The house lights dim, the crowd pushes forward. You are standing in a space no larger than a narrow hallway with 10 other people, each jostling for the perfect spot from which to photograph the band.
To your left is a guy with $30,000 worth of camera equipment and the latest lens. To your right, a guy holding his iPhone ready to shoot and post to Instagram, making you ask, "Is professional concert photography dead?"
Everyone in a venue's photo pit — the space between the crowd and the stage — is doing a job, but at what cost? As the demand for online content soars, more and more photographers are working for less money — some even for free in exchange for tickets or access. The result? Plummeting rates of pay and an influx of substandard images. Beginning in the late-'00s, photography newcomers seemed to multiply. The cost of digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) cameras declined as technology advanced, allowing more people to dabble in concert photography. When you can buy a quality, affordable DSLR camera at Target, the game has changed.
If you ask veteran photographers about the trend, it's not all sour grapes; many say they are glad to see new talent honing their chops.
"If somebody gets a kick out of taking music photos, and they love it so much to do it for free, day in and day out, go for it," says Mark Newcome Kartarik, one of five City Pages-contributing photographers we spoke to for this piece. "New photographers keep me motivated to be the best music photographer I can be, and if they have questions about it, I'm willing to give them tips. In the end, it's about me and my camera, and the image I create for people to see."
Even with so many new photographers scrambling for that perfect shot, entry-level rungs of the Twin Cities music community aren't seeing any increased exposure, photographer Erik Hess points out.
"I get asked by people all of the time, 'How do I get into First Ave?' If you want to start out big, you're barking up the wrong tree. There are so many shows going on in this town where nobody is shooting. It might be a band's first show at Big V's, but it's not being documented. It's like a tree falling in the woods."
Both Hess and fellow photographer Adam DeGross established their careers by doing exactly what Hess suggests: capturing upstart talent while perfecting their own technique. DeGross currently teaches concert photography to kids at the all-ages venue the Garage in Burnsville, yet when asked if people should attend school to learn photography, he's hesitant to say yes.
"You should take classes to learn the basics, but I don't know if a degree is relevant," he says. "If I was starting out, I would take business classes before I take photography classes — learn how to read contracts, copyright, legal stuff."
Hess adds, "I think a big mistake is that people work with unsophisticated photo buyers. They'll never value your work. At the same time, there are artists that do appreciate your work, but no one in the music community has money."
So how are photographers making money?
"The only way people are legitimately making money in concert photography is because they are hired by a big-name band to tour or by a label or a sponsor. I don't think it's specific to photography," photographer Anna Gulbrandsen explains. "I did work in graphic design before I got into photography. Man, it was hard to get paid."
With any creative field — be it photography, music, or art — money isn't always the driving force. Idealistically, the passion to create something of substance is the primary motivating factor. Yet passion alone doesn't pay the rent. Genuine hope for substantive payoff will keep energetic and determined photographers working hard, giving them the wherewithal to power through tough situations and better their craft. Giving photographers the knowledge, tools, and access they need to reach their goals makes a difference. Allowing low pay for shoddy work to become the status quo? That's the real danger. When expectations are lowered, everyone loses.
Veteran photographer Tony Nelson agrees.
"It's amazing to think that photography is valued less yet more present than ever," he says. "It's critical to all content being put out right now, but it's not appreciated. The devaluation may get worse, but it may level off at some point due to fatigue from photographers. I meet a new photographer every night I shoot who may move on to bigger things or it eventually becomes a hobby for them. People come and go. You like to think that the best will rise to the top and have staying power."