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Working With Photographers

Nomad at The Powerstation, Auckland 23 September 2017. Photo by Chontalle Musson

Do photographs still matter in the industry today?

We live in a visual world. We’re bombarded with images through social media posts, news, adverts etc. 100s of millions of photos are published every day on platforms like Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook etc.

Social media is amazing as it gives you the same platform as global artists. But on the flip side, you need to do something amazing if you want to rise above the noise and stand out in the crowd. At the very least, you need some high quality images !

A great image will make a connection with the viewer and make them feel something.  It’ll draw them in to what you are about.

Music photography really falls into two main categories – documentation and promotion.

A photographer can help you keep a visual record of key events and milestones in your music career or journey such as photographs of bands in the studio, hanging out backstage, live performances at prestigious venues etc. These are all part of your history and should be documented – both for yourself and for others!

The other use of images is for promotion that compliments a new or existing identity or a brand that represents an artist or band. This could be band promo shoots, album artwork, press kits, live shots etc which are all about promoting who you are and what you do.

But do you really need a professional photographer to get your shots?

Just like for music, technology has brought a new democratisation and accessibility to photography.

We all carry high quality cameras on our phones with us wherever we go. And camera phones are incredible because they can use the computing power of your phone to work out the best settings for the picture. Technology is making it ever easier to get a nice sharp, vibrant picture. And that’s a great thing.   But just because it’s technically good, doesn’t mean it’s a great photo!

A good photographer brings more than just technology to the party. They bring their experience and expertise. They will work with you to develop and achieve a vision.

For a band this might mean how do they make their images consistent with their ‘brand’. Do the images match the music, visual identity and themes of a live performance? How does it all fit together in a consistent way? What makes you unique? What are the visual elements meant to express or provoke?

A professional photographer with adequate experience in creative direction should explore different forms and mediums of photography such as high/low key, motion, black & white, film photography and more.

The photographer is the human with the camera, not the camera itself!

You might decide you can do some of this yourself. But in the same way you might work with a producer to achieve your musical vision, you might want to bring in a professional photographer to give yourself the edge. It’s about being aware of your options and making a decision that’s right for you.

Getting a professional photographer involved is especially important if you are doing a crucial and memorable show. If you get a support slot for a band playing at a bigger venue than you usually play, then it’s well worth getting a photographer along to capture your performance and take advantage of the professional lighting as well as to capture the occasion.

What are the unique challenges of tasking photos of live music?

Shooting live performances is challenging and exciting! You get to see live, raw emotion literally played out in front of you. Whether it’s a high energy metal band or just a singer with an acoustic guitar, it’s essentially the same: it’s an uncontrolled situation.

The photographer has no control of the lights, the musician or the audience. You just have to shoot what’s there in front of you. And in the heat of the moment, that could be anything! Technically it’s a challenge too but that’s all part of the fun. And of course you’re always mindful there’s an audience there who have paid to watch the show so you don’t want to obstruct their view for longer than you have to!

Live concerts are also the place where you’re most likely to get unsolicited photos where friends, family or random people in the audience grab a few shots on their phones and post them on social media. Chances are many of these images won’t show you looking your best!

Like being a great music, it’s a combination of technical ability and natural creativity.  And similarly, you get better with practice.  Photographers looking to get in to this field of photography should start by photoing music wherever they can find it and gradually build a portfolio. Over time you’ll refine your skills and build a network of contacts to help you move to the bigger gigs.  Reach out to an existing music photographer if you want some advice on how to get started or practical tips.

Finding and working with a music photographer

When you do book a photographer you should think through some of the practicalities in advance and confirm with the venue/promoter if the photographer needs permission to go back stage etc.

Things you should also consider include:

  • Can the photographer shoot the whole show or just the beginning/end?
  • Are you allowing the photographer on stage with you / side of the stage?
  • Do you want backstage photos ?
  • Can the photographer shoot the sound check?

The best way to find a photographer is by word of mouth. If you know someone who had a great experience with a photographer, then try them first! It really is about establishing a mutual connection by finding someone you can work with, especially if the relationship is more about collaboration and developing ideas.

The great thing about photographers is that you can see their creative eye or style through the work they have published online or in print. Most photographers will have an online presence and you can see what kinds of images they create by looking at their Instagram, Facebook, Online portfolio etc.

The other place to look is on websites that regularly publish photos of live shows. If you particularly like a photographer’s shots, then track them down and reach out directly.

If you just need a photographer to capture a straightforward live event, you can easily arrange this online. But, for shoots where you aim to explore and develop ideas together, you’ll get a better result if you meet the photographer (without their camera) in advance. That way you can get to know each other and assess if your dynamics and personalities match each other.

You are placing a lot of trust in the photographer – They are going to see your vulnerabilities, insecurities and gaze deeply into your very soul! Choosing the right photographer is absolutely vital.

Before anyone reaches for a camera, all parties need to understand and agree what is being paid for. Do this upfront to avoid misunderstandings and protect yourself if either party forgets later!

You don’t need to go to the trouble of a full legal contract (unless it’s a really important job) but you absolutely should write down exactly who is doing what, when and for how much. If the photographer doesn’t do this, then you should. Send it to them and get them to confirm this is what is agreed!

Copyright is a complicated subject and can be the subject of much legal debate. Rather than get into that debate, just make sure you agree in advance who owns the copyright (usually the photographer, unless you are prepared to pay them more to own the copyright outright).

You also need to agree how the images can be used. Are they for social media only? Can they be used to promote live shows? Album art? Posters? Merchandise? Can they be given to third parties for their use in newspapers, magazines etc? Is there any time restriction on the licensing? Can they be used just in New Zealand or world wide?  And what can the photographer do with the photos – can they post them on their own social media etc.

Usually the photographer will ask you to credit them when using the photos on social media and on websites.

Other things you might want to agree include:

  • What time do you want the photographer to arrive? When should they leave? What happens if the show runs late? Are there restrictions on where they can shoot from?
  • For bigger shows you might want to check the photographer has liability insurance in case they break anything (or anyone!)
  • When do you expect to see the photos – do you have a deadline the photographer needs to commit to?
  • How many photos will you get to keep ? what resolution?
  • Will the final shots contain the photographer’s watermarks / logos?
  • Will you also get a set of lower resolution images with watermarks for use on social media?
  • How and when will you select your final photos if you are given a selection?
  • Can you buy some more later if you want more than the agreed amount?
  • How much editing of the photos do you want? The photographer may charge an hourly rate for additional editing (eg removing a microphone stand blocking out a guitar, or an errant piece of flying spittle!)
  • How are photos to be delivered? Online?
  • Will the photographer keep the original images archived?
  • Is there are deposit and how much is paid upfront? When is the final payment due?

That sounds like a lot of stuff, but it’s much easier (and usually cheaper) if you agree all this stuff up front. AND WRITE IT DOWN – even if just in an email! 99% of the time, everything will be fine. But if it does all turn to custard, you have a record of what was agreed and a better chance of putting it right.

In conclusion

It’s fine to adopt a do-it-yourself approach to your photographs and that might be work for you depending on what you are using them for.  However, you’re more likely to get better results by using a professional photographer who can help you achieve your commercial vision. Photographers are available to suit all styles and budgets, but be sure to agree as much as you can upfront so you all parties know what you’re paying for.

If you are photographer looking to develop your own skills in the exciting world of live music photography, then reach out to a photographer already covering live shows and pick their brains for hints and tips.  Start with small shows, build your portfolio and work your way up!

This article is based on an interview between Reuben Raj (Radio 13 / SomeBizzareMonkey) and Dave Simpson (Getty Images / UnderTheRadar) that first appeared on