Wouldn´t a dream come true to tour with the most famous Rockbands in the world? Flying on private jets, photographing in the biggest stadiums and traveling the world. Becoming friends with your idols you admire since you´re a child and getting the respect from other photographers?. Well, let me introduce you to…
Katarina Benzova is a former slovakian model who turned into a music photographer and is touring with bands such as Guns’N’Roses, AC/DC, The Dead Daisies and many more. After years of searching for her true passion she found it in music photography and is now living her dream life.
In this episode, Kat will talk about her career shifts, dreams, fears and how she got started with concert photography. She’ll reveal her working routines from staying fit to editing her photos and videos on tour. She’ll also talk about why you should use your gift as photographer to help others.
Some Questions I Ask:
- How did you get stated to work for Guns’N’ Roses?
- How did it make you feel to be hired from one of the biggest Heavy Metal Bands on earth?
- What was the biggest challenge you faced when you got the job?
- How is a typical day for you on tour with GnR?
- What is your approach for backstage photos?
In this Episode, You’ll Learn
- Why you should chasing your dreams to become happy in life
- How to deal with challenges
- Why taking risks can be rewarding
- How to get awesome Testimonials
- The best strategies to shoot backstage portraits
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Matthias: Thanks for your time, Kat! How are you doing?
Kat: I’m doing great! Thank you for having me. I’m a little sick so I’m sorry for sounding a little funky but other than that I’m good.
Matthias: Cool! I’m so excited to have you here since you’re probably the coolest rock photographer nowadays. So before we talk about your remarkable career as a concert photographer, let’s start from the beginning – where do you come from and how did you start out your first profession which was an international fashion model.
Kat: I’m from Slovakia, your neighbour. I started modeling when I was 13 or 14 just because I was one of those kids that was super tall, super skinny and my mom’s friend kept bother me all the time that I should try modeling, that I’m pretty and bla bla. But I was a dancer since I was 4 years old and I was more into sports and I found modeling pretty dumb. I was more like a tomboy, not a girly girl. I think there was some sort of contest close to my town for Elite Model Look and she sent me in, she told me that I gotta try. So I went there and I ended up singing a contract with Elite Model Management that was, at that time, the biggest model agency in the world. I started to travel when I was 14 years old around the world – to Paris, Milan, New York, I spent a lot of time in Tokyo and everywhere in the world so that’s how basically it all started.
Matthias: Wow! So how was this for you as a teenager? Is it hard – I mean, that’s not a normal teenage life.
Kat: Yeah, it was super hard because now when kids travel they have their iPhones, they have Skype, they have all those ways to communicate – I didn’t have any of that. I was calling my mom once a week from a payphone, learning everything from the papers and you have to learn languages as you go. It was challenging but I love challenges so it was exciting for me. I could explore all those amazing countries on my own and it was awesome!
Matthias: So, how was it – did you think about it if you really should do it and become a model?
Kat: It happened. I didn’t want to be a model, I didn’t like it. I didn’t like the actual photoshoots and shows and castings or any of that. I loved traveling so that’s what I did and that’s the reason why I did it. I could travel and make money while I’m doing it.
Matthias: Awesome! So when did you recognize that the fashion world is not enough for you?
Kat: It was never there, you know – as I said my main goal was traveling and making money while doing that. So for a while, I was already looking for my way out, that was probably 9 or 10 years ago because I was already doing it for awhile, I already traveled the world so many times – I had nothing else to squeeze out of this. It had nothing new that it could give me or anything new I can learn. So I started to look for ways out and you know when you’re looking for a new job or something – you write down a list of the things that you love to do. So for example – I love the water, I love swimming, I love music – so I just started to write these things down. I loved music, so I started learning how to DJ while I was in Tokyo and I started doing DJ gigs while I lived in Japan. Then I moved back to Slovakia and one of my friends told me that they were opening a swimming pool in LA and asked whether I wanted to become an instructor there. I accepted and then moved to LA and I was swim instructor during the day and playing DJ gigs during the night – basically, I thought that I was combining the two things I love. But it wasn’t, I wasn’t doing what I really loved to do. So I left all of that and moved back to Slovakia and everything else happened.
