Interview: Music Photographer Todd Owyoung

toddowyoung-145238_COB8628-300pxTodd, thank you for agreeing to be interviewed for our website. Thanks very much for having me. I couldn’t refuse after getting personal appeals from my friends Adam Elmakias and Danny North on your behalf! I think you’re doing a great job with this site, and Adam and Danny had nothing but praise for gig-photographer.com.

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 shot my first show in early 2006. A friend had invited me to a show, and I wasn’t familiar with anyone on the bill, so I brought along my D70 and 50mm f/1.4 on a whim. I figured that if I wasn’t interested in the bands, I could always entertain myself by shooting the gig.

As it turned out, the bands were awesome (BR-549 and the Avett Brothers playing to about 100 people in a smoky dive), and I loved photographing the show. A week later, I had set up my first photo pass for show and had hooked up with a small local magazine as a contributing photographer.

I spent my first couple years shooting any and every show to which I could get access. Since a lot of these shows were at small venues with no barricade, there were countless nights where I’d line up hours before doors with the more diehard fans, just to get a spot in the front of the stage.

Fast forward 8 years from that first show, and now I find myself focusing on working more closely with bands and brands directly. I still shoot assignment work for magazines and other publications, but more and more I find myself working with band management and brands like Red Bull, Anheuser-Busch and iHeartRadio.

Photo by Todd Owyoung

KISS by Todd Owyoung

What was your big break in the music photography industry? I think the big break was getting an assignment from Rolling Stone to cover Warped Tour in 2008. The assignment came out of the blue — the online photo editor emailed me through a contact form on my blog, asking if I lived in St. Louis and if I was available to cover that Warped Tour date.

That whole day, I’m pretty sure I had a huge grin on my face. It never gets old saying you’re shooting for Rolling Stone.

Personally, I think that first assignment for Rolling Stone was a turning point for me, realizing that the two years of shooting concerts was actually paying off.

It really gave me the motivation to keep pushing and to shoot as much as I could. That assignment also included a number of location portraits as well, and motivated me to really start doing more portraiture work with artists.

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Aerosmith by Todd Owyoung

When you think back over your career to date, what would you say were major highlights? I’m really proud of the relationships I’ve had the opportunity to build with fellow music photographers. I have no hesitation saying that I count many of the best music photographers in the world as my friends. That means quite a bit to me.

I did a portrait shoot with Slayer in 2009 for Rolling Stone – that stands as one of my favorite gigs. This is when the band was on the Mayhem Festival Tour. One of the focuses of the assignment was, in addition to live coverage, any on-site portraits that could be arranged. With the help of the tour’s production coordinator, Slayer’s tour manager gave me a window of five minutes right before they took the stage.

I called my assistant at the time (Allyssa Ohlman), and we spent a couple minutes scouting out locations in the backstage area. The most promising spot was one of the band’s gear trailers, which we cleared out with the help of some of the stage crew. We had about five minutes to setup the lighting and get everything dialed in.

The band came out and like the total pros they are, took direction perfectly. Kerry King was noodling on his guitar the entire time, and in back of me there were about 20 people looking over my shoulder while I shot. From the first shot to the last, the shoot lasted 3 minutes and 43 seconds.

Years later, Slayer licensed the portrait to use as their official promotional photo for a world tour, even after they’d had full photo shoots with some well known photographers. Every music photographer dreams of a band loving their photos enough to use them officially like that, so I’m really proud that Slayer photo.

In the last two years, my brother Chris and I have done official tour photography for the country artist Jason Aldean. A big portion of our work has been photographing Jason’s massive shows at baseball stadiums across the country, including iconic venues like Fenway Park in Boston and Wrigley Field in Chicago. It’s really been an honor to be a part of these historic shows and be trusted by his management and team to capture these shows.

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Slayer by Todd Owyoung

What percentage of your work these days is taken up with portraits versus gig photography? The majority my work now is largely events-based, but I’d say the split is about 30-70, portraits versus gig photography.

Is that the way you’d like it to be? Whether it’s exclusive portraits or exclusive access, as long as there’s an opportunity to make something new, I’m game. That said, I’m always interested in keeping my work fresh and pushing into new areas. I’d love to do more environmental portraiture and location work.

Do you mainly shoot on assignment for publications and their websites or do you do a lot of touring with bands? These days I find that I’m working more and more with bands and brands directly, so in the last year this has meant doing tour photography for bands as well. It’s certainly been a great change from standard publication work.

Aside from tour work, I’ve been doing more work with bands for one-off shows as well. Just recently, I worked with the band X Japan for their Madison Square Garden show. I photographed the rehearsals heading up to the show as well as the main event. It really means a lot to me to be trusted to basically have carte blanche for a show like that. Assignment work is certainly tremendous, but it’s so rewarding to work directly for bands as well.

