I spent years as a frustrated Ph.D. student in a research lab, until I discovered my passion for music photography. I was working 60+ hours a week, including weekends. I had no time to do the things I really loved and Monday was the day of the week I dreaded the most. I thought that’s what life is before I became a music photographer.
When I started my career as a researcher, I dreamed of winning the Nobel prize and was motivated like hell. However, this motivation dropped every year to almost zero. At this time, I was about 28 years old and I purchased my first DSLR camera. It was a Canon 40D with a 17-85mm f4.0-5.6 lens and I got quite interested in photography. I started taking pictures of landscapes, people, flowers (but not really) and anything else I found interesting, but I didn´t have any plans as to what to do with my newfound hobby.
Then, one morning, as I was cycling to work, something happened that changed my life. I have no idea where it came from, but I suddenly thought of combining my love for music with photography. I have always been a music lover. The first concert I went to was Guns N Roses. I was 13 and I started to play guitar in a death metal band. My fellow band members were older than me and they took me to see many metal concerts. I loved seeing bands play live. So, 15 years after seeing my first concert, I gained another skill, photography, that I could add to my „things I love“ list. As soon as I arrived at work that day, I started to google ‘music photographer’. I found concert photos and portraits of famous bands and immediately knew that I wanted to become a music photographer. I started to work as a freelance photographer at a small internet magazine, FM5 and experienced my first concert photography shoots.
Over the last six years, I’ve shot more than 300 bands and taken more than 50,000 pictures as a self-taught music photographer. I have worked exclusively with bands such as Iggy Pop and The Prodigy. My pictures have been featured on album covers, tour posters and magazine publications. My last adventure as the tour photographer for Shantel took me to Mexico, London, Paris, Antwerp, Athens and Vienna.
So why I am telling you my story?
I want to be honest with you from the beginning; You’ll need a ton of expensive equipment and you’ll get paid less than a professional photographer working in other fields when first starting out. Your working hours will start at 8pm and end at 2am. After the concert, you’ll get home, run post-production on your photos and upload them to your blog or magazine. Your working environment has a sound level similar to sitting on a bulldozer, and it’s darker than an Abercrombie and Fitch shop. “So why the hell should I do this?”, you might ask. Well, that’s a question you´ll have to find the answer to for yourself, but if I can hazard a guess I would say it’s called Passion. Wikipedia gives the definition of passion as an intense emotion compelling, enthusiasm, or desire for anything. I´m sure you have heard of passion before and you all recognize this feeling. You´ll feel motivation for your projects you´ve never felt before and your passion will drive you to create quality work that matters. I worked 10 hours a day at my day job and went to shoot concerts afterwards. Even though they were hard years whilst working as a Ph.D., taking photos at concerts never felt like work and it still doesn´t. I think this is what passion feels like and the following quote from Steve Jobs hits the nail on the head: “Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do.” Do you love what you do right now?
Following your passion as music photographer is not an easy thing to do and I therefore want to share the 10 steps I consider most important once you start to work on the things that you love.
Music Photographer: Start living your passion!
1. Start your project now
Don’t wait until you’ve retired, which is what some people might suggest. You’re living in the present so you’ll never know if you still want to shoot bands in 30 or 40 years. If you make the decision to become a Rockstar photographer, take the opportunity now!
2. Start from scratch
You can’t immediately be a superstar at what you’re doing like the Red Hot Chili Peppers are with their music. They also started out small. Recently I read that Rammstein, for example, played their first concert in front of 15(!) people. They didn´t start out playing in big stadiums and burning the whole stage down (if you don´t know what I’m talking about, visit the next Rammstein concert in your city. Even if you don´t like their music, the stage performance is rad!). It takes time to evolve your ideas and get comfortable with your new situation. So you don´t need the most expensive camera gear when you’re just starting out. A crop sensor camera with the right lenses is enough to get the job done at your first concert.
3.Know your direction
It´s important that you know where you’re heading. Find your niche and stick to it. If you decide to become a Rockstar Photographer, stick to it. Let people know that you’re the guy who shoots concerts. It´s always better to be a specialist in one field than to do everything, so you’ll be considered an expert and not as someone who just does an average job. Sure, you can experiment in other fields of photography as well, but finding your direction and communicating it to your audience is a crucial point.
4. Leave your comfort zone
This means doing something you’re normally afraid of. This will help you overcome fear and let your personality grow. Have you ever been in front of a stage and taken photos of your idols or your favorite band? This will freak you out at first as concert photographer. You have to think about so many new things such as camera settings, composition, where to place yourself, how to deal with the audience and security guards, how to behave in front of the stage and so on. But guess what? If you never leave your comfort zone you´ll never learn from your mistakes. So the best thing you can do is get out there and overcome your fear.
5. Deliver the best quality
You have to stand out from the crowd and get noticed. It doesn´t matter what kind of work you’re doing, but there are a lot of folks around who do similar work, especially as music photographer. You´ll notice that there are always a bunch of guys hanging around at concerts with their camera equipment to take photos of the bands. Music photography is a very competitive field and you´d better have kick-ass work, otherwise you’ll never make it to the top as music photographer.
I always thought doing a project on my own would get the best results and quality, but I was wrong. There are so many people out there who have their own special skills. The best way is to find them and start working with them. Your project will gain so much more value. If you’re not good at web development, for example for your homepage, hire someone. If you don´t know how your camera works when you first start out, visit a workshop or read a book about it. The best way is to talk to other concert photographers and learn from them.
7. Get the barriers out of your head
A lot of people will tell you that you won´t succeed. Get over it and don´t listen to nonsense from others. They’re probably just too worried to try it for themselves and are jealous of you, because you’re trying to do something different. Have you ever heard people say to you “Come on, this is just a hobby, get a real job. Music photographer? Ha!”. The funny thing is that most of the people who give you their advice have never done this job nor do they know someone who’s working in this field. Don´t get me wrong, advice from other people is always helpful, if you get it from the right ones. Ignore all the others and you’re on your way.
8. Do not take yourself too seriously
There are already too many people out there who are arrogant and believe that they‘re the best. Nobody wants to work with those kinds of people for a long time. Be funny and have a good time doing what you love, because that’s what it’s all about.
9. Don´t panic
If things don’t go exactly as planned. I can guarantee you that your path in this business won’t be a straight one. It will be more like an obstacle course, where you’ll constantly have to tweak your direction. There will be times when you get frustrated with your work. There will be times when you can´t see your goal clearly. There will be times when you panic, because nothing works out as it should. But there will also be times when you see all your hard work sent back to you in one way or another and you will immediately know that all of the struggles were worth it. I once waited 6 hours for The Prodigy and got a portrait session of exactly 2 photos, seconds before they went on stage. Did I panic? Hell, yes. But it turned out to be a great experience and it was totally worth it.
10. Be yourself
I find this last point to be the most important one. You don´t have to pretend to be someone else. Be authentic, be real and people will appreciate you for who you are and your work. It´s good to have a look at what other photographers are up to and it´s great to seek some inspiration from them. But you have to find your own way. I believe that everyone has her/his own voice. Find it and you will be able to communicate your vision to others. Take these 10 points as a toolkit to use on your journey to becoming a music photographer. They’ve worked for me, so they’ll probably work for you too. This blog post should show you the right attitude about passion when starting out as a beginner in concert photography. What are your experiences and questions about this topic? Post in the comment section below.