Whilst touring the world with bands, Adam Elmakias (San Diego, California) was able to spend some time with us for a chat about his career, his ‘brand’ and how he has one of the largest following of a photographer on Instagram. Adam has travelled the world several times over, he has a rich and varied portfolio and has sold over 50,000 items of merchandise worldwide – and he is only 24.
Adam, Thank you for agreeing to be interviewed for our website. Of course. Thank you for interviewing me. I did check my emails and see that you reached out earlier on in your website’s career, so my apologies for that. I was pretty overwhelmed before and just couldn’t wrap my head around doing an interview. But it’s so cool you reached out again!
No problem. Can you talk us through from when you started out as a Music Photographer to where you are now? I started shooting when I was 15 or 16 and living in Madison, WI. I basically took some self-portraits for a school assignment and a counsellor I was working with closely at the time loved the images. He was a photographer himself, so he encouraged me to continue and helped get me involved in it. After a year or so, I had a camera that I would take with me to local concerts. It allowed me to get into shows for free as long as I gave the promoters the images. It was a treat for my music-obsessed broke-ass teenage self. Plus, I felt cool! I did everything I could to network and book shoots with bands as they came through town, and eventually a couple of bands were nice enough to take me on tour.
After high school I went to college for a semester to try it out, but it ended up not really being for me. My photography career reached a point where I couldn’t do both anymore, and then I moved to San Diego a year later. I figure if I’m only going to be home once in a while, I might as well live in the most beautiful place in the country. I am 24 now and my main job is to travel with bands on tour and photograph what they do everyday. The images are turned around within 24 hours so the band can use them on their socials, and they keep a bunch to themselves just so they can have the memories. The bands I work closest with I have been working with for the past 5 or 6 years, so I’ve had time to really get to know them and learn how to capture their personalities.
When did you get your big break in the Music Photography Industry? When I get this question I always assume people are looking for a certain shoot or job that changed my career and stepped it up a notch, but I don’t really have one of those defining moments. It has really more so just been a constant hustle and continuous efforts to grow, put out new work, and challenge myself to get better at photographing what I like to photograph. My growth with anything in life is very slow and takes me a very long time to get good at what I am doing, but because I shoot every day, I can set small goals for myself. It’s mostly just doing something a little bit better every day though. Setting yearly goals helps a lot too, but you have to hold yourself accountable and make it work! Photography related skills set aside, I feel like my largest growth has just been learning about how to navigate life in general – and to stay happy. The more I learn about life the better I seem to get at photography and getting constant work. It’s a natural progression.
When you look back at your career what stands out as major highlights? First van tour: The first time I convinced a band to take me on a full USA tour. We were in a van and it was a dirty month, but I learned more about life in than I had the entire year before it.
Moving to San Diego: I moved on a whim. It was intended to be a visit to my sister in San Diego, but after traveling the states I realised how much more the USA had to offer. I didn’t have much in Wisconsin aside from my best friends, and my job didn’t rely on where I lived. So California it was. Plus a girl made me angry and that means a lot when you are 19, haha.
First time going to Europe: The first time I got to tour outside of the states was a big deal. I wasn’t able to have the band cover my ticket cost, but my dad was nice enough to pay for half of my plane ticket there. I was 20 at the time and had ran my bank account to zero once again. Just like my first USA tour, I learned more on that tour that I ever could have imagined.
Changing career to be happy AKA touring constantly: 2013 was the first I toured almost the whole year. I was tired of press shoots and needed to switch up my career or photography was going to start to burn me out.
FIRST TIMES are always the most fun, and I try to make as many first time experiences as I can. Sometimes this involves changing up my entire career, but I’ll do whatever it takes to stay happy and motivated to keep learning!
You have a very impressive music portfolio of portraits and live shows. What percentage of your work is portraiture versus live music photography? Thank you! I used to shoot more press or group portraits, but I don’t do those as much anymore. Now live music is my day job, and I shoot about 5 shows a week. Portraits are mostly personal projects whenever I can fit them in, but it’s hard to coordinate because we’re constantly traveling and on the go. Right now I’d say my percentage of portrait versus live photo is about 80/20.
