As a concert photographer I'm often asked an array of questions about why and how I get to spend many of my weekends and nights in front of some of music's most famous and influential celebrities. As you can imagine one of the most popular questions people ask right after "Can I be your assistant?" is how they can become a concert photographer. Rather than repeat the story over and over I figured it was time once and for all to share my experience on the record with the world.
Truthfully, many photographers feel there really are too many people who dabble in concert photography these days, but if that doesn't deter you and you think that a spot in the photo pit should be yours, let me expose to you aspects of the concert photography world you probably haven't thought about yet. I've asked some of the world's most beloved music and concert photographers, and also some not so famous shooters, to assist me in this process and I'm extremely grateful to be able to bring their voices and experiences to the conversation. Of course there are books out there you can read before you start your journey. I suggest two that will put you on the right path. The first is Concert Photography by Jon Sievert and the second is All Access by Alan Hess. These are excellent primers that will educate you about your first steps into the world of concert photography and beyond. Follow the hyperlinks to purchase your copies.
I asked Jon Sievert about the challenges and advantages that concert photographers have in the digital world compared to the film world. Sievert told me, “Life has gotten much easier technically for concert photographers with digital but much more difficult to get access, permissions, and retain control of their images. Everybody now has a digital camera in their phone that requires no knowledge of how to focus or make a perfect exposure under lighting conditions beyond the capabilities of film. Trusted insiders with digital cameras, such as partners, spouses, or crew members, have access not granted outsiders. A great photographer will always stand out but bands, record companies, and publications now almost always prefer free or low cost images that are “good enough” as opposed to paying for outstanding ones.”
There's something to be said about doing your homework, and this is true with concert photography. Photographer Alan Hess told me that, "I still study the bands I shoot," even though he's probably shot just about every band you can imagine multiple times, because he's, "Figuring out the best way to capture them." That's very smart advice, because I think you should always know something about your subjects that will help you connect with and capture them at their best moments onstage. I will sometimes look at Youtube concert videos of bands or musicians I'm about to photograph to see if there's any bit of knowledge I can gain to give me an edge when it comes time to be in the photo pit. Hess also talked briefly about the switch that's been made from film photography to digital. Hess told me, "The biggest change from film to digital was the lowering of the cost of entry," adding that now it's "Much cheaper now to shoot." Hess went on to say, "I think it helps, creates more competition. No resting on what you did in the past, you always have to be working on what's next."
First, let me explain to you a bit about me and my experience with photography. I started exploring photography as an expressive medium back in 1989 as a high school junior and in 1992 I took my first black and white darkroom class in college. Like many photographers I started out photographing my friend's bands and I shot local concerts around Milwaukee on 35mm film from the crowd until 2003. During those years I experimented a great deal and used a wide variety of 35mm cameras from a manual Minolta XG-M to an advanced Nikon N90s. I shot a lot of Kodak T-Max 100, 400 and 3200 speed black and white film. My favorite color film for concerts was Fuji NGH 800 speed film. Occasionally I'd use the Fuji 1600 speed films but they were very grainy. Right before the switch to digital I shot a lot of various slide films, because I knew that the experience would transfer over to the digital world where exposure was critical, just like slide film. I moved out of the comfort zone of 35mm negative film and the latitude it offered in exposure, and I became a better photographer for that experience. It helped that my day job was an E6 slide processor operator at a lab, because every day I lived and breathed the process. Of course my relationship with photography didn't just begin in 1989 with my first camera, a Fujica slr, it went back to the 1970's and early 1980's. I remember quite clearly the first time a Polaroid instant photo developed before my eyes. The magic of photography pulled me into the process at a very early age.
The Learning Curve
After my initial darkroom class at UW-Waukesha, and a few jobs at local camera shops and studios, I later went to the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design in 1995 and spent a couple years there learning from local master photographers and artists like Bob Smith, Al Balinsky and J. Shimon & J. Lindemann. When I wasn't shooting it seemed like I spent the majority of my MIAD time in the darkroom, which was fine by me. Those years at MIAD were full of experimentation from pinhole cameras to 4x5 view cameras and everything in between. In 2004 I had my first job as a concert photographer for The Shepherd Express weekly paper in Milwaukee. I photographed a mix of local acts like Crime And Judy and national bands such as The Pixies. It was great experience and paid $75 a photo, which at the time seemed like decent pay for one photo and a couple hours work. During the first year of freelancing for The Shepherd it paid for my Nikon D70 digital camera in full. I also went back to school at The Peck School of the Arts at UW-Milwaukee in 2004 and finished up my degree in art by 2006. For good measure I earned a minor in political science along the way.
