These music photographers will make you want to hit the road
Being a band photographer. Spending the summer covering festivals. How do we sign up? Well, that’s what we asked these guys who shoot music for a living.
Following a band on the road and capturing those unique moments has got to be up there as one of the coolest jobs around.
A few summers ago Charles Sturge, a photographer based outside of London, joined the Black Eyed Peas on tour around Europe.
“There were after parties every night,” he says. “I nearly killed myself working and playing so hard.
Yeah, it was awful.”
This summer the New York based photographer and Instagrammer Patrick Hughes was constantly on the road covering music festivals like Brooklyn Comes Alive, Mempho Fest and Great South Bay.
“It was at Great South Bay that I got to photograph one of my favorite bands, Taking Back Sunday,” he says. “I’d never seen them before and have been listening to them since I was a kid. The first time I got to see them perform I was photographing the event and had stage access. I remember this moment on stage where I was crouching down behind the drummer. No one could see me. I was pretty much on stage with them – and in total bliss.”
British photographer and Instagrammer Michelle Roberts is also enthralled by the scene. “There have been so many highs,” she says. “I shot Liam Gallagher at Reading this year and I rew up on Oasis. Watching Drake come on stage from the cherry picker – that was an amazing aerial view. The rigger learnt it was my birthday and did it as a surprise for me.”
“One of my favorite bands is the Maccabees and I got to photograph their final farewell show in Manchester,” she adds. “That was pretty special and it did bring a few tears in the pit. I met Ed Sheeran a couple of times when he played in a pub here. That was a while ago now!”
“There were after parties every night. It was awful.”
As a genre, music is incredibly difficult to shoot however, for one reason above all others – low
light. Bands generally forbid flash photography. “You never know what you’re going to get,” explains Roberts. “You’re only as good as the lighting at that venue.”
“It’s technically quite difficult,” says Sturge. “The stage is normally quite dark and photography needs light. I had to get images in incredibly challenging scenarios. “ISO is the secret,” he adds. “The higher the better.”
Shooting bands with your cell phone – any phone – can therefore be quite challenging but as these photos show, which were mostly created with the Kodak Ektra Smartphone – it’s still possible to get interesting results. (In manual mode, the phone has an ISO setting of 6400).
“I found it really easy to use and was impressed by the sharpness of the images,” says Hughes. “It focuses really well in daytime and low light. I also liked the way it has Snapseed integrated. That’s the program I use on the go – it was really cool that you could snap a photo and in one click you’re editing away.”
“Photography is very much about a moment.”
“The low light feature was quite surprising,” says Roberts. “A lot of people thought it was an actual camera. Being in the pit with an iPhone is generally frowned upon as lots of journalists sit there who maybe don’t need to be there, but quite a few photographers thought it was a camera.” Being able to get backstage is key.
Besides paying attention to the light, she also says that really listening is key as a lot of singers
will do something on the first beat.
“It’s sometimes challenging of course because for some shows the number of photographers allowed is very limited and you only have a few minutes to capture the shot,” says Teddy Morellec, an award winning street, skate and music photographer from France.
“My special tip would be to try to shoot as close as you can [to the artists] whenever possible. Including the public in your shots can help to feel the atmosphere of the gig too.” He adds: “A great shot must take you back to the show as if you were there, and it you weren’t, make you wish you’d been there.”
For Sturge, who hadn’t previously covered a big band on the road, following the Black Eyed Peas on tour was quite a culture shock. “I can remember thinking on the first night, this is the most amazing thing that’s ever happened. I was completely wowed by the big production – hundreds of people were involved, there was an enormous amount of equipment. The logistics were vast. It’s like a military operation. Everyone has their part to play. The excitement soon wears off though and it becomes a job!”
He says to be successful at getting the shot you need to be the kind of character who can bluff their way past security and never take no for an answer. “You have to be a bit cheeky,” he says. “If someone says you can’t go there, that’s where you have to go! There’s no such thing as no.
You have to get in, whatever it takes and find another door. I was once at a political rally with a
journo mate and we blagged our way in and ended up on stage. I walked right up to these politicians and photographed away. It requires a lot of bravado and confidence. If you’re not that person, you’re probably going to find it quite difficult.”