Matthias: So we once talked at the Rolling Stones concert in Vienna about your crazy story on how you got started as a concert photographer. I was thinking how cool is this! So tell us the story about this memorable Guns N Roses gig in Vienna cause I think this is how it started, right?
Kat: Well, I started to take photos when I was 14. As soon as I started to travel the world because as I said – there were no phones to take photos on and I couldn’t just send photos to my family. And they never traveled so I started to take photos with my film camera everywhere I traveled. I wouldn’t have enough money so I was only allowed to take 2 films in a row. I think I got a lot of sense of not clicking away but waiting for the right moment. So I started early and I was already doing modeling for so long that being around photographers, being around gear, being around creative people all the time – things get stuck on you. You start to get interested in it. So, I started to take photos of models and nature and abstract stuff throughout my whole modeling career. It wasn’t new to me – I’ve always had a passion for photography. I just never had guts to buy a better camera or try to sell photos or any of that. So that kind of happened and Guns N Roses helped me to believe in myself and gave me a chance to prove that I can do it.
Matthias: So what was the story?
Kat: So after my all own tries of being a swim instructor I moved back to Slovakia and didn’t know what’s next. I was depressed, felt really down and didn’t know how to move forward so I started to do a lot of meditation and working on myself and letting destiny do its own thing. You know how when you just let things be, they happen. But you need to clear your head and everything so that’s what I did and a friend of mine that I knew from Japan called me and said that his friend is a manager of Guns N Roses and they’re playing in Vienna and if I wanted to come see the show. I said it’s be cool and it was close so I took my pocket camera and went to the show. I met everyone and they were super cool and I took some photos during the show from the side of the stage. I didn’t expect anything from that, I just loved doing it because it was the first concert I ever shot and I started to like it! I love shooting people and all these moving lights and energy, it was so cool for me! So I did that, then went home and the manager was like “Hey, we’re having a show in Prague so if you want you can come to that show and take some photos”, so I went again and that was the time I met Axl and backstage we were talking about that art and photography and all that stuff and I told him that I took some photos of their previous show and the guys from the band liked them, they started to follow me on facebook. Then he told me that they’re actually looking for a photographer right now and I said “Oh, then hire me as your photographer!” as a complete joke cause I’d also had a couple of drinks but he replied “You know what? That’s actually not a bad idea!” So I went home and after a couple of days the management contacted me if I wanted to fly to Spain for two shows and I thought “You must be kidding me! This can’t be happening!”. But it happened and I went and they hired me!
Matthias: Awesome! So you started your concert photography career as the official Guns N Roses photographer?
Matthias: So therefore you’re the coolest concert photographer I know of.
Kat: I do know that a lot of photographers hate me because of that because I didn’t go through the ‘normal’ road of working my way to that.
Matthias: This is what I was just thinking about – are there a lot of people who are jealous of your career?
Kat: Yeah, there are a lot of music photographers that are starting out the normal way – with small gigs and then work their way up. And their goals are basically to tour with a band, get their books out and get exhibitions – you know, all the stuff. And for me it was a quick shot right there but it was I think what they needed at that point. They needed a new view. And I had no problem with touring because of my previous travels because actually, it was what I had already been doing. So there’s a lot of things that worked and they made sense for them. And they needed a new view, they’ve always had male photographers and now seeing themselves through a female eye – it was something that Axl really liked. He liked the way I saw him and I captured him. And the whole band liked the way I captured them and they thought that’s exactly what their style is and who they are as musicians and that’s how they wanted to be represented to the world. So I think that this new view of them was something that worked.
Matthias: So how did this make you feel? I mean I think it’s a lot of pressure put on you from one day to another if you got tired of one of the best heavy metal bands on the planet. Did you think about it or did you just say “Ok, let’s do this, this is an opportunity for me to move forward with my career”?
