Over the last year, I’ve had a huge increase in the number and frequency of questions about what I do. I’m flattered that you consider me when seeking advice, and I wish I had time to sit down with each of you one-on-one to answer them all.
Since there are several questions about music photography that come up fairly often, I’ve FINALLY put together this FAQ blog post! So chances are, if you’ve sent me questions via email, IG, Twitter, or even in person, you’ve ended up here. Feel free to send over additional and/or more specific questions. If I get enough, I may do a follow-up FAQ post, or posts that go into more depth with a specific topic.
I would like to say a profound thank you to all of you who follow my work, I appreciate each of you so much! Please come say hi if you see me around! And if you don’t already, follow me on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Snapchat (annaleemedia) for photos updates and tour BTS!
^ On Smallpools’ tour bus | Photo by Erix Arocha
How did you start shooting bands?
Being a big music fan, I tended to gravitate toward friendships with musicians or other music fans in Oklahoma City where I’m from. I’d already been doing photography for a few years when my hobbies began to overlap. I shot countless local shows and promos for friends’ bands. Often, small local shows will not have any camera rules. They are also usually poorly lit with no pit barrier- so if you can learn to get good photos out of these conditions, shooting shows will only get easier.
In college, I became extremely invested in the school’s event programming board. I gained the position of concert coordinator which gave me unlimited access to shoot some very prestigious artists, as well as a valuable crash course in concert and industry logistics.
These early stages were great for gaining live show and low light experience and portfolio images.
^ From my first ever promo shoot with Eden Sharmaine, 2009
How do you get photo passes to shows?
Most commonly, photo passes (PP) are issued to a photographer working for some type of outlet (blog, magazine, etc) where the photos will be published. The more relevant and influential the outlet, the better your chance of getting a PP. If there’s a show you’d like to shoot, try partnering with your largest local music publication, or any online outlet that you can build a relationship with. You may or may not be getting paid in this scenario, depending on the outlet and who approached who.
However, many of you may be like me- no association to an outlet. In that case, I take the route of shooting for the band themselves. As a tour photographer the actual band is my client. I also shoot local shows when I’m home. Occasionally I’m hired to do these, and the PP is provided for me. Other times, I want to shoot out of personal interest. If I know someone in the band, crew or management, I will request a photo pass from them directly in exchange for providing photos for social media.
If you’re just starting out, chances are you don’t have a connection. The next best thing is to locate an email for the band’s management online and respectfully request a PP in a brief email that includes a link to see your work. Start out with smaller shows and/or smaller opening bands on large shows. They will be less saturated with PP requests, and it’s a great way to learn and build a portfolio. You will probably not get a response more often than not, so keep improving your portfolio and reaching out. (Remember, some smaller shows may not even require a PP.)
Did you go to school for photography? What should I study to be a music photographer?
Yes and no. I actually have a BFA in Graphic Design, but took some classes for my Photography minor. Do you need to go to school to do what I do? No. But you definitely need to get a technical foundation from somewhere. If you don’t go to school for photography, put just as much time into learning the techniques as if you went to school for it. Shoot every chance you get and the techniques will become intuitive. CreativeLive is an amazing resource, with free workshops for every level of experience.
Having an “eye” for photography is very important, but what separates the pros from the “fauxtogs” is whether or not your photos are technically sound (in focus, well-exposed, in focus, appropriate lens/settings for the situation, did I mention in focus?).
Succeeding in music photography comes down to two main factors: (1) your craft and (2) your network. Personally, I’d place more importance on your craft.
What is your favorite band/venue/lighting designer to work with?
At the risk of giving a cop-out answer, I can’t choose. Every person and situation provides a different shooting environment. I really do cherish the relationship I have with each of them.
What kind of camera/equipment do you use?