Is that the way you’d like it to be? I have a more stable touring job now with A Day To Remember and I am going to take advantage of our days off to try and make this percentage more of a 50/50. I am excited to get back in the studio and start working with people one-on-one.
What do you believe makes a great live music photo? In the first few seconds of looking at it, is this awesome? If you look closer, is it more awesome? I really firmly believe that the hardest part about live shots is the composition, because in the end that is all you have control over, and that’s the fun part. You can’t interact with your subject, you can’t control them – you can only control yourself and set yourself up to get the best shot. There is a little bit of luck to it as well, which keep everything interesting. So, in the end I feel a great live shot looks nice right when you look at it, and starts to look even better the more you sink your eyes into it.
In a densely crowded industry of hobbyists, house photographers, and semi-pro photographers; what’s the key to standing out from the crowd – not just in terms of awesome photos but also how to go about self-promotion? Photos: Do exactly what gives you that photo high. The bands I work with it say I get a “phoner” or a photo boner. Is that gross? That is kinda gross, but when I get good light I kinda freak out and they let me steal their time for a little bit. I respect their art and they share a similar appreciate for mine and I feel like that is where and why we work so well together.
Self-promotion: You have to know yourself, and you kind of have to market yourself like a cartoon character (this works for my target demographic at least!). You have to be comfortable with yourself and memorable enough for people to want to follow you. Does it make me less cool to formally admit that I shaved my head for marketing purposes? It made me comfortable, and coincidentally people find me much easier to remember.
You have a few strings to your bow. You have your own merchandise, you sell prints and also you have your lens bracelet business. Was this something you set out to do from the start of your professional career? Well, it’s different for each product. Lens Bracelets started about 4 years ago and never really stopped going. That wasn’t intentional; it was kinda something I made for myself that tons of people started to like. Worldwide Lens Bracelets have sold over 50k and I am happy it continues to grow.
Prints came to be the only realistic way for me to be able to tour and photograph the bands I wanted to photograph while still seeing some form of revenue from it. I am constantly creating and working everyday, so the only other way for me to make money is to have automated forms of income. Prints are all automated through SmugMug. However, the popularity growth wasn’t a mistake; it was boosted by my relationship with the bands I work with and know. Part of the idea of selling prints was having the bands all push my brand/name on every post.
The shirts and such kind of made sense at the time and have grown over the last year. The main band I travel with sells them at their merch table and I sell them when I do signings at shows as well. However, most people just buy them from my online store.
In the end I think that they both kind of bounce off of each other. As I continue to grow, the “merch” continues to sell, and as the merch sells it helps me continue to grow.
You have created a brand out of your image and your photography. Can you tell us how you went about setting this up and what led you to present yourself in this way. From 2006-2012 I had a brand, but it wasn’t as prominent as it is now. I always wanted to be in a band – a front man to be exact – ’cause it was so cool to watch those guys on stage when I was a kid. I can kind of sing, and I do it every day, but I’m godawful haha. Anyway, about 2 years ago I shaved my head and my complexion cleared up, which sounds and feels weird to talk about, but these things do matter. I wasn’t confident with how I looked prior to 2012 really, and I hated promoting my face. (Plus, it’s probably for the best as I had some pretty embarrassing styles.) After I shaved my head, I kind of started promoting it and it took off, so I ran with it. I made all my profile pictures the same thing and took pictures with all the people I worked with and had them post online. I feel kind of off being so open about these things, as when they roll out into the real world they are meant to seem natural and not forced – which they are – but they are all conscious decisions for the most part. I think a lot and love business and marketing, and it all applies to my already-found love of networking. I never realised how much I love it until the past few years, and Lens Bracelets definitely sparked it. You can have so much fun with it and you can work on your image every day, all day, one tweet/Tumblr/Facebook post as a time. Everything else kind of came right after my “re-branding,” so to speak.
