A couple of years ago, I picked up a camera with the idea that I was going to get into photography. Today, that camera collects dust in the back of my closet. This was clearly not my passion. But for awesome people like Nicole Lemberg, passion drives an aspiring music photographer to the next level.
This still brings us to the question: how do you become a music photographer? This starts the same way any artist begins: build a portfolio and a list of contacts in the industry. You can do this by taking pictures of smaller bands and venues, interacting with the music communities. Just going to music venues where you are allowed to take photos with your low-cost DSLR will get you started.
In the rest of this article, we will dig into the details behind what it takes to be a music photographer. We will also get some tricks and tips from Nicole Lemberg, a ten-year veteran who photographed her first rock show at 14. We will also be talking about her book, No Experience Necessary, which details her experience photographing some of the biggest music names. Please Pre-Order the book here.
What is a Music Photographer?
Before you can become something, you need to understand what it does. For the uninformed, taking a picture of a sound might sound impossible. But the ultimate goal of music photographers (sometimes called concert photographers) is to capture the spirit of music. Unless you have a passion for the subject, don’t bother trying.
When answering the “what do they do” question, the answer is a bit more finite.
Music photographers shoot band promo photos, musician portraits, live concerts, and all subjects that include music. Many photographers are freelancers hired for one-time usage by the venue or band for their purposes. Some venue managers or record companies have house photographers, but those are few and far between when a freelancer can do it much faster.
Typically speaking, music photographers do not limit their services to music photography. You may find that music photographers also offer other kinds of photographic services. It is safe to assume that many music photographers are just photographers.
Freelance music photographers also offer photo editing services. Knowing Adobe Photoshop, Lightroom, or other similar software allows them to charge more and offer something more competitive.
How Do You Get Started as a Music Photographer?
Now that you have a better idea of what they do, we can move onto the meat of this question: how do you get started? Our own Eric Walden has interviewed veteran music photographer Nicole Lemberg to answer this question.
- Q: Do you have any advice on (how) aspiring photographers can start their journey and shoot larger artists?
- A: “I think the best way to get into shooting bigger shows is to shoot as many local shows as possible. Most local shows allow DSLR cameras in the venue so you can build your portfolio, improve your photography, and even network with local bands, which is always good. Once you have a decent portfolio, I’d recommend finding an outlet and reaching out to them, asking if they need any contributing photographers. There are so many music blogs, and people are always looking for photographers.”
Ms. Lemberg’s first piece of advice tells us the best way of getting started: start small. Start by reaching out to the managers of local venues to see about shooting photos there. Their website may often contain the information, but starting up a conversation with them may reveal some info and allow you to start building connections.
You may have to start as an intern in some cases, contributing photographs of bands to blogs and news outlets for free. If your point is exposure, be sure that your name, or website, is prominently displayed. With enough credit, you can start to build up a published portfolio. If your eventual goal is to be hired on by a music company or magazine, this is how you begin.
Finding the Right Camera Gear
One of your first goals as a music photographer is to find the right camera gear. At this point, many people overcommit and buy something hugely expensive, but advice from Nicole Lemberg reminds us otherwise:
- Q: Do you have a recommendation for the best budget camera for beginners?
- A: ” When I first started shooting shows, I used my dad’s Nikon D60, which I think now runs at under $500.00. This isn’t necessarily a camera I’d recommend, but it’s all I had, and I made it work until I understood how to shoot photos manually. There are tons of great cameras, and I’ve always shot Nikon, until recently, when I switched over to Sony. I’d say any DSLR you can afford will work, but the real decision should revolve around your lens. My go-to concert lens has always been a 24-70mm f2.8. It’s wide but also zooms, and the f2.8 will make your life a lot easier when shooting in a dark concert space.”
A few terminologies might confuse the uninformed, so let’s go ahead and break it down.
Camera Terminology You Need to Know
- DSLR stands for Digital Single-Lens Reflex, which is a type of camera that has interchangeable lenses.
- 24-77mm is a camera lens that falls under the “standard area.” The “mm” is the focal length, which is the sufficient distance the camera can be shot from. Try to stick around this level (or around 35-mm to 85mm ), so you can have a balanced camera.
- 2.8 refers to what is called the “F-stop.” The smaller your F-stop number, the more light will be let in. Indoor concert venues need a smaller F-stop, while outdoor venues (that are shot when the sun is brightest) need a bigger F-stop.
- Another vital piece of camera terminology is the ISO number. ISO stands for International Organization for Standardization, which standardizes light sensitivities by numbers that vary from 50 to several million. The higher your ISO, the more light exposure it has, thus increasing the photo’s noise or graininess.
- Finally, your camera’s shutter speed dictates how long your lens stays open to absorb the light. Lower shutter speeds are used for motionless pictures (portraits), as they produce high-quality images. Higher shutter speeds only expose the frame for a short period, making them best for action shots (an active concert)
Choose The Most Trusted Camera Brands
You won’t memorize everything we’ve put here. But it is good to keep these in the back of your mind when you think about what kind of venues you will be photographing. Instead, try and focus on trusted brands of cameras:
You can go to any department store and drop $200 on a decent camera that will get you started. You don’t need the top-of-the-line equipment to get started. Instead, focus on building your portfolio with a beginner’s camera. Once you start making money, you can begin buying something that falls under our next question for Nicole:
- Q: What equipment do you use when you are shooting a show?