I’m a Canon girl! Here’s what is usually in my bag for any given show or tour (plus all the necessary, related accessories):
Canon 5D Mark 3
Canon 16-35mm f/2.8
Canon 35mm f/1.4
Canon 85mm f/1.8
Canon 70-200mm f/2.8
Canon 45mm f/2.8 Tilt-Shift
Canon 600EX-RT Speedlight
If you could only use one lens, what would it be?
My answer to this changes based on what I’ve been using the most lately, and for the last several months it has been my 16-35mm f/2.8. It great for both pit shooting as well as for backstage candids with flash.
What camera/lens should I buy?
It makes sense to ask a photographer what photography equipment you should buy, right? Not exactly. It’s kind of like walking into a shoe store and asking the first person you see what shoes you should buy. (What’s your style? Are you going running in them, or going on a date? What color do you want? What’s your budget?) Deciding on camera equipment depends on a lot of factors- most specifically, what are you going to be shooting? If you throw in the fact that you need something inexpensive, it gets even more tricky. I only know the equipment I use- I’ve not personally tested the consumer level (cheaper) options. I’d have to do the same Google search as you to research the best option for your budget. Take note that you do get what you pay for, so a “good but cheap” camera is somewhat of a paradox, but we all have to start somewhere. I would also generally argue that a good lens is more valuable than a higher end camera body for getting by, especially in low light situations like concerts. You can always rent it before you buy, if you’re not sure.
My main point: If you’re extremely new to photography, first do your research and learn about cameras and lenses in general- how they work, and the major differences between each one. This is necessary to know how to properly use it once you own it. Once you understand how they work, you should have a pretty good idea of what you want to buy.
That being said, here’s some actual helpful information. When deciding on a camera body, what matters to me personally are aspect ratio (full- vs. crop-frame), high ISO capability, and sensor size + resolution. Deciding on a lens is more use-sepecifc. They vary based on focal length, prime vs. zoom range, and speed (aperture range). If you’re shooting concerts, letting in as much light as possible is your number one priority, so you’re better off with a lens capable of f/2.8 or wider.
What settings do you use for concerts?
The short answer: There are no “universal concert settings”. But here’s what you want to know: I do have a range of settings that make for a solid starting point.
Taking a picture always comes down to the light. It’s safe to assume that most concert situations are going to be dark. The more light you can let into your camera while retaining a clean, sharp image is where you want to start. For example, I set my camera in the realm of f/2.0, 1/350, and ISO 2500, and go from there. This is very much a ballpark set-up and will depend entirely on the speed and length of your lens, the brightness of the stage lighting, etc. Even then, when you’re shooting bands with an actual light show, your settings will be all over the board throughout the set.
How did you start touring? What was your first tour?
EDIT: To clarify, tour photography (and music photography in general) is not my full-time job. I am a photographer full-time, however most of my income is supplemented with the freelance work I do at home. (See more about this under the Q about my other work!) Full-time music photography certainly exists if you are in the right market. Full-time tour photography is much more rare, but is possible with the right network and the time/hustle it takes to grow into that position.
My first tour ever was pretty unreal: Warped Tour… in Australia. Similar to my start in music photography, my first tour experience was with a friends’ band. They were part of the Australia Warped lineup in 2013. After that I had the tour bug. Although I gained experience and a variety of portfolio images, it didn’t lead directly to any other tour opportunities.
The next band I toured with was Smallpools. They are the band that actually got the tour ball rolling for me. If you follow my work, you know I’ve been with them for long time. My start with Smallpools was an anomaly, in that it broke the “it’s all who you know” rule. I had no connection to them, or anyone they knew.
So here’s how that came about. On the advice of a musician friend, I created a “music photographer EPK” that I could send out, which was a self-contained document citing my experience and including sample images. I researched several bands I enjoy that were either on tour or that would be soon and reached out to the them in the same way that I do when requesting PP’s. When it came to Smallpools, the only way I could find to contact them was via Facebook message. Even though I was a total stranger, they took the time to look at my work. They told me that they liked what they saw and decided to give me a chance based on that.
