By Shannon Shumaker
As a music photographer, people ask me on a daily basis some form of the following question: “How do you become a music photographer?” I’ve answered this question a million different times and a million different ways because there isn’t one set in stone way to “become” a music photographer. Each artist will have their own creative and professional journey, so there isn’t necessarily a “right” way to do it, (art is subjective, blah, blah, blah) but over the past five years as a music photographer, I have learned that there are absolutely some strict Dos and Don’ts in the concert photography world.
As a new artist just starting out, one can’t be expected to know all of these things right off the bat, so I’m here to give you some tips and pointers if you’re a bright eyed and bushy tailed new concert photographer! Exciting, right? But I suppose I should introduce myself, because some of you are probably thinking, “Who the hell is this girl? Why should I listen to what she has to say? Who is she to tell me what I should or shouldn’t do?”
My name is Shannon Shumaker. I’m a 23 year old music photographer from Denver, Colorado. I’ve been shooting concerts for the past five years, and seriously pursuing it now for about three. I am in no way an “expert,” as I’m still learning more and more every single day, but I like to think I’ve gained some knowledge over the past few years, and I feel that it is my duty to pass it on to you.
So, without further ado, here are my ten tips for aspiring concert photographers:
1. Shoot, shoot, shoot
This should be a given, but literally shoot as much as humanly possible. Don’t know how to get your camera into your local venue? Don’t worry, I’ll cover the more serious end of that in a bit. But for now, contact some local bands and ask them if you can shoot their show. I’m being honest when I say that literally no local band will say no to free photos if you need to get some practice. Let’s be honest, musicians are a little egotistical - they love photos of themselves looking super cool on stage.
Shoot touring bands when they come through town, too. (I will discuss how to get photo passes to bigger shows in depth a little later)
2. Learn your gear
Get to know your camera and learn its settings like the back of your hand. Even if it’s not live music, take tons of photos, and get used to the way your camera works, especially in different kinds of light, as lighting at concerts can be totally unpredictable (and sometimes undesirable).
Most people also think that learning your gear just means getting to know your camera, but I also mean it in terms of your editing software, too. Play with Lightroom and Photoshop a lot. Spend some time watching tutorials or reading about your software - I know that this may sound boring and tedious, but it is a lifesaver. A great place to start is here or here.
Take a photo and edit it a million different ways. Learn how to do different things to your photos in post processing, even if you think you’ll never need to know how to do it. You’ll be thankful when it’s one in the morning and you have an assignment due in seven hours, and all of your photos were taken in grossly oversaturated red or blue light. Trust me, you want to learn your editing software just as well as if not better than you know your camera.
3. Find your style
This is the fun part, because you can constantly work on finding your own style, no matter how long you’ve been shooting shows (or anything, for that matter). Five years into shooting concerts, and I’m still learning and growing every day.
Is there a specific photographer who’s style you really dig? Play around with some your photos and see if you can recreate it! Spend your free time discovering what works and what doesn’t. I cannot stress enough that YouTube tutorials are your friend. There is always something new to learn!
I’m not necessarily talking about selling yourself to everyone you meet, but I mean just talking to people, getting to know them. Again, this should be a given, but you will be amazed at how many doors will open for you if you’re personable and easy to get along with. If you’re at a show and waiting for the next band to go on, strike up a conversation with the security guard in the barricade. Get to know your local concert promoters, the people who run your local venues, and the local bands that play there. Make yourself present and approachable.
Learning how to be personable and easy to work with in person, over the phone and via email is a must, especially via email, as you’ll end up doing a lot of business over the phone or online, which takes me to my next tip:
5. Learn how to email
I know this sounds a little odd, and you may be thinking, “What does email have to do with concert photography? I just want to get out there and shoot!” Well really, knowing how to email has everything to do with concert photography.
If you want to shoot a local band, but you don’t know them, you’re going to have to email them. If you want to shoot a touring band, you guessed it, you’re going to have to send an email request to their publicist or management team. These are people who get hundreds or thousands of emails a day, and the last thing they want to deal with is someone who comes off as rude or entitled. Surprisingly, they also don’t want to read your entire life story, all of your favorite bands, or why you want to shoot their artist.
When emailing a publicist/manager to request a photo pass to a concert, you need to be three things:
Personable, concise and easy to work with.
When you email them, keep it short, sweet and to the point: Who do you want to shoot? Where and when are they playing? What is your name? Are you shooting for your portfolio or are you shooting for a publication? These are all things that a publicist/manager is going to want to know
A bare bones, simple email should be sent anywhere between 10-14 days prior to a show and will look something like this:
My name is [NAME]. I’m reaching out because I am interested in photographing [BAND] at [VENUE] in [CITY] on [DATE]. I just need a photo pass for myself in order to photograph the show, and the images would be used for my portfolio. I can send you a link to the photos as soon as they’re up.