Kat: For me, in the beginning, it was an opportunity, I didn’t take it seriously at all. I thought it was a joke. I couldn’t believe that it was happening and I had nothing to lose. It’s not something that I was working towards for the past 20 years, it was something that happened. So I had nothing to lose and I was having fun with it. And that’s what probably worked as well – because I wasn’t taking it too seriously. I was being creative and finding new ways to do things and coming up with new ideas and there was a breeze of fresh air in a band like that.
Matthias: Which is probably the better approach to keep cool and just try things!
Kat: Exactly! After a while you stay on the safe road because you know those things work, as a photographer you probably know the same thing – you know that some angles work better than others and sometimes we become lazy because we only have 3 songs to shoot so you go with the safety stuff because you know that at least you’ll get something. So you don’t experiment enough but with touring with the band that’s what you have space for. You can experiment as much as you want cause you can also shoot the entire show which is awesome!
Matthias: So what was the biggest challenge you faced when you got the job?
Kat: I guess probably the technical stuff because if you have a vision – you have a vision. If you have an eye for something – that’s not a challenge, that’s fun. So probably just learning how to work with the lights during the show and how to work my camera – just learning everything around. It’s a big production so how to move around without being in anyone’s way when to stay away, when to shoot, when not to shoot – talking about backstage stuff. Just to be a part of the dynamic of the big machine that is the concert.
Matthias: So were you afraid that you made the right decisions staring your career as a music photographer if you think back – is it what you were looking for, your dream job or do you have doubts sometimes?
Kat: I love doing what I’m doing! I love my job. I don’t think I want to be touring for the rest of my life but I definitely want to do photography for the rest of my life. In one way or another – whether it’s music, later I would love to move into portraits of musicians and more album covers and more creative work than shooting concerts all the time. I want to create the best mixture of everything.
Matthias: I think no one wants this, right?
Kat: It’s exhausting and you don’t have time for anything else when it comes to your life or any other career movements. That’s the only thing I regret of just jumping right away into touring – more than one band is on a tour and you go with them, they tour for 10 years and the kind of depend on whether you’re gonna be there.
Matthias: So tell me how does the typical day go for you on a Guns N Roses tour?
Kat: Well I guess it doesn’t matter whether it’s with Guns N Roses or any other band –it’s always similar. But you always have different scenarios. So, you pick one because every show is completely different. The show can be either in a club, in a stadium or at a festival. Then you can be traveling on a tour bus, private jet or commercial flight. Then it depends whether it’s a travel day, show day, or a day-off.
Matthias: I’d pick the stadium day with the private jet.
Kat: And what kind of day?
Matthias: A show day!
Kat: So that day was our last day with Guns N Roses. There was a stadium tour, traveling in a private jet and show day! Usually, I wake up in the morning, have a breakfast, go to the gym cause you have to stay healthy on the road. Then I go back to my room, start editing something from the day before because I do photography and video so just editing takes up most of my time. Then we get in a van, go to the stadium, have a soundcheck and then depends on how far the stadium is from the hotel and how the traffic situation is. The band stays at the stadium until the show time or they go to the hotel and come back later. I always stay after the soundcheck because I shoot it, then I work on my editing from previous days. Then I shoot fans as they’re running into the venue, doing a little bit of interviews and photos and stuff for social media. Then just shooting some band stuff backstage, hanging out, have a dinner and then there’s the show that usually would last or 2-3 hours, then hop on the van and straight to the hotel!
Matthias: That sounds pretty exhausting!
Kat: Yeah, and you have no off time unless we have two days off in a row and that happens about 3 times per tour because when everybody’s having days off it’s an editing day for me.
Matthias: So you’re working really hard to get things done?
Matthias: Cool. Thank you! And you’re also working for AC/DC, how did this happen?
