This is my most comprehensive view on concert photography so far. This interview was published at gig-photographer.com. I had the great opportunity to share my thoughts and I had a great time writing it up. Get yourself a good green tea, turn off your cell phone and enjoy reading my view on the future as a gig-photographer.
Thanks for agreeing to be interviewed Matthias. For those who aren’t aware of you can you give us the low down on your career to date? Hi, thanks for the invitation. It’s an honor for me to get interviewed here at gig-photographer.com.
I studied molecular biology at the University of Vienna. During my 4 years of Ph.D. I realized that I wasn’t going to really love the job so I decided to follow my two passions instead: music and photography. I have been a music lover ever since the first Guns N’ Roses concert I saw at the age of 13, when I also started getting interested in photography. Instead of being stuck in a career as a researcher and feeling bad about it, I decided to become a music photographer. At this stage, I was already 28 years old and had never attended professional photography classes. I started to take photos for a small online magazine and soon realized that music photography was the way I wanted to go in the future. So, I invested in some camera gear and shot every concert in Vienna I was interested in (which were quite a lot!). After 2 years, I realized I wanted to not only shoot concerts from the photo pit, but I also wanted to work with the bands that really meant something directly to my life. I started to ask them if I could take their portraits before shows and since then it’s been an unbelievable journey for me. I’ve shot concerts of more than 300 bands, I have worked exclusively for bands like Iggy Pop, The Prodigy, Fatboy Slim, Fink and Portugal. The Man. My photos were used on album covers, as tour posters and in magazines (such as Rolling Stone) and I am a regular contributor to international photography blogs such as Peta Pixel, The Phoblographer and Digital Photography School to help people starting their career in concert Photography. Last year, I toured with the German Balkan Band Shantel all over the world.
Was there a defining moment in your career that you would say was your big break? I would say there was definitely more than one job that I would consider as a ‘step up’ in my photography career such as being on stage with Iggy Pop, doing a 30 min portrait session with Fatboy Slim and shooting the concert of The Rolling Stones for Rolling Stone magazine. However, it all started with the opportunity to shoot exclusively for The Prodigy at the Urban Art Forms festival in Austria. They were scheduled to be the main act at this two-day festival and I got confirmation from the management allowing me to shoot some portraits and the whole show on stage and in the photo pit. Honestly, it was a nightmare finding them that day, because they arrived late in the backstage area and, obviously, the tour manager had no time to pick me up out of the festival crowd any more. As I only had a normal photo pass from the concert organizer, I had to figure out how to reach the contact person in the backstage area. It turned out the girl who took care of The Prodigy had my telephone number, but was just too busy to call me. You can imagine how stressful it is organizing a big festival. There are people responsible for the artist, security guards who have orders to refuse entrance to the backstage area unless you have special permission (or you’re Marcus Haney 😉 ), and finally the band’s late and busy because they got stuck in traffic on the way from the airport to the venue. Once I met the tour manager, he explained to me what I was allowed to shoot and it turned out to be one of the best experiences I have ever had as a concert photographer. I was allowed to shoot some portraits backstage and also shot the complete show. Standing in front of 50,000 people on stage and shooting one of your favorite bands is definitely an adrenaline rush which keeps you happy for the next couple of days!
Are you a touring photographer with bands or do you shoot for a magazine (or both)? I do both. I am based in Vienna/Austria and, unfortunately, there are no big music magazines around here. So I shoot for an online publication called The Gap and sometimes for magazines like Rolling Stone Germany or Vice Alps Magazine. Shooting for magazines gives you the opportunity to build your portfolio and if you’re working for the big ones, you definitely increase your reputation. As I mentioned before, I prefer to work directly with the band, because I don’t want to have any restrictions on my work as photographer. The 3-song rule might make sense in respect to defending the artist on stage, but as a photographer, I often don’t get the freedom I need to execute my vision. This is often the case with more famous bands where you’re only allowed to shoot 30m away from the stage.
