Screen shot 2010-12-13 at 2.25.36 PM

6-Tips Every New Music Photographer Should Know

KISS performs on the Alive/35 World Tour 2009. (TODD OWYOUNG)

I receive a lot of email from aspiring music photographers. One of the most common requests from young or beginning music photographers is for advice on starting out. In response, here’s my open “letter” to all new music photographers with six tips and pieces of advice for anyone just starting out.

1) There Is No University of Rock Photography

Unlike say, a Master of Business Administration, you don’t really need a piece of paper to prove your music photography chops – unless, of course, that piece of paper is a print in your portfolio.

My advice as your school counselor if you want to be a music photographer? Go to rock shows, bring your camera, and take some business courses. The only exception to the benefit of studying photography would be studio lighting and to have easy access to pro gear, but even then it’s still possible to learn these skills on your own (or at least without incurring student loans).

2) The Photo Pass Is Just A Piece Of Fabric

There’s a fallacy that you need photo passes to become a music photographer, but it’s really the other way around.

To me, wanting to shoot shows that require a photo pass off the bat is like wanting to play your first baseball game in Yankee Stadium. Aspirational, but not practical.

3) Start Local

People think that there are all kinds of barriers to entry for live music photography – and they’re right. But starting with small venues and local bands is the easiest way to jump into the world of music photography.

I can’t tell you how many small indie rock shows I shot starting out where I stood in line for hours with all the die-hard fans just to grab a piece of the stage.

Smaller music venues often have few or no camera restrictions, so it’s possible to build a great portfolio shooting at these clubs and dives – no photo passes required.

4) Shoot What You Love & Dig In

If you shoot what you love, it will show in the images. Even if you’re just shooting shows on the barricade with a point & shoot at first, passion for one’s subjects always translates into better images.

Moreover, dig into the scene. Immersing yourself in the concert culture of your city will build connections with venues, fans, and bands that will strengthen you as a music photographer.

5) Don’t Worry About Your Camera

So you have an entry level DSLR and a kit lens. That kit lens is probably horrible for live music photography. But don’t throw it away just yet.

Having the best lenses and cameras only makes the technical exercises of live music photography easier; they don’t make you a better photographer, and they certainly won’t teach you composition. I’ve put them to my ears and listened, but a nice f/1.4 prime or expensive f/2.8 zoom lens won’t tell you how to anticipate a jump shot.

If the worst thing someone can say is that your photos are a little noisy or have a little motion blur, take it as a compliment. It means you have perfect composition and the lighting looks great.

When you are ready to upgrade, check out my Gear Guide for the equipment I use and recommend.

6) Shoot For A Publication – Or Start One

As I suggested in my previous article on How To Request A Photo Pass, publications are the best way to secure access to larger bands and tours. After all, there is no reason for bands to give you a photo pass unless you’re shooting for a good reason – IE, giving them press.

For the new music photographer, even blogs and web-only publications are all fair game as music media shifts to be increasingly web-friendly. And of course, you can always try starting your own publication or website.

Summary

  1. There Is No University of Rock Photography
  2. The Photo Pass Is Just A Piece Of Fabric
  3. Start Local
  4. Shoot What You Love & Dig In
  5. Don’t Worry About Your Camera
  6. Shoot For A Publication – Or Start One

So there you go. Six pieces of advice for the aspiring music photographer. To everyone who has written me asking for advice, I hope this helps!

If you want more info on being a music photographer?

I suggest the following:

Got Other Advice?

What advice would you give to a new music photographer? Have your say in the comments. If you’re an experienced music photographer, what advice would you have loved to have when you were first snapping bands?

Help Support www.ishootshows.com

If this article or any other content on www.ishootshows.com was helpful to you, please consider supporting this site and grabbing your next photo gear purchase through one of my affiliate links:

Simply clicking through any product links on this site helps me bring you free content like the photography tips and gear reviews regularly posted on www.ishootshows.com, and naturally it doesn't cost you a cent more. 

Tea Me

If you want to donate directly to help support and host www.ishootshows.com (and if there's any leftover, keep me stocked in tea), you can contribute money to www.ishootshows.com via PayPal.

Sign Up For The ishootshows.com Newsletter

Sign up for our newsletter for exclusive content, tips, technique, and music photography advice from Todd Owyoung. Don't worry, your email is protected by an army of bouncers cloned from Henry Rollins's neck.




