Imagine hanging out with your favorite rock stars while capturing images that stand the test of time. As a professional band photographer, I do it constantly – and it is incredibly rewarding.
Unfortunately, breaking into band photography is far from easy, and that’s where this guide comes in handy. I share my best tips on how to become a band photographer, including advice on gear, building a portfolio, getting gigs, touring, and much more.
Let’s do this!
Disclaimer: All photographs featured in this article are stock content. To view my current work, check out my website.
How to Become a Band Photographer: Table of Contents
- Dipping Your Toes into the Music World
- Now You’re in It
- Band Photography in the Era of COVID
- You Can Become a Band Photographer!
- Making It as an International Concert Photographer (Video Interview with the Author)
Dipping Your Toes into the Music World
How can you get started as a band photographer? Here’s how to dip your toes into the industry, starting with my first tip:
1. Get the Right Gear
Photography may be an artistic endeavor, but gear is important. Think of an experienced painter with brushes; although they can create a beautiful piece out of the brushes they own, higher-end brushes will yield better results. The same is true of photography. And band photography, in particular, is a genre in which equipment becomes very important.
Simply put, if you want to do both live music photography and backstage portraits, your gear will be crucial to your success. Music photography is often captured in very dim light, which most cameras and lenses don’t like. And as band members are generally moving around in dim light, you’ll be in a situation in which your equipment is the only thing that can save you.
So what gear is best?
Go for full-frame cameras with big sensors. If possible, compare different camera models at various ISO levels and see which produce less noise. Higher-megapixel cameras capture more detail, which can help when reducing noise in post-processing. Cameras with fancy features like face detection help a lot too. And pay attention to camera construction (durability can make a big difference!).
Wide-aperture lenses are essential for top-notch band photography. The wide aperture will let in extra light, and the shallow depth of field effect will deliver flattering shots:
I like to carry a wide-angle lens, a standard lens, and a telephoto lens to my shows. Wide angles help you capture the whole stage, standards are flattering for human subjects, and telephotos help capture the drummer in the back (they can also be helpful if you find yourself standing farther back in the venue).
Granted, if you only want to focus on promotional images of bands, your gear may be slightly less important. But there will certainly come a time when your musician clients start asking for some live-music content, so it’s a good idea to own gear that works for both niches.
What’s in My Bag?
My go-to band photography cameras are the Sony a7R IV and the Canon 1D X Mark III. The Sony mirrorless is perfect for promotional sessions and live venues with better lighting, while the Canon DSLR is great for dimly lit events, stadiums, and festivals.
As for lenses, I am obsessed with my:
- Sigma 35mm f/1.2 DG DN Art
- Sigma 85mm f/1.4 DG DN Art
- Sigma 24-70mm f/2.8 DG DN Art
- Sigma 135mm f/1.8 DG HSM Art
- Sigma 70-200mm f/2.8 DG OS HSM Sports
Note that every lens in my bag features a wide maximum aperture. All the lenses are ultra sharp, very durable, and produce consistently brilliant results. The lens is what impacts your image the most!
2. Practice Makes Perfect
As with anything in life, if you want to be great, you must build up your skills. Practice makes perfect, and it can take some time and effort to compete with the big-league photographers. Learning is actually a great place to be; not only do you get to improve yourself as an artist and soak in experience, but you also get to put yourself out there and meet new people.
The local community is a wonderful place to begin and is always in need of support, so start by reaching out to new artists in your area. They need the photos and you need practice, which makes for a match made in heaven! Simply ask if they need any new promotional photographs or have a live show coming up.
Frequenting local bars with live music or jam nights is another great spot to test the waters. Most of these events and venues offer free entry (or entry for a small donation – support that community!), and they usually don’t have any camera restrictions.
3. Create Your Portfolio
As a visual artist, a portfolio is fundamental to your success. So as you practice, collect your best photos and add them to that portfolio. Keep in mind, however, that you must be able to replicate these images over and over again or your portfolio will become pointless.
Aim to include diversity in your portfolio. Showcase images taken in different lighting or of different musicians. A good portfolio will convey your ability to be adaptable, your ability to produce consistently great images, and even some ideas for future sessions.
4. Build (and Maintain) Connections
The music industry is driven by relationships, and the entertainment world is a place you cannot access without knowing the right people. Don’t let this fact intimidate you, however; the right people may not appear to be the right people, at least not at first. Let me explain.
In the process of building that portfolio and practicing, you’ll (ideally) meet a lot of bands and industry professionals. Since you’re starting in the local community, the musicians won’t seem like hotshots just yet, but they might be on their way. The more of a reputation you build as a reliable, professional, friendly, and quality photographer, the more word about your existence will spread. Then, when one of the locals starts gaining more traction and becomes better known, you will go with them. See where I’m heading with this?
Don’t be shy about walking up to people and talking to them. You must get over your stage fright (just the same as the musicians you’re photographing!). Get to know everyone, talk to them, make friends. You never know who might sign with a major label and carry your name with them!
5. Land Your First Band Photography Job
If you’ve followed my advice so far, things should be going well. Time to see a bit of a return on all of your hard work: your first job.
There are many roads that lead to the same goal, so it’s not really possible to give you a formula for this. But some ideas for landing a job include applying to be a band photographer for a music magazine, contacting venues about a position as a house photographer, reaching out to the connections you’ve made so far about photography needs they may have, and even browsing local job boards where musicians in the community tend to ask for photographer recommendations.
If you’re not sure which route to take, try all of the above!
Now You’re in It
At this point, you’ve become a band photographer. Welcome to the music industry! Here is some advice you’re going to want to keep in mind as you grow your reputation.
6. Music Photography Etiquette Matters
Before you charge into a venue and start snapping photos, you need to learn some etiquette, most of which applies to the live concert world.
- Follow the rules of the venue. Just because you’re there as a professional doesn’t mean you can do whatever you want. Making an enemy out of a venue is a bad idea! Some venues restrict where you are allowed to shoot, so be sure to chat with security (and introduce yourself!) before taking photos.
- Respect the fans. There would be no music photography without music fans, so don’t be mean. Don’t hog a spot in front of someone’s face, keep moving around to give everyone a great view, and don’t push/shove/act like an animal.
- Flash is a no-no for concerts. The last thing an artist wants is a giant light going off in their face. Don’t use flash for live concerts (a lot of venues won’t let you, anyway). Instead, focus on taking advantage of your low-light cameras and wide lens apertures.
- Don’t try to get the band’s attention when they’re on stage. I don’t think I really need to explain this one.
- Don’t be that guy in the photo pit. Most live concert shoots happen in what’s called a photo pit, a barricaded area at the very front of the stage. The photo pit is designed so security can walk back and forth in front of the stage but doubles as a photo area for concert photographers. Unless you have an all-access pass, you’ll likely only have access to this area for three songs. So don’t spend your time pissing everyone off. Try to avoid bringing bulky gear bags that can hit other photographers and that prevent free movement. If you have to bring a bulky bag, put it under the barricade while shooting and pick it up on your way out of the photo pit. Be courteous and let photographers pass you; in return, they’ll let you pass too. Don’t shoot over your head and block the views of other photographers.
- Don’t be that guy backstage. Yep, you can also be “that guy” backstage. So don’t take smartphone snaps of the area or the happenings. Don’t be rude to the personnel. Don’t invade personal space. And don’t impede anyone’s job. Also, for goodness sake: Please thank those who granted you access and those who worked the event! Kindness goes a long way.
7. Privacy Is Important
I know it’s tempting to boast about all the cool people you work with and brag about your all-access pass, but privacy is essential in any entertainment industry. Non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) are very common, so don’t be shocked if you’re given one to sign.
They’re for everyone’s safety; after all, fans can be crazy. I had a client tell me this wild story about how a fan used a social media post to figure out where he lived, ran into the bar where he was relaxing, and cut off a piece of his hair!
Although most situations aren’t that extreme, protecting your client should be a big priority. Don’t post photographs of your credentials as people can easily copy them and create fake ones at home. Not all security pays close attention to whether a pass is real or fake, so you just don’t want to risk it.
Don’t post about where your client likes to hang out when they’re not performing (you know, to brag about what good friends you two are). The last thing you need is to give a stalker easy access.
And most importantly, don’t reveal sensitive information like real names, home addresses, names of spouses or family members, etc. – even if a (disreputable) news agency offers you money.
