with the same response; i.e. no response. To be honest, I’d pretty much given up on the notion of ever taking pictures for an agency. And then a strange thing happened.
This is a photo of Phil Campbell, the (then) front man of the band The Temperence Movement. I took it for RockShot at The Borderline, one of my hangouts when I was shooting pictures for MAMA. As there is (or should I say ‘was’ – this is another venue that has sadly gone by way of the axe) no photo pit at The Borderline, you get there early or you don’t get a good view of the band. So, I got there early and set out my stall. Somebody else who was there early saw my cameras and came over to have a chat with me. It turned out the somebody else worked for WENN (World Entertainment News Network), a substantial international photo agency. Somewhat unexpectedly, I was offered the opportunity to submit my pictures to WENN and was given a business card.
I shot the gig, then sent the man from WENN an email on the way home explaining that I wasn’t comfortable giving them photos when I had taken the pictures for somebody else – but that I’d be more than happy to do stuff for them going forward. The email was ignored, as I fully expected it to be, and I worked on the basis that my brush with working with a photo agency had been and gone.
A few days later, I posted some pictures I’d taken to a Facebook fan page for The Temperence Movement with a link to the review on RockShot. This is a standard practice to point people with a vested interest in an artist to the magazine. It increases engagement, which is what PR like to see when they consider future photo requests. Somebody within the fan page group who shared the same surname as that on the WENN business card commented favourably on my photos and a minute of very rudimentary Facebook stalking later, it was clear this was the wife of the man from the agency. I replied that I was pleased she liked the photos and suggested that perhaps her husband might like to offer me a job. I included the ‘winky face’ emoji that you might use if say, you’d like to give the impression you’re having a quite chilled joke about something when you are in fact deadly serious about it. It worked. Forty-five seconds after hitting ‘send’, my mobile phone rang. It was the man from WENN. He offered me a job.
I tell this story because I firmly believe that if you want to get anywhere in this business, you need a bit of luck along the way and this was certainly my slice. Shooting for WENN has opened up opportunities I would not have otherwise experienced and I am extremely grateful for them. Here are some examples: Roger Waters, Pearl Jam (I was one of only five photographers accredited for this gig) and U2.
In truth though, I’ve not followed up shoots with WENN quite as much as I might have done. This is partly because ninety plus percent of my photo requests are accredited via RockShot anyway, and partly because shooting for an agency requires you to edit and submit your photos within minutes of taking them. This means after three songs (you typically only ever get to shoot the first three songs), you’re out of the venue and buried in a laptop. As an agency photographer, you might get all the A List gigs, but you don’t get to actually experience any of the music – and I’m in this for the music as much as I am the photography.
So that’s my story. In six years, I’ve gone from self-consciously shooting bands you might never have heard of in venues that probably no longer exist to photographing U2 at the O2. It’s been a journey that has wildly exceeded my expectations. It’s been achieved through plenty of hard work and perseverance and if I’m being brutally honest, through being lucky enough to have a day job that affords a fair bit of time off and that can help to subsidise the expense. Cameras and lenses don’t come cheap and the financial rewards in music photography are sparse. There’s a reason very few of the people I meet in photo pits are professional photographers that exclusively shoot music.
But I can say this. There are precious few things I’ve experienced in life that compare to the thrill of being between a band and an audience with three songs in which to nail your pictures. You don’t get a second chance in this type of photography – you get it right, or you don’t get it at all – and getting it right is immensely satisfying.
In the absence of any music to actually shoot at the moment, I’ve decided to write a final part three to this series explaining how I go about shooting the images and what kind of equipment I use to do it. So, if focal lengths, shutter speeds and f-stops are your thing, please be sure to look out for it.
Feature on Just How Did I Become A Music Photographer by Simon Reed March 2020