We started conservatively. I went out with them for one week, beginning in LA and ending in OKC, so that they were able to drop me off at home. This kept it inexpensive since this was an experiment/investment for both of us. Fortunately is was an amazing fit, and Smallpools hired me to continue coming back every time after that.
From there, I was able to quickly build a network of connections with other bands that Smallpools toured with as well as friends in crews with other bands. This led to tours with Grouplove, Walk the Moon, as well as relationships with other bands for future work (stay tuned!).
^ Diamond Ballroom in OKC during my first run with Smallpools | Photo by Catie Bartlett
What’s your favorite part about being a tour photographer?
From a personal position, my favorite part of touring is that fact that I get to build a long-term relationship with the band and crew. They’re not clients, they’re family. This gives me a really unique opportunity as a photographer. I get to know them on a level from which I can anticipate what to capture, and snag those raw, candid (and not so candid) moments. I enjoy this dynamic more than anything, and based on the feedback I’ve gotten from the bands I’ve worked with, that’s my specialty.
From a professional position, my favorite part of tour photography is that I get to invest in the band’s brand. When I photograph a group so long-term, my pictures become imbedded their image. Being able to invest in them on this level is extremely rewarding, and a great privilege.
How do you adapt to life on the road? Do you ever get tired of being on tour?
It all comes down to minimalism. I really enjoy traveling, so I was already acquainted with packing efficiently. You have to be realistic about what you need and will use. Even when you’re on a bus, storage space is very limited. I have a great packing list that I’ve spent years perfecting. But it’s still tough to never really feel “settled”. Adapting is all in your head. There are also a lot of daily, logistical responsibilities that are quick/convenient at home, but become more tedious to deal with from the road.
Another factor that is not frequently anticipated is how you relate to your fellow tour members. I could spend a long time unpacking this concept, but what it comes down to is this: You don’t go home by yourself at the end of the day. You’re living with these people 24/7, so it’s really important that you’re able to “hang”. Everyone has to make more of an effort to stay positive, be cooperative, and do more than is required to help each other out.
Yes, I do get tired. Albeit unconventional, it is very much a job. It’s not always glamorous. But the hard work has yet to outweigh the reward of doing something that I love so much. It’s important to find your own ways to stay physically and emotionally healthy. For example, I make smoothies for meals. When I have time, I love taking walks by myself around the city. I also go to sleep with my favorite show on Hulu in my bunk at night to unwind.
Perhaps the most wearing things are the sacrifices you make by not being at home- the people, things and events you miss being gone for long periods of time. Tour is a very “removed from reality” head space, and it’s harder that you’d think to stay in touch with friends and family. Mine are very understanding about the situation, but it’s so important to make an effort at staying present in their lives.
What is it like to be the only girl touring with a bunch of guys?
This is perhaps one of my most frequently asked questions, but it’s kind of an amusing misconception. There are always other ladies around! Whether it be a female member of my band, another band on the tour, crew member, significant other riding along, etc- it’s fun to get to bond with them on a different level than the guys.
That being said, females are definitely in the minority on the tours I’ve been on, so I understand the curiosity. The thing is though, that touring is such a different lifestyle altogether, so dynamics like this are just part of that overall adjustment. Living with guys is a crash course in being low-maintenance, accompanied with the interesting difference in personalities. Overall, it’s an environment that I enjoy, and meshing with the guys came easy. Fortunately, I’ve found that every band in the genre I call home are the nicest people around. It’s kind of like adopting a family full of brothers.
^ Just one of the guys.. Leg 1 of the Smallpools Lovetap! Tour
^ With Hannah Hooper of Grouplove, Honda Civic Tour | Photo by Elli Papayanopoulos
What is your advice to new photographers?
