the art of the band promo

The other day, I somewhat-jokingly tweeted a list of hot tips on how to take a perfect band promo.

These days I want to help other photographers and creatives take their businesses to the next level, and the only way I know how to do this is by word vomiting everything I know via as many mediums as possible. First Twitter. Now a blog. Eventually... YouTube?

Joyfield by Kelly Mason Photo
Joyfield, 2017. Shot from the top of a 10' ladder: The poor photographer's drone? I guess? Tall ladders are expensive y'all.

The early days

Back when I first got into photographing shows, I looked up to Alt Press photographers like Dave Hill, Gage Young, and Tim Harmon. I even worked for Adam Elmakias for several years. There were no non-male music photographers that I knew of apart from Rolling Stone legend Annie Leibowitz, so I didn't feel empowered to take my career to the next level until much later on. This is why I feel so much hope for the current generation: Having been through it a decade ago, I can tell you personally how much better the climate is for non-male identifying people now. It's empowering AF, and I like to think I played a small role in that shift. *sweet brag* But anyway.

My first shoot where I had to direct a group of dudes people didn't know was with a new metal band called 7 Horns 7 Eyes on a classically-shitty Seattle day. They found me on MySpace in 2006, shortly after I bought my first camera, and we agreed to meet at Pike Place Market. I was 17 and terrified of charging people money to take photos for the first time, so we agreed that $25 up front with $25 on delivery was fair.

7 Horns 7 Eyes, 2006. I used to put this border on e v e r y t h i n g.

Long story short I never collected the balance, so I got paid $25 for my first photo shoot with a band that totally still exists today, 13 years later, and you should probably tweet a link to this article at them and see if the original members remember their debt. (lol)

Aside from the above photo, the images were bad. I also didn't have a proper laptop for editing, so I begged my family to buy me my college MacBook a year early pretty much just to edit this set. Luckily it unlocked a whole new world for my photography career and allowed me to take my music publication, Rain City Ambience, to the next level, but I remember being very stressed while figuring out how to edit these.

7 Horns 7 Eyes, 2006. My brain in this moment: "WTF AM I DOING AHHHHHH."

Now that I've legitimized myself or lost you (hello @ every recipe with a life saga for an intro), let's get down to business.

Find a location.

If there's anyone who loves to wing it for band promos and portrait shoots, it's me. Once you know what to look for in a location, how to work with natural light, and understand the vibe your client is going for, you can find interestingness pretty much anywhere.

Afterwords shot in the back hallway of the Sunset before their show, 2018. I asked everyone to point their noses towards the left wall to take advantage of the only light source.

Usually I like to have the band pick a main location with one specific spot in mind, then walk around together and take candids while looking for other areas that look good with the current lighting. Some people like to plan out every detail of their photo shoots, but aside from outfit coordination beforehand I often like to be inspired in the moment.

Put band in location.

There's nothing fancy to this. Just tell them to go "find their own space" and see how they naturally position themselves and interact with each other so you can better envision your composition and make adjustments on the fly. Candid moments are the best moments 99% of the time.

The Money Pit in Ballard, 2015. We walked around the neighborhood looking for a cool location and happened upon a bar with perfect outdoor seating and interesting back lighting.

Position everyone.

In my tweet I mention everyone should be positioned differently, but there's something to be said for uniformity too. Just make sure whatever you do, you do it with intention.

From here you can make adjustments based on your ideal composition and the way everyone looks in formation, heights of various band members, etc.

Afterwords near El Corazon, July 2019.

Number of people makes a huge difference too, so confirm this up front and do some inspirational research. Odd numbered bands are often easier to photograph because the front-person can always be a center point, but with four-bangers you can follow the golden ratio.

Joyfield by Kelly Mason Photo
Joyfield outside their Kirkland practice space, 2017.

Stop and look.

Watch for floating heads and make sure everyone holds their own in the image. Decide if you want to see space between members or bring them close together to create a sense of unity. I like to play with many combinations.

Valadares, 2015. Did someone say floating head? I should have had Sam (2nd from left) put a hand around Juli or something to make her look a little less severed.

Use your scary voice and direct.

The best and worst part of shooting bands is that you're working with a group of friends. Usually there is some fuckery, especially with less experienced bands, and you might find yourself frustrated that people aren't listening. In this case, you have to take control and raise your voice. Sometimes I even position people by physically touching and moving them (with consent), which usually kicks people into shape.

Luckily, this step gets easier as you gain experience and everyone becomes more professional, but it's truly something you have to learn to deal with (and even enjoy) if you want to pursue this area of music photography. Who doesn't love a good challenge?

A strategically placed photo of What's Wrong because I've known the singer since high school and it was his 28th birthday, so this shoot was full of shenanigans.

A side note on pricing:

When you first start out and you're not charging a lot--and especially when you work for free--people don't always respect your time or take you seriously. I found that $200 was my sweet spot for a long time and the upper threshold of what most small bands were willing to pay.

The Wonder Years by Kelly Mason Photo
The Wonder Years, a band that has to pay 6 members and relies significantly on merch sales to thrive because Soupy and Josh are men of b u $ i n e s s. Warped Tour 2015, Scranton, PA.

In general, I have the best luck when I explain to my subjects why I'm telling them to move 1 inch to the left. On a sunny day when there are more shadows, for example, I might tell them to make sure they aren't casting a shadow on anyone else. This allows everyone to shift around without me having to make micro-adjustments with each person.

Never say "I can Photoshop that."

We get it. You're an editing wizard. That doesn't mean it's fun to make a trash can look like a fence. If you notice something that needs to be fixed or adjusted in the moment as you're shooting, make the effort to do it.

Whenever someone jokes "you can Photoshop that, right?" just say "I can... but I don't want to" with a laugh and you're good to go.

The Wonder Years by Kelly Mason Photo
Filed under: Moments you couldn't possibly plan.

That's about it from me, but my friends had some great tweets that I had to include. Everyone's pal Natalie B. also chimed in with a few more:

Mitch has passionate feelings about checking pockets, echoed by my friend Aya whose profile is private but she was #first and must be acknowledged.

Ben says not to use a wall, but I've used a ton of walls in my time so while I'm inclined to agree that it's a little lazy, do you.

Moments in the only light we could find near Barboza, 2016.

At the end of the day, I still struggle with following all of these rules, but practice makes perfect. Keep creating, keep pushing yourself, and let me know if I missed anything in the comments or on Twitter!

Share this story