“Photography is very much about a moment,” he adds. “If your finger isn’t over the button, you’re not going to get it. You’ve got to be waiting and looking. It’s a waiting game. Most action happens in a split second, so you really need to know your equipment, and have your camera at the end of your arm with your finger hovering over the shutter.”
“When I’m out there taking photos of people, I’m capturing a moment that person is never going to forget,” says Patrick Hughes, who has built up a decent following on Instagram taking shots of festival goers. “You see the smile light up on their face when they see your photo.”
“There are so many walks of life at these events. For me, it’s about finding moments you wouldn’t expect to capture.”
“I got into the music scene five to six years ago,” he recalls. “And I just dove right into it. I started going to these events and bringing a camera for fun and began taking more and more photos. That’s when I decided to focus on the people. There are so many walks at life at these events. From doing that I made this @faces_of_festivals page. It took off from there. After I started focusing on that festivals began to notice and invite me to be a part of their events.
“I just love the music,” he adds. “It’s always a great vibe, just a fun time. The best tips I could say would be to keep digging and looking, finding angles and moments that you wouldn’t expect to capture. For me I normally shoot from a distance to get that candid expression. That’s when you really capture the best moment.”
Working with bands and with festivals does not always allow artistic free rein however. If you’re under contract with an event sponsor or an artist there may be a detailed brief that you have to shoot to with clauses about things you can’t shoot.
For Roberts, shooting at one major festival for a client, that meant not shooting anyone who looked drunk, high or was topless. “That was difficult,” she laughs. Most bands will only permit photography in the first three songs which can limit opportunities and some artists will sometimes have a no-photography rule. “Eminem we couldn’t shoot at all,” she adds.
“You’re only as good as the lighting.”
Then there’s the photographic rights. For Sturge, this was his biggest learning on tour – and it soured the experience for him. The problem was that it was all so last-minute and he left just a couple of days after first getting the phone call. The job was to shoot the band with fans for a sponsor and he agreed a rate on the basis that he’d be able to sell the images to editorial outlets – which he thought he had full permission to do.
During the tour he double checked with the client and they signed a release agreeing. So after one night he sent the images to a syndication agency he knew. “They took them and sent them around the world. There was an incredible response,” says Sturge. “Then I got back at the end of the tour and had a call from my client and he said, ‘oh by the way, we’ve had a message from the band representatives that you can’t publish any images’. I said, ‘too late, they’ve already gone’. He went apoplectic; I had to take the phone away from my ear he was shouting so much. I thought I had permission. It was really awful.”
Sturge then agonised over the dilemma of publishing and risking a potential legal fallout with his client, or recalling the images and losing a lot of money. In the end he got on his knee to his syndication agency and begged them to recall. “Everyone was unhappy,” he recalls. “It was a very unfortunate situation.”
“It makes me feel how lucky I am to do a job and be around people I love.”
“It’s a difficult line to tread,” he adds. “Most bands naturally are grateful for any publicity. But if
you make too much of a scene wanting to sell images, people can get nervous. It’s so important to explain what you want clearly and find out exactly what rights you have in advance. A lot of people want to push for all rights and as photographers we give our rights away far too freely. People often ask me for all rights and they now have to pay quite a bit extra! You have to know what they’re worth. I lost a lot of money over that tour.”
But shooting music isn’t just about covering the big bands, says Teddy Morellec, who has shot bands like Black Sabbath and Aerosmith. “It’s also great meeting with some smaller very talented artists that you have a better proximity to. My best experience was going on a trip in a van through Austria with a French rock band called Mary Has A Gun. It was dope to be 24/7 with them and document this.”
Michelle Roberts agrees. She was recently shooting at Liverpool’s Psych Festival. “It’s a completely different atmosphere and ball game to the big festivals,” she says. “It’s run by friends of mine, my son does the sound and it takes place at the end of the summer. For me it’s more of a social thing. I always look forward to it as it makes me feel how lucky I am to do a job and be around people I love.”