Interview: Music Photographer Steve Brazill

SBrazill_HeadshotSteve, thank you for agreeing to be interviewed for our website. My pleasure! I have read many of your past interviews – some of which were with photographers I look to for inspiration – and I’m honored to be included (and everyone should browse the interview archives and read those too).

Thanks Steve. Just in case there are any of our readers who aren’t aware of you or your work – can you give us a quick overview of when you started out as a music photographer to where you are now? I started getting into photography around 2007, and by 2009 I was shooting some of my friends bands. Then, in 2010 it hit me… I’ve been on-the-air in radio for over 35 years, and at rock station KCAL FM since 1987. That had allowed for pretty good access to shows over the years – for meet and greets etc. There had to be a way to combine my love of live music with my new love of photography. I decided to ask my Program Director if we could get photo access to shows, and his response was “I don’t know, pick a show and ask.” I actually had no idea how to do that, but I figured I would need business cards saying I was the station’s Concert Photographer, to seem official. When I asked for cards, he just sent me the station logo and told me to design one. Within a month I was shooting Def Leppard with guest Heart.

I. Was. Hooked.

Where am I now? Same place. I shoot for the station, and my work is posted to the station website and social media accounts. The station shooting has led to a few other nice opportunities, but mostly I just shoot for the station.

Korn Guitarist Brian “Head” Welch by Steve Brazil. ISO 3200, f/4, 1/400, 45mm

Korn Guitarist Brian “Head” Welch by Steve Brazill. ISO 3200, f/4, 1/400, 45mm

Would you say you’ve had a ‘big break’ in the music photography industry yet? Not really, but I would love one if anyone is offering.

I do know a few people that worked really hard to get to the point where they could shoot a stadium show. I never had that issue, because I work for a mainstream media outlet. As I mentioned before, there have been other opportunities. Duesenberg guitars were looking for a shot of Joe Walsh with a specific guitar, which they found in my post. Because I use a different name at the station (Razz), finding me might have been tough but, because I had a small watermark in the corner with my real name, the guy was able to Google me. They used the shot in their US catalog. The other big opportunity came when I was shooting a few shows as house photographer for The Fender Center’s Kid’s Rock Free program. MavTV, a station owned by Lucas Oil, was filming a series of concerts for TV to benefit the same Kid’s Rock Free program. I ended up being the stills shooter for those shows.

What is it that you love about Music Photography? Can I answer “everything”? I love music, and live music has always been something radio gave me access to. Music photography lets me combine that, with my love of photography. Being in a photo pit with an empty stage in front of you, and an anxious crowd behind you, is really one of the most amazing feelings. Then, when the band hits the stage and you have just 3 songs to tell the story of that show… that is fun.

The other thing I love is the challenge of low light action photography. My entry into concert photography was unusual. Back in 2007 my son was in Marching Band in High School, and we wanted to get shots of him marching on the football field during half time. The light was horrible, and the movement fast. It was like a good puzzle trying to figure out how to make the wrong gear work for low light. The gear was wrong because I had no photography experience when I bought a Canon XTi with a 70-300 f/4-5.6 IS USM. This was a horrible setup for shooting in low light. While the variable aperture lens may have been the biggest mistake purchase of my life, it also forced me to learn photography – and my gear. The simple act of zooming would change my exposure, so I needed to really understand the exposure triangle, and to be able to adjust quickly.

House of Blues – Gabbie Rae by Steve Brazil. ISO 3200, f/3.5, 1/125, 10mm

House of Blues – Gabbie Rae by Steve Brazill. ISO 3200, f/3.5, 1/125, 10mm

What key things have you learnt when shooting gigs that you previously wouldn’t have considered before starting out? Too many to mention, but one important one is to slow down. I see so many people running and firing bursts. You will learn after awhile that when you see those shots on screen they often won’t work. There may be a mic over a nose or eye, or gear and lighting in the way, or some other basic compositional issue. It helps if you take time to see the lights, and gear, and tempo, and setup your shots. Fewer shots, but more keepers. Watch the pros in the pit. One time at Mayhem Festival I was in a pit with Alan Hess – super nice guy and one of the best there is. I watched his approach to being in a crowded pit. He was so relaxed, even as others were rushing. I learned a lot watching that.