- A: “For most of my photography career, I used a Nikon D300 and a Nikon D4. The Nikon D4 sported a Tamron 24-70mm f/2.8 lens, while the D300 had a Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 lens. Most recently, I’ve switched over to Sony, so I currently use the Sony a7R III camera with a Sony 24-70mm F/2.8 G Master Lens .”
To get your career started, you may consider a Canon PowerShot or a Nikon D3500. Both are quality cameras that fall within a decent budget range while producing high-quality photographs.
Should I Shoot at Clubs, Venus, or Amphitheaters?
As you might expect, Ms. Lemberg has an opinion on this issue:
- Q: Is it different for clubs, venues, or amphitheaters?
- A: “Yes, 100%. Club shows are great to attend as a fan. It’s not always the best place to shoot shows because there typically isn’t a barricade, so you are among all the fans, which can get pretty crazy when trying to get a good shot. Venues and Amphitheaters are kind of the same to me. I do prefer medium-sized venues to amphitheaters because the venue stages are typically shorter, while at an amphitheater, sometimes that stage is too high, and it’s hard to get a good shot.”
I worked for the photojournalism club back in my college days. Despite not having much success at the craft, I can attest to the difficulty of sometimes getting a good shot.
When it comes to indoor venues, your camera is just the first step. While some places will have a designated press area to shoot from, there will likely other photographers grasping for the same spot. This can be incredibly difficult in crowded locations, where you might have to squeeze through.
Regardless of where the venue might be, it is your duty as a music photographer to take the shot. While you shouldn’t put yourself in harm’s way, use an understanding of good positioning to find the best location.
If you struggle with finding good positioning, use other photographs taken in the same venue. You can also look at pictures of other accomplished portfolios, emulating and improving those ideas for your own uses.
Other Important Things Most People Forget
Nicole Lemberg has another reminder for music photographers demanding success:
- Q: Is there one lesson you wish someone taught you, but you had to learn the hard way?
- A: “CHARGE YOUR BATTERIES! It’s always the simple things that are gonna get ya. I was photographing a show with Nickelback, and as we were waiting to be let inside the venue, their manager came out and told the photographers that we’ll be allowed to take band portraits before the show. Everyone was surprised, and as soon as I turned on my camera, it was blinking red. My batteries were about to die, so my strategy was turn on the camera, shoot shoot shoot, turn it off. It was not a good time at all.”
Photography class is great, but I can tell you that it won’t remind you to check your batteries. Here are some other good pieces of advice you can take with you:
- Don’t bring too many accessories on your person. Having too much on, you will weigh you down, so try and limit your accessories to a camera strap if all possible. You can also bring a tripod if you feel like its appropriate
- Stay hydrated, as you may end up taking pictures for several hours.
- Take multiple shots of the same event. You may find that one shot captures the perfect moment. Many cameras have built-in settings that allow you to take multiple frames at once.
- Test your camera at the venue before you start shooting. Even the most advanced photographers need to adjust their camera to find the right ISO, shutter speed, and F-stop.
The Rest of the Interview
Here is the rest of Eric’s interview with Nicole Lemberg, sharing some exciting stories with us from her past exploits.
- Q: Who’s the most famous band you’ve shot?
- This is a hard question. I’ve shot some really amazing artists. When I think most famous, maybe Van Halen? They’re legends. But I’ve also photographed Red Hot Chili Peppers, Coldplay, Muse, Linkin Park, System of a Down, Slipknot, Green Day, etc. But some non-band artists I’ve shot that are pretty massive would be Kanye West, Jay-Z, Demi Lovato, Billie Eilish.
- Q: Who was your favorite, and what made them stand out?
- I didn’t want to think too hard about this one, so the first artist that came to mind was Cage the Elephant. There is something about photographing them that never gets old. They have an insane amount of energy on stage, constantly stage diving, jumping on each other, and it’s always really fun to photograph. Also, LetLive is probably the craziest band I’ve ever seen live. It’s pure chaos, and as a photographer, pretty amazing to capture.
Nicole Lemberg’s book, “No Experience Necessary”
Of course, we give our thanks to Nicole Lemberg and wish to honor her time by letting you know about her next exciting project:
- Q: Anything else you want the readers to know?
- A: “Thank you so much for reading! My book “No Experience Necessary” is out on December 13, and I’m excited to partner with MusiCares, who are receiving 100% of proceeds!”
“No Experience Necessary” contains a behind the scenes photo experience of the music industry. This book exposes what it takes to succeed in the music photography business and tells some pretty amazing stories featuring awesome bands like Coldplay, Muse, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Wiz Khalifa, and System of a Down.
There will only be 150 copies available, so be sure to snag yourself one here. One hundred percent of the profits for this book will be going to the MusiCares foundation.
To be a music photographer, you need to have a passion for the subject. Based on Nicole Lemberg’s 10 years in the industry, I think it has become clear that she is one of those examples of what happens when you apply that passion. I wish to thank her for her time answering some of my questions, educating me (and hopefully you) on the subject.
If you want to become a music photographer, we hope that this short guide on what you need to do will help. I’m always excited about the opportunity to talk about photography, so get yourself a beginner camera that isn’t too spendy.
The ultimate piece of advice when pursuing any passion is to stay connected. Speak with people in the industry, build your portfolio, and talk to others who have been there. With enough effort and passion, you will find yourself with the same success as veterans in the industry.