Interview: Music Photographer Danny North

Screen Shot 2014-01-27 at 14.23.24Music Photographer Danny North has photographed some of the biggest artists and bands in the world – including Iron Maiden, Muse, Foo Fighters, Biffy Clyro, Metallica and Kaiser Chiefs to name just a few. He contributes to Q, Kerrang!, FHM, NME, Rolling Stone, and many other magazines and broadsheets. Whether he likes it or not, Danny North is a big deal.

So Danny – You’ve come a long way since starting out in music photography. Can you give our readers the low down on how you got started to where you are now? Ello! Well, about 10 years ago now, I was working at a Leeds music college part-time, still in a few bands, promoting gigs, stage managing at a nightclub, and managing a band. Music was and always has been my life. Around that time I picked up a camera and started to document everything I was doing. That led me onto shooting for a local Zine called Sandman, where I ended up being the photo editor for a while. After about a year of shooting dingy sweat pits, and countless portraits of the Leeds bands of the time, I had cemented myself as the go to guy in Leeds. Shortly after that the NME called me, asked me if I’d be interested in shooting for them. That’s the nutshell version, but I guess I was getting to a point in my life where I knew being a musician wasn’t ever going to happen for me, but being offered a life line of a paid creative opportunity like shooting for the NME, that was something I grasped with both hands and have never looked back. And more importantly, it kept me close to music. Sure I wasn’t playing in the bands, but in time I got used to that. I still miss it, especially when I get to stand on Leeds festival main stage, or I’m in a sweaty 100 Club, and the atmosphere is incredible… yeah I really miss it. But I love what I do, and I’m a better photographer than I am a bassist.

Was there a defining moment, or big break for you within the music photography industry? Yeah, when NME gave me a shot, and I’d been shooting about 10 months whilst working, I sacked the day job in and went full time. After that I knew I had to work extraordinarily hard to make this work for me. I don’t think I gave up a single job offer for 2 years, one of those happened to be Glasto, and by Sunday I was only photographer for the NME there. As a result I shot on the pyramid stage with Kaiser Chiefs, it was such a high, so mind bogglingly awesome. One single image from that show got me the touring job with KC. And I still work with them 6 and a bit years later.

The Bronx by Danny North

The Bronx by Danny North

Looking at your blog and portfolio, one of the main things you manage to capture perfectly is ‘the moment’ – that moment of energy, excitement, mayhem – all in a single image. Above all it looks like you have serious fun, whether it be in a small club or a massive concert. Would you say you have a particular style or approach to live music photography? What kind of things do you always like to capture. I don’t think I’ve ever considered that I have a style. I just go out there to do the best I can. I am utterly obsessed with leaving every show with a potential portfolio image. Not that every show produces one, but I go in there wanting to produce work of the highest quality. I never stop thinking about my position, the lighting, my flash, the relationship I have with the band, the ISO the ambient is going to give me, the manual flash bounce I can get from said ISO if the lighting is rubbish, how noisy is this gonna look? Where are the toilets? Did you see that baby llama riding a pig?

I guess my style is Man Possessed. I dunno, amongst all that, I like to have a beer, just one or two, get the joints oiled up. A pint takes the edge off my worrying about the technical stuff and reminds me I’m at a gig, I’m there to have fun. I’m there to show the people who are not there just how fun it was. If I can make someone at home months later look at my photo and go, “fuck me, I wish I was at that gig”, then I have done my job.

You used to be in a band before becoming a music photographer – that must have been a great advantage to have that experience of being in front of the camera when you went behind it. Yeah, I think it’s given me a real advantage. I knew what bands wanted, I knew instinctively because I shot how I would have wanted to be represented. Be it a portrait or a live shot, could I make a bunch of lads from Bradford look like rock gods? I dunno, but I tried. I think with time, as my understanding of photography grew and matched that of my passion of music, I started to hit the target. Plus, live music photography as you know, it’s all about at anticipation, being aware of the song, it’s cadence, it’s progression. I also have a HND in music production, so observing song structure and being that obsessed with music, and having played bass from being 12, it gave me a strength in pre-empting movement of the artist and watching the flow of the lighting.

Iron Maiden by Danny North

Iron Maiden by Danny North

It must have helped you to ‘be cool’ with artists when you worked with them too, instead of having that fan-freeze moment? Are you able to keep your cool in front of Iron Maiden? I suppose so; I have never thought anyone from any walk of life is better than me, especially just because they happen to sell a few records… But I think some artist’s kinda demand by default a certain respect, like Brian May, not that I’ve shot him but I did meet him, and I was humbled because he is a legend, a genuine legend. But most bands are just people having a good fucking time, treat them like your mates, and you get on so much easier, and you get better photos as a result.