Nancy Wilson of Heart by Steve Brazil. ISO 1600, f/4, 1/250, 28mm

Nancy Wilson of Heart by Steve Brazill. ISO 1600, f/4, 1/250, 28mm

What tips do you have for new music photographers from a technical standpoint? What things do they need to know that they may not have experience of if they are new to low-light photography? There are so many tips in live music shooting that can help a beginner, but the main one to me is don’t fear noise. Other than that, know your gear and the exposure triangle – oh yeah, and make some friends in the pit.

First, let’s talk noise. If you can avoid it, then of course you should. I am not saying it doesn’t matter; just that sometimes you have to accept it. If the situation requires a choice between getting a sharp jump or hair whip, and getting less noise… choose the sharp shot. I used to struggle with that. I’d know I needed a faster shutter speed to freeze the action, but I was so afraid of noise that I would convince myself that raising the ISO was a bad choice. Then, I’d see the shots on screen and hate them. Crank the ISO if needed. Noise is always better than blur. And today’s Noise Reduction software, when used correctly and sparingly (meaning no plastic skin please), is fantastic. Some of the most iconic photos of our lives are noisy old film shots, and no one cares. If people notice the noise in your shot, more than the shot itself, then maybe the shot has other issues.

Knowing your gear, and the exposure triangle, is tied to that. If you need to make adjustments quickly, you need to be able to do it while still framing the next shot. And, if you change your ISO from 1600 to 3200, you need to understand how that will affect exposure.

The friends thing is not technical, but it’s important to me. You will most likely see the same shooters at many shows in your area. Introduce yourself. I showed up to shoot Van Halen once and was told when I got there it was a Front of House (Sound Board) shoot. The longest lens I had was a 70-200 2.8 IS, and my Canon 7D had a 1.6 crop factor – for an effective focal length of 320. Not enough in that arena. Another photographer lent me his 1.4 teleconverter – Thanks Paul Hebert – and I was able to get some useable shots. Relationships matter.

Jason Bonham by Steve Brazil. ISO 1600, f/2.8, 1/1250, 195mm

Jason Bonham by Steve Brazill. ISO 1600, f/2.8, 1/1250, 195mm

What experiences have you had in the pit? Can you share with us what you believe is correct ‘pit etiquette’? Pit etiquette is a big deal. The lack of respect in some pits is weird to me. Yes, everyone wants their shot, but a little etiquette goes a long way.

I have seen people in a pit use a 3-step ladder, climb to the top step, and stay there – at the front of the pit. No one could shoot from the area without that guy in their shot. I have seen people hold up monopods, and even tripods, with the camera on a 10 second timer. These things make it tough on your colleagues. Get a shot or three from a spot let someone else move in. If you are at the stage and a shorter person is behind you… turn and invite them in. Be aware of the other photographers, and be respectful of them. Oh, and don’t do a Hail Mary and hold the camera over your head. Everyone has done it, and if you need to do it – once – then do it from the back of the pit, not from the front so you ruin everyone else’s shots. Todd Owyoung has a great post on Pit Etiquette at ishootshows.com that I think everyone should read.

We are firm believers of ‘less is more’ when it comes to shot selection and trimming down what work you put out to the public. Do you share this view and do you have any tips to help people avoid this situation from developing? Good one, and yes, I share that feeling. This is an area I think almost every shooter needs to constantly work on. It’s tough because we shoot the show, and then when we process the photos we still remember the moment. It’s special; we love the shot because we loved the moment. Sometimes an image is more a great memory than a great shot. Remove the personal connection, pretend you have never seen the show, and ask yourself “Is it still a great shot”? Avoiding it is easier than people think. If you shoot a show and post 60 photos, I think the argument can be made not all of those are great shots. Good shots maybe, but not great. If you want people to see you as a great photographer – only show great work. If that means you only show 5 shots from an all day festival, so what. People, including potential clients, will think you are as good as the images you show them. Protect you reputation, and make yourself look great.

Roger Waters performs during The Wall at the LA Colloseum by Steve Brazil. ISO 1600, f/2.8, 1/1000, 153mm

Roger Waters performs during The Wall at the LA Colloseum by Steve Brazill. ISO 1600, f/2.8, 1/1000, 153mm

What do you believe makes a great live music photo? A moment. A special moment. It can be an emotion, an action, a mood, whatever. A concert may be 2 hours long, and watching it live – it can all feel like all of it is special – but freezing a moment in time requires that the moment be extraordinary. The other part of a great shot is technique. You have to think about composition and technical stuff, like sharp focus. I see a lot of shots with the mic blocking the singer’s nose or eye, or with body parts cut off in odd places. All basic stuff. But in the end, it is the moment that counts. I will always choose a great moment that is slightly imperfect, over technically perfect and boring.