All of the above will absolutely get you blacklisted. Remember, the industry is a small place, so don’t mess things up for yourself.
8. Keep the Momentum Going
Momentum is how you keep rolling, and music photography is pretty big on remaining relevant. Keep dropping your name, encourage – by maintaining a great reputation – others to drop your name, and keep pursuing your local scene. Always look for new opportunities (and make some of your own!).
9. Decide Whether to Tour
Ah, touring! What an incredible life, full of free trips to the biggest cities in the world and cool concerts every night – with no showers and a bed that feels like rocks.
The reality of touring is that, logistically, the goal is to make it to the right city every night. Bands play nearly every evening on a tour unless the state is so far away that it takes a couple of days to get there. Every minute is precious, and there isn’t a lot of time for showers, fine dining, or sightseeing. Plus, you’re all generally working on a shoestring budget because travel for everyone on the tour (from the band to the driver to the techs) plus the cost of fuel equals a lot of money.
That’s right! Unless you’re invited onto KISS’s private jet, you’re in for a very unglamorous ride.
Your living arrangements might not be awesome, either. Unless your band has a massive budget, don’t expect hotel rooms and comfortable beds. You’ll be in a van sleeping on the seats or (for a lot of newer bands) crashing at someone’s house on the floor or sleeping on a tour bus (if the band has the budget). Tour buses are, of course, far more comfortable than vans, but the bunks aren’t great (at least in my opinion). They are pretty glorious after a full day of travel and work, however.
I’m not a tour manager, of course. I don’t organize tours, so I can’t tell you exactly how every tour will run. I’m just a photographer along for the adventure. (By the way, watching tour managers handle the ins and outs of a run is mindblowing, and they deserve major respect for all that they do!)
As for what is expected of you as a tour photographer: You’ll be there to capture all of the candid moments, backstage shots, and images of the concert performances. All of this content then needs to be edited and turned over to the artist by the end of the night (because waiting a day makes the content irrelevant). Expect to have your camera and laptop with you all the time and plan to edit on the fly.
10. Music Gear Companies Matter, Too
Musicians rely on instruments to produce their sound, and there are major instrument companies that back these artists. Endorsements are a big deal in the music world, so the musicians that you photograph are going to want to show off their gear.
Therefore, when you photograph bands, make sure the gear company names are readable. Don’t crop guitar headstocks, be sure to turn around drumsticks so the gear name faces the camera, and so on.
Do expect the image to be (potentially) shared with the company, which is why pricing yourself accordingly or putting commercial-use expectations into contracts is super important. The legal side of commercial photography is very complex. Writing it all out would span a novel, but do get in touch with a local contract, entertainment, or licensing lawyer and chat. Yes, music photography is commercial photography, so get yourself educated!
Band Photography in the Era of COVID
The COVID pandemic changed the face of band photography.
For starters, the entire music industry paused while the world was in lockdown. This was a massive shock, and the situation put a lot of great people out of work.
Once live music slowly started creeping back in, the ground became shaky and uneven. From tours that stalled due to crew or band members catching COVID to tours that were canceled before they even began, the live music industry was (and is) a mess. Even one-off shows and small gigs in local cities have the potential to be canceled hours before they begin.
With live music in such a state of uncertainty, budgets shrank. There was once a decent chunk of change allotted to a band photographer, but this has been redistributed to cover losses or is simply not being invested to begin with. It’s a sad place to be, and livelihoods in all areas of the music industry have been damaged as a result of the potential for cancellation at any given moment.
But while live music isn’t something artists are as eager to risk these days, a new opportunity did bloom: portrait photography. An artist’s social media presence is such an important thing, especially when they can’t get on the road to play in front of people. As such, producing high-quality social media content is a big deal. For the adaptable photographer, this is a place to really shine!
The band photography industry has always been tough. Challenges certainly aren’t new. A lot of opportunities still exist, but you may need to be more patient or inventive these days compared to three years ago.
You Can Become a Band Photographer!
Band photography is exciting, it’s crazy, and it’s a whole bag of fun. I hope this article helps you find your way in the industry.
Making It as an International Concert Photographer (Video Interview with the Author)
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