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Jason Aldean by Todd Owyoung

Who have you toured with? I did work with Rascall Flatts last year at the start of their tour, and my brother Chris and I have been out with country artist Jason Aldean a number of times. We’ve been fortunate enough to have a great relationship with the management company who works with both of these artists.

My first big gig of 2015 is heading out to Las Vegas to work with Rascal Flatts again for a residency they’re doing out there.

Do you like going on tour? Do you enjoy it? I love it. The tours I’ve worked on have been fairly large in scale, with a huge amount of crew, which is always fun. That said, I’d love to jump on a smaller tour as well, just to get that perspective.

When on tour, how do you manage to keep your photos looking fresh, gig after gig? My main goal is to never shoot the performance the same way. If I’ve covered particular song or moment of the production or blocking (the choreographed staged positions for the band) in one way, I’ll try and find a new angle or perspective.

Maybe one night it’s shooting entirely from front of house, another all on stage, another focusing on combinations of band members, and so forth. In addition, when working more closely with an artist, there’s more opportunity to take chances and experiment. Remote cameras, extreme focal lengths, etc.

Still, even if I shot the exact same way night after night, every show is a little different. Even with rough stage movements blocked out, there’s still a large amount of freedom in the performance, and artists are always going to do something a little different.

Ultimately, I just try to follow the action. Tour photography is still just music photography. A great photo is still a great photo, regardless of whether it was shot on the first night of tour or the last.

Jason Aldean by Todd Owyoung

Jason Aldean by Todd Owyoung

What makes a great live music photo? For me, the best concert images are ones that can make you hear the music and the roar of the crowd, one that makes you feel as if you were front row or on stage.

Live music photography is documentation — a band performing on a specific night at a specific venue to a specific crowd. At the same time, a great live music photo has a sense of timeless to it as well. A great concert photo has the capacity to stand for something more than just the the details of when and where it was made to become something that can represent the band, something iconic. This sense of timelessness is always something that I’m chasing with my own photography.

How long has ishootshows.com been going now? I started ishootshows.com in 2007, after I’d been shooting gigs for about a year. At the time, I never dreamed that it would really be anything more than a way to share my photography, but it’s become much more than that over the years.

You share a vast amount of information on music photography – not only is your website a portfolio site but it is also educational; through industry news, tutorials, gear guides, shooters notes, show write-ups, band promo shoots and even more. Is that the way you set it out to be from the start or is it something that has grown over time? The site really just started off as a personal blog of my journey as a concert photographer, where I posted images from the shows I was shooting.

The main format was to post images from every gig I shot. Very quickly, I started including shooting notes from the gigs. What gear I was using, what the lighting was like, and what technical challenges there were. I wanted to give some insight into what I was doing and to help other photographers who might be shooting the same tour down the road.

In addition, I started posting tutorials on concert photography technique, performing gear reviews, and so forth. All this extra content beyond simply posting concert photography seemed like a natural extension.

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Alexis Krauss of Sleigh Bells by Todd Owyoung

You have a big following on your website, which has generated a lot of comments. Was that one of your primary reasons for setting up the site – to build a community and get connected to other photographers? When I started ishootshows.com, there were basically no other dedicated music photography blogs, and certainly very few that shared any insight into how to do concert photography. Since live music can be so technically challenging to photograph, I just wanted to share what I’d learned.

I think that building a sense of community was just a by-product of sharing information. Early on, I’d get a lot of people asking me for advice on what type of cameras they should buy, what settings to use, and so forth.

However, the site did become a really fantastic way to connect with other music photographers. There are a lot of photographers who were regular commenters who have become friends.

How do you manage the site and keep it up to date? Do you work alone on the website or do you now have staff / assistants? I work on the site whenever I have time. Having staff or an assistant sounds like a dream; but no, it’s just me who writes all the content.

In particular, gear reviews take a huge amount of time for me. I always want to use real world images for the cameras and lenses I’m testing, so it takes time to produce the example photos as well as do the write-up.

I’d say that the only downside to some of the work I’m doing now – working more directly for bands or brands or events – is that it’s not always possible to post work immediately after a job. Images might be under embargo, or even if use isn’t restricted, I’m waiting for band or their management to have first use.

One thing I’d love to do with ishootshows.com is eventually to open it up to other photographers to feature their work.

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All American Rejects by Todd Owyoung

It says on your website you shoot 4 to 6 bands per week – how does that effect your personal life? I’m lucky to say that my girlfriend is very understanding! She’s just happy that I’m busy working – and naturally, so am I!