I‘ve been touring with the German Balkan band Shantel over the last year and I loved it. Touring with 15 guys in a big Nightliner bus, shooting backstage, on-stage and growing into a family is a totally different experience than what most of us have about the ‘Sex, Drugs and Rock-n-Roll’ stereotype. I joined them in Canada, Mexico and we toured almost all of Europe. At the end of the year, we’ll publish a tour diary, which will include a lot of my concert photos.
Would you say you have a particular style? I think for an artist himself it’s hard to say if they have a particular style. People tell me that they recognize my photos when they see them. I like simple and contrasty photos and I often convert my concert pictures to black and white. I also love shooting analog film.
Are you a fan of post processing? What’s your typical workflow after shooting a gig? Yes and no. If you want to stand out from the average snapshot photographers, you have to post-process your photos. Being a photographer is not only about taking photos, but also knowing how to handle special software to get the best out of them and, as a concert photographer, you should definitely be able to handle RAW files. I figured out that Lightroom 5 works best for me. I do basic post-processing, but I don’t spend hours in front of my computer doing it.
When I return from a gig, I transfer all the files onto my external harddrive and import the photos into a new LR catalog. Then I select the best 20-30 photos from the gig and develop them with my own presets for color and black/white post processing. This takes me about 20 minutes and I am ready to do more exciting things (like finally going to bed!).
When I’m shooting film, I don’t have to do post-processing at all. After sending my film to the Carmencita Lab in Spain (in my opinion, there aren’t many professional film labs around anymore, but this is one of them) I get the finished scans as jpegs. As the guys know how I want to have my photos processed, they take a lot of care during the scanning process and save me time.
You have developed a strong website and brand identity. Is this something you have worked at yourself or have you had help? Thanks. I started www.howtobecomearockstarphotographer.com a couple of months ago and so far it’s been a huge success. I always loved teaching and helping people out and find that this is the most natural way to give back to the community for me. There are some great photographers who took the educational way such as Zack Arias, JoeyL, Scott Kelby, David Hobby or Joe McNally. However, some professional photographers disagree with this approach. They say that revealing all the secrets in a specific market (like music photography) can lead to a flood of amateurs and semi-professionals in that field. Although this might be a valid point, it’s oversimplified to say that once everyone knows the right camera settings in front of a stage, all pro-photographers lose their job. Being a professional photographer is not only about knowing the technical side of photography but also about being able to get hired, network well and setting yourself apart. The main problem is not educating people (which, by the way, also leads to better quality in general), but the missing awareness about the business side as a photographer (discussed later).
Especially in music photography, most of us are doing it because it is our true passion. So, I had the idea to start this project, share my experiences and help people get started with concert photography all over the world. In addition, I wrote a step-by-step guide on how to survive as a concert photographer called ‘The Guide to Rockstar Concert Photography’. The idea behind my project is to build a worldwide community where people can talk about their experiences as music photographers and help each other out. I had the main idea for ‘How to become a Rockstar Photographer’ and got help from Michael Paukner (graphic designer) , Alex Mangini (Web developer), and some other great guys like William Richards who is the Editor of this project.
That’s an interesting approach. Your website is essentially an educational, community site and your portfolio just happens to be on there as well (secondary) – to prove you know what you are talking about in a way. That’s a very different approach to a typical portfolio site. I know. Normally a photographer’s homepage will include a portfolio with his/her best work, an about site and a contact page. However, for “How to become a Rockstar Photographer”, I wanted to provide great and valuable information first. In addition, I also wanted to show people both my concert and portrait work, so I decided to share my blog and portfolio under one brand name. Find my Portfolio here.