The Joy Of Diversity
I have very eclectic tastes in music and I enjoy covering a wide range of artists from Heavy Metal to Country. If you look back at my articles at Examiner over the last 15 months you'll see what I mean, I've covered everyone from Carrie Underwood to Kittie. It's hard to say that at this point in my career I cover one genre more than another. Any given month can find me photographing Taylor Swift, Megadeth, B.B. King, Halestorm or Justin Bieber, it really just depends who is on tour and who is coming through town. I shoot primarily for myself these days as a freelance contractor here for Examiner.com where I publish the results of the photo shoot. I pick and choose what bands I want to photograph and give publicity to. I gain access through publicists and many have come to know me over the last 10 years and trust me to make their artists look good. I create my own assignments, no one tells me what to shoot, and I enjoy the freedom this gives me. I own my images 100% and I wouldn't have it any other way. With this freedom comes great responsibility, you will never find me selling shirts, mouse pads or mugs with my concert photos on them. Ever.
The Grass Is Always Greener
I've been on both sides of the pay fence. For a variety of reasons it's not always easy to get paid to photograph a concert and in my experience obtaining photo credentials to big name acts has been pretty good. This isn't the case for everyone in the business. With smaller theater and club bands your chance of obtaining credentials rises. These two situations are not mutually exclusive, there are numerous parallels that can be drawn between the difficulty in obtaining payment and the ease of obtaining a photo pass. Digital photography has obliterated the front end of the learning curve that was associated with traditional film photography. This has led to an avalanche of aggressive newcomers to the industry armed with the mindset that they don't need any training on how to use their gear. Sometimes I wonder if those that simply don't care about getting paid are having a better time than me. I truly love concert photography, and I truly love being paid for my work. I have some big student loans that won't pay for themselves. Still, somewhere inside me I wish I could just shoot and not worry about anything except making photographs that satisfy the passion and inner drive I feel to create art from the concert experience. Deep down I wish the burden of publishing was removed and I could focus more on the art. I'm jealous of the relationships I see some photographers have with bands and musicians I love and respect. It's difficult sometimes for photographers to live in a world so close to their expectations, but always feeling that there's a velvet rope and bouncer between you and your goals and he's holding a list of names you're not on. There's always going to be a big "why not me" factor that you may or may not ever overcome. Be prepared to be disappointed with your career as a photographer.
Portfolios, Publications And Publicists
New photographers face a problem that they need a portfolio, published content or a publication that will convince publicists to give them access. Fortunately for new photographers there's no shortage of blogs, review site and news organizations that will assist them in obtaining credentials in exchange for a photo credit and the opportunity to get into the photo pit and concert for free. With so many photographers lined up and willing to shoot for free many professional shooters feel this damages the marketplace and their potential for paid work. It creates a situation where many media outlets will almost always choose free photos over professional paid photos. We'll hear from some professionals later on about the impact on the marketplace.
This is what it's all about, isn't it ? The golden ticket. The keys to the castle. Gaining access might seem like a Rubik's Cube at first, but it's more like an elegant dance, if you ask me. I am constantly bombarded with questions about how to get in touch with bands for photo passes. My contact list is pretty good at this point in my career, it's something that has taken me a long time to piece together. I rarely give out contact information or give tips on how to gain access. It goes against my best interest to just hand that information over for free. Your publication, in theory, should handle the initial media request. For everything else there's Google, learn how to use it.
Recognize Your Friends From Your Frenemies
Recently I've been facing a growing and aggressive pack of local and not so local concert photographers that have been pushing me to the sidelines in an effort to gain some sort of imaginary upper hand in the local market. Examiner refuses to give me any sort of job security in my title or territory of Milwaukee, which leads to a "Wild West" scenario where it's every photographer for themselves, and it gets pretty vicious and competitive to obtain credentials for bigger more lucrative photo shoots with the major bands that come through Milwaukee. It's enough to make someone like myself wonder if it's worth the headache and bother. It's also made me cautious in new relationships, because the reality is no one has time for frenemies these days. Be prepared to deal with the same sorts of situations, there will constantly be photographers trying to compete for the limited amount of spaces in the photo pit or pass list. They'll want to know your tips and secrets, they'll want to know how you gain access and don't be shocked when they ask for your contacts in the industry. Don't ever be shocked when a publicist gets back to you and says the list is full, it's going to happen at some point. Don't even be shocked when there's no response at all from a publicist.
