Each month I receive a bunch of messages on Instagram from young music fans asking how I became a music photographer. When asked this in person, I’m lost for words because in reality – I don’t actually know. My answer to this question is often a blank stare, followed by “erm”, “er” and a nervous laugh before I proclaim “it just kind of happened”.
While this might be true, it’s not exactly helpful to those seeking out a career in music photography and there are two main reasons I never know what to say:
- I have the social skills of a chimpanzee.
- Everyone’s path into the industry is entirely different. From my experience, there is no set right or wrong way to go about it.
I never studied photography, I never had the intention of becoming a photographer, and I certainly never thought I’d have the opportunity to work with so many talented musicians on a daily basis. But this is the reality I’m living. I am 24 years old, my own boss and I spend the majority of my time in various tour vans/buses, travelling up and down the UK and occasionally overseas, with a camera seemingly attached to my right hand.
I currently live in a cute little two-up-two-down-house in South East London with two of my best friends, where we have a garden which features a small terrace, a limestone fire pit and pretty flower beds that bloom in the summer (currently overrun with weeds). I also have a dog who travels with me when he can.
On the surface, it seems like I have my life together, but underneath? Oh, it’s a total fucking mess. I don’t know where I’m going from one day to the next. I’m out shooting at anti-social hours, I stay up all night editing, which of course means my sleeping pattern is completely ruined and my eye bags have become a permanent feature, I have an inbox overwhelmingly full of unread emails that I desperately need to reply to and I still do not understand how to do my bloody taxes. But, I love it and I wouldn’t change it for the world.
So, I guess you’re wondering how I got here? It all kicked off when I was 19 years old and studying at the University of Sheffield. Initially, I had enrolled in an undergraduate degree in Korean Studies, with the intention of working in special intelligence upon graduating. Three weeks later, to the surprise of no one, I dropped out. Although I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do instead, I certainly didn’t want to move back home to Stockport, so I enrolled in a Journalism degree.
By the time my third year came around I was begrudgingly attending less than 15% of my classes, but despite this, by the skin of my teeth, I managed to see it through to the end. I have this degree and the support of my lovely tutors at the University of Sheffield to thank for kick-starting the journey where I am now.
Studying Journalism provided me with the groundwork to develop my skills working in multimedia formats. Feature and magazine writing projects allowed me to combine my love of music with my new found field of study, but it wasn’t just about the writing. It was about video, audio and photo documentary too and, much to my advantage, Journalism students had access to a media store, so I had a plethora of different cameras at my disposal.
With the encouragement of my tutors, it wasn’t long before I started writing music features, reviews and interviewing artists for both regional and national publications. In the summer of 2014, I was asked to review Y Not Festival by an editor I had met at one of the university’s guest lectures, who requested that I took some photographs while I was there. So off I went to Y Not Festival, with a camera in tow for the first time – it was magical.
There was something about capturing the atmosphere visually and not just with my words that excited me. A few weeks later, I was commissioned to do the same again, but at Leeds Festival. Yes, my second ever shoot was one of the UK’s biggest festivals. No, I had no idea what I was doing. Yes, I was terrified. As daunting as it was, it was at Leeds Festival that I met an array of photographers, editors, PRs and music managers and my network began to take shape.
What happened over the next year is, in all honesty, a bit of a blur. But, to cut a long story short, I walked out of my bar job mid shift (to my old manager, if you’re reading this; I’m sorry and I hope the note I left in the till on a crumpled piece of receipt paper shed some clarity), disappeared into the festival circuit over summer and travelled around the country with a bunch of local bands until I landed my first paid tour with the wonderful band Blossoms.
Fast forward five years and here I am. I have visited three different cities in the past 48 hours and I’m now sat in bed after a long day shooting, writing this piece for you lovely lot to read. Now you know a bit of background on how I got here, I’d like to give you a couple of tips and tricks I learned along the way.
What to do
Utilise your social media platforms
The music industry is fast-paced at the slowest of times and the rest of the time it moves at lightning speed. Therefore not everyone has time to be searching for portfolios on google. You need to display your work in an accessible format that is easy to follow. Instagram is a perfect example of a platform where you can quickly and efficiently upload your work and share it with other industry creatives. Follow accounts who inspire you, your favourite artists, music managers and record label personnel who might be useful contacts. Which leads me on to my next point…
Network, network some more and then network again. The industry is forever changing and people come and go all the time. Therefore, the more people you have in your network, the more likely it is your name will be passed around for shoots.
Gigs, festivals and conferences are all great places to meet these people. Be sure to make a friend of everyone you meet and collaborate with other creatives. Being self-employed can be a bit isolating at times, so your network will also act as a community of like-minded people to turn to when you need a helping hand, in my experience.
Don’t be afraid to pitch your own ideas from time to time
While it’s important to follow a client’s brief to ensure they are happy with the product, the beauty of a creative mind is that we all see things differently. Some of my favourite photographs that I’ve taken have been a result of two or more creative minds coming together during a shoot – that’s where the real magic happens. Bounce ideas off the people around you and never be scared to ask for a second eye to look over your work if you’re not sure of something.
What not to do
Never shoot for free
Planning a shoot takes time, shooting takes time, editing takes time and time is money. Thus you deserve to be paid for your efforts. This is a job like any other in that you (the photographer) are providing a service (a shoot) and a product (the photographs) to a customer (your client). You will meet people who claim they cannot pay and offer to compensate you with ‘exposure’ but honey, my answer to this is exposure doesn’t pay the bills.
Once you have a substantial portfolio, there is no reason for you to be shooting for free. (Unless there are extenuating circumstances aka your favourite artist in the entire world is playing a show near you, and no one has commissioned you to shoot it, in which case, go for it).
Do not neglect your health
One of the beauties of freelancing is that you can create your own working schedule, but it’s also one of the dangers. When you love your work, it is so easy to keep taking on more and more without factoring in breaks because, quite frankly, it does not feel like work – but it is.
All those late nights out shooting, sleepless nights of editing and hours spent travelling take their toll. It’s essential to rest once in a while. Otherwise, you will burn out. I’ve made that mistake a few too many times already. Burn out is not a fun experience and it takes a long time to recover from.
Finally, don’t feel like you have to have it all planned out
Sometimes the path into your chosen career is not a clear one, and you will face hurdles along the way – that’s okay. Whether you follow my advice, the advice of someone else, or decide to ignore it all and take your own route, if you are truly passionate about becoming a music photographer, you will find a way.