In today’s music photography industry, having ‘stand-out’ is key. Not just in your photos but also in the way you put yourself out there and the importance of having a strong identity. What advice can you give to photographers who have the talent for taking great photos but struggle in finding their way in self-promotion, branding and marketing? The challenge as a music photographer is that you not only need knowledge about how to take awesome shots but also how to get your work seen by the right people. There are thousands of music photographers out there and everyone tries to get noticed. The job as a professional photographer is transforming into a job profile where you also have to be a networker and self-marketing machine. Being a professional photographer also shifts your priorities and time schedules. You’ll be shooting 10% of your time while the other 90% are reserved for computer and marketing work. This statement is not only based on my own personal experience, but professional photographers like Zack Arias and Peter Hurley state that shooting only takes up a small amount of their time.
I also started from scratch and I didn’t have a clue about marketing and business, but there are great books and workshops out there on the Internet where you can learn how to promote your brand. One of my favorite books is ‘Show your work’ by Austin Kleon, where he explains how you get your work recognized.
One piece of advice I would give to photographers who are struggling to find their way, is to share something small every day. It doesn’t matter if it’s on their own blog, on their Facebook fan page or on twitter. Share your story and tell people what you’re actually working on. Getting noticed is not an overnight phenomenon, it’ll take time, but if you stick to this daily routine you’ll build up your brand and set yourself apart.
How do you see the music photography industry in 2014? In my opinion, the music photography industry in 2014 will not change for the better and I’m afraid it’s also our own fault.
Since I started out 6 years ago, it’s always been the same for me as a music photographer and I don’t think this will change over the next few years. I’ve talked to a lot of professional music photographers who started back in the 80’s and it seems that being a photographer at that time was a well-paid job. Everyone had to use analog camera equipment, which only pros could afford, and magazines paid for the prints.
“All the suffering in the photography community started with the digital camera” is said by a lot of people nowadays. A colleague from Belgium told me that he always used to get an Access All Area (AAA) pass for a festival until a few years ago. Nowadays, he doesn’t even get a normal press accreditation if he wants to get paid for doing professional work.
Although I think that the digital revolution might have an impact on our current situation, I believe that we, as music photographers, caused this damage ourselves and we’re now riding a downward spiral.
I think the reason for it is that most people working in a creative field struggle with the business side of their market. Most of us think, “I love taking photos and it’s my hobby, why should I want to get paid for it?” and there’s the main problem. There are so many music photographers out there who undervalue their work. In the beginning, you’re happy when bands ask to get your photos for free to use them as their press picture. I don’t say this is bad to build your portfolio, but we should be more aware of the fact that the whole music industry takes advantage of this. If there are 10 music photographers in the photo pit and 8 out of 10 give their photos for free, of course the management will take the free ones. So they don’t have the worry about paying anyone any more. People just starting out might not care about it, but unfortunately this behaviour ruins the business for photographers who rely on getting paid for their professional work (you’ll find the same problems in the wedding photography market, as Brian Friedman told me).
So here’s the No.1 question for you: Name a business where you have to spend $10,000+ for your equipment yet don’t get paid for your services. Exactly: Music Photography! And that’s insane!
Every professional service such as a car mechanic, carpenter… you name it, gets paid for their work. Money for a service.
Somehow, this rule is not applicable to music photography. If you try to work with local bands, most of them won’t have the money to pay you properly (maybe you’ll get a t-shirt or an album for free). Then try to work with the big Rock Stars; they won’t pay you either because they know that they only have to ask 3 other photographers and 1 of the 3 will give them their photos for free.
So that’s our main dilemma at the moment.
I asked one of the true legends of music photography, Ross Halfin (currently Metallica’s Tour photographer) for advice and he told me something that has become my mantra:
“The BIG problem is, once you give photos for free, bands don’t want to pay you. It’s ok, say for website use, but NOT press or promo use!”.
Ross’s explanation makes total sense to me and that’s also what I want to tell you right now (and will repeat this on my blog over and over again and will continue doing so):
NEVER GIVE OUT PRESS OR PROMO IMAGES FOR FREE!
From a business point of view, it makes sense for the music management to stick to the people who give their work for free. However, if you’re one of those guys, chances are that this band won’t pay you any more (“Why should we pay $600 this time? You gave us the press photos last time for free!”) and you won’t leave a professional impression.