Kat: This happened exactly a year ago, I’m doing the Guns N Roses reunion show and Axl told me the good news that he’s joining AC/DC, and asked me whether I’d want to join them as well. He’d already spoken to them and they were all fine with it. I immediately accepted and was so excited about it! AC/DC was on my list of bands that I want to shoot. So I accepted and did an European tour with them last summer and it was unbelievable. Then I was supposed to do a US tour with them but just because last year it was super crazy – it was Guns N Roses, AC/DC, Guns N Roses, AC/DC, that was the entire year. So when I was supposed to go on the US tour with AC/DC, I had a partially torn rotator cull in my shoulder and I had to do a lot of physiotherapies and I had to rest – I couldn’t be lifting cameras or my suitcases or anything like that. So saying no was one of the hardest things that I had to do because it was only three weeks and I could choose – if I’m gonna do that I can completely tear my rotator cuff and I wouldn’t be able to shoot at all or take this time off, recover and then go back on the Guns N Roses tour.
Matthias: Got it! So what other clients are you working for?
Kat: I worked for The Dead Daisies for two years – it’s like a super band made out of musicians from different bands like Guns N Roses, The Rolling Stones, and it was pretty awesome. I did a lot of stuff with KISS, a lot of my photos are in their books, vinyl and stuff like that so that’s awesome. I did some stuff with Aerosmith.
Matthias: You really nailed it! That’s really awesome. So you have a lot of great testimony on your home page – Axl Rose said ““We’re very lucky to have her with us! Not everyone has a Slovakian Warrior bitch on their side who takes awesome pics as well! Ha!” and there is another one that I like from John Tempesta from The Cult and he said “Katarina is one of the best photographers of our generation! She captures the moment when you’re not even thinking about it, and that is what a true photographer does!”. So how do you approach musicians to write such testimonies or do you just ask them for it?
Kat: There’s more of them now, I just haven’t updated my website for a long time but I have to do that, thank you for reminding me! But for those, I just ask them to write something to use on my website or I just pick it from something they said because with Billy Gibbons there was an interview made with me and he said something about my work so I used that.
Matthias: I think it’s really helpful for you as a photographer to use testimonials from such great musicians. I’m always asking musicians and bands who I’ve worked for if they can write me a testimony and most likely they will.
Kat: And now because there’s a short documentary film about me in Australia I asked Steven Tyler if he can put something on a video about my work and he did and it was so awesome so I can’t wait to get that out. I think it’s important for a photographer to do that – you need people to talk about your work.
Matthias: Would you say you have a unique style? From what I’ve seen all your photos are black and white, so is there any reason for this?
Kat: I shoot a lot of colour as well, especially because a lot of times I need to do commercial photography – stuff that goes to magazines but my favourite is black and white and it’s just because I think it captures the emotion better and there’s so much stuff happening during the show – there’s pyro and confetti and fire and lights and running that people get distracted from what’s actually happening – the beauty of the music at least for me. And that is captured much better in a black and white photo and with any of these rockstar bands, for example, Guns N Roses – black and white is more rock n roll and it captures that raw atmosphere even better. But there are bands that I can’t imagine shooting in black and white. Like if I was shooting somebody else it probably would be different. I love colour too.
Matthias: And for your post-production, are you using Photoshop or Lightroom?
Matthias: So you do all your black and white conversions there?
Matthias: Do you have any presets that you’re using or do you create your own settings?
Kat: I’ve created some of my own presets but then I adjust every photo because it’s completely different. Editing photos take me awhile because I really go through individual photos and edit them differently.
Matthias: So what makes an awesome concert photo for you?
Kat: Capturing the show the way that if somebody’s looking at the photo at the other side of the world, they’re hearing the music. They’ll feel as if they’re there. And when some of my fans write to me and say that they love the photos because they feel as though they are there. That’s exactly what I want – you want to capture something more than just a photo, you want people to feel it how I feel it when I’m there.
Matthias: So what is your approach for backstage photos? Are you the photographer who is more at the back trying to document without distracting the musicians or are you actively going there saying “Hey, I’m here, let’s take some photos and let’s do some portraits!”?