Your website has affiliate links by means of monetising your website. How has that worked out for you? What experience can you share about affiliate marketing, as a webmaster and photographer? With the amount of traffic that ishootshows.com gets, I was constantly running into issues with standard web hosts, so I’ve been with Rackspace cloud hosting for several years. It’s a much more costly option than a regular website host – something like 25-30x more expensive – but it’s very necessary.

After shying away from advertising on the site for a long time, I thought that affiliate links were a good compromise for my content and audience as a way to support the site and pay for the expensive hosting it requires.

In addition, I have a great relationship with B&H Photo Video in NYC. As an affiliate of theirs, I have access to equipment to try and test out, which I think is a benefit to readers, as it allows a much wider variety of reviews I can do.

Having hyperlinks is more subtle and less in-your face. People are more likely to click on the links instead of a banner ad. Was that one of the key reasons for monetising in this way?

I still think of ishootshows.com as my personal photography blog, so the idea of putting banner ads on it has always struck me as strange. The minimal impact on the look of the site with affiliate links was definitely a positive for me.

I’m constantly getting asked what gear I use and what I would recommend for a new music shooter. Having links to this gear seemed like a natural way to monetize the site – it allows me to promote the gear I personally use as a professional.

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British Sea Power by Todd Owyoung

Over time, you have established a pretty large social media profile – How did you manage to get such a big following? I’ve just tried to put out posts, links, and content that I thought might be worth reading, or better yet, engaging with.

One factor in growing a social media following was that I started ishootshows.com around the same time sites networks like Facebook and Twitter were starting to explode. So as my site grew, so did the social media following.

Regardless of following count or likes or retweets, what I find most satisfying about social media is the ability to connect with other photographers. I think there’s a certain democratization that happens with social media – it’s so easy to reach out and get connected with someone with just a mention or comment.

When a photographer becomes a contributor to our website we send out a standard Q&A doc called ‘Behind the Camera’. One of the questions we ask is “Which photographers do you admire?”. Your name appears more times than any other photographer. How does that make you feel to know you inspire so many gig photographers? I’m extremely flattered. To me, to hear that I’ve inspired someone is basically the biggest compliment I could receive. It’s a huge honour.

I’m a photographer from St. Louis, Missouri – a perfectly wonderful small city in the middle of the US, but hardly New York City or LA. I never would have dreamed that I’d shoot shows in my local venues and have anyone else care, let alone serve as inspiration to other photographers.

Honestly, if my legacy were inspiring fellow music photographers and nothing more, I think I’d be really pleased by that.

I flat out love music photography. I’ve always tried to share this passion, but still to hear that anything I’ve put out there has inspired a new generation of music photographers is pretty astounding.

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Queen & Adam Lambert by Todd Owyoung

Your photos have such vibrancy, sharpness and clarity that it has become almost a signature style for you. How do you go about capturing your photos this way? Do you have any particular techniques or way of shooting that enables you to get these shots (besides a top class camera and glass)? If anything, I’m a perfectionist, and this extends to the kind of images I want to make and the technical aspects of those images. Which isn’t to say that I have perfect technique, but I do gravitate toward technically perfect shots in an edit – perfect focus, sharpness, critical composition, etc. Early on in my photography, I’d say that I edited in this way to a fault, at the expense of more emotional images.

From a technical standpoint, I tend to shoot with relatively high shutter speeds. I’ll always take digital noise over motion blur, so I won’t hesitate to crank the ISO to get a suitable shutter speed.

As far as vibrance, I think that comes down to timing and lighting. Lighting is something that music photographers love to complain about, but in my mind, if a show has 10 seconds of good light over the course of the first three songs, make every one of those 10 seconds count. Photography is the art of subtraction.

On a national or worldwide tour, we all might get the same first three songs, but it’s the photographer who can capitalize on the lighting who might come away with something a little different. Photography is the art of subtraction. Subtract the bad lighting and ordinary moments, and what’s left might just be beautiful and iconic.

For me, part of the great thrill of music photography is chasing these fleeting moments on stage. To be able to freeze one of those instances with the greatest clarity and technical execution is just the icing on the cake.

Finally, so much of photography is about presentation. If you only have one fantastic shot from a gig, just show that one single image. Self-editing is key. One’s style can be as much about what you selectively include or show as it is execution or processing.

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Questlove from The Roots by Todd Owyoung

How do you feel about post processing? Do you do a lot of post processing work on your photos? I prefer not to do a lot of post processing on my images. It’s out of efficiency and necessity as much as aesthetic – For 99% of my live music photos, I want an processing to take 15-30 seconds max. If a concert image takes a lot more than that, it means I’ve either screwed something up in the capture, or the production simply wasn’t there to begin with.