First Come, First Served
I actually was denied a photo pass to Red Hot Chili Peppers last year because the photo pit was "full" and I know for a fact that an unpaid photographer was given a pass to shoot for his own personal blog site that gave the band a very minimal amount of publicity, but it gave the photographer, an up and coming shooter, photos for his portfolio. I was shooting for a national outlet, and asked a few weeks in advance of the show, and my article would have gone to Google News, but I was still denied due to the list being full. I know for a fact this unpaid shooter asked to photograph the show months in advance, which is pretty unusual to request that far in advance. The bottom line is that I wasn't able to make a paycheck that week because, as I see it, the guy shooting for free took my spot. While it's a frustrating scenario, it's hard to say anyone was at fault here, but it's baffling that the publicist didn't really care about the amount or quality of the publicity his clients would receive if I had been given a photo pass instead of the blog. First come, first served, apparently. Request your pass accordingly.
When In Doubt, Walk Away
Some of the bands that you'll encounter will want you to sign some sort of waiver to photograph them in concert. I do not sign copyright grabbers. I simply refuse. I will never relinquish copyright to anyone. Signing a rights grabbing contract to gain access to the photo pit is a selfish act that sends the wrong message to the publicity and management teams that our work as photographers has no value to us. The copyright to your photo is created the moment you click the shutter and the image is made and should only be surrendered for fair market value. I will hesitantly sign some waivers that simply restrict me from using the images for commercial use, which is already a given. A vast majority of the artists I photograph do not ask me to sign any paperwork. This is for a few reasons, the main one being that I don't ask to photograph bands or musicians that I know want to grab my copyright. If I find a photo release has ridiculous terms I simply refuse or walk away. More photographers need to learn the power of saying no. Rights grabbers and waivers are extremely frustrating, but the silver lining is that very few bands have such ridiculous stipulations and the majority of musicians out there understand the value of publicity and are very accommodating of the media.
The Power Of No
I have said no to numerous photo waivers and was still allowed to shoot. It never hurts to refuse a waiver you feel is unjust or disrespectful to the photographer. Explain your issues and objections with the waiver in a concise and professional manner. At the end of the day musicians and photographers are both artists and need to treat each other with a professional level of respect. If you don't respect the responsibility that comes with the job you have no right to be in the photo pit in the first place. These waivers and copyright grabbers have been around for a while, but have become more and more common as shady photographers try to make a side profit with merchandise, calendars and other products without the consent of the band. It only takes a few rogue photographers to ruin it for everyone. Ultimately it's up to photographers to be responsible with the trust bestowed upon them by whoever gives them credentials.
The Saturation Conundrum
As mentioned earlier, a major issue in the industry is the saturation point that we've reached. Simply put, too many people think they're concert photographers. Photography has always been a competitive field, but never have there been so many people calling themselves concert photographers. This is of course because digital photography has taken away many of the initial barriers and technical skills that once existed with film. It's become pretty easy to get something that is acceptable enough to publish, even if the camera operator has little to no skill or experience. I give the analogy all the time that just because I buy a hammer, I am not a carpenter. You can buy a full frame camera and f2.8 zoom lenses, but if you're just starting out that doesn't make you a legitimate photographer, it makes you the owner of a nice camera. It takes a special kind of individual to truly grasp the technical and artistic melding that takes place to create extraordinary photographs. The title of photographer is one you earn, or rather that's how it used to be. Because concert photography is fun and exciting, and involves celebrities, it has a certain appeal that other areas of photography simply lack. Because of the saturation of concert photographers the laws of supply and demand have driven down the value of editorial photography to a point that very few people can make a living any longer.
Three Songs And You're Out
Generally I'm pretty confident that I can get all of the photos I need in the first three songs from the photo pit. I do get a little frustrated when I'm told I only have one or two songs to shoot, it's simply not enough time, in my opinion, to get the job done and justify the time and effort it's taken me to show up to shoot. Fifteen minutes is the least amount of time I want to spend in front of a band or musician. I no longer show up for soundboard shoots, in general. I find them to be a complete waste of my time and effort, and the resulting photos are lackluster. There's no artistry involved with a soundboard shoot, and it sends the message to me that I am unwanted and an afterthought. For me, there's no value in photographing a subject from 50 or 75 yards away. In some cases it might be the artist sending photographers to the soundboard because they have issues with how they look up close. It might be management wanting to control the image of their client in some cases. Either way it's the least desirable spot in the venue to be with a camera no matter what lens you have with you. Baron Wolman shared with me the problems he faced making concert photos in his day. Wolman explained, "The biggest challenge was getting the exposure right. The stage lighting was always changing and the Nikon-F had no auto-exposure capability. I had an external spot meter which gave me an accurate reading of the musician's face and/or body but no sooner did I have that reading that the lighting changed...!!! We worked hard for our money…."