Just a few points that come to mind, in no particular order:
Put your craft above everything else. The key to getting where you want to be with anything is to ensure what you’re putting out is high quality. I understand being anxious about your end goal- just wanting to be in that position. But don’t jump the gun on quality and experience. The market is oversaturated with mediocre photographers, so let’s raise the bar of the industry!
Specialize in something and be persistent. This is the best possible marketing advice I can give. If you want to get to the next level, it’s better to be known for doing one thing really well, rather than spreading yourself too thin. That’s not to say you can’t and shouldn’t shoot multiple things- just filter what you put out there!
Adopt a style, but don’t over-process. Half of the fun of digital photography is what you do with the image after you take it. But don’t let you photo get lost in heavy-handed editing. This screams amateur. Work on taking quality photos, so you’re not editing to fix them, but rather to gently enhance them.
Narrow down more. It’s easy to get attached to nuances in each image you take, or to see the redeeming qualities in less than great images. However your end viewer is making a more detached, objective judgement, especially when it comes to music clients. A handful of solid images looks much better than a ton of mediocre options. It took a while to train my creative brain in this. Now the one test I use is to ask: “Can this photo stand alone as a solid image?” If not, it gets cut. (It gets easier with practice.)
How are you able to stand out as a photographer?
The biggest compliment for me is when someone says they can recognize my work. As a general rule, having a consistent style is very important to get your of work to stand out. Here “style” refers to everything from the way you frame photos, posing/direction, the way you treat light, editing, etc. These things comprise your overall style.
On a more personal level, I’ve found that working mostly with bands in a very close-knit genre has been helpful. They share a fan base, and often other industry contacts, so I’ve been recognized for my work in these circles.
Stay present on social media with quality content, and find unique ways to market yourself! Interacting with those who follow your clients or your work makes a huge difference.
What is the #ALMfancam, and how did it come about?
The #ALMfancam is a project I started as a way to give fans an all-access peek into what I get to do every day. I encourage concert goers to be the first one to put a disposable camera in my hand day of show. They communicate with me via Twitter to claim the camera for their city, by sending a selfie in line with their disposable. I keep the camera with me throughout the day and fill it with exclusive backstage photos and shots from the pit.
I first witnessed this done while on tour with Grouplove. A couple of times, a concert goer would come early bearing band gifts and disposable cameras for them to use. I saw it again most recently with Magic Man, for which I commandeered the camera during the set. It was fun, but what really registered with me was witnessing their excitement to get the camera back, and then seeing the developed photos in a later tweet. I realized that I could help facilitate this experience. I can give people a more comprehensive and intimate peek into their favorite bands’ lives behind the scenes, as well as to snag a few show photos for them from spots they would not otherwise have access too.
The response has been amazing so far, and fans have gotten in line to claim the #ALMfancam as early as 5am!
^ #ALMfancam photos of Walk the Moon, Talking Is Hard tour
What are your biggest challenges as a photographer?
As with any creative career, photography is half creativity and half business. That’s one of the biggest challenges, because freelancers have to learn every aspect of running that business.
Staying creative and motivated can also be a challenge. Creativity is an exhaustible resource like anything else, so it’s important to actively seek inspiration, and take time for yourself to relax. I also make time to do personal projects- things just for fun, so that it’s not all client work.
Do you shoot anything besides music?
Yes! I have an established wedding photography business in Oklahoma (that I’ll be expanding to LA at the end of this year). I love the variety of shooting a completely different subject when I’m not on tour. Wedding photography has a more feminine and romantic vibe, but it’s fun to see how I can merge it with my music and promo style for a more modern and edgy approach.
I also get an assortment of clients requesting everything from fashion to commercial to high school senior photography, as well as doing my own personal projects, shooting with friends, or even just phone art for Instagram.
^ OKC wedding clients
Do you give photo lessons?
I do give general photography lessons locally in OKC when I’m home, but I’ve got some fun announcements for my followers and aspiring music photographers coming down the pipe, so stay tuned!
^ Smallpools Lovetap! tour | Photo by Erix Arocha