Thanks for your time!
If you want a really in-depth guide on how to request credentials to a show, I highly recommend checking out this article on Haulix.
6. Be flexible
If you’re shooting freelance, or you are not shooting for a publication (which I’ll get to later), chances are, it may be a little harder to obtain a photo pass. Some publicists and bands are more lenient than others and will allow you to shoot their band simply for building your portfolio.
A lot of the time, though, spaces on the guest list are reserved for publications or photographers on assignment. Sometimes, publicists can only provide you with a photo pass but cannot give you a ticket. I always took these opportunities when they presented themselves because they gave me a chance to build my portfolio when I was shooting for my portfolio. I didn’t shoot for a publication for the first 2 years that I was shooting, so there was a lot of getting denied and buying my own tickets, but it was absolutely worth it in the end.
Sometimes, a publicist just cannot accommodate you, and if this is the case, be gracious and respectful. Do not, under any circumstances, get an attitude. Wouldn’t you rather someone remember you as being nice and easy to work with than rude?
7. FOLLOW THE RULES
This is in all caps because in my opinion, it is one of the most important things on this list. if you are given credentials for a show, be gracious, follow the rules of the venue and ALWAYS follow up with your coverage. Most venue rules are the first three songs, no flash, from the barricade, however this may vary depending on the venue or band. 99% of the time, the rules will be specified prior to you arriving at the show. This also means abiding by any contract or photo release you may sign in order to shoot a show.
If you are shooting from the barricade and there are other photographers in the barricade with you, be courteous. Don’t stand in the same place for the entire three songs. Move around. Not only will it allow you to get a wide variety of shots, but it will give everyone an equal chance to get good photos. You don’t want to make enemies with fellow photographers, because they are the people who will help you out when you really need it.
As a photographer, you are there to document the show, but never to take away from that concert experience for either the band or the concert goers. Don’t do anything that you wouldn’t want someone doing to you, ie: getting up in a band member’s face with a big lens or bright flash, or standing on the barricade blocking a fan’s view.
8. Find A Publication
If you’re shooting freelance and you want to take yourself to the next level (or simply want to be able to shoot more shows/bands that require a media outlet) you need to shoot for a publication. This includes local radio stations, newspapers, blogs, magazines, ect… Search everywhere. Find national publications that accept applications from all over the country/region/world.
This is where all of these other skills will come in handy. You’re going to need to email these people, you’re going to need to have experience and a decent portfolio, and you’re going to need to be kind and easy to work with.
Just like with publicists, some of these places will say no or not reply, but don’t let that discourage you. Reach out to as many people as possible, be kind and courteous and eventually, doors will open.
9. Don’t treat it as a competition
I wish someone would have given me this bit of advice when I first started out, because I would have spent more time focusing on my own work rather than what other people were doing. Competing with your fellow photographers does absolutely no good for you or for the music scene.
It is totally okay to worry about what makes you special, what makes you marketable or what sets you apart from the pack, but the second that you start trying to be “better than” or “more popular than” someone else, it’s no longer about your artwork and instead it’s more about someone else’s. You worry about you, your goals and your art. Worry about bettering yourself and shooting what you want to shoot. You will feel much better about yourself at the end of the day, and you’ll make some friends in the process.
Those other photographers are the people who will lend you an extra battery when yours dies, who will let you use their telephoto lens when you find out last minute that you have to shoot from the soundboard, or will lend you an extra memory card when you forgot yours at Warped Tour. These are the people who will warn you when a crowd surfer is about to land on your head, who will tap you nicely on the shoulder when they want to squeeze past you in the photo pit, rather than shoving past you and ruining your shot. These people will support your work and your career because you support theirs, rather than competing with them. Everyone works at their own pace, so don’t worry about what they’re doing, unless it’s to congratulate them for a job well done.
10. Always keep growing
I’ve got to end this list on a positive note, so here you go:
If you’re ever feeling discouraged about your work, I encourage you to go look at some of the first shots you’ve taken and compare them to your newest images. Chances are, you are miles better than you were a few years, or even a few months ago. You’re always going to keep growing as an artist, but you need to push yourself to do so. Challenge yourself, shoot shows or artists that you normally wouldn't shoot, shoot venues with crappy lighting and learn how to make it work! Use all of the advice I’ve given you, and keep shooting and growing, and if you ever have any questions, always feel free to ask!