Everything You Know About Concert Photography is Wrong

- - Working

I like this guest post over on The Photoletariat by music photographer Jacob Blickenstaff.

Shooting Coldplay or Jay-Z means you are a big deal, right?

The guitar jumpshot. The close up of a singer wailing into a microphone. The moody back-lit guitar shot filled colored light and smoke machine fog. This is what makes good music images, right?

Music Photographer = Music Fan + Camera?

These questions and more answered (here).

There Are 17 Comments On This Article.

  1. Whoa. Thanks Rob!

    It’s really weird, all the stuff that you hold back from saying because you think it will put people off or upset the status quo turns out to be something that a lot of other people resonate with. This post has had a great response on twitter so for and thank you for posting it here.

    We didn’t get that many comments on the original post, so if any music photographers have questions or other things they would like addressed, leave a comment here and it will either go into the next post and/or I’ll keep my eye out here.

    Time to go update my website!! – J

    • @Jacob Blickenstaff, I photographed many little known jazz musicians, often for very little money, though they too were somewhat underpaid. A successful concert shoot for me was not falling off the stage or knocking over any gear. It was hard work, with earplugs, and sweating off pounds in the process, but the results made for some images I still enjoy placing in my portfolio.

      One thing you might want to mention is no flash usage. I found almost no musicians on stage wanted any flash used. Due to that requirement, I learned to be super steady at really slow shutter speeds, and to get use to high ISOs and fast prime lenses. Outside of that, keep the cameras in tight to avoid hitting anything on the stage when you move around.

      • @Gordon Moat, re: flash

        I think I’m a bit more liberal on the question of flash. Yes, of course respect the requests of the musicians and the atmosphere of the performance.

        But – Lee Friedlander, Jim Marshall, Reid Miles, Herman Leonard, etc. made some pretty iconic work with a simple flash setup. It’s an important visual/technical tool that shouldn’t be dismissed arbitrarily. Flash needs to be used creatively/correctly. I agree that there is nothing more annoying than an on camera flash firing straight into someone’s face.

  2. He gets it right. Yes. The real thing, the real deal is to shoot what you love and collaborate with the musicians you know or want to know. Love their music and it will show in your photographs without being cliche or sentimental. I was first and foremost someone who loved to hear live music in small venues. I wanted to be part of it. Dance, enjoy, and then shoot what was there. Later came the portraits of the musicians. And 15 years later came an offer from the University of Iowa Press to publish my photographs into a book. Never even thought or considered I had much more than a personal history of the local scene. But as the contact sheets grew and the years went by…it happened. I had a book.

    • @Sandra L. Dyas, yup, and congrats. You can’t cover it all, and I’ve driven myself crazy going out to shoot too many things – just to see the creative involvement and quality of work diminish. Less is more. Most of the big breaks and opportunities I’ve had so far have come from a deeper involvement with a smaller range of subject matter.

      • @Jacob Blickenstaff, exactly what i am saying or what i want to say – you are right – less is more. Diane Arbus said “It was my teacher Lisette Model who finally made it clear to me that the more specific you are, the more general it will be.” You want to photograph each and every person in the world – but you cannot. You photograph what you know and it if you are lucky the photograph will go way beyond — it will hold more – it will be deeper and more powerful than photographing the world.

    • @Sandra L. Dyas, Hi Sandra, I share a similar history and have a spread that was just published in Ponytail Magazine (UK) featuring underground bands that I photographed in the early nineties. You can check out some of the shots along with an article that I wrote about my experience here: http://www.ponytailmagazine.com/features/livedthroughthis/. At the time, I wanted to be connected to the scene as well. No agenda, just a great passion for music and photography. I enjoyed Jacob’s posting and address a lot of the similar issues in my article.

      • @Andrew Tingle, Hi Andrew, you and I do share a similar history and passion for the music scene we were connected to in the nineties. Very different worlds but both filled with energy… music can push you into something beyond – another level – i guess religion is supposed to do that – but i would rather have music be my “religion”. GREAT photos! I visited your site and saw the tear sheets. follow yer heart Andrew.

  3. john mcd.

    The next William Claxton or Jim Marshall isn’t going to come from shooting the first three songs at a concert and signing away your rights to the band. Jacob really nails it. You could substitute “sports” for “music” and it still makes sense, especially as regards the growing number of “fans with cameras”. Increased restrictions that limit both creative and commercial opportunities, not to mention the suffocating effect of the Getty octopus and the economy in general, make finding what you love and shooting it in depth the response with the most potential to make you happy and give you a career.

