Serendipity often plays a role in taking the first steps toward a career as a music photographer. What happens after that is totally up to you.
Los Angeles-based photographer, Anabel DFlux, was gifted her first camera—a red point-and-shoot digital from Target. DFlux had always been artistically inclined and the little red camera triggered her love of photography. When she was 13, she got her first DSLR; two years later, her first “luxury” lens. Graduating early from high school at age 15, she started a pet photography business while she attended college for visual communications. Then this happened: “A friend was dating a musician at the time and I was the only one that had a camera and knew how to use it,” DFlux recalls. “I photographed the performance, although reluctantly. But I fell in love with it and continued to follow that musician and his friends,” she explained. “Once I found a passion for music photography, I was determined to find any way I could to continue to do it.” Her best known photographs include those of Judas Priest, Apocalyptica, Nikki Sixx (via Schecter Guitars), KoRn, Emilie Autumn, among many others. She has worked on behalf of publications in the past and still contributes to Outburn Magazine and RockRevolt Magazine, either on assignment or with permission from the bands.
Also Los Angeles based, kismet propelled photographer Adam Elmakias into music photography when he was growing up in Madison, Wisconsin. In middle school, his friend got him “into bands and concerts.” But the big turning point came when Elmakias was in high school. Although there was no photography program, he was mentored by a counselor and began shooting for the school yearbook. Elmakias started taking the camera to concerts, earning money photographing concerts and musicians starting when he was around 17. Among the artists he’s photographed are Major Lazer, Diplo, Pierce the Veil, Day to Remember, and All Time Low, to list just a handful. One of Elmakias’ more memorable tours was to Pakistan where they traveled in a half-dozen armored vehicles. He also shoots on assignment for publications such as a couple of UK publications including RockSound Magazine, for whom he shoots a lot of portraits, and for Kerrang! Magazine, another UK alternative press publication.
But if fate doesn’t put you in the music photographer starting position, DFlux has some advice to get started. While there are “100 different paths to the same goal,” she says, she suggests going to “local shows—bars or small venues; there are free rock nights, free indie nights. Most bars and small venues don’t have restrictions on cameras, although you should call first to make sure.” At the same time, you can ask about the layout of the club or venue to help prepare for the shoot. She also suggests scouring the internet to find local bands that need good content. This is a good way to “dip your toes in the industry to see if it’s what you want to do.”
From there, developing relationships and networking is key. Although he didn’t realize it at the time, Elmakias was a natural at networking. “I really wanted to start traveling with artists but I didn’t know how to make that happen but I just kept meeting and talking to people and staying in touch with email. When artists came to Madison [where he was living at the time], “they’d stay at my house.” Of course, putting up musicians in your home when they’re in town isn’t a necessity; it’s one way that Elmakias cemented his relationship with the musicians he started touring with in 2008. DFlux also emphasizes networking with people in the industry and both photographers stress that it’s important to develop relationships with more than just the artists. Managers, crew, security and all the others who are part of a band or musician’s team are essential to a career path in music photography.
As you can imagine, there’s no short cut and DFlux reminds us that one has to pay one’s dues in the music industry. “A lot of people think they can jump in and photograph Judas Priest but you have to pay your dues.” You’ll need a press pass to shoot larger bands and they can be difficult to come by without a solid relationship with the band or an assignment from a publication.
Don’t overlook smaller bands who may be up and coming, she cautions. One of the first bands she photographed ended up signing a contract with Universal, so you never know where things will lead. And, one of Elmakias’ regular clients is a DJ with whom he’s traveled so that’s another possibility.
After you’ve identified local talent and the venues they perform in, DFlux recommends watching online videos of the band’s past performances. Not only will you become familiar with the band’s music but also it gives you an opportunity to watch their movements and how they interact with each other and the audience. Of course, DFlux points out, concerts are unpredictable. “Artists I’ve shot 20 times might change it up for another concert but at least you’ll get a general idea of how they perform. Just be aware that it might not be exactly that way.”
Also, study the lighting. “If they have their own lights, then the light will be consistent across venues,” she adds. Then you better know what to expect when you shoot.
Once you’ve become established, you may want to consider touring. This gives you an opportunity to travel, all expenses paid, to visit cities and towns around the world. For Elmakias, touring gave him the “opportunity—in the most dense way possible—of improving my craft since you’re shooting all day and all night and you just get better and better. I think that’s cool.” And, he adds, “if you can tie yourself to a group that tours, you can make more money if they travel consistently.”
While touring can be a great experience, there are some downsides as well. The biggest challenge, according to DFlux, is “Exhaustion. Constantly traveling, having to get used to time differences, difficulties sleeping in new environments or sometimes uncomfortable conditions and still being able to be productive and, on top of everything very efficiently! In my case, there can be time constraints on that content that requires you to get it done very quickly.”
Elmakias agrees, citing an almost 24/7, non-stop schedule that consists of shooting the performances as well as behind the scenes and downtime. In addition to shooting, he has to edit the images and turn them around quickly, which leaves barely enough time to sleep. “Basically you’re living somebody else’s life, which leaves no room for a home life because of how consistently some people tour if you’re their guy.”