I have a few friends who I bounce everything off of – one is a designer, Kyle Crawford, and the other is my assistant now, Kelly Mason – who I bounce everything off of, and my brand wouldn’t be anything without them. Kyle is great at designing and making all the calls on what I should make or scrap. He has a few very successful brands, so I attribute any success I’ve had with branding myself to him. He made my logo, my shirt, helped with Lens Bracelets, and has honestly changed my life by helping me along. Kelly has been great on the social networking end and making sure I keep my shit straight online. Like when I want to post about normal personal things (girls, going out drinking, etc.) she kinda tells me where I need to draw the line haha. She also handles my businesses and makes sure everything is running smoothly while I’m on the road so I can focus more on my day-to-day life. I get by with a little help from my friends.
The bands I work with love helping me grow my brand as well. A Day To Remember sells my face shirt at every show. Every band I work with credits me every time they post a photo of mine.
You feel quite strongly about the importance of networking as a music photographer. It seems that it’s pretty key to your work ethic. The music industry all comes down to who you know – and more importantly who knows you. I talk a lot with different artists that I work with and it’s always interesting to get their perspective. For example, recently I told one of the guys that I really wanted to work with a new area of artists. Unbeknownst to me, he knew every single person I wanted to work with and offered to connect me. I didn’t even have to ask. I was surprised. I asked him, “you would do that for me?” And he said, “yeah, you are a good guy, I trust you, and would love connecting you with them”. To me this was huge; the fact that all my hard work and being (what I thought was) the best person I can be everyday had really paid off. I don’t always realise these things when they happen. But I told him how good that made me feel – that he made me feel. This was just last week.
How do you stay current and how did you develop your own style? Staying current: Always switching it up, trying new things, fucking up a lot and learning from the mistakes, then taking what I can from it and focusing on the positive. My own style… what a battle. Shoot and keep shooting. That is what I always tell myself. I love being on the road and shooting every day, because each day I can think about what can I work on and get better at this time around, and then I do a little bit more, slowly creating a style. At first I would just look at other people’s work and try to emulate it, but I never got that edge or drive from doing that. It was just me trying to be someone else when that’s not what photography should be at all.
You have worked with bands on tour as their photographer on the road. Who have you worked with on the road? Yes! I have traveled with a bunch of different bands that are all kind of from the same scene. I tour the most with A Day To Remember, All Time Low and Pierce The Veil. It’s really hard to establish a relationship with a band where they will continuously take you out, but I’ve managed to hang onto a couple. Other bands I’ve worked with include Bring Me The Horizon, Tonight Alive, Silverstein, Ace Enders, Whitechapel, Breathe Carolina, Asking Alexandria, Four Letter Lie, Before Their Eyes, and Of Mice & Men.
What’s it like to work so intensely with a band? How do you manage to keep your photos looking fresh, gig after gig? I base the photos I take every day on our location and try to incorporate the local area as much as possible. The band stays the same for the most part, but our environment changes every day. If I wasn’t personally attached to the bands I worked with, I wouldn’t have the drive to shoot the same live show sometimes 100+ times a year. I literally spend all day staring at 5 dudes, I have to love them. Candids are important especially when trying to capture a more natural side of the band, but scheduling small outings to make sure we get good posed images is just as important (even though sometimes very tricky to time right).
When you go on tour with a band, are you assigned with a salary or a fee per show? Here is the thing about touring with the artists I work with: You live with them, live their lives, and know everything they do. Getting hired has nothing to do with the money. I guarantee that if I went up to any of the people I work with now and said “hey, give me money and I’ll tour with you,” they would have said “fuck off”. So, what I did was befriend them, worked for them for a few years, and eventually asked to go on the road. By the time I asked it wasn’t even really a big jump; it was just the natural progression of our friendship. You don’t really see any big breaks when you are living a honest, hard working, and polite life in this industry. Everything slowly builds and grows to the next level. It may take longer to get where you are going, but once you get there it becomes near-impossible to just “fall” off. You know too many people, and too many people know you and your good intentions to let you fall through. I kinda of parallel it to bands that tour. Some blow up and then disappear because they didn’t spend 10 years on the road networking in the industry and gathering personally devoted fans. It works the same on the backend; it is really about who you know, and who knows you. That being said, money came second to my job. So after they let me tour with them, I kind of had to create my job. This took me years because there wasn’t someone I was looking up to that was doing what I wanted to do for these artists. People have tour photographers with them, but they weren’t popping out content on a daily basis. Artists were doing it themselves with Instagram.
