How to Become a Music Photographer


To be a good music photographer, you have to be good at handling discomfort.

You will be in pits, in crowds, and in pain. You will have beer, sweat, and blood in your eyes and on your gear. You will be crouched, tiptoed, and jumping. You will lose your friends. You will lose your camera. You will lose your hearing.

What you get in return are moments—feelings, captured in light and magic. If you are good at what you do, you will be able to translate one of the five senses into another, capturing all of the sadness, joy, pain, strife, and jubilance of the music and turning it from sound to sight. It is a difficult but fulfilling task, and if you’re a music fan, one worth giving it a go. We asked some veterans, legends, and hard-working music photographers for some advice and inspiration to take with you to the show.

‘Jack White kneeling over Julian after surprising the crowd at Reading in 2002, coming out and playing “NYC Cops” with The Strokes. Being able to capture a special moment like this, up close, is everything to a tour photographer. I knew beforehand that he was coming out for this song so I was able to position myself right where I could capture it best.’ – Colin Lane

Colin Lane @colinlanephoto 

What do you look for when choosing your angle/position?
If I’m in the pit with all the other photographers, I always try and figure out where the lead singer or the guitarist will be, and put myself as close to them as I can as they are usually the most exciting people to shoot. If I’m able to shoot the whole show, then I wander the venue during the show trying to get as many different angles as possible.

How do you choose the right moment to shoot?
I’m pretty much shooting the entire time. There is no ‘right time’ to shoot. In a situation like with The Strokes where I’m getting to spend significant time with the band and getting to shoot multiple shows, then you start to figure out the exciting moments in the show and prepare yourself for those moments. If you know the guitarist is going to jump off the drum riser during a certain song, then you get over there and wait for that shot. Or you can figure out the lighting and know when the cool effects are going to happen. Or maybe you know the singer is going to do a stage dive during a certain song.

What piece of advice would you give to a kid who wants to become a music photographer?
My advice to aspiring tour photographers would be to find a young, unsigned local band and ask if you can shoot their shows and maybe hang out with them and get some candid shots. For free. Candid shots are, to me, the most important and interesting pictures for bands. Once you have a healthy portfolio, you can send links to band managers and try to get work with signed bands that can actually pay some money to photographers. When shooting bands, don’t try to be ‘buddies’ with the band. Just try to stay invisible and be discreet and capture what’s going on. Be respectful. Friendships may or may not develop but what’s important is to document the band’s journey. A band will like you if you can capture great images of them. If you do get some good shots, make some prints to give to the band. They love that. It’s all about establishing a good relationship.

‘LCD Soundsystem, live at Margaret Court Arena. I was lucky enough to see them play a decade prior to shooting them. I was a massive fan in high school and when they announced a farewell tour, I was happy to see them live but disappointed I’d never get to shoot them. When the reunion tour was announced, I did everything I could to get myself in the pit and when I saw the massive disco ball that’s common for their shows, I knew where I had to place myself and exactly when the lights were going to hit it. Safe to say, this is my favourite photo I’ve shot to date.’ – Andrew Bibby

Andrew Bibby @bibbyphoto

What do you look for when choosing your angle/position?
Always follow the light and try to line it up with the artist you’re trying to capture. Often you only get a few small windows to lock in a nice clear shot. I always feel like I have one eye looking through the lens and the other one watching the lights.

How do you choose the right moment to shoot?
I find it helps to get to know the music beforehand. If you’re familiar with the set list then you can take a good guess as to when the energy will be right for each member on stage.

What piece of advice would you give to a kid who wants to become a music photographer?
Go to gigs. As many as you can. Meet musicians, promoters, venue managers. Start small and build up the skills to be comfortable asking for bigger jobs. It’s about connections, but then backing that with deliverable, high-quality content.

‘I like to use the negative space around the subject to create an emotional impact. Here is an example where I went to the side because right under Eddie’s nose were 20 other photographers. This was at the beginning of the show, and by going to the side I created a very different image than the typical first three songs’ headshot often seen. It’s also a more complex image and sets the tone on him being a mature artist, more than if he was just singing into the microphone. Be sure to look for those low key, ‘off’ moments as well as the big dramatic ones.‘ – Charles Peterson

Charles Peterson @charles.peterson.photographer

What do you look for when choosing your angle/position?
I like to be down in front, and as near to the main front person as possible. That said, sometimes to the side will be better, especially if the stage is high or the front is too crowded.

How do you choose the right moment to shoot?
I don’t. I shoot as much and as consistently as possible (which is now much easier and cheaper to do with digital). One can’t wait for a moment or it will be gone before you are ready. But if you are in the zone, clicking away, the moment will come to you. Take lots and edit to a few.

What piece of advice would you give to a kid who wants to become a music photographer?
You have to do it because you love it, not because it’s a career path. And it’s important to try and find your own unique voice and visual style and be consistent with that. Approach it as a fine artist would, if you want to stand out.