DFlux doesn’t tour as much these days, however. “I can do a week of concerts and get plenty of content.” Before you book on a tour, “ask what they’re looking for. They may think they want every single concert but if you look at a shot list, you might be able to do it in a few shows with photos of band members, the crowd, VIP meet and greet, maybe fans with musicians and a step and repeat.”
She usually gets “booked more for controlled situations—content from concerts, a studio we build backstage, performers getting ready and other behind the scenes content.” And, “because I live in L.A. I have the luxury of creating all the content I need on the west coast, so I can include a lot of clients in a year and make everybody happy.” If there’s a job she can’t do, she has another photographer she can refer.
Both Elmakias and DFlux also shoot portraits of musicians as well. These may be for a publication, promotional materials, social media or album covers. With smaller bands, Elmakias may collaborate with the group for the shoot; other times he may just be hired to take the photograph.
DFlux, who includes pet and animal photography as one of her specialties, will sometimes set up shoots with artists and exotic animals such as a camel or zebra.
For daylight shoots (outdoor or in studio), Elmakias prefers to use the APS-C dp Sigma dp Quattro series of cameras. Although he has all four models (dp0, dp1, dp2 and dp3), he prefers to shoots daylight portraits with the latter two because of their 30mm and 50mm lenses. “The quality is insane; you can see people’s pores,” Elmakias reports adding that the cameras’ unique design is an attention getter. “People say, ‘That camera looks so cool!’” When shooting portraits with studio lights, he’ll use the sd Quattro because he can sync it to his lights but he tends to shoot almost all of his portrait shots with the dp Quattros. “The image quality is so good and the Foveon sensor is so amazing, I really love the dp Quattros.”
DFlux was one of the first to test the new Sigma fp, shooting portraits with the camera both outdoors and in the studio, including for a Sigma launch campaign. “It’s awesome and the colors are incredible.” Importantly, she adds, “The Sigma fp is super lightweight and so durable that I can throw it in my bag and not worry about it.”
Gearing up for Concerts
DFlux’s time with the Sigma fp was limited so she didn’t have an opportunity to shoot a concert with it. Her go-to cameras for concerts include the Canon 5D Mark IV, as well as the Sony a7R III and a7R IV. A huge fan of fast, Sigma Art lenses, DFlux is “beyond obsessed” with the new Sigma 35mm f/1.2 Art lens and loves to shoot it wide open. “The key to getting the shot is your distance to the subject but the Sigma 35mm f/1.2 Art lens has a really close focusing distance [11.8 inches]. It’s perfect for when the musicians lean in toward you—the wide angles are awesome!”
Her other favorite prime lens for shooting concerts is the Sigma 85mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art lens. Initially she wasn’t sure about the focal length: “It was a big long but not quite long enough but when I got it in my and, it’s really the ideal focal length.” When shooting from the pit, she starts at the outer edges of the stage where she can capture the details of the guitar and then moves to the other side.
For concerts, Elmakias shoots with the Sony a7 III and a variety of Sigma lenses. Since he’s a former Canon shooter, he uses the Sigma Canon-to-Sony mount converter MC-11. He notes that “focus speed with the adapter is as good as it was on the Canon.”
His go-to lenses are all Sigma prime Art lenses including the Sigma 14mm f/1. DG HSM A, 20mm f/1.4 DG HSM A, 35mm f/1.2 DG DN A, 85mm f/1.4 DG HSM A and 105mm f/1.4 DG HSM A. “These Sigma lenses are great! They’re incredibly sharp and they’re affordable.” He prefers to shoot with primes not only because they’re “sharper” but because “They do one thing and do it really well.” Elmakias explains that, “I like the restrictive aspect of prime lenses. It’s easier to create what you want. When you get rid of the zoom focal length factor, it allows you to focus on other things and create a unique look.”
And both these concert photographers love the bokeh created when shooting wide open.
Tech Tips for Shooting Concerts
There’s no doubt that photographing a concert can be tricky so it’s critical that you know your equipment very well. It’s going to be dark and the action moves quickly so you need to be prepared to change settings on the fly.
While you don’t necessarily need a high-end camera to take great concert photos, it’s best to have one with good low light/high ISO capabilities. Given the dark conditions, you’ll need to balance the ISO setting (and possibility of image noise) with the shutter speed and/or aperture you want. “You need to prioritize what’s important,” DFlux explains. “I leave the aperture at its widest setting, but that’s always been my aesthetic.” And since she loves to freeze action, “I try to keep the shutter speed as high as I can go under the conditions—1/400th second and above. With great lighting, I’ll use a shutter speed of 1/1000th second or more.” For darker venues, DFlux will set the camera to burst mode and is able to “find a shot that’s good” within the series.
With constantly changing lighting conditions and the ubiquitous smoke and fog that are part of many concerts, focusing can be an issue. Elmakias suggests that photographers “figure out the routine of lights, find the brightest point [in the repeating sequence] and wait for that. You want to find an area with high contrast and grab a focus point.” Elmakias also prefers back-button focus and, in his concert photography workshops, teaches photographers how to transition from AF with the half-shutter press to back-button AF.