Recently, I got an email from a famous German band who wanted to use one of my photos as their press picture. As they didn’t want to pay for it, I declined and explained that if they weren’t going to appreciate my professional work, I wasn’t going to appreciate theirs.
I would also not suggest giving your work for free to some bands and not to others. The music business might be big, but there are a lot of connections in the scene. If you want to do this job on a professional level, stay professional.
On the other hand, you have to get your foot in the door somehow and by always selling your pictures for any purpose won’t allow you to reach your goal. Therefore, when I send my photos to bands, I always send them in low resolution with my logo on it and tell them that they are allowed to use them on their social media channels but not in print. If they want to use my photos as press pictures, they have to pay for them. If you use this way to approach bands, you’ll find that bands will take you more seriously and not just as someone with a digital camera around your neck. I build the best relationships with bands / managements who appreciate my work and also pay for it. One of those bands was Shantel, with whom I toured this year.
Yes, most of the bands won’t want to pay you and therefore won’t use your pictures but there are still good guys around who know what a professional business means. I prefer finding and sticking to these people than selling my soul to a music industry that tells me everything has to be for free.
So, think about it next time a band asks you to shoot press pictures but they don’t have a budget for it.
Another sticky issue these days is with the artists (or their management), with rights grabbing contracts for photographers to sign. Have you been presented with an unreasonable contract? How do you suggest photographers deal with these contracts? Music contracts are also the reason I focus on shooting exclusively for bands. I don’t see the sense behind it from a music photographer’s point of view. Most likely you’ll have to shoot far right or left from the stage or you’re banished 20-30m from the front of the stage (in FOH or to some other dedicated platform). If you don’t own a telephoto lens with a focal length of 300-500mm you’re screwed. These lenses cost about $6000+ and what you get is either a free concert ticket from your magazine or you get paid very little. Furthermore, there are contracts where you can’t even use your photos for your online portfolio and you have to give the management all the rights to your photos.
When I get confronted with a contract like this, I happily walk away and I don’t shoot the band. I once talked to some colleagues and we came up with the idea that all of us should decline signing these kinds of contracts. If every music photographer protests against these restrictions by not signing them and therefore not shooting the concert, it will eventually harm the artist’s marketing strategy and could be a way to stop these restrictive formalities. However, there will always be some photographers from magazines or newspapers who have to deliver pictures to their editors. So, it’s up to you if you want to support the band’s management or you just don’t shoot these shows. For us as photographers, these contracts don’t make any sense at all.
Why do you think this have become the norm with signed acts these days? My initial thought was that it has to do with protecting the artist. I totally understand that an artist or band’s manager wants to have total control over the use of photos. That’s the reason why some bands only allow their own band photographer or some agency photographers to take pictures of their concert or even ban people from their concert if they use their cell phones to take pictures. In my opinion, this is also the reason why they ban professional concert photographers from the photo pit and try to make it really hard for us to get awesome shots by only allowing us to shoot during the first 3 songs (unfortunately this has already become the norm). On the other hand, a lot of artists still allow the audience to come to the concert with their compact cameras and shoot the whole concert. If someone standing in the first row is able to deliver better results with a compact camera than professional photographers who are banned 30m away with equipment worth $10,000+, then something’s wrong. Some bands even ask fans to submit their cell phone pictures, which makes our job unfeasible.
So there’s a strange phenomenon going on. Either they ban every camera in the near future from these big concerts or our job as music photographers will die. Or, they will just ask fans to send them their cell phone pictures – then our job as music photographers will die as well.
Both options would be a worst-case scenario and honestly, I don’t think that it will come to that. However, I guess it’ll get harder and harder to make a living out of concert photography if you’re not directly involved with the artist and management.
What do you think makes a great live music photo? Personally, a great live music photo should reflect the atmosphere of the concert and should give the observer the feeling that he or she was there, standing in the first row next to you.
