You may have attended a concert and seen photographers shooting the show in the photo pit. Or perhaps you've taken photos with your phone as a fan and wonder how you can take the next step and shoot with a photo pass.
I've been a music photographer for over a decade, photographing some of the biggest names in music along the way. Here's my advice on how to become a music photographer, from shooting in small clubs to landing a photo pass to photographing in arena and amphitheaters.
If you're reading this article on how to get started in music photography, I'd urge you to check out my Creative Live class titled “Getting Started in Music Photography.” The class contains over 4 hours of instructional video and tutorials on shooting shows, starting out in music photography, and more.
Now with that said, on to the content on how you can go from just a fan with a camera to working shows for national touring artists.
Start Small and Local as a Music Photographer
My best advice to becoming a music photographer is to start local in smaller music venues, photographing local bands and smaller touring acts. The reason is simple: you'll get far better access and won't the barrier to entry of needing a photo pass. There are small music venues in every city that don't have restrictions on camera equipment, whether it's your compact camera or a full DSLR or mirrorless camera.
The Trap of the Big Show
Larger concerts may have the glamor of bigger names, but they also have huge amount of restrictions: often limits to 3 songs or worse, shooting from restricted positions, and no guarantee of approval for a photo pass that is often required by bands and their publicists.
Benefits of Starting Small as a Concert Photographer
With smaller venues, you'll be able to shoot the entire show, which will give you the ability to learn how to deal with the most extreme conditions in music photography. Low light, limited production, limited angles, and more. The honest truth is that if you can shoot in small venues, bigger shows are easy. This fact is why I always tell new music photographers to start out shooting like this, because the lessons you learn in dives and small clubs will serve you well at every stage of your photography journey as a music photographer.
What's more, photographing smaller bands will give you the experience to build a portfolio. You're much more likely to be able to connect with the bands before or after, and this kind of networking can be crucial to grow as a music photographer. Build relationships with the bands in your local scene, and you'll be repaid with access to shoot portraits, backstage candids, time in the studio, and so many other opportunities to create a well-rounded portfolio.
The Photo Pass — Your Golden Ticket as Music Photographer
After you've cut your teeth shooting in venues that don't have camera restrictions, you're probably itching to move on to bigger venues and bigger bands. The way to do this is by getting photo passes.
A photo pass is a credential that is approved by a band's publicist and is intended for press photographers — photographers covering a concert for editorial coverage in a publication.
A few things about photo passes:
Photo passes are generally limited. A publicist will generally only approve a certain number of passes for any given show. For cities like NYC or LA, competition is going to be more fierce than a city like St. Louis, Missouri.
Photo passes may be approved a few days or even the day of a show. A publicist is always going to want to ensure that they can provide the best coverage for their client, so they will prioritize their preferred publications for any given market. Rather than approve a photo pass early, many publicists will wait to approve much closer to the show just so they can consider all requests.
Your best chance of getting a photo pass is to be shooting for a publication. Not all bands will be strict, but generally speaking photo passes are intended for photographers shooting for publication. If you're building your portfolio, you must understand that there's simply no reason for a publicist to provide you with access to their client. The images do an artist zero good simply sitting on your portfolio website.
The standard rules for a photo pass are “first three, no flash.” That is, you get to photograph the first three songs of the set, and flash is forbidden. For larger artists, it's becoming increasingly common to add on restrictions for photographers — shooting from the soundboard instead of the photo pit (adding about 100 feet of distance between you and the artist) or limiting photography to fewer than 3 songs.
Bring receipts even when you're approved for a pass. Mistakes happen, and sometimes approvals aren't always communicated. There are countless times when I've had a minor mixup at the box office when I've tried to pick up a photo pass over the years, and the solution is simply to have a copy of your correspondence with the publicist and your approval readily available, and as a backup, to get the tour manager's number as an added safety if possible.
If you've conquered your local clubs and other small venues, it's time to graduate to shooting under a photo pass for a publication. The backing of a publication is essential to photographing larger shows, where bands and their representatives expect editorial coverage in exchange for access (ie, a photo pass).
The reason for this is that from a band's point of view, photography can be a liability. Photography may be distracting for artists and fans alike, and control over where images are displayed and who is credentialed are in the best interest of the artist, their management and their publicists.
The good news is that there are publications of all levels, and likely publications that will match up to where you are in your music photography journey.
A “publication” may sounds intimidating, but at the local level, this can be simple as a blog covering the local music scene. From there, most cities will include daily or weekly newspapers, arts and entertainment websites, and magazines, all covering music and featuring concert photography.
The contact you'll need to connect with for small or medium-sized publications may be the music editor. This is the same role requesting access for writers reviewing shows. If a publication has a dedicated photo editor who handles photo assignments, that's then your best bet as a contact. Some publications may have dedicated editors for web vs print work, so keep that in mind when you're researching the right contacts.
After you've done your research, approach these editors with the portfolio you've built up photographing smaller artists without a photo pass, showing them samples of work that align with the kind of photography and genres their publication covers. It will always pay to show familiarity with a publication and their perspective, so demonstrate that you understand the kind of photography that will best work for their publication.
Publications on a national scale may not be dramatically different than a local publication, and you're likely dealing with pitching to a photo editor. Again, do you research on the genres of music each publication covers, who the appropriate contact is, and show them work that you think ladders up to their brand of coverage.
Often, national publications will focus on coverage of larger cities and the headlining shows that often prioritize them. That said, if you're in a smaller market, a national publication may need photographers there, just not as consistently. Tours often start in smaller cities as the production and performances are dialed in, and these are ideal opportunities to get a foot in the door shooting for larger national publications.
Pitching yourself and your work is just like any proposition in life — you're going to need to put yourself out there and it may require a lot of rejection before you get a yes, particularly for larger publications.
Start Your Own Publication
When in doubt, start your own publication. Even a blog that posts concert reviews and concert photography galleries can have value to publicists. Starting your own publication may sound like a daunting task, but it may give you the best platform to consistently get passes if you're willing to put in the work.
In fact, this humble blog you're reading right now has gotten me countless photo passes, because I could point to a single source where publicists could see a proven track record of live music coverage.
The Next Step
Beyond shooting concerts, which is a pretty natural entry into the world of music photography, there's a ton more to music photography. Documentary and reportage-style photography will aid you in tour photography and editorial features. There's portrait photography, both in looser environmental portraits you might shoot for a feature, to full-blown studio treatments that require extensively technical lighting. There's video, and working with speedlights, and the list goes on and on.
Hopefully this article has given you a good idea of how to get into music photography and start your journey.
If you want to know more in much more detail about how to photograph concerts, from the technical details to the business of music photography, my Creative Live class on “Getting Started in Music Photography” has over 4 hours of content. I've tried to share as much info as possible in this course and it covers as much content as we could fit in four days of filming that we did in Seattle earlier this year.