How to become a rock-n-roll music photographer

One of the most frequently asked questions I get is: “How did you become a music photographer?”

For me, the answer is pretty simple — I made it happen because I was passionate about it. Music and photography both mean a lot to me on their own, so combining the two is a thrill that makes me very happy. After I got a taste early on, I just had to figure out what it takes to keep doing it.

When I started photographing concerts on a regular basis in 2008, I didn’t know what I was doing. By making mistakes, asking questions, and reading everything I could about getting pit access with my camera, I quickly learned what it takes to become a music photographer. Here are details I’d like to share with those who are aspiring to be music photographers. If you want further information, please comment below and I’ll do my best to answer.

Know your camera

It goes without saying that if you want to be a good photographer, you better know how to use your camera. You need to know where it excels, where its limitations are, and how to change settings quickly and frequently.

I got started with a Nikon D50 and Nikkor 50mm 1.8 and 85mm 1.8 lenses. That’s it! The D50 was a 6.1mp starter camera, but accompanied with fast lenses in decent light, it took great photos. You don’t need a $5000 full-frame camera, but you do need to know how to to use the camera that you have.

Speaking of cameras, if you are in the photo pit with press access you should have a slr, mirrorless, or high-quality point and shoot camera with a fast lens. Keep your iPhone in your pocket.

Concert photography camera settings

My camera settings depend entirely on the individual concert I am photographing, but here are a few things that I tend to do regularly.

  1. Shoot Raw – I lost several good images by shooting only jpgs early on, and then editing the same file multiple times without saving the original. Jpgs are lossy, and in doing this I essentially destroyed the possibility of future edits of these files without negatively affecting the quality. So shoot in Raw always. If you don’t have software to edit Raw files, shoot in Raw + Jpg and save the Raw files for when you get a Raw editor in the future. You’ll be happy you did. Besides being lossless, Raw files also capture more data which allows for better adjustments in post processing.
  2. Spot Metering – When I photograph concerts, I most often use spot metering. Since there are dynamic light shifts during concerts, spot metering allows you to focus the metering on the performer’s face and skin tones, and not the colors, highlights, and shadows behind them. Newer Nikons also have highlight-weighted metering, but I haven’t found it very useful compared to spot metering for concerts. For full stage shots when the light is balanced, I switch to matrix metering. I have been successful with that approach.
  3. Manual Mode – I photograph in manual mode so that I can control the aperture and shutter speed simultaneously. When I started and was working within the limitations of the Nikon D50, I oftentimes shot using shutter priority. I focused on getting crisp and properly exposed images by controlling shutter speed and ISO, while allowing the camera to control the aperture.
  4. Shutter Speed – 1/100 second shutter speed is my minimum depending on the performer and lighting. I typically prefer to capture crisp images of performers, rather than blurry to show motion. Sticking around 1/100 second or faster usually allows me to do that. If the lighting is really good, I will speed up the shutter speed to 1/250 second minimum.
  5. Auto ISO – This is a blessing for concert photography. I set my minimum ISO to my camera’s minimum, and the max to where I know I can get good images that are not too noisy / grainy. This creates an ISO threshold that I am willing to work in between. By shooting in manual mode I can control the ISO range by changing the shutter speed and aperture. It is a delicate dance that changes with the lighting of the concert.I’ve talked to photographers who won’t admit using Auto ISO, as if relinquishing control over ISO is a bruise to their ego. Let that go! Auto ISO is a fantastic tool to use when lights of a concert are changing rapidly. I only turn this feature off and manually control ISO for outdoor concerts during the day, or concerts where the lighting is static and doesn’t change throughout the show.
Start local

By shooting local bands, you can refine your skills and start building a portfolio. Many bars or smaller music venues don’t have a camera policy so this is a great place to start. Just be respectful to the artists and crowd and you will be fine.

For me, I started in 2006 by photographing up-and-coming local artists like Trampled By Turtles and Charlie Parr. Once I had a little portfolio together, I began reaching out to more popular artists who were coming through town. A year later Wilco gave me my first photo pass and that was a huge turning point for me. Having a few big names in your portfolio will help you get more opportunities.

How to get a photo pass

If you are new to music photography, the days of getting photo passes without working for, or contributing to, a publication are pretty much over. You need to have a publication backing you, and they are usually the ones who will line up your press credentials.

Although some smaller bands will handle this themselves, press passes are usually obtained through the artist’s publicist. These press contacts for tours can be often found on the artist’s website, but sometimes it takes searching the internet and digging deeper to find.

If you are not working for a publication, do not beg for access. Publicists and promoters are busy people, and if they say no for any reason, don’t keep bothering them for a photo pass.

Be respectful and courteous

Follow the rules (at least most of them). Unless you have an all access pass, do not expect to get on stage. On more than one occasion I’ve had a publicist tell me that they loved my work but couldn’t approve photo passes for the tour due to an idiot photographer who got greedy and tried to get on stage during a performance. Most music photographers I’ve worked alongside have been respectful and cool. Don’t be stupid and ruin it for the rest.

If you are photographing from the crowd, be conscious of your surroundings and ask nicely if you need to sneak in front of someone to get a shot. Remember people are there for the music, so don’t be overly distracting to the point you are interfering with their experience.

Should I sign the photo waiver?

So you have a photo pass lined up, but you need to sign a waiver first to be approved…should you do it? Unfortunately once a band gets big, so does their management’s need to control everything. It has become a commonplace with larger bands and artists to make you sign a waiver to photograph their concerts. Sometimes these waivers are simple and just detail out the rules for the night, while with others you are basically signing all of your rights away to the artist and their management. This can be infuriating to a photographer whose time, skills, and gear are very valuable.

Proceed with caution and read what you are signing. Many music photographers are freelancers who are being paid little to nothing to photograph concerts, so signing away copyrights to be able to license images later is a huge bummer. You will often see that you can’t post images outside of the publication you are working for as well. I think this is ridiculous and will ask for permission to post in my portfolio if necessary. Photo waivers are becoming more and more common and only you will know if they are worth signing or not.

What should a concert photographer wear?

Like Ice Cube, I wear black nothing but black. I prefer going in stealth mode when photographing concerts to be less of a distraction to the performers and the crowd. Leave your neon running shirts at home.

Have a website for your portfolio

Once you’ve shot a few shows, take the best photos and start building your music photography portfolio. Be extremely selective, and always update it as you shoot more concerts and get better at refining your technique and style.

Building your own website is a valuable skill that I recommend all photographers learn. If that is out of the question, hire someone to build it for you. Or at the very least, use a website builder and create your own. Squarespace has some nice designs (although they can be somewhat overused), or you could try if you’d like to integrate a blog. As a photographer, a solid online presence is very important to help get you more work. If you want to be a professional, brand yourself like one.

Kick ass!

Seriously, have fun and kick ass! The pit between the band and the crowd is a great place to be and it can be full of surprises. Take advantage of your limited time in there by getting your shots and feeling the music up close.

Then call your mom and tell her how much fun you had at the show

She’s probably wondering.

Tom Petty live in Minneapolis