Kat: Depends. For me the best approach, especially I I think that candid photos are much better than anything posed, I refuse. I don’t like posed stuff. Even when I’m shooting some photos backstage and somebody looks at the camera and poses, I tell them to look away and not do it! I like to capture just what’s happening so my approach is to be a fly on the wall and I always have my camera with me and you know when you’re touring with a band you’re basically friends. So you’re hanging out in the dressing room so when I have my camera with me people are so used to it that they don’t find it weird anymore or they don’t act differently. So we’re talking about something and I would pull out a camera, take it photo and then put it back down again. That’s my approach and especially knowing when to take photos and when not to take photos, when is the right situation and when somebody’s in a bad mood and all those things are very important if you want to stay on a tour. If I was being very pushy, like I know a lot of photographers are always in somebody’s face especially with fish-eye lens, those guys are not gonna stay around for a long time. So if you’re just staying quiet, not letting people know what you’re doing – that’s the best way. Even during the shows, I do a lot of stuff on the stage but I never run towards a musician to take a certain photo or anything like that and the few photographers I knew that did that were fired because they were in the way and were too visible.
Matthias: I agree! I think as a photographer you shouldn’t be visible on stage – it’s all about the band. And you have the audience who had paid for tickets and you don’t want to be the guy in the spotlight on stage with their camera.
Kat: Exactly! And backstage is the same thing, it’s someone’s sanctuary, it’s someone’s place to turn off and do their thing before the show. You don’t want to distract that cause that might affect the show. It’s all about learning the dynamics and as we talked earlier, that was one of the most challenging things for me because you have to learn everyone, you have to learn different personalities, their habits, their patterns and that’s different for every band. And it’s a different story if I’m shooting someone just once. Then I’m not afraid to cross any boundaries because they know I’m not working for them and I just came to take a couple of shots.
Matthias: So you mentioned before that you’re not only taking photos but also filming, tell me a little bit more about it. Do you film with your DSLR camera, are these more like short movies?
Kat: When I was working for Dead Daisies, it was a new band that was just starting out so they wanted something else for their social media and they asked if I could do video and when I told them no, they asked if I could learn it and I agreed. So I started to learn how to edit the videos and with Dead Daisies it became a normal thing to get a video out after every show and backstage and we started to create all these little series that were like a tour bus diary. It was a lot of fun but it was also a lot of work because your brain works completely different when you’re taking video from when you’re taking photos because with filming you have to think ahead about a direction where you want your video to be so it’s hard for me to do both and then Guns N Roses saw those videos and asked if I could do it for them as well. They wanted one before the show – fans talking about how excited they are for the show and the excitement before the show, the lines outside and all that stuff. Then I had to run backstage, edit the video fast – I had an hour and a half to edit it and then we had to post it on social media before the show and then after the show another video and all the photos from the whole show. So it’s a lot and that’s what I’m currently doing but we’re trying to find a way to make it a little easier.
Matthias: So maybe you need an assistant?
Matthias: I’m right here! Just kidding. So, talking about social media – what are your favorite social media channels for your personal work but also for the bands? Is it facebook or Instagram or twitter?
Kat: For me personally I’m bad at it. I can openly say I suck and that I feel very sorry for not answering comments – I can’t explain it! But I love facebook because I can share more stuff about music. But with Dead Daisies – I was running their social media and I completely forgot about running mine and now when I have time to run mine I’m just bad at it. I try to post as much as I can on Instagram and now I’ve just learned to run my photography page and post my professional photos and everything related to music photography. Then I have my personal one that is more traveling but it’s hard to combine and post on both and then post on twitter and then answer all the beautiful messages because you need time to think about it and write something meaningful back but the something else comes around. And I really want to get better at it!
Matthias: You need more time! Do less video.
Kat: But for bands, I think probably facebook. Or twitter? I don’t know.
Matthias: Yeah, probably facebook for sharing and Instagram is cool and I’m using it a lot but you’re kind of handicapped with the sharing option cause there are no links and it’s hard to get people out of Instagram to a blog page or to a fan page so I think facebook might be number one. Even though last time I had an interview I think with Jason Miller – he’s the marketing leader of LinkedIn, he told me that Pinterest is another good way to connect with the audience and I personally thought that there are 95% women who are into weddings but he said that it’s not true and that there are a lot of people there! So if you have time you can add Pinterest to your schedule too!
