Becoming a Concert Photographer

Andrew Bird performing at the Pageant in St. Louis, Missouri on March 22, 2012. (Todd Owyoung)

Andrew Bird, whose kind manager, Andrea Troolin, granted me my first photo pass.

A reader asks about how I got my start as a concert photographer. From the first show and the first photo pass to the first big break and beyond, here's my story so far.

Hi Todd,

I am interested in hearing about your journey in concert photography and how you got started and how you grew into the photographer that you are today.

Eva Nowakowski

Hi Eva, thanks for the question. My start with concert photography came about, like so many things, as a fortuitous combination of whim and serendipity. As for the longer journey, it's been a few years of hard work, Google miracles, and a little luck.

The First Show, First Photo Pass

A friend invited me out to see the bands BR549 and the Avett Brothers. While I wasn't familiar with either group, I decided to come out and bring my camera. I figured that if I didn't like the music, I could always entertain myself photographing the show.

As it turned out, the music was great and I had a blast photographing the concert. In hindsight, it was the natural combination of two lifelong passions; music and visual art.

A week later, I had tickets to another concert and decided to contact the band’s manager about photographing the event, resulting in my first photo pass. To the wonderful Andrea Troolin, where ever you are, thank you.

Starting Local

The same time I set up my first photo credentials, I also got in touch with a local music magazine. Within a few weeks I was contributing to the publication as a freelancer and pitching assignments at every opportunity.

Shooting for a print publication – even if it was only a small street press – granted a tremendous amount of connections and access to the workings of live music.

In addition, I also began freelancing for other media sources, from alt-weekly papers to entertainment-lifestyle websites.

If it Moves, Shoot It

In my first years of shooting concerts, the gamut of shows I covered ranged from basement dives to free concerts at universities to acts like Radiohead, the Police, and festivals like Lollapalooza.

For all the shows with photo passes and cushy barricades for press and security I shot when I was starting out, there were an equal number of gigs where I lined up early with the superfans before doors to grab a piece of stage in a standing-room-only club with an open camera policy.

The Portfolio Building Years

While I started off shooting mostly bands to which I listened, I soon branched out to shoot anything and everything I thought might be good shoot for photography. This time of steady shooting translated into an incredible opportunity to build a portfolio, which I consider to be just as essential a tool as a good camera or fast lens for the concert photographer.

While assignments, editors, and contacts come and go, a great portfolio commands attention and opens doors.

Those first years starting out were relatively quiet as I gained experience; I shot as many assignments as I could, worked to expand the range and quality of my work, and tried to fend of tinnitus.

When It Rains, It Pours

My first big breaks came in early 2008. The year started off with the good fortune of landing a solo photography exhibit of concert work in January, which marked a huge milestone for me and my music photography.

Little did I know, the rest of the year would hold even more exciting opportunities.

In April of 2008, I landed the position of house photographer for a 10,000-capacity arena. A few months later, I received my first assignment for Rolling Stone to cover Warped Tour 2008.

Around the same time, I received my first major placement with a shot of Radiohead, which SPIN magazine ran as double-page spread in the July 2008 issue. This was accompanied placement in the New York Times, Billboard, Alternative Press, and the Village Voice, among other publications.

The year rounded out with national assignments, including a shoot at Lincoln Center in New York, and my first album cover for Dave Matthew's Band's live recording at Busch Stadium in St. Louis. In addition, clients in 2008 included Atlantic Records, Live Nation, Emmis Communications, and Razor & Tie Entertainment.

2009 has started out with a contracted shoot for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony, half-a-dozen promotional shoots with bands, and a commercial assignment for a national apparel company.

Going Forward

It feels a little strange to tell this story now, since I believe that I've just scratched the surface of all the work that's ahead of me as a music photographer.

It's been a fun ride, but it's far from over! This is just the start.

Share Your Own Concert Photography Story

In the second part of this Q&A piece, I'll put together a few tips for those starting out with concert photography.

In the meantime, whether you're a decade-deep pro or you've just gotten your first photo pass, I'd love to hear about your own journey into music photography.