I started my journey as a music photographer in 2004, just before everyone in the world became permanently connected to each other. It’s wild to think back on the concert days before cell phones had cameras, very few people owned DSLRs, and venues in Seattle had yet to pass the indoor smoking ban so you always went home smelling like cigarettes and with a few days shaved off your life. Simpler times.
In high school, I brought a small digital camera with me everywhere, including to some of my first shows. Soon after this, my friends and I started Rain City Ambience to promote local bands, and I upgraded to a DSLR to help give the site better coverage and look more legit on MySpace. Having a “nice camera” back then definitely set my internet persona apart.
More on my story later. It felt weird to make my first blog post in over a year a Kelly Mason tell all, so I wanted to start with something more universally helpful. Read on for 5 of my best tips for becoming a music photographer, plus a few bonus thoughts at the end for extra inspiration.
Have a nice camera.
At this point you can do a lot with your iPhone, but at the very least you need a DSLR that handles low light with a fast lens. Try KEH Camera for deals on high quality used gear.
Fast lens = aperture of 2.8 or less. 1.8 is better, but 1.4 is usually ideal.
Go to local shows.
Find some smaller local bands that you like and start going to shows. Take photos and introduce yourself IRL, then tag them on social media later–or send them a Dropbox link with a handful of your very favorite photos if you want to go the extra mile. Local bands are typically way more appreciative than touring acts and are more likely to share your work on social media and help you get your name out there.
Are you an “awkward” person? Just remember that if you are nice to someone, they will usually be nice in return. Even if you’re socially awkward. If you have something to talk about (i.e. your photos), start there. You’ll never overcome your awk if you don’t just fuckin’ go for it sometimes.
Get a publication.
If you want to be taken seriously, you have to look legit. Team up with a local music magazine, newspaper, or online publication–or do what I did and start your own–so publicists and managers will give you the time of day. Once you’re attached to a pub, your editor will either send you assignments or you can send in requests on your own.
How do you find a publication? Do some research in your area and send off a few cold emails. Make sure you include a couple of personal notes about the publication so the person reading knows they aren’t just the victim of a spray & pray email blast.
Don’t be an asshole.
This goes without saying for some people, but let’s face it: there are a ton of photographers out there who don’t always stick the landing with social interaction. Be nice to people, hold your cameras at a visible height and try to say “excuse me” while working your way through the crowd, and do whatever you need to do to make sure the people experiencing the show are not bummed out by your presence.
If I am working towards the barricade and really want to steal someone’s spot, I will sometimes vibe out the person’s dedication to having said spot and ask if I can stand there for a few minutes. Most people are happy to help you do your job!
No matter what, do it because you love it.
Becoming a successful music photographer is a long and sometimes frustrating journey, but as long as you constantly push yourself to be better and enjoy the moment, you will get better and more opportunities will come your way. Anyone who has been a music photographer for a long time can tell you that fresh blood enters this world all the time, but only the strong-willed survive through the years.
Not a dude?
In my experience, my work and outgoing personality helped me cut through the bullshit. Anyone who treats me differently for being a female is not worth my time or energy.
Of course, everyone’s experience is different, but I believe that you attract people who are similar to your vibe. If someone wants to treat you like you’re not an equal, put them on your shit list and keep doing you.
Being or looking young.
Looking young is starting to pay off now that I’m 30, but in my late teens and early 20s it was mostly just annoying. I am historically the only person in my friend group who always gets carded. The best thing you can do in this instance is let your work speak for itself and joke that you’ll appreciate looking young when you’re older.
Feeling like a fraud.
Being a creative means that you’ll often wonder if you’re doing the right thing. It can feel extremely uncomfortable to take on the work that will take your career to the next level, especially if you don’t have much (or any) experience. I felt this when I started shooting band promos, parties, weddings, tours, and pretty much everything that was outside of sitting on the computer and writing down my feelings.
In my experience, if you don’t feel like a fraud sometimes, you’re probably not pushing yourself hard enough. A lot of photographers give up because they don’t force themselves to step outside their bubble. I believe that I am a much better artist because I’ve said yes to every type of experience and forced myself to push through the self doubt, random gigs, and bad photography. So much bad photography.
The reality is that nobody really knows WTF they are doing at any given moment (hello @ me writing this blog), and you won’t know if something is for you if you don’t give it a shot. I know that I want to use my experience as a photographer and entrepreneur to help other people kick ass, so this post feels like a good place to start.
Don’t get me wrong: The playing field is not level. Some people out there will always just be better than us. That’s just life. And social media. But at the end of the day, you make your mark on this world in a way that is unique and meaningful to yourself and everyone in your circle. Give your future self some good stories to tell.