Life On Tour
While most concert photographers show up, get their credentials, make their way to the pit, shoot and go home to edit their photos, some concert photographers have reached a level that musicians and bands hire them to be their tour photographer and they travel with the band on the road. One such success story is photographer Christie Goodwin. Her images cut to the heart of the matter and expose the brilliance within. I asked Goodwin about her experience as Taylor Swift's tour photographer and how she landed such an epic job, one she's had for five years. Goodwin told me, "I do quite a lot of tours, not just Tay, as I prefer to work with the artists directly. For Tay it was all about listening to how she sees things. Most artists have a defined vision and its all about capturing that vision in your pictures which is indeed different from just shooting a show as a witness." I went on to ask Goodwin what a typical day on tour is like. "A day for me would start at lunch time when you are hauled to the venue. You shoot the sound check and then it's just boring old waiting. You get dinner and then you get your gear ready for the show. Sometimes they want you to shoot the huddle before the show or the artist walking to the starting point so you cover that. You shoot full show and then it's hop on the bus off to the next city. Oh and some want you to cover the meet and greet before the show as well. With most of my regular clients like Taylor, Kate Perry, Usher I don't work with a brief because they know I understand their vision so they just let me do my thing which is when I'm at my best. New clients often come with a brief which I find a nuisance. It can restrict your creativity." I also asked Christie about how all those photos get edited, because it would be an awful lot to tackle at one time once the tour is over. "Usually on the tour bus I will upload my pictures and make a first selection. I never let 24 hours pass by finishing them because the truth is I'm best when I'm still in the bubble of the show. 24 hours after the shoot I usually hate my pictures so that doesn't work for me. It often means that when everybody is having a good time and relaxing I am working. But I have to do it that way to get the best result. My selecting pictures goes super fast btw. If a picture doesn't talk to me in one look it gets deleted. I'm very very hard on myself. But it's the way it works for me," said Goodwin.
You Are More Than The Sum Of Your Gear
While there are many camera manufactures out there, the brand you use is nowhere near as important as learning how to use the gear you own. When you shoot a concert it's going to be dark, and you're going to need to know how to make on the fly adjustments without hesitation in split second decisions that could mean getting the shot or not. If you're purchasing your first camera, you'll probably end up with a Nikon or a Canon DSLR, and while you're learning it probably doesn't matter which route you go, although I must admit I am a bias Nikon user. And for the record no one at Nikon has paid me to promote their gear, yet, I use it because it performs exactly as I need it to and I like the results. That's a big factor when you are choosing gear and you're making an informed choice. For photographer Jim Anderson his choices were very organic and natural when he was shooting concerts of The Grateful Dead. Anderson told me recently, "I never used the "right" lenses. Always, and only, the lenses I owned." Anderson went on to tell me about one of his lenses in particular, saying,"In the 90's I spent $800 for my Nikon 105mm f1.8. I thought that was a great lens, but never for concerts except from the (sound) booth. Then I could get the band and lights in a tight shot. No one cared about what I was shooting for when I was shooing the Dead. I was never a "pit" person." Rolling Stone photographer Baron Wolman told me that, "My favorite gear back in the day was the Nikon-F and the Nikon lenses. My favorite film was Tri-X, although I tried Kodak's "recording" film a few times, film that was rated at ASA1000 but was very grainy and tended to curl along the length of the film." With quality digital cameras being so complex, it's more important than ever to pick the right tools for your job.
