How to be a live music photographer

Ever wondered how to become a live music photographer? Here's how I started out and became a music photographer.

Matthew James Oxlade
Updated on

One of the most common questions I receive is how do I become a live music photographer? It’s a good question, but the answers are all pretty similar.

hey man so yeah i have been taking photos of bands for almost 2 years now but never really had any actually good/ decent bands to take photos of… i just turned 18 like last year and thought that would help me being able to shoot actually decent bands (soho, tssb etc.) but yeah cant seem to ever get a decent opportunity … what would be your advice??

Here’s what I did, step-by-step when I was a beginner music photographer.

How to be a live music photographer

This is the most important of all. Photographing live music is not easy, especially not at first. You need determination, self-discipline, a positive attitude and a partner/family who is okay with you being away from home for periods of time.

You need to be determined to keep shooting when you go through periods of producing work you’re not proud of, and determined enough to know that photographing unknown bands is the first step to photographing your favourite band.

Self discipline is important because you will find yourself in situations where your morals might be tested, be it drugs, partying too much and not finishing photo edits before a certain deadline, or just getting lazy with your work. A positive attitude is required to network with people of different walks of life, whether it be musicians, fans of musicians or label staff.

Finally, you need an understanding partner or family, because the more you network, the more time you are going to spend out on the road. That’s where all the photos are. They aren’t in your house!

Built a portfolio

My portfolio was horrible, but it was necessary.

How can I build a portfolio with no opportunities to shoot?

I find that question surprising but you would be surprised how often I get it. The question seems so surprising to me because there are so many bands out there that would benefit equally from a music photographer taking photos as you would to build your portfolio as a music photographer.

Connect with bands that you have never heard of and are charging less than $8 to get in. Send them a message and be honest by saying, ‘I’m just starting out with live music photography and would love to photograph your band. It will help me build my portfolio and give you some photos to use to promote upcoming shows.’ This will not work with small bands that are supporting a bigger band. A band needs to check with the promoter to make sure that a photographer can be given a photo pass.

The smaller the band, the less likely the promoter will allow their request. So start with shows that only have small bands on the bill. Once you have photographed enough bands to have a portfolio, you’re ready to move to the next stage.


Clowns Lucid Again Tour music photographer photo by Matt Walter

Became a contributor for online blogs

Remember that part where I said that the promoter is the one that grants requests for photo passes? When you want to shoot larger bands, the promoter is going to want to know what is in it for them. That means you’re going to need exposure for your photos.

To get photo passes for bigger bands I needed to join an online publication as a music photographer. Firstly I Google’d ‘Australian music news‘ and ‘music blog australia‘ to find out what publications there were out there. I then made a list of publications I want to shoot for, and another list of publications I think my work would suit. Sometimes publications you would like to shoot for will need some extra experience because they have a reputation to maintain. It’s worth trying to produce work that stands against their contributors because these publications will be able to get photo passes for better shows than the smaller publications can.

Email the online publications and introduce yourself by sharing a link to your portfolio. You can see what my portfolio looks like over at my website. A publication wants to see photos, so you are best to just make photos available rather than tell the visitor about yourself. After all, that’s what will be in the body of your email. Don’t forget: You’re writing to them to ask to contribute to their publication, so always finish your email by asking to contribute as a music photographer on an ongoing basis!

Shot consistently until I found a style

I shot around three bands a week, every week. Some of my peers shot five bands a week. There’s no ‘correct’ amount, but the more you shoot, the more content you will have available to promote yourself with. This is also an important part of networking. The more you’re out, showing your face with your camera, the more people you will meet.

I shot for around 10 publications as a music photographer, but only two at a time. If you try to contribute to too many publications you will start to neglect some. Just focus your energy on a small number. The more you shoot for one publication, the more often you will be given opportunities for the more sought-after shows. Publications use these opportunities as incentives for people to contribute on an ongoing basis.

Find a style of shooting. I didn’t know what this looked like until I naturally started seeing a recurring theme pop up in my work. Gritty, contrast-focused images are what I seemed to be making, so it’s all I ever offer now.

Many of my peers offer glossy images, or stylish black and white imagery, or something entirely different. I just found that theme as I progressed, and (I would hope) people might associate my images with my name. I’m still working on that, like everyone…

Egos need to stay in check. Never let anyone tell you that your work is less important than someone else’s. When I first started photography, I had people not return my calls, emails or social media messages. I was only asking for advice, an opportunity, help or guidance to get started with photography. Today, I still see people ignoring those asking for help or handing out vague answers like hard work is a secret.

Every person that contacts me gets a response. Every person. No #humblebrag or vague answers are provided. Your work is just as important as mine. Your work is just as important as theirs. Email me if you ever need encouragement.

I can’t stress how important that is. If the above doesn’t help you, please email me before you get to the stage where you feel like you’re never going to get there. You will, and I’ll remind you of that! All I did was follow what is written above and I am doing what I do now. You can do it too!