  4. This is great and not just for concert Photography.

    Most of what he said can be translated to all types of photography.

    I’m going to print this out, make some cliff notes, and bring it to my next 3 portrait and fashion shoots.

    Thank you for sharing this today!

  5. Calvin Wallace

    I disagree. The true shots are showing emotion. That is music, that is what makes a photo a photo. The guy pouring his heart out over the mic will never get old.

  6. Matthew Brown

    Some very good points.

    @Calvin Wallace: it never gets old, but at the same time, how many of those do you need to get? It’s the shot almost anyone photographing the band will have. You’re so right about the showing emotion, though — whatever that emotion is. The tension before a performance. The banter with the fans, the glance into the crowd, the interaction between audience and singer, the drained pleasure right at the end of an intense set.

  7. Music Shooter

    As someone who nets about 15k a year on the side shooting editorial-use only live music photos of mostly indie artists, mostly at small and especially underground venues, I am probably one of the more successful “live” music photographers working today, in terms of income, circulation, stature of publications I work for, and the size at which the images are run. The reason for this success (despite the fact that before 2005 I never owned a camera), in addition to embracing a lot of the points Jacob lists (though not all – there’s always a place for a GOOD jump shot!), is because I am able to discern and capture CHARACTER and ENERGY and CULTURE in a dynamic and thoughtfully-composed frame, and in a technically proficient way, and with a recognizable, consistent STYLE. As with any other kind of photography, without an artistic vision, music photos are just snapshots. The photo galleries on BrooklynVegan for whom Jacob shoots, are mostly pure junk.

    Anyway the fact that I’m at the top of my game in terms of live music shooting and only making that money much off it, should say something about the viability of being a professional live music shooter. Even the biggest, well-respected publications either pay nothing for music photos (because there are a million hobbyists thrilled to do it in exchange for getting into a show – examples: NYMag.com, RolllingStone.com) or pay a paltry sum. Unless they are running a very large print repro of the photo, or if you’re documenting a show for a corporate sponsor, there’s little money to be had in this field. However, I’m realizing that there are ways to leverage this style of work to position myself in a way that could be much more lucrative. I was actually up for an ad campaign based on the general aesthetic of my live music photos, which I didn’t get in the end, but the rate was 30k, for a one day shoot. That’s the only real way to make money in live music photography – it has to just be one platform for expression of your style of shooting that can lead to other, bigger things. It’s just like Merlin Bronques of LastNightsParty getting 50k to shoot Coach Ads – style is everything.

    • @Music Shooter, I may have been a little hard on the ‘jump shot’ – I was at Baaba Maal on Monday and couldn’t help shooting off a few myself.

      Your comments on the state of the ‘industry’ is entirely correct. Virtually no editorial payment for music photography exists from the websites and blogs, yet there is a teeming horde of photographers willing to go shoot for free for the misplaced excitement of ‘being there’. It’s a shame that we have practically killed off a great photographic tradition.

      I agree that running 50+ photos in a blog post is ridiculous. What happened to editing and pride in the finished product? Hopefully my occasional posts on BrooklynVegan reflect my attempt to bring a higher standard of quality to the medium.

      The other missing element to finding a value to music photography is the PROMOTIONAL value to the music industry. I’m looking at a form of ‘content marketing’ where I am paid by the band/label/festival to generate media coverage. If bands pay publicists 2-3k a month to work an album, why not pay a photographer who could get you coverage in blogs and websites as well as assist the publicist? It’s a new model for the music biz, but that is where I’m looking.

  8. Hi!!
    Thanks for this post, i’m a music photographer in Mexico City, and I found your post really usefull!

    First of all, your work is awesome.
    It would be an honor to me if you could look at some of my work and give me an honest opinion.

    I’m also trying to get paid by the bands, but it’s difficult…

    Often when I go to concerts there are more photographers than people who bought tickets for the show. That’s really annoying and the pit (if there actually is one) is way to crowded.

    Congratulations for your work, and thanks for the post!


  9. I’m a music photographer, and couldn’t agree more with most of this article. I despise the 3 song rule, and hate having cliche ‘newspaper’ type shots.
    But I do disagree with the ‘fan’ aspect. I started off as a fan, and that’s how i’ve gotten the access to go on tour and shoot backstage.