‘When Matt Quinn landed from this jump, the lights were pointed directly at my camera and smoke covered the stage. I just held the shutter button down and hoped he would be in focus. I feel like his expression and the harsh light really help to visually convey the climactic moment of the song they were playing.’ – Lauren Hartmann

Lauren Hartmann @laurenhartphoto

What do you look for when choosing your angle/position?
If it’s a big production, I’m mostly paying attention to where the lights are—I’ll adjust my angle based on how the lights act around a subject. If it’s a smaller venue then I’m likely trying to find a different way to play with the lack of lighting—this’ll usually end up with me taking a lot of double exposures or using a slower shutter speed for motion blur. With this in mind, I like to constantly move around a venue throughout a set. I’ve been told before (and I fully back it) to look where everyone else is, and then go somewhere different.

How do you choose the right moment to shoot?
Generally, I think choosing the right moment comes from paying attention to what’s happening. Watching how an artist is moving, listening to how a song is behaving, and trying to sense how the energy is flowing on stage will help you to key in on the lead-up to a ‘moment.’ That being said, I tend to overshoot. The reality is, not all moments can be anticipated. My advice here would be to bring extra memory cards, double-check camera settings continuously, and get good at being selective in post.

What piece of advice would you give to a kid who wants to become a music photographer?
I think the gist of my advice would just be to be persistent. Go to as many shows you can get into, send out emails (and then follow up), shoot until the last second of a set, pitch yourself for things you might not think you’re qualified for, etcetera. The music industry is brutal—you’ve got to take yourself *seriously, even if you feel like no one else is. Keep showing up and keep following through. Something will come of it.

*but not too seriously 

Ed Templeton

Ed Templeton @wires_crossed

What do you look for when choosing your angle/position?
With bigger bands, most of the time they only allow photographers to shoot the first three songs of a set. And usually your angle is limited because you’re in the pit just under the stage, meaning you are low and shooting from the band’s feet up. In those cases, I’m shooting at whatever angle presents itself, depending on the amount of equipment blocking your view. You can go to the far left or right of a stage and shoot across to change your angle. And if you have a wider lens, you can lift your arm up, point in the general direction and hope for the best without looking through your viewfinder. Sometimes you can climb up on the crowd barrier to change your angle, but you gotta do that very quickly or you will piss off the crowd and the band. The best angle is getting backstage and shooting from the side because you get a unique view from there, one that the audience is not seeing. Another way is to use a telephoto lens and shoot from a balcony, or better yet, ask the venue if you can shoot from a spot that is normally inaccessible. You will probably be denied, but it can’t hurt to try.

How do you choose the right moment to shoot?
Just like a street photographer, you are waiting for something to happen. Obviously there will be singing and instrument playing going on, so those are your baseline actions to document. But then there might be dancing and movement happening that will be good to shoot too. Maybe the singer falls over while losing themselves in the music, or gets close to the edge of the stage… something different than the baseline, those things are good to shoot. Knowing the music and band helps; you may know that an explosive chorus is coming up in a song and be ready for that millisecond when the singer is going to scream and the audience will be at peak frenzy. I remember shooting with no flash and having to wait for the light show to switch to white or yellow lights to shoot photos during those few seconds. For me, I look for different things to shoot. What is the crowd doing? There may be something to shoot behind you too. Everything is on the table to shoot, but ideally you want that decisive moment where the music has reached a crescendo and the band is at peak action. It’s like trying to shoot a dolphin jumping out of the water—you have to try to predict when that moment will come, and be ready to capture it when it happens. It takes concentration and luck.

What piece of advice would you give to a kid who wants to become a music photographer?
Make friends with everyone. Most of my favorite band shots came from being backstage. I was lucky enough to make friends with the bands or the venue owners and get that access. Access is key, and you can get that by having a job in the media where you get a pass, or you can be homies with all the bands and get access that way. It’s hard to just walk off the street and get that access. It takes time, effort, authenticity and talent. You have to be able to BARGE into situations. Only the most tenacious will survive. If you get denied access on stage right, try stage left. Sneak back if you can and shoot until you get booted out. Maybe offer your shots to the band to use, that’s something that can break the ice and get you involved in a scene.

‘Krimewatch, a punk band from NYC playing a loft in East Williamsburg 2016. TURNSTILE also played this show with Countdown and another person dj’ing.’ – Tyler Andrew

Tyler Andrew @lookschill

What do you look for when choosing your angle/position?
I used to go for angles that nobody else was shooting from, even if it meant climbing to somewhere I wasn’t supposed to be. Being able to get just one shot would make it worth getting kicked out.

How do you choose the right moment to shoot?
When you’re shooting music, you can tell when it’s the right moment if you care about the music you’re shooting. If you don’t care about it, it will translate in your photos and at that point—why are you taking up space when someone else who actually cares could be there?

What piece of advice would you give to a kid who wants to become a music photographer?
I shot and toured with only hardcore bands for the most part. Hardcore is for the youth… it’s youth subculture. My advice to kids who want to become a music photographer: do different shit but also show respect to those who have done it before you. Don’t let anyone tell you how to photograph anything and find your own style. Going back to my statement about it being a youth subculture—know when it’s time to stop photographing these shows and make room for the new generation of photographers who want to be a part of the scene. Don’t be that 30 to 40-something-year-old taking up space for something that’s meant for the youth.

Feeling inspired? Enter your best shots into our Monster Children Photo Competition for your chance to win a slice of $30,000. 

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