10 essential tips for live music photographers

This is probably too close. Taken at SXSW, where photographer etiquette is a foreign concept.
This is probably too close. Taken at SXSW, where photographer etiquette is a foreign concept.
Photo by Erik Hess

Live music photography is hard work, and it's even harder to thrive while doing it. Lining up a quality shot is part of the equation, but a good concert photographer must also have a clue.

We recently profiled 20 of the best Twin Cities music photographers, and asked each for "dos and don'ts" for attaining success and respect in their field. Their answers are illuminating, and provide a helpful guide for anyone considering starting a life in the pit. Here are their words distilled into 10 essential tips.

10. Be Passionate, Not Greedy

Dan Corrigan: Do it because you love it. There are so many photogs willing to give away their work for free that making a living at it is next to impossible.

David McCrindle: Do it because it's your passion. Don't do it for the money. A decent body and a good fast lens is a major investment and it's tough to recoup those costs exclusively through music photography.

Kasey Jean Noll: Don't give up. People will try to say you're not as good as so and so, and hey you don't have x amount of "likes." The value of your work can only be decided by you. At the end of the day, if you don't love your work, do the research, practice, and try again.

Emily Utne: Be prepared to work for free or very little money. You have to love what you do and be willing to work really hard. If you let your passion shine through you will stand out.

Erik Hess: Don't expect anything, earn it.

9. Invest in High-Quality Gear

Stacy Schwartz: Buy prime lenses. Learn how to shoot with primes before investing in zoom lenses. I'd recommend a 50mm f/1.4 lens. That's what I started with and learned on and almost every music photographer has one in their bag.

Erik Hess: Insure your gear. Rent to test before you buy. Buy only when you can pay cash. Your gear is assured to die a valiant death: budget for repairs (it's always more expensive than you think).

8. Create an Identity

David McCrindle: Start a blog and challenge yourself to post daily. I'm self-taught and used my blog to gain exposure but more importantly to learn. Opening myself up to a daily critique put me on the fast track to becoming a better photographer.

Nate Ryan: Find people you trust to give critical feedback on your photos, and use that to evolve your work.

Emily Utne: Think about what you are putting out there with your name on it. Google your name and see what comes up in an image search. Control what you want your image to be. I am still learning this. There is always a separation between the work you are doing, and the work you WANT to be doing. Stay focused and organized, and you can get there.

Adam DeGross: Do your own thing, don't compromise your vision. Stick with it, because eventually it will pay off.

This is not what we mean by "Don't forget the drummer."
This is not what we mean by "Don't forget the drummer."
Photo by Erik Hess

7. Be Creative and Tell the Whole Story

Erik Hess: Find your voice, and tell a story. Pick your background deliberately. Don't forget the drummer.

Anna Gulbrandsen: Approaching people for snapshots of the crowd can be daunting, but can be an essential part of capturing the mood of an event.

Tony Nelson: Find ways to shoot differently from the people standing next to you who are shooting the same show.

Nate Ryan: Make lots of photos: Get the "safe" photo, then move on to try to something new.

Zoe Prinds-Flash: Be honest, and unmerciful.

6. Don't Disrupt the Show

Anna Gulbrandsen: There are venue rules and a photo pit etiquette to follow. You can't be too unassertive, otherwise you won't get the shots you want and need. You also can't be too aggressive either, or you'll lose respect with your peers, the venue, or even the artist on stage.

Kasey Jean Noll: Don't be a fan girl in the pit. Don't be whipping out your phone, jumping up and down, and screaming, "MARRY ME!!!!!" Save the celebration for afterwards.

Tony Nelson: GET CLOSE but respect the performers AND the audience. Remember, the show isn't about you.

Leslie Plesser: Don't stay in one spot all night, push fans around to get the best angle, climb on stage (unless invited), or feel entitled to shoot the show.

Meredith Westin: Don't use your flash, chimp, or hold your camera above your head.

Stacy Schwartz: If you want to bring a gear backpack into the pit that's OK, but stash it under the barricade or ask a friend to hang onto it for you -- or get a smaller sling bag that won't be so obnoxious. Photo pits can be tiny and you'll just get frustrated with a big bag. Don't use a flash at a live show.* It's bad for the audience, the band, and the other photographers will want to kick you.
*Ignore this if you're shooting hardcore and/or the bands asked you to shoot this way. Then it's a free for all.

Dan Corrigan: Stay out of the way of the audience. They paid to get in. If you are a distraction, you have failed.

5. Network

Erik Hess: Don't compete. Do collaborate.

Tony Nelson: Find like-minded musicians that you can work with to build a portfolio, and experiment with any ideas you come up with, even stupid ones.

Stacy Schwartz: Educate yourself. Who are the other photographers in your music scene? Introduce yourself.

Anna Gulbrandsen: Networking is key to getting yourself known in the scene as well as getting to know those who will support you as a photographer.

Holding your camera above your head like this is discouraged.
Holding your camera above your head like this is discouraged.
Photo by Erik Hess

4. Edit Your Work

Cameron Wittig: The best photographers are also the best editors. Cut out what doesn't belong and get to the point.

Chad Rieder: Late-night edits are oftentimes a great idea -- when the music is still alive and buzzing inside of you.

Tony Nelson: In this age of web galleries, blogs, and social networks, remember that less can still be more and edit yourself. A good photo is not helped by being in the middle of a gallery of 50 similar, but not quite as good, pictures.

Leslie Plesser: Be a very tough editor -- you're only as good as the worst photo you post.

3. Deliver

Erik Hess: Don't forget the deadline, even if it's your own.

2. Learn the Business

Erik Hess: If you intend to make a business out of it: Pitch early, pitch often. Find mentors. Join ASMP and/or SPJ. Diversify your business but focus on your strengths. Never stop learning. Live frugally. Find a good tax person and pay them well. Back up your data. Don't work for free unless it's with people you truly respect (and who truly respect you). Work for trade is great but be wary of any barter you can't pay your landlord with. Study copyright and publicity rights, particularly as it relates to editorial and commercial licensing.

Never give up your copyright and never work "for hire" unless you're getting a few months rent in exchange. Know your rights, protect your copyright, don't let unauthorized commercial use slide. Your archive is your legacy: Organize it well, keep it safe. Never undercut rates, you're better than that.

1. Be Polite

Leslie Plesser: Be friendly to club staff, be kind to others working around you, be aware of your space and those around you, and be polite while moving through crowds.

Steven Cohen: Be considerate of the people you encounter, especially the audience.

Stacy Schwartz: Don't act like a dick. No one likes an asshole. You can still be nice and tough at the same time. If you're female this is still mainly a male-dominated industry. When you travel outside Minneapolis, you'll likely be one of the only females in the pit and sometimes dudes are jerks. Look them in the eye, don't back down, and hold your ground. Keep shooting.

Erik Hess: Respect the fans. Respect the band. Respect the venue.

Those are our tips. Feel free to add more in the comments.

Finalist Profiles:
Adam DeGross
Anna Gulbrandsen
Cameron Wittig
Chad Rieder
Dan Corrigan
David McCrindle
Emily Utne
Erik Hess
Kasey Jean Noll
Leslie Plesser
Mark Kartarik
Meredith Westin
Nate Ryan
Rebecca McDonald
Ryan Siverson
Sara Montour
Stacy Schwartz
Steven Cohen
Tony Nelson
Zoe Prinds-Flash

See Also: The 104 Twin Cities music photographers you nominated

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