The Dirt: Music Photography
Recently picked up a sweet second-hand camera from your mate and keen to leap into the world of music photography? Whether that means shooting festivals or collaborating with artists in the studio, it can be daunting at first to find your feet. To help you out, triple j Unearthed heads into the pit with Jess Gleeson and into the studio with Giulia Giannini McGauran to answer your burning questions about the industry.
In The Pit with Jess Gleeson...
Meet Jess Gleeson. She’s a Sydney-based music photographer and has recently worked with Billie Eilish, Groovin The Moo, Splendour In The Grass and at Coachella as Mansionair’s photographer. She’s a gun in the live music scene and she’s here to dish out advice for beginners.
I’m new to the scene, what are the first few steps I should take?
"The best way for people to get involved in music photography, if they don't have a pre-existing portfolio, would be to go to smaller shows in their regions. Talk to bands and just say, “Hey, I'd really like to get involved. Would you let me take some photos of you?” And start to build up your portfolio; so when you go to publications or you go to artists, you have something that you can already show them.
Otherwise, if you message big artists, and you don't have that back catalogue, they don't have anything to work off. And same with publications, they can't take a chance on something that could jeopardise their name without them knowing what you're capable of doing. I definitely suggest getting involved in the smaller local music community around you and just reaching out.
How do music photographers get invited to festivals?
The easiest way to get involved and to start working at them would be through publications. There are other ways, of course, like working for the festival (which is usually through the festival asking you directly). Some festivals allow artists to have their own photographers and that's another fantastic way of getting involved. But for the most part, you can only really end up shooting for your artist, so that's something to keep in mind.
With me working at Coachella, I was touring over there with Mansionair. And conveniently enough, I ended up talking to a friend of a friend who was working with Billie Eilish’s management. And all of a sudden, they gave me a photo pass for her set too. So I ended up working at that. It’s through connections and being involved in your music community. Just because you're a photographer doesn't mean you can't be involved in the music community as more than a photographer. You don't have to just be that fly on the wall, you can also be a friend and get involved.
IMG: Jess Gleeson
Any advice on pit etiquette?
Don’t hold your camera up in front of other people. The audience understands that you're only going to be there for three songs, and then you're leaving. So I think they understand the intention of needing to get some photos and are prettylenient with that. But holding your camera up consistently throughout the entire set, or throughout those entire three songs and in front of other photographers, it literally gets in the way of other people's work. It's just about identifying the surroundings around you, seeing what other people are doing and how other people creating their work and trying to not interfere with that.
What’s the best gear to start with?
When it comes to lenses, the go-to for every photographer is usually the 50 mill 1.8. It’s called the Nifty 50 for a reason: it's small, its compact, its aperture goes down to 1.8. It's what I used for the first year of my career and I have no regrets. But because it is a fixed lens it means that you can't zoom in or out, what you see is what you get.
Currently I work with a Canon 5D Mark III and I have a Canon 6D when it comes to bodies. They're both full frame, which means that they get the full range of the lens. With lenses, I have the 24-70mm f2.8L - the focal ranges 24 to 70 mills and it's a 2.8 aperture – and it’s really good for all things general because it’s a really good mid-range lens for zoom and whatnot. With the 24mm you can get more scope on a whole area and then having a zoom up to 70mm means you can get quite close on the artist too, which is fantastic. The 24-70 is definitely what I use the most personally. I also have the 70-200mm which is a really big zoom lens. That one is really good for stadiums and big festivals with a really tall stage, and if you want to get a really nice portrait of an artist, the 70-200mm is really good for that too.
In The Studio with Giulia Giannini McGauran...
IMG: Giulia McGauran
Meet Giulia. She’s a Creative Director/Photographer and has worked with Meg Mac, The Rubens and Alice Ivy just to name a few. You can pick out a GGMcG portrait instantly because of her carefully crafted and very distinct style. Giulia’s your go-to pal when it comes to owning it in the studio.
I’m new to this and want to work on press shots – where do I start?
I was watching an Annie Leibovitz online masterclass and she was saying that when you start taking portraits, you should always start with the people that you know. So, really close friends that you want to capture and explore, who you know well already.