Another challenge for photographers is dealing with different colored lights. Elmakias recommends, “Make your job easier and shoot in Raw and don’t worry about white balance.” Which brings us to another point: “If you understand your editing program well and know what you can adjust, it helps with many of the challenges you face—from lighting to fog machines,” says DFlux. As an example, for the dreaded red light, “If you lighten it, you lose detail so I darken it and am able to save the shot.” Of course, she adds, “I’m not saying you should depend on the editing program, but in very difficult conditions post processing can help.”
Keep in mind, DFlux suggests, that “Orange and yellow lighting mimics the gold hours so you can set your camera for that. Blues and greens come out a little darker, so you might want to bump up the exposure.” She also suggests trying to “sync your shutter for flashing strobes and underexpose a little.”
But your shots don’t always have to be “technically perfect.” As Elmakias points out, “I don’t come to a situation with an expected result. “My job is to capture what’s there.” DFlux agrees saying, “We’re storytellers and try to bring the show to those who weren’t there. We want our photos to capture how the audience saw the show. If there are some shots that are blown out, it’s part of the show even though [the photo] isn’t technically perfect.”
The types of images you can capture depends on how much access you have. An all-access pass, whether you’re on tour or shooting a concert, is—of course—the ideal. With this type of pass you’ll be able to shoot backstage, on stage, in the pit, and from the audience. You’ll want shots of the performers getting ready (including hair and makeup), greeting VIPs, on the step-and-repeat, etc. On tour, Elmakias has the same access as the band and can go “anywhere, anytime. My favorite is being backstage with the artists and photographing everything they do.” But wherever you shoot from, be mindful of the performers, the techs/road crew, other photographers and, of course, the fans and audience.
If you’re shooting for the band or a publication, you may have a shot list that you need to follow. It might be a good idea, especially if you’re just starting out, to make your own shot list as a guide.
DFlux varies her positions during a show. “I’ll vary where I shoot from. Sometimes I’ll be on stage, shooting from the back but you’re generally limited there and may not have much room to move around. And you don’t want to distract from the show.” Elmakias will sometimes shoot from behind the drummer, over the heads of the band members with the vast audience in the background.
As DFlux said earlier, concert photographers are storytellers and “probably what’s most important to the artists are the fans, especially at a sold out show. While she will shoot from the stage to capture the fans, “It’s cool to shoot from the stage to the front but you really get the gravity of how many people drove to watch them from the back of the venue.”
She goes on to say that, “The big money shots are the artist with the crowd reacting to what the artist is doing and leaning in. The crowd doing heavy metal guitar hands And, importantly, emotional crowd interaction shots.” For example, “a shot of an artist making eye contact with a fan who was crying.” As Elmakias says, “It’s important to get shots that humanize the band.”
What’s interesting about shooting from the pit is that many photographers opt for the center position. Not a good idea, says DFlux, “because with those front-facing shots, you’re shooting up the performer’s nose.” As mentioned earlier, when in the pit, DFlux shoots mostly from the sides and moves towards the center (where she’ll stop for a quick shot or two) before moving to the other side so she can get some “nice profile shots.”
Don’t forget about the drummer! “If you can get a killer shot of the drummer, you’ll get hired again. The awesome thing about telephoto lenses is that I can usually shoot between a singer’s legs to get a clear shot of the drummer.”
Whatever you shoot, it’s important that your images reflect the band’s persona. “Bands want to look cool,” says Elmakias. What constitutes “cool,” he adds, depends on the performers.
Elmakias also explains that, “Whatever the actual shot, the composition needs to be very focused and intentional.” “There’s a lot of clutter on stage,” he adds, “and the image should always draw the viewer to where you want them to be. I want to see only what I care about” in the shot. One way he achieves this is by shooting with wide-open primes. He also will sometimes convert images to black and white explaining that, ”If the color doesn’t add anything or, more importantly, it’s distracting, I will convert the photo to black and white.” By eliminating potentially distracting colors, Elmakias achieves his goal of focusing on what he considers the most important elements of the composition.
Avoiding Pitfalls in Concert Photography
Perhaps the bottom line is to make the performers look good. During a fast-moving concert, it’s easy to inadvertently capture an unflattering portrait. One of the quickest ways to get banned from photographing an artist is to publish an image that doesn’t reflect positively on a performer or their brand. Beyoncé actually banned all press photographers from a tour and hired a single person to shoot one of her concerts due to some unflattering images from the Super Bowl a few years back.
And, be careful about booking a gig shooting a music festival. “I used to shoot music festivals,” DFlux recalls. I’d shoot from 7 a.m. to midnight and have to run from one stage to another and the performances overlapped, so it was difficult to get every shot I needed to. It was exhausting.” She cautions that you “need to set boundaries and very reasonable expectations that protects both the client and yourself.”
When starting out, you may be tempted to work for free. And there’s nothing wrong with that (initially) but be sure you get something in return. If “you can get into a free concert but can’t use the photos,” DFlux says, “all you have is bragging rights with nothing to show for it.”
In the end, DFlux counsels, stand your ground and know your value. “”Stay firm and know what you’re worth. Be as much a business person as you are a photographer.”