When I was starting out, I’d take to burning down or cloning out distracting elements like mic stands or lights at the edge of the frame. I never do this now, mostly because I’m more careful with composition. I’m actually pretty obsessive with stage lights and how they play into the composition of my images.

Ultimately, I want my images to look as close to the real gig as possible. Better, even, but not to the point where the tone or impact of an image becomes totally separate from reality. And to this end, processing is very quick.

The one exception for processing as close to the original look as possible is for shows with extreme color casts, in which I’ll process for a more neutral look if appropriate. But in general, minimal processing is best for me. Besides, it’s less work!

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Astr by Todd Owyoung

What is a your typical workflow after a gig? I use Photo Mechanic and Lightroom almost exclusively. I’ll do the ingest and edit in Photo Mechanic. If you’ve never used Photo Mechanic, it’s basically the best thing since sliced bread for quickly editing a selection of photos – it uses the built-in JPGs from RAW files, instead of building its own previews on the fly like Lightroom. As a result, it’s much, much faster to edit with Photo Mechanic.

After I get down to the final edit, I will import only those selects into Lightroom. Another benefit of doing the edit in Photo Mechanic is that it keeps Lightroom catalogues slim.

In Lightroom, my work is pretty much constrained to the basic adjustments pane – white balance, exposure, highlights, shadows, blacks, and contrast – generally in that order.

Exporting the final JPGs at 100%quality, I’ll upload them to my image service, PhotoShelter. When the upload of the final selects to PhotoShelter is complete, I grant client access with download permissions, assign pricing profiles, etc.

I have my entire online archive up on PhotoShelter’s cloud servers, so my images are all accessible to send to clients, publications, and prospective buyers right from my portfolio site, toddowyoung.com.

In addition, my PhotoShelter site serves up all the images on ishootshows.com, basically acting like a CDN, so it reduces resource requirements on my web-host.

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Green Day by Todd Owyoung

How important is it these days for a photographer to develop their own style and create their own ‘brand’? With the concert photography space as over-saturated as it is, photographers really have to work to stand out. However, for new photographers, I wouldn’t worry too much about developing a style. Style is one of those things that just comes with time – just shoot the bands you want to shoot and make the images that you want to make.

How you present yourself, however, is huge. My advice to any photographer is to put together a dedicated portfolio site as soon as possible. It’s never too early have a portfolio if you’re serious about your photography, and it adds so much value in being able to show your work as a photographer compared to a less formal presentation like a Flickr gallery.

Creating a “brand” might sound a little scary, but that’s simply the collection of all the things you put out there. A simple portfolio site with 20 or 30 of your best photos is something that all photographers should have.

What tips do you have for photographers who are trying to find their way in establishing themselves as a ‘brand’ – what can they do to help them stand out in a densely crowded scene?

Be so good they can’t ignore you. You have to build value for yourself as a photographer. This means not only showcasing that you have the talent and the drive, you have to make the images that no one else is making.

Personally, I feel like starting my own blog was massively important in developing my own brand. Having my own mouthpiece gave me reach beyond just my home town of St. Louis, Missouri – not just nationally in the US, but as a way to connect with other photographers around the world.

Having your own site allows you to build your own name and forces you to create a brand. Even if you’re shooting for other publications, I think it’s critical to create a space that’s dedicated to your photography and that you alone own. Outside of a dedicated portfolio site or photography blog, there are so many other avenues to push out your work – Instagram, Tumblr, Flickr – where ever there are eyeballs, get your work in front of them.

Aside from pushing your own work out, it’s critical to engage with other photographers and photo editors. Beyond sharing your work on social networks, you have to engage people as well – it’s easier than ever to connect with people with a simple mention or comment.

In addition, I really advocate sharing only your best work. As a new photographer, it’s really tempting to show all the images you’re excited about, but the skill of self-editing is really crucial. You’re only as a good of a photographer as you show people you are. People might remember your most striking image, but it’s your weakest images that will give them pause as well.

In terms of location, I think it’s easy to get into the mental trap of thinking that you have to be in NYC or LA to be successful. I actually think that starting out in a smaller city like St. Louis was a huge boon for me in terms of having access to most large tours without such intense competition for credentials.

The funny thing is that most other photographers, especially international photographers, assumed that I was based in NYC all the time I was shooting in St. Louis. I think it just goes to show that you don’t have to live and shoot in a big city to create a compelling portfolio.

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Stone Temple Pilots by Todd Owyoung

What advice can you give to those music photographers who don’t have any commercial experience and are finding it difficult to put a value to their work? When you start charging for your work, you have to view the process as something you learn. It’s like any other skill.