One last shot selection filter I use is that a shot can be great and still be unflattering, so it may never see the light of day. I always ask “would the artist like to see them self this way”? I want to respect the artist by not showing them in a shot where they look really bad.

Are you a fan of post processing? Sure. All that matters is the shot. I mean if you have journalistic integrity issues then that limits you. Personally, my station doesn’t care if I do more than correct colour and crop.

Scott Ian of Anthrax by Steve Brazil. ISO 3200, f/4, 1/320, 35mm.

Scott Ian of Anthrax by Steve Brazill. ISO 3200, f/4, 1/320, 35mm

Talk us through your typical workflow after a gig. I use a 2014 rMBP with a 1 TB SSD. I import through Lightroom CC using “Copy as DNG”, to my internal drive. Why DNG? I hate sidecar files. I always feel like I might loose an xmp file and lose my edits. During import I apply copyright metadata and a default preset that handles a few settings I like to start with. Then I assign keywords and collections.

For culling I use star ratings. First, I do a quick pass rejecting shots that are obviously bad focus, composition, or exposure. Second pass I assign 1 star to shots I think I will want to play with some day. Second pass is assigning 2 stars to images I think might make the cut for this shoot, third pass cuts it down to the final group to process. During processing, some shots don’t turn out like I thought they would and I may drop them back to 2 stars. Other shots I really like after processing them and I may bump to 4. I will also use Photoshop CC for more critical post work. Other than the Adobe stuff, I am a fan of the Nik plugins, and have a few favorite presets. After editing, I export the final selects to JPG. This is another place the noise issue comes into play. I know that my output is low res (maybe 1000px on the wide side). You won’t see the noise as much at that size. I see so many people over process images, plastic skin, crunchy edges etc. Know your output and process targeted to that. Less is always more.

Neil Sanderson of Three Days Grace by Steve Brazil. ISO 1600, f/2.8, 1/320, 200mm

Neil Sanderson of Three Days Grace by Steve Brazill. ISO 1600, f/2.8, 1/320, 200mm

How do you see the music photography industry in 2015? I’m actually not sure. I am seeing such bizarre inconsistencies at times, mostly with the application of releases. I do think that the ability for an unsigned act to get mainstream access is a great thing for photographers. Even the recently announced new Connect from Apple looks interesting. The more musicians get direct access to fans, the more opportunity for the artist to use photos.

What’s your take on right-grabbing contracts that many of us have to sign these days? First, I think releases are misunderstood. They have a valid purpose in protecting an artist’s image from being exploited. I totally get that. The issue I have is with the rights-grab releases you mentioned. Some artists feel that by allowing us to do our job, and shoot their show, they are entitled to get our work for free – I strongly disagree. People argue lawyers or management write the releases, and that the artist may not know about it. I do not buy that. Artists at that level usually know more about their brand than people think. And the inconsistencies I spoke about before make no sense to me. I shot a band with a photo release that required pre-approval of any images before use. It took them over a week to approve them. Then the same band played a festival and there was no release. Another act had a release that required emailing all photos to their management within a day, giving them a full worldwide, transferable commercial license. I didn’t sign it, and when they played locally in a small theatre I didn’t even try to shoot the show. I figured it was going to have the same release again, but I later heard there was no release. If you are going to do any show without a release, then why ever have it? Bottom line, I think these rights-grab contracts are wrong, and I won’t sign them.

What insights do you have that you can share with us about obtaining photo credentials and getting work? You can’t get photo credentials for bigger shows without an outlet. They are not going to let you shoot for fun or for your portfolio, and to get an outlet you may need to show previous work. Sounds like a catch 22, but it is not. There are clubs, halls, and local shows in every city. Go shoot them. Some of the best shots ever are from small clubs where anyone could have brought a camera, but most people didn’t. Be the person that does. Use that to start shooting for a website, or online magazine. Start your own local music site if you have to. The one place few people think of trying is what I do. Ask to shoot for a local radio station. They all have websites with blogs, or sections on local news, music, or events. They can get you access.