As soon as Instagram came along, I could a) justify my job, and b) monetize it with the promotional help of the artists I work for. So first off we kind of did a trade. I went on the road (for free) and they helped me promote the sales of my prints through their outlets. This is also what helped grow all my socials so much. Regardless of the tour I was on, I could still take my followers with me and continue to profit. I love connecting bands with their fans and just connecting with fans in general, so to me this was awesome. I get to interact with hundreds of thousands of people and help them remember their concert with a photograph. I was one of the kids that went to shows, so I know just how much these concerts and music mean to them.
As soon as I did this, I saw a lot of other photographers – including a bunch I were friends with – do the exact same thing. But to me, it was coming from the wrong place. It was coming from a business standpoint, where people were looking to make a quick buck. It kind of bummed me out and cramped my style that people were hitting up similar clients. I was worried at first, but then I referred back to what I just said: everyone I work with is a great friend of mine, and it takes a lot more to snag a great client than to be a good photographer. So now prints have kind of taken an automated back seat. I still use them, but the artists I work for have seen how much the images we create increase the social activity online and are okay with paying me a set rate.
How do you see the Music Photography Industry in 2014? Everyone is starting to have their own music photographer. Give it a year or so and every local band will have a photographer. Even if they aren’t creating content, they will just want to *have* a photographer. Live music photography is one of the easiest forms of photography to get relatively good at. As long as you have great networking skills that allow you to gain access or attain credentials, you can literally show up to a show with decent gear and get some sellable shots. Not saying your shots will be good, but honestly, they don’t need to be – publications buy shitty photos all the time, and artists just want images of themselves doing their job.
There are a lot of bands and artists putting rights grabs on photographers to sign before shooting a show. It’s become a bit of a widely discussed area of our industry across various social media networks and blogs. What’s your opinion on this issue? I don’t think its an issue with the band; I think it’s an issue with the photographers. If you don’t like the contract, don’t sign it and don’t shoot the show. That is why there is a contract. It’s a meeting of minds prior to shooting the show and whether or not the contract is “fair” is out of the question. If you don’t like it, don’t sign it. I understand the frustration of showing up to an event and then having to agree to terms you don’t like, and it does suck to go home empty handed, but venting and whining about it online is childish and I feel as though the people complaining come off as entitled.
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 haven’t been in all honesty. I don’t shoot as many different artists as a lot of other music photographers do, and my relationship with the artists is more personal than business. I don’t have any contracts or agreements with any of the bands I work with; it’s all just an understanding we have with each other. The last time I signed a contract was when I was working with 30 Seconds To Mars. There were two contracts: one that said I basically couldn’t sell any of my stories from being with the band to press, and the other that said I couldn’t sell any of the images. Seemed fair to me, and I happily signed them.
When shooting a live show; what’s in the kit bag? I keep all of my gear I own backstage. It is stored in my Think Tank Airport International V 2.0. I kind of use this as my home base.
There is a full gear list on my site although what I pack is ever changing.
On my own self I have my Holdfast Money Maker to my left holding my canon 5D Mark 3 with my active lens on it – so the one I am mainly shooting with. I pick three lenses for the day and throw them in my Think Tank Turnstyle 10 Sling camera bag. I swap these with my Mark 3 as needed. I have my Spider Camera Holster to my right, holding a Canon 6D with a wide lens. This is my “oh shit” camera. It’s basically what I grab when something unexpected happens. So if someone is about to jump into the crowd and I have a 70-200 on my main camera, then I am ready with this camera. It might have a flash on it as well, depending on the shoot location.
This is my set up from shooting form the pit. If I am doing anything on stage I usually scrap the Spider as it makes it hard for me to climb and jump on, or off the stage. I also have a 5D Mark 2 on stage on a monopod ready to go for crowd shots from behind the drum riser. I either trigger my 5D Mark 2 remotely with Pocketwizards or use a GoPro and shoot the same shots as long as we aren’t in low light – outdoor festival setting.
In addition, I sometimes set up remote cameras that fire every time I take an image with my 5D Mark 3. Alternatively I also set my GoPro 3+ to time-lapse and just leave it somewhere in hopes of getting one useable image.
Drawing on your experience as a Professional Music Photographer, what tips do you have for someone starting out in gig photography? Start shooting. That is the most important part. You can sit back and plan or conjure up some ideas of what you want to do when you want to do it, but the reality is that you won’t start getting good at something until you actually start doing it. You can learn all the technical junk that you would normally go to school for online. The rest comes from job experience, sucking at photography, and learning from all the things you do that make you suck. Start shooting local (bars, clubs, small venues), network, and work your way up from there. It’s really important to keep track of all the people you meet, as in the music industry people change jobs a lot. The nice thing about being a photographer as that no matter how bad you are at it, someone will hire you. You can get paid to learn, which is really quite nice.
And what advice can you give to those who are on the verge of going pro? Stay active, keep shooting, and continue to push yourself. I think those are the best qualities any photographer can use. Don’t undersell yourself, stay positive. Lots of negative shit happens in the music industry and a lot of it doesn’t make sense at first. Learn from it and move on. Nothing is worth getting upset about, and holding grudges just clouds your mind. Everyone you meet is important and you should treat everyone with respect. I truly believe that if you are nice to everyone and friends with everyone that you create your own ‘luck’ and everything else just falls into place. You need your networks just as much as they need you. Its very important for you to remember everyone you meet, but more important for them to remember you.
The pit can be a pretty crowded place sometimes. When you’re on tour with a band what’s it’s like seeing so many photographers in the pit. I love it. I love meeting them all. I do my best to say hey before the set as I realize most are infer first three and then out, and this can be very stressful. I do my best to be friends with every music photographer I meet and am working on getting over being too anxious to say hello to everyone in the pit. It just absolutely drives me crazy that we can’t all be friends. If you see me in the pit, please say hi, I would love to meet you.
One of our contributors wrote an article for us on protecting our ears and wrote a review for some earplugs. Are you also a believer in using earplugs? I want to emphasise the importance of protecting your ears when you go to shows, especially for music photographers who are so close to or even on stage. I use Sensaphonic moulded earplugs that allow me to still hear the music clearly so I can still enjoy the concert while shooting. Don’t feel like a loser for wearing earplugs – any smart musician / photographer / concert-goer is one step ahead of you, and you’ll be laughing at your friends who say “WHAT?” after everything you say later in life. What?
Thanks very much Adam for your time and contributing your photos.
You can find out more about Adam by the following links:
- Website: adamelmakias.com
- Website: lensbracelet.com
- Twitter: @elmakias
- Facebook: facebook.com/adamelmakias
- Instagram: instagram.com/elmakias
- Google+: plus.google.com/
- YouTube: youtube.com/user/elmakias
Do not use these images without the correct permissions.
We have a bunch of lens bracelets and a DVD to giveaway!
In partnership with Adam and ourselves, we are giving away Adam’s tutorial DVD ‘The Music Photographer‘ and a set of 3 lens bracelets! The DVD is packed with over two hours of music photography tutorial content, as well as an additional 45 minutes of behind the scenes videos. To win, simply comment under this article and we will pick out our favourite and we will be in touch.
For our twitter followers we are giving away (5) sets of (3) lens bracelets! Simply follow @elmakias and @GigPhotogs and mention something about this interview using #aegigphotogs and we will be in touch.
Offer ends 8th April 2014 and cannot be used with any other offer. Your details will not be sold onto any other third parties and you will not be contacted directly for any marketing or promotional purposes.