Photographers should try to research rates for assignments and image licensing. If you have mentors, ask for their advice.

I always tell people that giving a client a quote is the start of a dialogue, a negotiation. I think that there’s a fear among newer photographers that there’s a single, magical number for a given job, and there’s a lot of pressure to come in exactly at that. I think the reality is that photographers should look at fee negotiation as a talk about what the client really needs and wants, and what they’re willing to pay.

Very worst case, you underbid – it’s a mistake that only lasts until the next job and the next opportunity to raise your fee. If you never make any mistakes, you’re not learning.

Without letting in on how much you charge (which is none of our business, of course), can you give us some insights to your business model – How do you go about charging for your photos, your time and licensing? My rate is determined a number of factors. When bidding quoting a rate or license, I consider time, quality of images delivered, duration of license, and image usage. Ultimately, how the images are going to be used and the rights the client needs for those images are the two biggest factors in pricing.

An image that is used for a t-shirt artwork has a very different value than an image used for a social media post, even if they took the same amount of work to produce.

I try to work with my clients to really try and understand exactly what they need and what they want to do with the images. This not only helps me produce the best images for their needs, but it also gives them the best price if we both understand exactly how they want to use the images.

Sleigh Bells and Tink - Performance

Photo by Todd Owyoung

Your dad was an Art Curator; how did that influence your art / photographic contextual knowledge and interests? My dad was the curator of Asian art at the St. Louis Art Museum for 25 years. I think my mom has quite an eye for photography as well. Even though they’re practical people, they always truly encouraged my artistic pursuits and I’m really thankful to have parents like that. They were nothing but supportive when I wanted to study art at university.

My dad is a huge fan of 60s rock, so my brother Chris and I grew up listening to Cream and Eric Clapton and the Beatles.

A couple years ago, I was having lunch with my dad and we were talking about the photography that my brother and I do. He’s proud that we’re music photographers. He said, “Do I want my sons to be wedding photographers? No. If I had my druthers, I want my sons to be rock photographers!”.

How would you say you and your brother differ in your approach and style? I think that in a lot of ways, Chris and I share a similar style, because we began shooting shows around the same time and constantly look at each others work.

I think Chris has slightly different sensitivities for moments and composition than I do, which is a good thing, as I think it helps us compliment each other. We make a strong team because we’re different shooters, but we’re also similar enough that we can present work together and have it be cohesive for a campaign or use.

Chris and I try to shoot together as much as possible, whenever budget and time allows. Since I’ve moved to NYC in late 2013, we’ve shot together even more. We’ve been shooting together as long as we’ve both been into photography, so working together on jobs is a natural progression.

The benefit to clients is being able to not just twice the work, but higher quality work than a single shooter would allow for. With two shooters, it’s possible to take a more risks and to try things for a shot that a single shooter wouldn’t have the ability to pull off.

We’re really lucky to have clients that get that “get it,” and view having us both out on a job or on tour as an asset, rather than just an additional expense.

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Rusko by Todd Owyoung

Ever taken him out with your elbow whilst in the pit? You know, in a brotherly ‘get out of my face’ kinda way? The best thing about shooting with Chris is that we can divide and conquer. If he has an angle on a shot, I know that there’s no need for me to focus on covering that same thing because he’s going to nail it. We’re almost never shooting side by side.

This kind of trust in one another allows us to take a lot more risks when we shoot a job. We can divide up the shot list from and focus on delivering not only the safe images, but we’re freed up to chase after those more special, challenging images as well.

With the two of us shooting, we have the ability to cover all the standard coverage as well as undertake more risky shots that a single shooter couldn’t afford to even try. I think this kind of coverage is really a huge benefit to clients.

How do you see music photography in 2015? One could argue that there’s never been a worse time to be a music photographer, what with the over-saturation of the market and access for general press getting worse and worse. At the rate things are going, by 2020, the de facto standard might be first 30 seconds, no flash – from the soundboard.

Back when I started shooting live music, there were countless times when I’d be the only photographer in the photo pit. Every year since, there have been more and more photographers in the pit. If I were starting out now, I think it would be a pretty daunting task to try and break out from the crowd.

There are probably more music photographers now than ever before in the history of the music industry. I think it’s easy for established music photographers to lament the “good old days,” but I think the truth is that times change.

On the flipside, perhaps there’s never been a better time to be a music photographer. Thanks to social media, it’s never been easier to reach out to bands or to network with other photographers. While access is limited, publicists are granting more photo passes than ever before. The image quality of digital cameras gets better every single year, and at the same time they get cheaper and cheaper.