At what point do you feel that it is acceptable and not acceptable for photographers to shoot for free? There is no fixed answer to this. If you can charge for a gig, charge. Starting out you may not be able to. If you are starting out shooting in a club, and the band likes the shots, you may want to give them some low-res shots for social media. Don’t give them every shot. Do 5 or 10 maybe. That may get you better access down the road, but remember that bands are not broke. People think local bands are struggling artists, and they may be, but if they need a guitar, or an amp, they buy it. They will spend money if it’s needed to further their career. Make good photos and sell them for print or promo etc. When they say they don’t have a budget, explain that use of the images will help market the band and further their career, and that is worth something.

The crowd at the Vans Warped Tour in Pomona by Steve Brazil. ISO 400, f/4, 1/2500, 24mm

The crowd at the Vans Warped Tour in Pomona by Steve Brazill. ISO 400, f/4, 1/2500, 24mm

What’s in the kit bag for a gig? I shoot a Canon 7D, and carry three lenses to each show. A 10-22 f/3.5-5.6, a 24-105 f/4, and a 70-200 f/2.8. I am holding out for a 5D mk4 if it ever comes out. At that point I will pick up a 16-35 and a 24-70 2.8 I think. I get a lot of crap about the 24-105 being f/4, but actually the extra range is a worthwhile trade off to me for now. I never use flash in a pit, even if it is allowed, but I do carry a Canon speedlight that I use for backstage stuff or for festival crowd shots etc.

Which music photographers do you admire? I admire most of the following for their work, but also for their attitude towards other photographers. They all share knowledge, which I think is great. In no particular order:

  • Flex The Frog: This guy has an eye for a shot that can’t be taught. Amazing talent.
  • Christie Goodwin: If you follow her on social media you’ll find she has attitude, and that attitude comes through in her shots – I love that. Her photos are something to study.
  • Adam Elmakias: One of the nicest guys you will meet. One of the first shooters whose work I inspected to learn.
  • Todd Owyoung: His site is invaluable to new music photographers. I don’t see shots like his from anyone else.
  • Alan Hess: He literally wrote the book. He also runs the concert photography workshop at Photoshop World.
  • Paul Hebert: He is the house shooter for the Forum in LA. He. Is. Good.
  • Matthias Hombauer: Another talented guy sharing knowledge and talent with the industry.

There are so many more, but these are the ones I think I study the most.

Foreigner by Steve Brazil. ISO 1600, f/4, 1/160, 92mm

Foreigner by Steve Brazill. ISO 1600, f/4, 1/160, 92mm

Do you have any tips for new music photographers? Don’t worry about your gear, or the size of the gig. I don’t care if you have a starter DSLR with a kit lens, you can shoot shows. I would suggest getting away from a variable aperture lens, like a kit lens, and getting something used or inexpensive with a fixed aperture. The 50mm 1.8 is a great start, and is around $100. Then shoot. Shoot often, shoot everything and shoot in your sleep. Learn to use the camera in manual mode, and to make adjustments without thinking about them. Shoot in clubs, and if the light is bad… so what. Embrace that challenge. Don’t use flash in the pit, even if it is allowed. Get comfortable shooting low light, and get yourself to the point where bad light is just another shoot. Once you have some comfort with your gear and the environment of a concert, then start sharing some work, but not too much. Share only the best shots you have, and create the impression – even if you don’t agree with it yet – that you are a photographer to watch out for.

What advice would you give to music photographers just starting out in their career? Work on being you, shooting your style, not just emulating someone you admire. Study shots that are being published, study shots of people you admire, study photography. And be sure to study your own shots, reviewing them with a critical eye. When you do start posting work, only post your best work. When you feel your self wanting to dump 70 images onto Facebook… STOP. Pick the 5 or 10 best and post only those. Lastly, working on your brand etc is important, but never forget that this industry is built on relationships and trust. Be the person that others want to work with, feel they can trust, and see as a professional.

How can we find out more about you and see more of your work? First, let me just say thanks again. As a follower, and fan, of gig-photographer.com this has been a blast. The following are all the places I tend to hang out online, with Twitter being my fav.

Steve – Thank you very much for your time and sharing your photos with us.

Do not use these images without the correct permissions.

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