That's the way I started. I'd photograph my nonna, my mum and her friends, and people who I felt really safe and comfortable with. That's a good place to start because you get to develop, experiment, fail and create things in a really safe place. Then you can start to broaden that and reach out to people that you're interested in. Like, don't ask Beyoncé on day two, start with the local scene and people whose sound inspires you, whose performance inspires you and grow from there.How important is it to get to know my subject? At the beginning, a lot of musicians were like, “Hey, can we get some press shots?” And I was like, “Yeah, cool. So who are you?” And they're like, “Oh, we don't know? Never been asked that question.” That’s something to figure out. But I noticed there was a bit of pushback and not wanting to necessarily create a brand or show who they are in a manufactured way. Authenticity is the key thing,but I think authenticity comes through when actually really thinking about it, instead of just not thinking about it at all.
You do need to really get to know the people you're shooting and get to know what they're about - what they love, what they hate – and aesthetics come into that. It opens up a lot of interesting things about the process of getting to know people and how to get to know someone as quickly as humanly possible, which I figure is speed dating. Even if you’re a musician at home and want to start thinking about your press shot, pull out 101 speed dating questions from Google and just do them because it helps to actually have it written in front of you.
IMG: Giulia McGauran
Is there an art to collaborating? How do I balance my client’s ideas with my own?
I think this ties back into where you actually develop from, which is starting with your family and friends, understanding your aesthetic and the way you like to work. Because a lot of the time, it's a portrait, you go in and you want to figure that person out. You want to make them feel comfortable because it's a photo of them.
When you've done your practice with your family and friends, your aesthetic and your style is already there, and musicians have come to you for that. They roughly know that there will be that hint of you in there. So, brainstorming and workshopping with artists means those ideas just come together and I think that's probably one of the most natural parts of the process.
What kind of equipment should I use? What do you use?
You need what suits you and what you like to work with. My eyes are really bad with strobe lighting, so I use constant lights because I also love the way that you can shape with them. And my camera was terrible for so long, but it was good because I like to compensate in post-production and had to learn Photoshop skills hat I wouldn't have learned if I purchased that amazing camera in the first few weeks of photographing, so that's come in handy now.
Start with whatever you can afford. It doesn't have to be full frame. It doesn't have to be the swankiest camera out there. I started off with my dad's Olympus. It wasn't a professional level camera, it was a beginner’s camera. And then I saved up for a Nikon D5100 – it's a good camera, it’s lower range but it takes great photos. I started with that and $150 50mm lens. Now, I've got a D850, which I really love. I'm really obsessive about colour and I like the colour settings in Nikon, I feel like they alter them a little bit less. Start with the basics and outgrow them. It's really rewarding when you outgrow them.
The admin side of it all...
When should I start charging artists? And how much?
Jess: I find that it's dependent on how much you think your work is worth, and how much the artist can actually afford. Smaller artists obviously can't afford the same amount as larger artists. You need to start with your own base rate and go from there. You'll know when you should be charging because you'll start getting offers to be paid and you’ll find enough confidence in your own work, in your own portfolio and you’ll understand your own worth.
Giulia: You should start charging immediately, on the condition that you have done your education with the people close to you and you've practiced so much that you're ready to deliver work. That means delivering work to a deadline, knowing how to edit, knowing your camera and knowing how to shoot. As long asyou have those foundations, then you're doing a job. So even if you're not charging much at the beginning, you need to charge because I think it shows self-respect for your work, and then other people respect your work. When figuring out how much to charge, there are a lot of considerations: time for the photoshoot, time in post-production - you're covering your bases there. Then the extra expenses you have, the higher [the fee], so you need to factor everything in.
Who owns the copyright of my photos?
Jess: Photo contracts are a bit of a grey area because in certain cases, you may be giving up all the rights to all of your images that you've taken at this event or for this artist. You need to think about what works best for you. Is that opportunity enough for you to sign that away? Or do you want to keep the rights to the image enough that you won’t sign it away. And that's dependent on you asa person. I think at the end of the day, you have to just do what's best for yourself when it comes to contracts. Just make sure that you read every single thing that you're ever sent pre-event and just know your rights and know what you're giving away, and if it’s worth it.
Giulia: Unless you sign your copyright away, you always own it. If there is a form that you're presented with that says copyright is signed away, either speak to an arts lawyer about it, or write a simple email back to review a few of the things on it. You're allowed to ask for review. In terms of contracts, I am so not an expert in this area, and I'm still learning every time I talk to someone. Having a lawyer you can talk to or getting in touch with someone who understands a bit of copyright law is really important. Often you'll read through things and you get a different curveball every single time you get a contract sent through.