Good or bad, music photography is never going to die. The industry is simply changing.

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The crowd during a Romeo Santos performance by Todd Owyoung

Hot topics amongst music photographers are the issues surrounding hobbyists who shoot for free. What’s your take on the subject? Music photography is fun. That’s the attraction and that’s also the problem. If music photography weren’t so much damn fun, we wouldn’t have this issue. It’s not like we have hobbyists sanitation workers or amateur toll booth collectors.

The fact that music photography is awesome is always going to attract people to want to shoot for free, just for the thrill and the privilege. In fact, the day music photography isn’t fun, count me out, too.

With amatuer music photographers, it’s easy to think of someone wanting to use your photos as a something that’s flattering or exciting. I’m sure every photographer can recall a time when they were thrilled out of their mind just to have someone want to publish their photos.

With the issue of shooting for free, it’s important to consider the level of the publication. It’s one thing to shoot for a blog that has no income, and another if it’s a magazine or website plastered with ads. Someone shooting for a blog they started with their friends isn’t going to put anyone out of business.

How do we raise awareness of the issues surrounding photographers who work for free and the damage that that is causing our industry? The solution to people giving away their work is education. Newer photographers need to be educated that their work has value, and that it shouldn’t simply be given away — that’s the best resolution on the photographer side for a more sustainable future for music photography.

The new generation of music photographers that’s coming up need to take a stand. The only reason there are established sites and magazines asking for handouts is because they’ve come to expect free images.

Ultimately, I want hobbyists to have respect for music photography, and to have self-respect for their own work. Being used by publications and other people asking to use one’s images for free should be viewed as what it really is: a slap in the face. If it’s worth bragging about, it’s worth being paid for.

Lorde by Todd Owyoung

Lorde by Todd Owyoung

There are a lot of bands and artists putting rights grabs on photographers to sign before shooting a show these days. What’s your opinion on this issue? I think that highly restrictive photo releases are generally terrible on all sides. Photographers end up resenting the bands, and bands miss out on the potential for truly great images. Fans still want photos of the bands, so there’s a conflict of interest between photographers and their publications as well. I think these kinds of contracts perpetuate a sense of mistrust in a lot of ways.

That said, I think sometimes these contracts are used purely as intimidation. There was one time I was waiting backstage, reading over a rights-grab contract, and a man walked by and in passing said, “I wouldn’t worry about all that.” I must have looked a little confused as he walked away, because about 5 seconds later, he comes back and says, “No, really. I’m the one who collects those, and I really don’t care what you do with that.”

Have you ever been presented with an unreasonable contract? What did you do and what’s your advice to photographers if they are presented with an unreasonable contract? I’ve definitely been presented with my share of contracts. I’ve had the fortune of having photo editors who understood enough that they respected my decision not to shoot – I simply walked away and was thankful that I knew my editors had my back.

In other instances, I’ve been able to reach agreements to shoot without having to sign unreasonable contracts.

The reality is that any photographer shooting larger bands on assignment for an editorial publication will eventually be put in the position of facing a disagreeable contract eventually. The best advice I can give is to build relationships with publicists where they trust you to make the best images you can of their clients, and to work with publications that value photography enough to where they’re not forcing you to sign unfair releases.

What do you think can be done to try to resolve this issue – that can benefit both the artist and the music photographer? There are a couple factors at play. Artists and artist management want to control their image. Photographers want to make great images without sacrificing their rights in the process.

One solution is for artists to hire their own photographers directly, which is something we’re seeing with increasing frequency. While this setup doesn’t benefit photographers as a whole, it allows the artist to take control of their image and really work with the photographers to make the best images.

As for music photographers, I think that we have to hold ourselves to a higher standard. When I go out on a shoot, whether on assignment or shooting for the band or label, my goal is always the same. I want to make the artist, tour, and production look amazing. I want to make them look their best, to create images that make people think, “I wish I was at that show.”

When a photographer’s goal aligns with the artist and their management, I feel like that’s the best situation. It creates a sense of trust and reciprocity. If every single photographer going on assignment had this goal in mind, maybe we wouldn’t be in this situation of one-sided contracts.

Dresden Dolls by Todd Owyoung

Dresden Dolls by Todd Owyoung

What does the future hold for new music photographers? In many ways, getting into music photography has never been easier or more accessible. Practically every person who attends a concert these days is carrying around a camera in the form of their smartphone. In this sense, the barrier to entry is almost non-existent.

At the same time, access to bands is becoming increasingly more difficult in some ways, with song limits, photo releases, and tighter control over talent. In this respect, it’s easy to think that best days of music photography are behind us, but I don’t think that’s really true.