Narcissism Fuels Social Media
I don't shoot for free these days, but I understand the motivation that drives those that do give away their work. I think most every concert photographer has shot for free at some point in their career, either for themselves or a publication or band. I think free admission to concerts is high on the list of motivations. Let's face it, concerts are expensive and a luxury in a down economy. Being able to see your favorite bands, being just a few feet in front of them for three songs, and being able to brag about it to your friends and social media connections is a huge incentive. Narcissism is a bigger factor than many people realize when it comes to concert photography. Social media gives many people a platform to be someone that appears more interesting than their real world identity. Being a concert photographer with 1000 likes at a Facebook page is far more interesting than being an employee at Starbucks with 350 Facebook friends. The desire to seem important drives a lot of people when they're starting out. Facebook gives the average user an opportunity to create a more interesting persona. I've seen it a lot on Facebook, photographers that seem more interested in who they are photographing and letting it be known who they photographed than they are about creating quality images. Photographer Don Jackson-Wyatt spoke with me about his experience witnessing the surge of photographers using social media. Jackson-Wyatt said, "I feel that the biggest challenge is without a doubt the accessibility to prosumer equipment, enabling anyone to purchase a camera, and suddenly they become a professional photographer. Add this to the impact of social media 'business pages' and the 'faux-tographer' is born. Granted, we all start at the bottom and work our way up, but there is always someone that will work for free or for show tickets just to get a photo pass and in this day and age, a lot of pr companies and bands will prefer to choose someone that is free."
The Online Army Of Music Photographers
If you're looking for an online venue to get involved in the conversation look no further than Music Photographers on Facebook. Now boasting over 10,000 members it has quickly become the hangout to discuss, and argue, current topics in the industry. Be prepared to come face to face with some pretty opinionated people in this group, they're just as likely to support your point of view as they are to tear you apart for it. There is no mercy in their dojo. Tread wisely and lightly. Be concise and reasoned with your approach in any online forum. Flickr is also home to a large group of music photographers and can be a great resource if you need to consult other photographers for information.
The Fame Paradox
Many photographers just starting out think that displaying in your portfolio musicians with a certain level of fame may get you the next job. Let's face it, this is a competitive field and people will do whatever it takes to give them what they think is the edge on the competition. People who hire photographers however are more concerned about the quality of your images than who you have photographed and that's something new photographers may not understand. They're interested in your ability to capture a moment that defines the entire night and captures the spirit of the performance. A bad photo of Amy Lee in your portfolio probably isn't going to help you get a job no matter how famous Evanescence is. In fact, an excellent photo of an unknown musician that delivers visual impact might get you further along than you'd think.
Giving It Away
When you shoot for free you are basically telling the publication that you don't value your work. It's going to be pretty difficult to start charging for what was once free. With the sheer volume of people willing to shoot for free you are easily replaceable. Most publications that don't pay probably never will because they are unwilling or incapable of monetizing the content or lack advertising to pay for content. I asked photographer Rich Gastwirt his opinion on the situation, and he told me, "I'm not a full-time photographer; my photography revenue is primarily from being hired by festivals, but a challenge I face as a concert photographer is that a lot of people are willing to work for nothing. By definition, working for nothing is unprofessional and it does a disservice to all photographers. By valuing your work at zero, you're telling the world that your work is worthless. This isn't the real problem though; the real problem is that clients are willing to accept this substandard work. When I'm hired by a festival, it's because the producer knows that I act professionally and deliver consistently excellent images that will help their future marketing and public relations efforts. When a producer brings in a non-professional, they're taking a huge gamble and often end up with poor images that don't effectively capture the spirit of the event."
For The Love Of Greed
Of course you also have profitable publications that are guilty of not paying for editorial content. This happens in both the print and web media worlds because they can get away with it. Right now, somewhere, there is a photographer so desperate to be recognized that money means nothing compared to any amount of exposure. One of the more ridiculous things I've heard from a publication is that they had no reason to send me to cover the concert because they can get a free photo from the house photographer at the venue. This is great for the house photographer because they were paid by the venue for their work, but it's pretty lousy for me because I miss out on a paycheck because I can't compete with free. It's tough to blame the house photographer in this situation because they are often themselves sacrificing copyright for a small paycheck. Venues need to reexamine their policies and payment in the future and give more credit and monetary compensation to the photographers that make their concerts appeal to patrons. I almost applied to be a venue photographer once until I learned I owned no copyright and would be paid close to Starbuck's type salary. I declined. These jobs appeal to students and photographers looking for experience, but that's about it.