What’s in the kit bag for a show? I am a full-frame sensor Nikon shooter and have my Nikon D700 and D800 in my bag. I love the D700 and it’s my workhorse for concert photography if I shoot the whole show. I mostly use the D800 for bigger shows where I am only allowed to shoot the first 3 songs. Additionally, the D800 is my go-to camera when shooting music portraits (if I am not shooting analog).
I have both prime and zoom lenses in my camera bag. As you’re rather limited in your forward/backwards movement in the photo pit, the zoom ability is crucial in concert photography. On the other hand, there are shows where it’s so dark on stage that a prime lens with an aperture of f1.4 is your only option.
My go-to concert lens is the Nikon 24-70mm f2.8. The autofocus is very fast and the photos are tack sharp, even at f2.8. It’s perfect for smaller venues.
I also use a Nikon 80-200mm f2.8. This is an older version of the Nikon 70-200mm f2.8 VR which you can get on ebay for about $400. This lens costs 1/5 of the new version and it’s just as good. (I don’t care about the lack of VR – it doesn’t work for action shots anyway). The focal length of 200mm is essential if you plan to shoot bigger venues, such as festival stages.
The Samyang 14” f2.8 is the widest you can go on a full-frame senor camera and delivers outstanding views. Why do I use this lens? Have a look at Nikon or Canon 14mm f2.8 lenses and you’ll cry after throwing $2000 out of the window. The Samyang is more than six times cheaper! It’s a manual focus lens but using an aperture of f2.8 lets you get everything in focus.
One of my favorite portrait lenses is the Nikon 85mm f1.4G. This is Nikon’s best lens and it’s able to deliver a bokeh that is breathtaking. It’s expensive, but you get what you pay for.
If you are just starting out as a concert photographer read my article here: Concert Photographers for starters on a budget!
We can see from your website you also shoot film. What do you like about shooting in film versus digital? I love shooting analog medium format cameras like my Hasselblad 503CX or the Contax645, because it’s a totally different way of exploring photography. Using these old manual cameras lets you concentrate on the craft itself instead of geeking around with the newest technology.
I use film mainly for my portraits and I love the look of the pictures. If you’re new to the analog world, check out Anton Corbijns’ photos. He is one of the greatest music photographers around and he still only uses 2 analog cameras (Hasselblad and Leica). The documentary “Inside Out” about Corbijn’s life is a must-see for every music photographer and shows personal insights of his work with Depeche Mode, U2 and Arcade Fire.
I am a firm believer that analog cameras make you a better photographer. You have to learn how to handle an external light meter and it totally slows you down. Shooting 120 film rolls gives you 12-16 frames which is what I normally get through with a band portrait. Limiting myself with the gear forces me to get the best out of a few pictures. (see my Zola Jesus picture).
For concerts, I still use my digital Nikon equipment since you limit yourself most of the time when shooting on analog black/white film and have to push it afterwards in the lab because of the low light situation at a concert. However, I was pre-testing the new, all-manual Petzval lens from Lomography (http://www.lomography.com/) exclusively for a Portugal. The Man concert recently and it was great fun! Read more about my experience with this lens here (https://howtobecomearockstarphotographer.com/petzval-lens-in-concert-photograpphy)
Do you have any tips for new music photographers? Be a music photographer because you love what you do and not because you want to make money. Get yourself a crop sensor DSLR camera with a cheap 50mm f1.8 and start in small clubs, where you don’t need any press accreditation. Be patient and work hard. The truth is that most of the concert photographers you know from the Internet worked their ass off for a couple of years before they got noticed. If you need some inspiration on how to start read here: 10 Tips to help you follow your passion as a concert photographer!
What advice would you give to professional music photographers just starting out in their career? I can only talk from my own personal experience, but my advice would be not to quit your day job before you get your equipment together. As a professional music photographer, you’ll need camera equipment worth thousands of dollars and you won’t be able to get paid jobs when you’re just starting out.
How do you see the music business in the future? Comment below.