I think that we’re going to see more young people getting into music photography than ever before, which is really exciting. With social media, it’s easier than ever to connect with bands and other photographers, which I think is huge.

One trend that we’re going to see is that bands are going to have their own photographer and/or videographer on tour. It seems like larger acts already do this, but it’s going to trickle down more and more. The appetite for content from fans is certainly there, so I think this is an opportunity for bands to control their image and for photographers to really do great work.

Which photographers do you most admire? Overall, I’d say that my peers and friends are the photographers I admire most. I think we all push each other to aim higher, go bigger, and take more risks to make the best images possible.

My friend Daniel Boud in Australia is one of the first music photographers who I felt really made a splash online, and the photographer who inspired me to start ishootshows.com. Back in 2006 when I started shooting gigs, Dan’s blog boudist.com was one of the first and only music photography blogs, and it was really exciting to see what was possible with that format. Dan has only gotten better and he still inspires me to this day.

I admire my brother Chris and his work, which is one of the reasons I love shooting with him. Just when I think I might have him beat for a shoot, he’ll pull out a perfect, amazing shot, which always pushes me to do better.

Daniel Boud, Jenna Foxton, Danny North, Seb Barros, Todd Owyoung, and Andrew Whitton, the official photography team for Leeds Festival 2013. Photo by Todd Owyoung

Daniel Boud, Jenna Foxton, Danny North, Seb Barros, Todd Owyoung, and Andrew Whitton, the official photography team for Leeds Festival 2013. Photo by Todd Owyoung

My friends Danny North and Andrew Whitton are continually doing impressive work; I think that they way they’re doing official festival coverage in the UK is really changing the game.

My friend Adam Elmakias is really an inspiration in terms of what it’s possible to achieve as a photographer. Not only does Adam has an incredible knack for marketing himself, but I think he’s really pioneered new ways to work with bands in a sustainable way that’s good for bands, the fans, and photographers alike.

I get a lot of email from new music photographers, and I’m constantly blown away by their passion. There are young photographers out there who know at 15 or 16 that they want to be a tour photographer — I think it’s pretty inspiring to see that kind of drive in the next next generation of music photographers.

When shooting a live show, what’s in the kit bag? For live music, I use currently the following kit:

  • Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8
  • Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8
  • Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8
  • Nikon D800 x2

With my concert photography kit I have 14-200mm covered at a constant f/2.8, which covers the majority of the shows I shoot. I’m a big proponent of using two identical cameras, and the D800 here is an excellent choice for my needs.

I’m probably in the minority of concert photographers in that I prefer to use really high-resolution cameras to shoot events, like the 36 megapixel D800. Call me a glutton for punishment, but when I make prints, I like to print large (20”x30” or bigger).

As I lay Dying by Todd Owyoung

As I lay Dying by Todd Owyoung

Drawing on your experience as a Professional Music Photographer, what tips do you have for someone starting out in gig photography? I always recommend that music photographers cut their teeth shooting in smaller venues with smaller bands. In most any city, there are small music venues without camera restrictions where you can bring in your camera and develop your skills. Some of the most memorable shows I’ve photographed have been the ones where I waited for hours before doors with the diehard fans, lining up just to try and grab a piece of the stage when doors opened.

Moreover, network. You can always learn photography along the way, but who you know will get you so much farther than even the “best” images. Connect with the bands coming through your city. Get backstage, do band portraits, jump in a van with a band for a weekend.

The photo pit isn’t the end all and be all of music photography. In fact, it might be the last place you want to be if you want to stand out. To stand out, new music photographers really have to concentrate on making images that people haven’t seen 100 times before – anything to bring something fresh to the viewer, whether its new bands, new access, or anything else to strike new ground.

Shooting is the fun part, but it’s really important to dedicate time to making sure people can find you and your work. A portfolio, blog, and social media connections are things that can’t be ignored for any new photographer. You could be the best gig photographer in the world, but if no one sees your images, no one will ever know it.

Lifestyle Festival by Todd Owyoung

Lifestyle Festival by Todd Owyoung

What advice can you give to those who are on the verge of going pro? You have to work to build your name and your relationships with people, from your peers to photo editors and bands and labels. The market for music photography is so heavily saturated at this point; one has to get above the noise. Networking and connecting with people is so key as any kind of professional, and this is especially true for music photographers.

So much of being a “professional photographer” has nothing to do with being a photographer and everything to do with simply being professional. Jaw-dropping images might get you hired, but being reliable, easy to work with, and no drama – that’s what gets you repeat and loyal clients.

On a practical note, any working photographer should have their gear fully insured. Music photography can be brutal on your gear – insurance has saved me more times than my insurance agent would care to remember or I would want to admit.

In addition, I think that connecting with fellow music photographers is hugely important, if for no other reason than the moral support, on top of all the other benefits. With the industry as tough as it is, it be nice just have some friends to bounce ideas off, count on for referrals and introductions, and everything else good colleagues will do for you. I think it’s very easy to think of other photographers as competition, but we’re really in this together.

Finally: Don’t forget to have fun. We have the best job on the planet.

How can we find out more about you and your work?

Todd – Thank you very much for your time and this collection of fantastic photos. 

Do not use these images without the correct permissions.

Join the discussion 28 Comments

  • Gary Cooper says:

    fantastic interview, loved Todd’s work for a while now, such. A good read for a small venue photographer like myself.

  • No one better than this dude. There are two sites I read religiously before I started shooting: ishootshows and gig-photographer.com. Great to see the two come together. That shot of the fog and light through the trees is one that has stuck with me since the day I first saw Todd post it. Great interview, Todd/Dave!

    • Todd Owyoung says:

      Thanks for the kind words, Josh. Very glad if anything I put out there has helped with your photography.

      That last shot is from the Firefly Music Festival in Dover, DE. The whole site was incredibly dusty, which worked out amazingly for one of the art installations in the forest with light streaming through the trees.

    • gig-photographer.com says:

      Thanks a lot Josh.

  • Flex says:

    Once again… Dave/Todd – you’ve nailed it. I have the utmost respect for Todd – years ago I started following tips from ishootshows and I’ve got Todd to thank for where I’m at today. Here’s hoping I’ll get a chance to share some stories with him one day. As always – awesome interview and stellar images. Ant

  • Mike McQuerter says:

    Todd was one of the first music photographers I gravitated to when I started shoot. Having been a fan of people like Haflin and Zlowzower all these years I was never shooting bands back then other than sneaking in a little point and shoot Kodak film camera. I think what makes Todd such a great asset is not only his talents but his willingness to share his knowledge that would take most of us years to learn.

  • Lori Johnson says:

    Love this article/interview. I learned a lot from this. Great job! Your photography is awesome.

  • Jon Sievert says:

    Thanks for the insights in how the industry is changing and how to deal with it. Not sure I would have the patience anymore but then I worked in very different time.

    • Todd Owyoung says:

      Hey Jon, thanks for reading. I’m coming up on 9 years of shooting music. It’s changed tremendously even from when I first started. I think we’re all learning to roll with the punches.

  • Absolutely fantastic interview here, been following Todd’s work since I began shooting shows in October last year. Got my first arena show with You Me At Six/All Time Low next week in Glasgow and got my first Kerrang publication last month. I wouldn’t have been able to do it without Todd’s expertise on the ishootshows site, so a MASSIVE thank you! Hope perhaps one day it’ll be my interview!

  • Christopher Lee Helton says:

    Great stuff Todd. I admire you doing music photography in this day and age. I pretty much quit after stars started using rights grabbing releases. It started going down hill when 99% of the rock magazines closed their doors. Outside of that and dealing with road managers who think they are god or something I just got tired of it. That being said I had a blast.would not have chosen any other job except being the rock star..lol. When you mention Rolling Stone I had to laugh. I got a call from them to do Def Leppard and almost hung up, thought it was a friend just messing with me.

  • Jacinta says:

    Todd is a dead-set legend. Back in the day when I was more serious about shooting than I am now Todd would occasionally comment on my blog posts, and it was a huge deal to know someone as good as Todd was paying attention.

  • Paula Nicole says:

    Wow, what a great interview. Thanks so much for sharing. When I was younger I really thought my dreams as a music photographer weren’t possible. I stumbled upon Todd a few years back and would check in ever now and then. In the past year though, I found inspiration and motivation again to go after my dreams. Todd is such a humble well rounded fellow. He truly exhibits how you have nothing to lose but everything to gain. Thanks again.

  • Laura says:

    Finally got round to reading this interview! I always used to look at Todd’s site before going off to shows when I was first shooting in Tokyo, just to help me get over the nerves when I was doing bigger shows. I call him the photographer I want to be when I grown up 😉

    The red light post is one of my favourites, by the way. I come back to that occasionally just to remind myself it’s not just me who hates those washes.

    Thanks Dave and Todd for putting so much time and info into a fascinating interview!

  • Nico Silva says:

    Awesome interview! I’ve followed Todd since 2009 and I’m always astonished by his work.
    Now i’m becoming a photographer myself and feel like somehow Todd’s work has a lot to do with that… so, from the bottom of my soul, thank you Todd!

    Greetins from Tandil, Argentina!

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