An opportunity to work with fellow creatives can be exhilarating, even if those other creatives don’t explore the same medium. In music and performing arts, photographers and performers join their art forms, bringing images to life that can be absolutely stunning.
Wonderful Machine defines Music & Performing Arts photography as:
Presenting musicians, actors, dancers, or other performers, playing, singing, acting, performing — candid or posed. If the photos document a performance, they need to show a level of creativity beyond mere event coverage.
A lot of photography that can be considered part of the music/performing arts specialty could also be more broadly defined as portraiture. Because of this, it isn’t surprising to find that some photographers working in music/performing arts do so after first honing their skills there.
“The more I focused my business on what I loved — strictly portraiture — the more success I’ve found,” Jillian Clark tells us. It turns out she isn’t the only portraitist to have landed in music/performing arts.
“I was very fortunate to have some prominent editorial opportunities when I was just starting out. I think that was possible because much of my early portrait work revolved around musicians and music,” Lucy Hewett explains. “When I had a day job and was shooting ‘just for fun,’ I would spend evenings and weekends setting up shoots with friends in bands. I was going to shows all of the time.”
Beyond shooting the performances, sometimes a photographer may be assigned with showing their fellow creatives in their natural environment. Says Lucy,
The times I’ve covered music festivals my editors have wanted me to capture the entire experience: attendees, landscapes, live music and portraits of musicians. I covered a DJ group once and the story had a ‘day in the life’ angle, so we shot them before, during, and after the show.
Other facets of this specialty exist outside of shooting musicians and concerts, including ballet, theater, and other performance-related gigs.
Jayme Thornton, who is based in New York City, has a rich portfolio of dance photography, through which he has learned the critical importance of timing in performance photography.
“There’s literally about a 1/16th-second gap where a shot is right,” he explains. Fortunately, he’s found a little trick to help make sure he nails the shot in that minuscule time frame.
If I miss it more than a couple of times I start doing this bobbing up and down dance with my upper body so I can get in sync with them.
For all these sub-specialties, what kinds of requests can a photographer expect from clients? Tony Baker, for one, has been assigned a variety of shoots in this field. He says that “music packaging, label-based publicity, editorial covers and stories, advertising, etc.” have all been requested in the time he’s been working in music and performing arts. As far as what clients are looking for stylistically, someone who steps outside the box tends to catch people’s eyes.
“I’m looking for something that’s a little out of the norm, a little more abstract style. Something more adventurous,” says Carrie Smith, Vice President of Creative Services for Concord Music in Los Angeles. Concord is host to multiple active record labels, including Fantasy Records, Fearless Records, Stax Records, and Kidz Bop, to name a few.
A lot of our shots we want to be very natural and in the moment. We like shots that are more ‘fly on the wall’ rather than something perfectly posed because those just don’t feel very natural.
On the performing arts side, sometimes technical proficiency is the key to making an impression on a client. James Gardiner, the Deputy Director of Creative Content and Publicity for the Signature Theatre in Arlington, VA, told us that he pays great attention to a photographer’s ability to make a live performance feel three-dimensional despite working in a two-dimensional medium.
I’m usually looking for a photographer with extensive experience in shooting live events. It doesn’t necessarily have to be theater. I’m also looking for photographers whose images are sharp, vibrant and capture interesting perspectives of the work. The challenge of event/theater photography is giving the shots [a level of] depth. Too often theater photography can feel very flat, and that is not how our audiences experience the work.
“We hire a lot based on word of mouth and recommendations,” Carrie told us. “I get email blasts from photographers, too, and if something catches my eye, I’ll hold onto their name and look them up on Instagram with keywords or locations.”
James echoed the reliance on word of mouth in addition to “seeing [a photographer’s] work with other theater companies.”
As Lucy mentioned above, one of the ways to get started in this specialty is to photograph friends who are in bands or theater performances. After that, it’s good practice to keep up with what your dream clients print.
When I’m trying to connect with clients who would commission me for music photography, I primarily focus on editorial outlets. So visiting the newsstand is helpful, and I try to stay on top of what my favorite magazines are publishing.
Once you have a portfolio built up, going to portfolio reviews is one of the best ways to get exposure to new clients.
“I actually enjoy attending portfolio review events,” Tony told us. “I always make new friends and meet new clients at those. Get into the most prestigious reviews you can or the ones with the right editorial clients. It’s great practice to actually talk about your own work and hear yourself confirm your passions and approach out-loud. That’s invaluable.”
For more information on music and performing arts photography, check out some of these links: