Kevin, thanks for taking the time to sit down and talk with us. How did you get started in music photography? Initially I was a commercial photographer doing a lot of products, interiors and architectural stuff, and the publishing company I was working for got bought out by another publishing company that had amongst their roster Classic Rock Magazine, Metal Hammer Magazine, Total Guitar and various other music magazines, so as I was working for the company was taken over I got introduced to the people at Classic Rock – this was several years ago – so it was quite fortuitous that I started shooting for them.
So you were already an established photographer? I’ve been shooting for 24 years, so it’s a long time, and it’s been full time for that period.
Did you study photography at college or uni? In my previous life I was an architect and in 1987 I went to live in New York for four years. When I came back it was at the peak of the last bad recession and I couldn’t get back into architecture, so I naively thought I’d try photography, bought a camera and made it up as I went along. That’s the absolute truth. Not a day’s tuition. I’ve never assisted anybody in my entire life. It was trial and error.
Was being an architect beforehand helpful? I think having an architectural head is good for composition, but I was a rubbish architect. I was a great draughtsman, but a useless architect. You do need to have an eye, and being an architect did make me visually aware of things, and, as with most photographers, we’re obsessed with visuals and not words. It did give me a good start into it, and having a bit of business acumen as well, which I think is quite important. I’m not great at selling myself, but I can sell other people. I’m relatively modest when it comes to that, as are most photography friends I know. We’re sensitive souls and we’re as good as the last job that we do. Constructive criticism is always welcome, but it hurts.
Would you say you have a particular style of shooting? I don’t think it’s necessarily a style. The way I process pictures is not unique by any stretch of the imagination, but I have a style that I like to adopt, and I like to make my pictures a little bit more gritty. I do post produce them, but not overly, and certainly for the pictures for the magazines I will always retouch and clean the picture up.
What sort of things? Removing extraneous mics, for example? I used to, but I like to maintain the integrity of the picture. My retouching will consist of adjusting levels, brightness, contrast. As you know, most of the light we shoot is crap light, so retrieving detail in Lightroom that otherwise wouldn’t be there. It’s enhancing what was there rather than changing anything. I wouldn’t take out anything from a picture.
You shoot both live concerts and portraits. Which do you prefer? Good question. I love both but I get more out of doing a portrait shot, because when you’re in a pit, you’re one amongst many and we’re getting similar sorts of pictures. Sometimes you get a lucky break with a look to camera or a jump, or whatever. With a portrait you are controlling the light, controlling the shoot, you’re dictating to the sitter what you want them to do. At the end of the day it’s a much more intimate and personal portrayal than just going to a gig.
Do you have your own studio, or is it on location? I have my own studio, but it tends to be a bit of both. I do work in studios, which I tend to hire now. Most of the stuff will be on location, going to the sitter’s home or the venue where they’re playing, or outdoors, which might have been arranged by the magazine’s art editor. So mostly on location.
Do you have a bag of lights you take with you? Yes, hence my permanent stoop. I have various lights, but if I can use daylight, I always prefer that but a lot of times you can’t. I use a combination of off-camera Nikon Speedlights as well as normal flashes with softboxes, if I’ve got power to connect to.
What other kit do you use? I’m not a great techie gear lover, I always use Nikon for no other reason than I started with Nikon. I have a D4 and a D800. The standard three lenses that we all use – 12-24mm, 24-70mm and a 70-200mm – which will cover most scenarios. If I’m shooting at the O2 and need to shoot from the soundboard, I’ll take a Nikon doubler that takes my 200 up to 400. I rarely shoot from the soundboard nowadays as I don’t find it’s worth my buying a 300 or 400mm lens, or even hiring one.
The thing with equipment now is that it is so good. What was considered good not very long ago, is now hardly considered acceptable. That’s a very good point. I often look at old photographers, the old black and white stuff, and they look fantastic. When we look back at those old pictures, we never question the quality: that’s Led Zeppelin, that’s Jimi Hendrix or whoever, and they are just great to look at. Nowadays it’s, “there’s a bit of grain on that, there’s a bit of noise on that” and we’ve sort of stopped looking at the quality of the picture, and more the technical quality, which I think is very, very sad. A photograph is a photograph. If you see it in a gallery it’s from four feet away, but nowadays people are going up and looking for pixels and, for me, it’s lost a bit of the art of what a photograph should do, which is to stimulate, to motivate, to inspire and not to get bogged down with how many pixels it’s got, and all the technical details that a lot of photographers get weighed down with.
There is a certain amount of snobbery… There’s a huge amount of snobbery. The camera I use is great because it allows me to shoot in low light, but I’m happy to be in the pit with someone shooting with whatever camera. We should all have parity and equality. Yes, I’ve got a camera that cost a lot of money, which will allow me a lot more flexibility, particularly in low light, so the high-end Nikon, or Canon, will give me an advantage, purely because it can handle low light better, but as the other cameras catch up, we’re going to all be on an equal footing. I think that in two years most of the “prosumer” cameras will have a chip capable of what the Nikon D4 can do now. Whether the manufacturers will produce an even better chip to shoot in even lower light, I don’t know. That remains to be seen.
Most of your work is for print editorial. I would say 95%. I do get occasional requests from bands to do their promotional shots, but I’ve always been editorial based, which is great because you get paid for it. However, the magazine industry is precarious, to say the least. The magazines I work for tend to be adapting to the digital age, but I’ve worked for a lot of magazines that have gone under, and lots of magazines are struggling. I always ask the same question: “When was the last time you bought a magazine?” Gone are the days when you would go to the newsagents and buy a couple of magazines. It’s become so specialised now because everything is online. I can’t even remember the last time I exchanged money for a newspaper or magazines; I don’t buy them any more. Fortunately, the magazines I work for are specialist and niche, and the people who buy them continue to buy them. The readers of Classic Rock and Prog Rock tend to be 45 and over, so they like a physical, tangible magazine, whereas Metal Hammer, which I also work for, is a younger readership and they are happy to look at it on an iPad.
How do you see the state of the print industry? It’s dying, there’s no two ways about that. Digital is the future, and probably within five years, although it’s difficult to put a timeline on it, but it’s definitely going to get less and less as iPads and the digital media take over. I guess there will always be magazines, as there will always be books, but it will become more specialised.
What do you think about the recent news of the NME becoming a free lifestyle magazine? I would say that it was a surprise! The good thing is the circulation will substantially rise, but my concern would be that the inevitable cost cutting with their photography budget might affect the quality of work (as well as depriving photographers of a source of income!).
What about online magazines? I know so many guys that work for web magazines, and it’s a bit of a bugbear of mine. I understand fanzines and all that, and shooting music is great fun and lots of people’s dream is to do that, but I do think that everything that I shoot, and other photographers shoot, has some intrinsic value, but a lot of the websites take it for granted, they take the good nature of the fact that people want to shoot it, too much for granted. I’ve rarely met anyone who works for a website who even gets their expenses paid. For me that’s a bit of a sore point. If you’re going into it knowing it’s a fanzine and you’re doing it for the love of it, but some of the websites are making money. It’s the age-old argument, “we’re getting you access to the gigs”, which is fine, and I take that onboard. You’ll get your work seen by more people, and you’ll build your portfolio, which are all valid points because one of the hardest things about music photography is the access. If a webzine allows you access to any gig, or some of the larger gigs, then I would understand why anyone would choose to do that.
I don’t understand why people don’t like to look at analogue pictures any more. Do people like looking at pictures any more? One of the down sides of the social media (Instagram, Tumblr, Facebook) – and it’s great that everyone is taking pictures, and people are taking more pictures now than at any other point in history – is the dilution of quality, and immediacy is more important than impact. Even on the news, and we are beginning to accept that is normal quality. When you think about the Sunday supplements, the quality of the photos they used to have, you would buy them to look at the photographs. That’s kind of gone now, and what people want now is instant disposal. Look at it, next one; look at it, next one. There’s a lot more pictures being taken, but there is, in my opinion, an actual dilution in quality.
It’s true for gigs. We get kicked out after three songs, on a good day, and yet fans at the barriers with their phones are taking blurry shots throughout the gig. And some of the bands are using these for their accounts, which is quite distressing to see, but there’s not much we can do about it. It’s going to be interesting in a couple of years time when the quality of those compacts improves and you can get equivalent quality, and with good lighting you’re going to get some great shots. Are these kids on the front row going to be making their own T-shirts or souvenirs, which the band assumes they can’t do at the moment because the quality isn’t there? Are they going to ban everyone with cameras, like Prince did at some of his recent gigs? I don’t think they can. In a couple of years, everyone will have a camera that will get some kind of decent quality.
The thing is, it’s mostly the larger gigs that there is a problem gaining photo access to, and they are already well covered by the established pros. Is it worth getting access to a crowded pit with all the restrictions involved? It’s getting worse and worse and worse. There’s a couple of Facebook groups that specifically deal with this and they post a lot of the contracts from various bands, and some of them are just beyond laughable. The artist is saying that everything you take is theirs to do the hell what they like with. There’s no other field of industry where they would get away with such a contract that is so biased towards one of the parties, but a lot of them do it now.
Do you have any advice for people starting out in the industry, apart from don’t? Music photography is great fun, exciting, stimulating, all those things but the advice I would give to any aspiring music photographer is simply one word: diversify. Do not think you will make a living simply from being a music photographer. There are very, very few just making a living out of music photography. I know a lot of guys here in London and they’re all doing red carpet, which is hell on earth for me. Photography is photography. I will shoot a wedding; I’ll shoot architecture; I’ll shoot portraits; I’ll shoot products, which I do. Even though music is 95% of what I do, I’m completely open to anything else. Learn your skill, learn your trade, learn how your camera works, and learn how to shoot other things, and be prepared to shoot other things. I can make as much shooting one wedding as I can shooting ten gigs. Keep your options open. People write to me saying they want to be a metal photographer, but do they realise what a small element of the industry that is? Photography is photography, and if some of it is music, brilliant, but shoot anything if you want to make a full-time living out of it.
What do you think makes a great music shot? I see lots of music pictures every day, hundreds every day, and very occasionally I might stop and stare at one and think, “why am I looking at that?” It’s a cliched answer, but it’s a shot that captures the essence of a gig. It could be an expression, it could be wide shot that shows in context with the crowd, but it’s something that makes me want to look at it twice. I generally prefer colour these days. You see black and white pictures, and I love black and white, and if I had a poster on my wall it would be black and white, but with black and white, as a music photographer, all I see is that the light has failed. Don’t give me bullshit about being creative, the light has failed. We all know that with red light we can get something out of it in black and white. It’s probably my editorial background. I used to do a lot of black and white, but the art editor would say, “It’s lovely, but the magazine is colour, so it has to be colour.” It’s something that’s dynamic, that’s interesting, that stimulates me. I think a lot of new music photographers, and this is personal taste, they tend to crop in too tight. Unless you are shooting Jagger, or someone who’s got something you recognise, to see a cropped-in shot of someone’s face that I don’t recognise, it’s a bit dull. For me, go wider. Get the singer or the guitarist in the context of the stage: the relationship between him and the crowd, or between the other band members. For me, that is more interesting, but that is personal taste.
Could that also come from working on magazines where you need to have a bit more area for the designer to work with? A good point, and I could be looking at it from an editorial perspective and the sort of shots I know the magazine can use, and they will rarely use a close-up shot unless it is someone really famous. So space around, in case they need to drop headlines or copy, is always an advantage. From my perspective, a wider shot is more useful.
The very tight shots are really just live portraits. Again, unless it’s someone famous… I see a lot of people starting out and they do a big portrait with the person’s mouth completely obscured by the microphone. That’s a fail, that’s a delete for me. That’s one thing about my work, if I can’t see an expression, i.e. the person’s mouth or eyes, then it’s a fail. A lot of the metal guys, they hug the microphone so it’s very difficult to get a clean shot, but if you keep your eye on the subject, there’s always a point when you can see a bit of their expression or a bit of their mouth, but a microphone blocking their face is just a fail, simple as that. I would never submit that to a magazine.
Any particular photographers’ work you admire? I do like Sebastião Salgado, who’s a journalistic/documentary photographer. Music photographers–there’s a lot of good people out there: Danny North, of the current crop, I think he’s got it just right. He has great access and that helps your pictures. I like his eye, he has a really good eye. And some of the older guys. I photographed Mick Rock recently. The guys that have been around and made a living out of it, so hats off to them.
You’ve shot a lot of acts over the years, do you have a bucket list of acts you would still like to shoot? Before I die, I have to shoot David Bowie.
Find more of Kevin’s work:
Do not use these photos without obtaining permission from the copyright holder.