Getting Your Money On The Back End
I have in the past shot for free, and I can tell you that it was only because I couldn't find anyone to pay me. It wasn't for a lack of trying, either. Sometimes, in some markets, there's simply no one willing to write you a check for your work. Forced to make a choice between not shooting and shooting, sometimes the upfront pay is something you have to write off and consider it a gamble on the future. It's a frustrating situation knowing that you have the experience, education, talent and gear to get the job done, but no one is willing to value your work. It's especially important not to sign any paperwork or waivers if you're shooting for free because there's always hope that somewhere down the line you might be able to license one of your photos and get paid. Remember, you're building an archive of images and your library of work might not be something you can monetize now, but don't give up hope for the future. Shooting for free is the least desirable situation any concert photographer can find themselves in and if that's where you are right now it's time to plan your next course of action so you can find a paying outlet. For photographer Charles Izenstark, who shoots under the name Ize of the World Photos, the proliferation of photographers and shooting for pay isn't a concern as he informed me, "Photography is not my primary income source so I try to avoid the business "problems". Most of my work is for a specific outlet, or for the bands directly, and the income derived therefrom is always very limited. For me, photography has never been a "for profit" venture, but I also spend almost no time marketing myself to that end." Charles added, "The biggest problem I do see is that the proliferation of people who have "become" concert photographers has had the effect of devaluing the field. From the band's perspective they do not need "the best," for which they might have to pay, but instead can settle for "good enough" which can often be obtained for little or no cost. But from my perspective the "value" of my work is never a function of the monetary reward. I also no longer consider other photographers as "competition" as what I am selling/providing is my distinct style and point of view. My primary concern is obtaining and preserving the access I need to get "the shot" and then I hope that the shot will sell itself."
The Decline Of The Photographic Civilization
I've seen both a decline in payment and a decline in the amount of paying jobs and I'm willing to talk numbers. I have seen the payment at Examiner.com shrink over the last 16 months in a rapid and disturbing pace. When I first started publishing I was paid nearly a penny per click on each photo in my slideshows, and I was allowed 50 photos per slideshow in an article. That changed quickly to roughly .0067 per click, which was a pretty big pay cut. The next pay cut for photos, however, was a real kick in the gut. In May of 2013 Examiners were told every 1000 photo views would be paid a flat rate of $1.50, and slideshows were cut to just 15 photos. Not only did the pay get cut, but we lost 35 opportunities per slideshow to get paid. A short time later slideshows were raised to 20 photos, after a backlash from Examiners, but the pay stayed the same. Just when I thought the pay couldn't get any worse it was cut once again this month to fifty cents per 1000 photo views.
The Numbers Don't Lie
To make this a bit easier to understand I'll give you a real world example. Let's say I had 30,000 views on my photos. Paid a penny per view, that's $300. At .0067 a click that was reduced to $201. The pay declined to $45 at $1.50 per 1000 photo views and shrunk to a dismal $15 at fifty cents per 1000 photo views. My pay has declined 95% over the last 16 months at Examiner for slideshow views. The last pay cut took effect just a few days ago, and most of us don't know what to do next because it no longer even pays for our gas and parking to photograph a concert. While I may continue to publish topical news articles at Examiner.com, I will no longer publish slideshows at the current pay rate because doing so would be agreeing that fifty cents per 1000 photo views is an acceptable rate of pay, and it is most certainly not. I offer one final slideshow along with this article, limited to 20 photos by the powers that be, although I would like to publish 42 photos that represent my last 15 months as a concert photographer publishing with Examiner. For the full gallery please visit my Facebook photo page, and be sure to hit "like" on my page to keep up with new photos. Also please check out my website. Until the slideshow pay increases for original content here at Examiner, this is the last time I will post a slideshow of my photos.
The Milwaukee Scene
In Milwaukee the market for paid editorial concert photography has always been slim, but these days it's practically impossible to make any worthwhile money in the industry. There are essentially 3 noteworthy news outlets with the daily paper, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, being the biggest fish in the pond. They rarely show up to cover concerts, it has to be Taylor Swift or Justin Bieber at the BMO Harris Bradley Center or a Summerfest concert for them to assign a photographer. I've noticed they've slashed their photography staff over the last few years and will often use a stock Getty photo with the concerts they do review. OnMilwaukee.com simply won't pay for photos, I've asked them for compensation numerous times. They'll use cell phone concert photos in some cases rather than pay a photographer, or get a handout photo from the venue photographer for free. The same is true for the Shepherd Express, I've asked them to pay me for concert photos but they no longer have money in their budget.
