How to get started with music photography

Ever wonder how to get started with concert photography, or how to be a successful music photographer? I'll tell you how.

Matthew James Oxlade
Updated on

Getting started with music photography is not as hard as it seems at first. You need determination, a thick skin and creative thinking to set yourself apart from the other music photographers trying to make a living. Assuming you have a camera and an interest in music, my story below will help make your concert photography journey a little clearer so you can get on your way to creating some magic shots shooting bands.

What concert photography gear did I start with?

I started with a Nikon D90 and a 24-135mm f/4 lens. It really didn’t suit concert photography because of the low light. I knew it wouldn’t be suitable, so I went and bought a Nikon 50mm f/1.8 for $100. I saw it as a pretty cheap investment for equipment that I needed to be a live music photographer.

The very first thing you need to have before you start photographing bands is the music photography gear. It’s not always an expensive process to undertake. You need to see it as an investment in your future. It shows the bands or publications you are working for that you are serious and committed about being a good concert photographer.

Skegss Up In The Clouds Tour - Matt Walter Music Photography

How did I get a photo pass?

At first, I searched online for how to get photo passes.

The general feedback that I was reading was to contact online publications or music magazines and ask them to organise a photo pass for you. The problem was that publications will not give a photo pass to an inexperienced photographer.

I took a look through the online publications to find out what bands publications were writing about. Then I looked at the event listings of small venues in my city and wrote down the names of bands that were not being written about in the online publications. I knew that any band names on my list were the most in need of exposure.

If a band is getting covered in publications, then they would have the photos the publication used. Obviously, this means that their interest in having me photograph their next show would have been small. But this also meant that the bands on my list most likely had no photos, or had very few, so I knew they would be interested in a mutually beneficial relationship.

I contacted the bands and introduced myself. I was completely upfront about my inexperience and explained that I wanted to build my portfolio. I also added that they would be welcome to use my photos afterwards. I asked the band to organise the photo pass for me and ensure the venue was comfortable with the photo pass being issued. Looking back, this was probably overkill, but I didn’t want to be turned away at the door by security because I had a camera.

If you want to see what I contacted bands with back when I started and more about how to be a music photographer, download my music photography guide.

Once I built a concert photography portfolio (see my current portfolio here), I contacted publications and asked them to become a contributor. The publication then added me to their mailing lists where they offered upcoming shows to their contributors. I then told them what shows I was interested in, and they would allocate their contributors shows. The publications kept giving me unknown bands, but I shot every offer they made and eventually was getting allocated the bigger bands. This is where consistency and commitment was really valuable to my career.

Music photography by Matt Walter

When did I upgrade my photography gear?

I upgraded my photography gear after around a year had passed. It wasn’t that one year was a magic number for me. It was that I felt that a different focal length would mean I get better results for my portfolio. I didn’t buy another 50mm lens – I bought a 70-200mm lens because it offered me different focal lengths than I already had. Different focal lengths meant I could work in different environments while running into fewer problems.

I purchased new photography equipment for concert photography as I needed it. I naturally realised what equipment I needed based on how I felt about my photos when I edited them. If I knew I missed an opportunity and it was purely because of the equipment I was working with, I knew it was time to upgrade. This took a year to realise and is why I didn’t upgrade or buy more equipment early on.

Tip: When you’re starting out, work with bands who are starting out. A mutually beneficial arrangement is the most organic way to build a portfolio.

How did I make a name for myself with concert photography?

Commitment, trustworthiness and consistency were the most important factors in making a name for myself in concert photography. Practice makes perfect, and while I’ll never be perfect, I figured the commitment and consistency components of my plan would lead to improved output quality of my photography work.

I chose to design work principles that would make me valuable to publications and bands. These work principles were:

  • Be committed to all aspects of my work, including the delivery of work that has been agreed to, regardless of monetary gain
  • Be committed and consistent with the acceptance of all available opportunities
  • Be trustworthy to all, especially in the eyes of those who most often have their trust broken
  • Be consistent with the work I deliver and the positive attitudes my clients expect of me

I hope telling my story has helped with the planning of your own photography journey. You can download my music photography guide here if you want to learn everything I know.