Was I cool with Maiden? Yeah, kinda. My first encounter outside of being a 12-year-old fan, was spending an afternoon with Steve Harris in LA. I was VERY nervous about getting the shot, and I was extremely focused on that, so I didn’t have time to worry about the fact I’d worshipped him since I was a nipper. After the shoot we drove to the venue Maiden were playing that night, it took about an hour, and me and Steve chatted about being in bands, about photography (he’s a keen shooter), and just normal stuff, and I have to tell you, after that I kinda sat back and thought, fuck, I think the 12 year old in me just jizzed his pants.

Biffy Clyro by Danny North

Biffy Clyro by Danny North

You cover a wide scope of shows and big festivals. It must be a lot of hard work (as well as fun). When you get commissioned to cover a show do you fly solo or do you now have a team / staff to assist you? I do, I shoot a lot of variation. I think festivals are my favourite of all the live stuff I do. My buddy and colleague Andrew Whitton and I run a company that shoots official photography for a number of festivals. And this year our client list is set to double. For the festivals we’re always on the look out for new photography talent. We build teams centred around working along side Andrew and I, and our core team members, Derek Bremner, Jenna Foxton, Richard Johnson, and Tom Martin.

I love directing the team almost as much as shooting. I just think I want to be Hannibal.

For normal shows, it’s just me and my camera, I love the lone gunner vibe (sometimes I put on the Drive soundtrack and pretend I’m in a movie)… but it’s nice to be amongst friends and colleagues. Which is why I started out doing the festival business stuff, I just love being around people, and the camaraderie being in a muddy field for 3,4 or 5 days brings. It builds friendships founded on trust, hard work and respect.

Dizzee Rascal by Danny North

Dizzee Rascal by Danny North

What is in your kit bag? For live, I keep it simple…ish. 2 x Canon 5D MK III’s, Canon 24-70 mkII, Canon 70-200 mkII. If I’m at a sweatbox venue, I just take the 24-70. If I’m at a festival I’ll add a couple of primes to that like the 135mm f2, and 35mm f1.4. If I’m walking the streets it’s all about the Fuji x100s. Saying all that, I shot with on a large format film camera last week, I might take that down the 100 Club next time.

For the majority of us, we become music photographers for the love of music and photography. Two passions combined. Are you able to still enjoy a show or is has it become too much like ‘work’. Do you go to gigs without your camera? Has your career affected the way you enjoy music nowadays? Not at all, almost every gig for me is still a blast. Only on the rare occasion is it like work, when people are being dicks, and you have to work around attitudes. Then it becomes like work. Music photographers sometimes get treated pretty fucking badly, rogue security, or a shitty PR, or a band with ego’s the size of a small horse. But I’d say most of the time “fuck ‘em”, I still try and have a good time. I rarely go to gig without my camera, and when I have my trigger finger just itched all night.

I don’t think that’s a bad thing though; I just love what I do.

We interviewed Caitlin Mogridge and Jordan Hughes who are already contributing for the likes of NME and are in their late teens / early twenties – they have huge respect and admiration for your work. How does that make you feel to hear that you are inspiring the next generation of music photographers? I think it’s pretty cool, I never thought I’d ever inspire as much as a fart, let alone someone to be creative and do something pretty cool with their lives. It’s lovely. But I don’t stop long enough to take in the view, if there’s young ‘uns out there as keen as me, I better get working harder to keep my clients!

The Cribs by Danny North

The Cribs by Danny North

There’s a lot of coverage these days on blogs and social groups on artists releases and rights grabs for photographers to sign before shooting a show. What’s your take on this widely discussed issue within our industry? How do you go about protecting your photos? It’s a problem. And a wanky one at that.

I have come across situations like driving for hours, getting to a gig and presented with a contract that takes away rights that my editor or I know nothing about. A massive band (mentioning no names), it took me EVERLONG to get to the show, and the contract was about as brutal as you can imagine, I called my editor, she rang the bands PR, the PR says ‘tough shit that what the manager has put in place’, and then my editor says shoot it anyway. It’s bullshit really. I think what these big fucking bands don’t get is most of us in the pit are earning next to fuck all for our images. How much is a wire shooter gonna earn for pics of a massive band when there’s 10 other wire shooters in there? It’s kind mental that bands have got this paranoid about protecting their image.

In a few rare cases, bands I have had good relationships with have put in place terrible contracts, and I’ve had words with their PR’s or managers and explained how shit they are, and they dropped or amended them.

But you wanna know the hard truth? There’s not that much in live music photography money wise anyway, and certainly not much after the fact it’s all about the initial commission. If I broke down syndicated money earned over shots taken, I think I’d probably break down. But I knew all this early on anyway. So now I don’t syndicate at all. I always thought it diluted you as an artist anyway. It makes your USP (i.e. YOU), cheap. And if you don’t syndicate your images, you build trust with bands. There’s nothing wrong with selling an image license to a mag and what not though, that’s fine. Just don’t put every god damn live photo on an agency, literally what’s the point? In a world that is drowning in live photography, become exclusive.

I got off contracts huh? Back to the point, if you turn up at a gig you have little or no choice, shoot the show or don’t. It’s that simple. But I do like the idea that as a collective we can work to change the contracts we get offered. We need to become the Borg.