The Pitfalls Of Success
Since the local Milwaukee scene was a bust, I felt the only place to turn, for me, was Examiner.com and their open ended compensation plan that pays per click. At first it was great, I earned an honest and pretty fair paycheck for my work, and I felt pretty good about the opportunity to earn profit from my work month after month. Any given day was a chance that a new audience would find my photos and reviews, and it brought new revenue with the exposure. Apparently too many of us were making too much money, however, and, as I explained earlier, what was once acceptable compensation has now been slashed to unacceptable levels. My next options include the status quo, finding a national web or print publication that sees the value in my work, finding a gig as a tour photographer, creating a book about my concert photography, a combination of those ideas, or of course I could simply call it quits. The last option doesn't sit well with me as I still feel the fire inside to create. You can never rest easy in the concert photography world, you should always be planning your next move to a bigger publication in the industry. That has been my mistake the last 15 months, I got comfortable with my situation and now I must aggressively explore my next path. There's so much competition that it's not always easy to get noticed, so no matter who you are or how good you are there's a chance that your next move might take significant work and time. Be prepared for downtime. I'm thankful for my day job which will see me through any periods of inactive shooting. Don't ever expect that concert photography will be your sole source of income, there are only a small minority of shooters who have reached that level.
Practice Makes Perfect
So many complex elements come together in great photographs. Inexperienced photographers may get part of the formula correct, but usually there are glaring technical issues that prevent new photographers from fully expressing themselves photographically. Poor exposure is generally the biggest issue I come across, but composition and subject expression are common faults as well. The bottom line is that it takes years, perhaps decades, to grasp and hone the finer aspects of photography, it's not a skill that is going to be understood over a short period of time. The best advice I have to new photographers is to take a few classes in photography, seek out the advice of local photographers who know the industry and become informed. Practice for a few years and during that time study the history of photography. Too many new photographers make the assumption that things are going to happen for them overnight, or within the first couple years of shooting. This simply isn't the case for the vast majority of photographers. There's so much to learn and experience when it comes to photography and so much experimenting in controlled and uncontrolled conditions that needs to take place. Take the time to completely indulge and immerse yourself into the world of photography, after all if this is your passion and creative outlet then what's the rush ? You have an entire lifetime to master the craft. Photographer Kevin Kenly spoke with me about how things work for him in his market. Kenly said, "The biggest challenges I face are being relevant and finding the right media outlets to share my work with to reach the demographic I am trying to reach. I am still in the "glorified hobby" stage of shooting concert photography, where I rarely make any financial gains from the work I put into it, but it gives me a lot of really good opportunities, so I am thankful for those. I hopefully will be able to turn this into a career." Kenly went on to say, "I live and operate in a smaller market, so the competition isn't too tough. Most other concert photographers in town have their own niche markets, and we rarely are "fighting" for attention or shots. I tend to think that the more the merrier when it comes to multiple photogs shooting the same event, everyone has a different eye for details. While I do compare my own shots to theirs, I can get jealous by seeing a great shot that I missed capturing, but it isn't a big deal. It can give you ideas for angles and shots that you can try to capture in the future. It is an everyday learning experience."
A New Hope
It's an exciting period in the history of photography. While I'm a firm believer that a talented and experienced photographer is always better than their gear, the current generation of digital cameras allow concert photographers to concentrate on capturing the action rather than the limitations that plagued early digital gear like low megapixels, mediocre ISO performance and high ISO noise. I know from experience that my results from shooting concerts in the digital age are superior to film in some ways, but there are drawbacks as well. I miss having a physical negative or slide, but I don't miss scanning photos, scratched negatives or the physical storage space needed with film. The tradeoff is that we now need multiple hard drives, online storage options, expensive high speed memory cards, expensive photo editing software, not to mention a quality computer to edit our images.
The Price Of Choosing Your Own Adventure
At the center of any business or hobby is the money factor. What is or isn't "expensive" is a matter of opinion and cash-flow. While one photographer might consider $2,500 a bargain for a camera body, another might have to work six months or longer to save up that much money. Numerous photographers spoke to me about the cost of gear and how game changing upgrades are prohibitively expensive. Mary-Ellen Swayne said to me that she'd like a, "More recent camera with the better low light capabilities," but "As we get paid next to nothing for shooting, if we get paid, the cost of even second hand D700 is cost prohibitive at this time." Nick Semrad echoed the same, telling me, "Sometimes not having a pro body with clean ISO's up to 4000 is very frustrating. The single piece of gear that would be a game changer for me would be a new full frame body. I'd like a Nikon D3s or D4. Currently the only thing holding me back is money, but hopefully that will change in the next few months." Jeffrey Becker cut right to chase and said, "Nikon's crazy high prices of their 24-70mm f2.8G and 12-24mm f2.8G lenses" hold him back from creating some of the photos he wants to make. Becker went on to say that he doesn't own a 24-70mm f2.8G or D4, "Because of the price."
Redefine Your Ability
Everyone makes mistakes, especially when first starting out. The key is learning from those mistakes and moving forward to shoot another day. Photographer Jeffrey Becker told me that "Not shooting in RAW format," was an early mistake he made because being, "Unable to correct exposure mistakes is a huge disadvantage. The convenience of JPG's simply wasn't worth the loss of post-editing flexibility." This is one reason that I enjoy having a camera with two memory card slots, I'll sometimes have RAW files save to one card and JPG's save to the second card. This is a tactic I have heard many photographers use. Photographer Nick Semrad told me about one of his early mistakes. Semrad said "When I first started doing concert photography I was asking for a photo pass to just shoot photos. I got denied for quite a few shows when I did that. Even the ones that did give me photo passes were probably kind of bummed that I didn't write anything, and if I did write something it wasn't very good." Semrad continued, "From that I learned that I really needed to be diligent when it came to publishing good photos and good articles. I paid more attention to what I was writing and included a lot more info about the show and the band." Butch Worrell offered up one of his early mistakes, telling me, "Once I forgot to put a fresh memory card in and ran out of memory. Now I carry an extra and make sure the one in the camera is ready." Of course not every mistake is mechanical or technical in nature. Mary-Ellen Swayne shared with me that one of her early mistakes in the industry was, "Feeling intimidated by the other photographers who had been doing this longer than I had and who shot for bigger publications or websites than I" and, "Looked down their noses at me." Swayne learned from that experience, "Not to be intimidated, not to let anyone else determine how I felt about my work."
Haters And Trolls
When you start out as a photographer your biggest supporters will be your family and friends. They will encourage you, hopefully, even if you're no good at what you do. You will, hopefully, get better with time and experience. There's going to be a time, however, when you reach a larger audience with your work. The safety net of your family and friends will be there, but you're going to be further away from it than previously. It's when you're the most out there with your work reaching the biggest audience that you will find yourself most vulnerable to haters and trolls. Welcome to the internet. For no good reason, besides their own self loathing and hatred, their own dissatisfaction with their work and career, they will bash you and try to bring you down to their level. You're best off ignoring them, no good can come from the ensuing verbal back and forth.
Making Your Mark As An Artist
Whether or not your photos are art or rather editorial representations of a newsworthy event, or both, is a wide open debate for interpretation. For me I'm inclined to make the decision based on at least two significant factors. The first is based upon the education of the photographer, something that's not always known. If someone went to art school chances are they're making art, but that's not always the case. Not every artist is good. The second factor is based off visual cues in the photograph. Sensitivity to composition, exposure, tone, texture, color, subject expression and timing all play into how I see a photo as art or merely an accurate and newsworthy depiction of the musician and event. The subject of fine art prints, limited edition prints and print pricing is a whole other topic. Before you decide to enter the limited edition fine art print market I urge you to consult an expert in the field, perhaps someone who is a known artist. Be sure you didn't sign away the rights to sell your photos as fine art prints to gain access to the photo pit.
Chasing Butterflies Or Chasing The Dragon
Everybody has their reasons for being a concert photographer, but I think what I love the most is simply creating photos that define the moment in time. I love the challenge of getting shots that show the musicians in the best light and can precisely sum up the concert artistically and in a newsworthy fashion. Many concert photographers would explain the feeling of capturing an epic image to the rush of drugs. Sometimes it feels like a bad habit that you just can't quit. It certainly can cost the same as a drug habit with $2,000 lenses and $3,000 camera bodies becoming the norm. While I have been afforded many great opportunities, and there are many still out there in concert and music photography, I would be remiss without mentioning it's a long hard road to reach the elite tier of photographers in the business today like Jay Blakesberg, Kevin Mazur or Jeff Kravitz. Baron Wolman offered me his take on the current state of the industry that a majority of photographers face. Wolman told me, "The current environment that concert photographers work in is inexcusable and disrespectful to the photographers. The limits placed upon today's shooters pretty much guarantee mediocre images. The documents they have to sign giving away their rights to the photos are reprehensible and only lead to disaffection on the part of the best of concert photographers. Who needs it? The industry which uses images is buying price, not quality. If I were shooting music today I'd be doing it for fun not for money; I'd have a "day job." It's a very, very sad situation."