There are 104 comments

Add yours
  1. Rod

    So funny because so true. All new rookies at Paris want to begin with big venues, big artists and big shows. I try to explain I have shot during the first years inside caves, with no lights and co … but I realize they only want to show KNOWN people, and no music really. A new generation who, for me, has understood nothing about the deal.

    I’m enjoying so to read your article, it seems it’s now everywhere like this. Like a contamination of zombies.

    • Todd

      Hey Rod,

      Great to hear from you here, hope you’re well. (For everyone else, go check out Rod’s concert work, he’s the boss.)

      The thing about music photography is that if you have a camera and there’s a band playing in a club near you (or a cave), you have the all the elements necessary to make it work. You don’t need arena rock bands (though they’re fun) or a photo pass to shoot live music. You just need passion and a camera.

    • Todd

      Hey groovehouse,

      Thanks for the comment. I’m bookmarking this post, too, ha. Will definitely put it in the footer and possibly sidebar for easy reference, or make a page with all the articles I linked at the end here for easy reference.

  2. paurullan

    Good summary! I just wanted to add the typical but obligatory «expect to fail, just keep rocking» point: concert photography is almost the opposite to studio work, do feel down for the results!

    • Todd

      Very good point – “expect to fail.” Or at the very least, “expect to never make a cent.” And I agree, live music photography is hugely different from studio work. Thanks for the comment!

  3. David

    My tip..Something I forgot at the last show. There were a few of us there no one was allowed to shoot inside the pit. No idea why and no explanation, 3-songs from the dance floor and we were out.

    So..If you do get a photopass, it doesn’t mean you will be allowed to shoot from inside the Pit.

    • Todd

      Hey David,

      Thanks for adding to the discussion – Yes, this is true. A photo pass doesn’t mean anything than permission to shoot. It doesn’t mean access to the front of the stage or anything else.

  4. Clay

    Good stuff.

    I do have a problem with photogs requesting and sometimes getting photo passes to shoot shows for their own amusement or personal use though.

    Anyone deceiving promoters to think that your photos are going to be published as editorial content hurts the rest of that are there legitimately and makes it harder for us to get passes from these promoters to do what we’re paid to do.

    We have one guy here locally that is notorious for stuff like this. He will claim to be with one of the local dailies to get in the pit. He even stole another pro shooters pass by pretending to be him.

    So yes, start small and work your way up, but shooting big shows from the pit is a business and a privilege. If you’re not getting paid to be there and shoot, you’re in the way and shouldn’t be there (yet).

    • Todd

      Wow, outright lying and “stealing” for photo passes? That’s crazy. There’s no doubt, this game is changing. There are definitely more requests and shooters in the pit these days than there were when I started.

    • Dale

      Clay, I think that the attitude of you don’t need to be in the pit unless your getting paid is BS. I have shot a lot of shows. I do get pit passes & I usually try to get what I need & get out. Then I work the crowd at festivals. Its a matter of remembering where you came from, not where your going. You just need to respect the other photogs in the pit and the fans who are paying for the venue.

  5. Kathryn Yu

    Nice list, Todd.

    There’s no university but there’s tons of info out there on concert photography. There’s no excuse not to do some research on your own!

    Not to mention, if you’re to photography in general, set a baseline by learning and really understanding the basics of exposure, shutter speed, aperture. Too many people jump right in without knowing these fundamentals.

    • Todd

      Good points, Kathryn.

      Music photography is just that – photography. Knowledge of the fundamentals of photography are essential for the best work. Mastering composition and the finer points of photographer take people years as it is without the challenges of low light, fast action, and limited options present at a concert.

  6. Mike Kang

    All great tips. I know the first 5 by heart and am working on #6 right now.

    I think if you can shoot a small club with crappy lighting, jostling with fans, night-in night-out shooting in an arena with nice lighting and a photo pit will feel like heaven.

  7. Phil

    Hi Todd,

    Excellent tips. My biggest problem I’m finding now is finding the publicists/mgmnt information for bands.

    I do have some contacts but have only been shooting live music for less than 2 years.

    Any tips on finding out that info??

    Thanks for all of your great advice.

    Phil

  8. Bobbie

    what is the process like to get a photo pass for warped? is it only for one band only? and what is it like to be a music photographer, what are the steps and what do I take in college to pursue this career? I’m currently in a publication and have been shooting shows for a couple months and I’m in love with it!

    • Gerry Toews

      Hi Bobbie,

      Your comment is from a few years ago, and I’m sure you have an answer, so I’ll answer for others who might read this and be curious. Generally, festival press passes are granted for either daily or event-long access. The standard venue rules apply around the stage: no flash and first three songs (usually).

      Working for a publication is probably the best way to get your foot in to shoot, but not always necessary. I have friends who have photographed festivals as freelancers with no affiliations for weblogs. However, some festivals can be harder to cover simply because there is a limit to the number of people who organizers can safely fit into the pit.

      As a money-making proposition, there isn’t a lot in live music photography unless you’re working for a promoter or sponsor (think Red Bull or Sennheiser) so you’ll want either a day job or another avenue of photography to work.

      Best of luck and happy shooting! :)

      Gerry

  9. Raymond Ahner

    Wow Todd, you really know how to sum up this crazy world known as Rock Photography not only in your pictures, but in your words as well. Every tip you give applied to me, especially #3. I can’t tell you how many times I showed up at the venue two hours before the doors opened, just so I could secure a spot in front of the stage. And if it wasn’t for camera friendly venues where I was able to shoot sans photo pass and build a portfolio, I most certainly would not be shooting the bigger shows today.

    Always look forward to seeing your amazing work, and will continue to do so into the New Year. Cheers.

  10. David Plastik

    Good advice. I didn’t get my 1st photo pass until 3 yrs after I started shooting. By this time I had already taking thousands of photos of some of the biggest bands in the 1980s. Things were a lot different back then. I always knew when concerts were going on sale and had great access to tickets in the 1st few rows. We could also shoot the whole show from these seats. I was 16 when I started and a big fan of the Heavy Metal/Hard Rock scene. I would go to concerts and later sell my photos in Record stores or collectible music conventions or flea markets. These would happen once a month in the Tri State Area. I would travel to England to photograph some of the European Rock bands or go to the big festivals they had there. I would always meet people and try to further my hobby. I was still a student in College at the time. I didn’t have great equipment and didn’t know much about photography , but was willing to get as close as I can and try to get some good photos. I got better with every concert.
    I eventually was introduced to the editor of Guitar for The Practicing Musician who loved my photos and started using them right away and then I started getting photo passes and then went on to work as a staff and freelance photographer for many publications to come.

  11. manu

    I just wanted to thank you again for your constant “encouragement” and tips for new concert photographers. With the help of your tutorials, I’ve found myself gaining more and more confidence, both in requesting photo passes and also about my equipment.

    There’s just one thing I’m unsure about – how far in advance is the right time to request a photo pass? If it’s too close to the show, they might not have any left but if it’s too far away, they might forget about your request ;-)

  12. suied

    hey bro your photo tell a 1000 story me love it very much…me going to take my 1st concert photo this june but only have 50mm,kits lens 18-55mm and 16-35f2.8…does this help me much..?thank suied singapore

  13. Melly Lee

    Tip #6 FTW! I used to shoot for various newspapers, but I was 100% satisfied with the assignments I was given. Then late 2010 I started my own online publication with 2 pals and am more happy making my own assignments :)

  14. Rachael

    I some how snagged a photo pass to Wakarusa Music Festival. This will be my very first time shooting any show with a professional camera. I am super nervous. What kind of tips do you have for a first time concert photographer?

  15. Dave

    Thanks for posting these and all the other tips on your site. It’s always great to see other photographers sharing their knowledge with everyone. Keep up the good work!

  16. Chris

    Love the articles on your site, very helpful. I am just getting into music photography and after shooting weddings for 7 years its a much desired change of pace! Thanks for all the awesome info :)

  17. Joe Drago

    Big time thanks for the tips. I read every single article on your site before shooting my first concert last night. Thanks to you I came away with some really good images. Probably not quite up to your standards but I was pleased. Thanks again for all the knowledge.

  18. Brian Bardsley

    Todd,

    Thank you for your honesty, knowledge, and wisdom it’s such and inspiration. It’s nice to see that you share your tips and ideas on gear as well. Many, many, many photographers that I’ve talked to don’t like to share their ideas or “tips”. Keep doing what your doing. Your the best!


Join in the Discussion