Leeds Festival 2013 by Danny North

Leeds Festival 2013 by Danny North

How do you see the music photography industry these days? It’s become hugely overly saturated. Image quality means less, and people are paid less. It’s pretty sad times in that respect. National magazines pay next to nothing, and lose the morale and trust of long time contributing photographers. When I started out proper, 7 years ago, I was slightly ahead (only very slightly) of the tidal wave of music photographers that followed. I think in that tidal wave, new photographers are utterly obsessed with shooting at arenas or academy’s. That erks me more than anything. I say go and get in a van and tour with a small but exciting band, and not just your mates, go find a story. Editors will find that infinitely more interesting than 3 songs of Adele shot from the soundboard at Billy’s Big Bollocks Arena.

Also, I think people are too bothered about their careers. Sure I can say that I’m sat in a chair made from the skin of failed youths, but I came from fuck all, with no friends in the game, no contacts what so ever and did music photography because it made me feel fucking alive, because it gave me purpose, because I loved it, and nothing more or less. I never stopped to think, what can I get out of this? What big current band names look good on my portfolio? What contacts does this person have that I can leech. That, that just makes me want to walk in the opposite direction. You want to grab my attention? Be fucking passionate about photography, about music, about anything but networking and blood sucking.

Which photographers do you most admire? I think above and beyond anyone, Don McCullin. I think he’s probably the best photographer that ever lived. You know why? He did what Bresson did, but with bullets flying all around him. He made art and beauty of the most terrifying situations; he was one hell of a storyteller. Watch the documentary about him, it’s probably one of the most intense accounts of mans inhumanity that you’ll ever hear.

In contemporary terms, I’m always inspired by my peers Andrew Whitton and Jenna Foxton, I see their new work often because of our working relationship, they come at music photography and portraiture so very differently, but both inspire me on a daily basis.

Oasis by Danny North

Oasis by Danny North

Using your experience and knowledge of the industry – what tips do you have for a beginner in music photography? The universal truth – work hard and be nice. Respect for your fellow man and a smile will take you places and on journeys you might never get to go on otherwise.

Accept and devour criticism from people you respect (not douche bags off the internet) – we all have a long way to go before we can confidently say we’re amongst the best. Never ever stop learning. I have recently met a 24-year-old assistant that knows more about lighting than I do, I really should pay him for the education as well as the assisting.

Go on a journey and make a story. Forget the arenas and the academy’s as I said earlier. Trust me when I say no one gives a shit about your (or mine), photo of Coldplay, apart from overly obsessive fans of the band, and let’s face it, they’d love an out of focus, grainy shot of Chris Martins left bollock. If you want to impress editors and art buyers, find a unique way to tell a story, the lifestyle of a band touring Europe or the states in a transit van, is an endless photo opportunity.

Reflecting on your career, if you could turn back time do have any advice that you would give to a young Danny North who just got his big break? Turn off JPG mode you stupid useless prick. For the first 2 years everything I shot was in jpg. You live and learn eh?

Finally, how can we find out more about your festival photography business? Can our readers and contributors get in touch to apply? The best way for people to understand what we do is to simply have a look at a couple of our recent galleries:

http://photos.snowbombing.com/2013/?image_keywords=Highlights

http://photos.secretgardenparty.com/2013/?image_keywords=Highlights+2013

If anyone reading this is interested in working for Andrew and I, then please do get in touch festivals@dannynorth.co.uk – But please don’t just send live music images – look at those galleries and consider that 80% of what we do sometimes is reportage and portraiture. Send us a cross section of imagery, and even if you’ve never shot music before (Dunno why you’d be reading this is that case!) and have just shot people and adventures you’ve had, then perfect! I want to see stories, not just live music!

There is a minimum standard to the gear we want people to turn up with, a kit lens and Canon 350D’s won’t cut it. That’s not snobbery, that’s our clients expecting world class imagery.

There are paid and intern positions available… Some of our best Photographers have come the intern way.  So don’t be afraid of getting in touch if you have little festival experience. Either route you have to be prepared for some constructive critique and be open to learning and working visually in sync with a team.

You only really need to apply if you’re interested in shooting in all weather, for 14 hours a day on 5 hours sleep, and still consider that to be a party and a good time. We love what we do, and we want to get people on board who will too.

 

Thanks very much Danny.

You can find out more about Danny and see more of his work via the following links:

Do not use these images without the correct permissions.

Join the discussion 2 Comments

  • Great insight and very interesting read, Danny.

    I’m only in my second year of music photography (I didn’t have much photography experience prior to shooting gigs), and while I’m still loving every second of it, it can be frustrating trying to please everyone all of the time!

    Hoping to sort out a few AAA shoots for 2014, got the ball rolling on a couple as it is, but this piece has been an inspirational read, so thank you.

  • Matěj says:

    Great interview! I really like the part about getting in the van with local band. Although it wont help with editors here in the Czech Republic because there is no money in concert photography at all. Sad but true…

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