Kat: See, I started a blog and I can’t even run that and post once a day.
Matthias: Yeah, running a blog is hard. I tried to post once a week which worked for me so it’s a lot of work but it also depends on what you are posting. If you want to have a word count of 600 for each post then it’s getting hard to post every day.
Kat: So I need to find one that I’ll stick with and then I can concentrate on that.
Matthias: So let’s talk about other projects you’re working on right now.
Kat: What am I working on right now? I’m on a break and I just got back from tour three weeks ago and now we’re on a little break working on two projects that I can’t talk about. Then I’m going on a European tour with Guns and then we have a US one. I’m just taking my time off now and when I’m not on tour I’m trying to use my photography in different ways and trying to do a lot of charity work if I can.
Matthias: Tell me a bit more about this.
Kat: For now I’m working with a Wolf Conservation Center in New York and trying to create a campaign to save wolves because with the new administration and the new political situation in the States they made it legal again to kill wolves, to hunt them as trophies so we’re trying to stop that and I started this thing two years ago when me and my friend created a campaign to save moon bears in Asia that were basically kept in cages and the whole situation was a horrible thing. So we were able to close down the farms and later on the bears were released into the wild. So after this, we wanted to do something different because there are those animal cruelty campaigns that are very visual and a lot of times people don’t want to click on it because it’s hard to look at so that’s why they don’t help – because they don’t have the information. They don’t want to ruin their days with those horrible pictures so we decided to have a different approach to it. I thought that I was a Rock N Roll photographers so let’s do something rock and roll that people want to see! So I was able to put a couple of awesome people together like Sharon and Ozzy Osbourne, Anthony Kiedis, Moby and Simon Le Bon, Steve O and we did a pretty cool campaign that was really funny and we did a pretty cool video as well. You should look it up! I’m trying to do similar things with different organizations now and make it more fun, make it something that people would want to help and raise awareness.
Matthias: So this is an on-going campaign?
Kat: Yeah! And there are different projects! But this is a tip I’d like to give to young photographers – don’t stick with just one thing! You have a skill – use it to help. Even when I’m on tour sometimes I go to animal shelters to take photos of animals so they can put them on their website because every shelter will tell you that better picture of the animal – the animal will find a home sooner. These are the little things that as a photographer you can do and donate your time. I also do a lot of auctions. Every year for a different charity where I donate my prints and the money from sales go to different projects.
Matthias: That’s awesome! So let’s do a short Q&A. I’ll ask you 7 short questions and please answer them as quick as possible. Nikon or Canon?
Matthias: If you could choose only one lens for concert photography, which one will it be?
Matthias: Your favourite record of all time?
Kat: There’s too many! David Bowie – The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.
Matthias: Is there any music photographer you admire?
Kat: Danny Clinch.
Matthias: Your coolest concert you have shot so far?
Matthias: Water or beer?
Matthias: Which band is still on your concert photography to do list?
Kat: So many! The Who, Iggy Pop, Florence and the Machine, I want to shoot more stones!
Matthias: So a lot of work for you?
Kat: Yeah and still have so many more dreams. But I also just found out that The Who are also gonna be at Rock In Rio this year the same day as Guns N Roses so there’s a chance!
Matthias: Good luck! So, as the last question – what are your must have tips for someone who wants to start out as a concert photographer?
Kat: Just go for it! Don’t be afraid that you’re gonna be turned down because you will. There’s a part of this job you’ll be turned down so many times that this one time it’s going to work you don’t know where it will take you. Go to the venues, talk to the managers, do your research! It’s a lot of work and start shooting anything. Go to local concerts, go anywhere. Just shoot and practice and send your stuff out! Don’t be afraid. Everybody is a photographer now by just owning a camera or even their phone. It’s harder than ever so don’t be afraid to be different.
Matthias: Thank you so much for your time, Kat! I really appreciate it.
Kat: You’re welcome. Thank you for having me.
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