Interview: Music Photographer Anthony D’Angio (Flex)

profile-picAnthony D’Angio makes shooting live concerts & events an art form. For him; capturing the show-stopping moment in precise detail is only one half of the equation. Combining his experience of post processing in bringing out the vividness and atmosphere completes the other half. Put simply, Ant’s images are stunning and in his short career he has already made a big impact on the music photography industry.

Anthony? Ant? Frog? Flex? Which would you prefer we called you today!? That’s a funny one. I think I’ve created a little green amphibian-like monster with this one. I’m starting to answer to Flex which is a bit weird. I was at an arena gig recently and I heard some guy from the crowd yell out “Flex”… I don’t mind really. Have I created a brand? Cool. But it’s Ant to my nearest and dearest.

What’s the story behind “Frography”? Well I have my own digital creative agency called Kiss The Frog and Flex being the name I christened to its mascot. When I started off on a few professional shoots, I incorporated the photography aspect into my agency business, and thought it warranted giving it its own brand. Honestly, I’m not a real fan of the name. It was a spur of the moment thing and looking back I probably should have thought a bit more creatively in a sub-brand. But it’s too late to change now – people are aware of the whole “frog” element, so it’s gonna stick.

For those who may not be aware of your work, can you give us the low down on you and your career to date? It’s a bit of a whirlwind to be honest. When people ask how long I’ve been doing it professionally and I tell them, erm… just over a year, they look at me in disbelief. I take that as a compliment. But in reality, I’ve been doing this since I was knee high to a frog. It’s just the past 12 months have really kicked off locally and internationally and hopefully it’ll continue. I’m taking it all in stride though as I have a steady income through the core of my business and this is just growing slowly. In an ideal world, the balance of power would shift to photography. Who knows? But it’s just quite humbling to get the feedback I’ve been getting from fans, artists, publicists, media and organisations such as the CMA (Country Music Association).

Lenny Kravitz at CMA Fest, LP Field, Nashville on 8th June 2013. Shot with a Canon EOS 5D Mark III, Canon 70-200L f/2.8 II, ISO800, 1/320, f/2.8.

Lenny Kravitz at CMA Fest, LP Field, Nashville on 8th June 2013. Shot with a Canon EOS 5D Mark III and a Canon 70-200L lens. Settings: f/2.8 II, ISO800, 1/320, f/2.8

Was there a moment that made you realise gig photography was something you wanted to pursue as a career? I’d been sneaking my SLR into gigs since about 2007 and always thought “jeez, I’d love to be up in that pit”, but had no idea how to go about it. So I took a different route, doing loads of landscape shots, some weddings, some portraiture but mostly street photography. I really got into that between 2011 and early 2013 and actually had one of my shots make the Top 10 People’s Choice at the London Photography Exhibition. I remember at that point, a mate asked me – “where do you want this to go now?” I had no idea really. I guess I thought more street photography – more gallery exhibitions, but really was a bit vague about it all. It was only when the whole thing started off with 2country radio station, Universal Music and then the CMA that I just fell back into what it was that I loved and by default it’s taken me along that path. I still do lugging the equipment to London and plonking myself in Camden or Old Compton Street for the afternoon to take some candid street stuff, and still do the odd wedding, but the focus is now on music.

How did you manage to land contracts with 2country radio, Universal Music and CMA? Were they clients of your digital agency? You nailed it with the order in which it all happened. It started off with the relationship with I was standing in a queue outside the Shepherd’s Bush Empire in 2011 waiting to see the Zac Brown Band and I met the guys from 2country and we talked about our shared passion for the genre and growing its exposure here in the UK and from there I was commissioned to redesign & rebuild their online radio station website. Over the course of the next few years, they started getting creds for me for country artists to increase the content on their site and it just grew from there. The guys are enormously respected in the industry, which had helped get my name out there. Universal are an integral part of my digital business and toward the end of 2012, I was recommended to the head of press at the then Mercury Records and getting me on board for shooting some of their artists that they required content for as well, which expanded my range with acts outside of the country genre. The CMA involvement began in early 2013 when I got in touch with them to help out with content and it has just skyrocketed ever since.

Rascal Flatts at the O2 Arena, London on 16th March 2014. Shot with a Canon EOS 1DX, Canon 24-70L f/2.8 II, ISO1600, 1/120, f/4

Rascal Flatts at the O2 Arena, London on 16th March 2014. Shot with a Canon EOS 1DX and a Canon 24-70L f/2.8 II lens. Settings: ISO1600, 1/120, f/4

Looking back over how far you’ve come in your career to date – would you say there was a defining moment or big break? Definitely. It was a clear moment in early March 2013. I won’t forget it because I was actually proud of a choice I’d made which could have gone either way. Without rambling on too much, I’d just shot the CMA Songwriters in London for a radio station over here and was getting some strong positive feedback from fans and people in the country community, so I thought I’d give the CMA a call directly and got a contact and offered him complimentary use of my photos (since the CMA put the event on and didn’t have coverage over here). To me it was something I needed to do – I don’t make a habit of this as it is a real sensitive point amongst photographers, but I felt at the time I needed to do something proactive. It could have gone either way. Either I’d find someone who was genuinely appreciative at me reaching out, which I’d hoped would keep me in the forefront of their minds in the future, or I’d find someone who’d thank me and take the piss over and over again. I had nothing to lose, and all to gain. Fortunately for me, the contact I made was – and is – a really genuine bloke who values creativity and respects my work – and the whole relationship with the CMA began right there. I play down a lot of things, but that’s one risk I do feel quite proud at having taken.

So you get paid for your photography services now? I get commissioned to do a job which includes payment for my time shooting, post work and supply of images. Every job is bespoke and dependent on the arrangement, but for the most part, I get the freedom where I retain copyright of my images allowing me to supply them to a third party outlet if they are interested and willing to pay. Obviously there are caveats to that rule, such as a recent job for a BBC taping in conjunction with the CMA where only the CMA and the BBC were allowed to use my images – as part of the agreement. So I take on each job with full understanding in advance as to what I can/can’t do. But overall, I’m happy with the way it all comes together.

Taylor Swift at the O2 Arena, London on 4th February 2014. Shot with a Canon EOS 1DX, Canon 70-200L f/2.8 II, ISO1600, 1/250, f/5.6.

Taylor Swift at the O2 Arena, London on 4th February 2014. Shot with a Canon EOS 1DX and a Canon 70-200L f/2.8 II lens. Settings: ISO1600, 1/250, f/5.6

There is a big difference between ‘shooting for free’ and ‘taking a chance’ don’t you think? If you ‘take a chance’ for a while without managing to make any money or secure a contract then you are venturing into that sensitive area amongst our community. Totally agree with that, although I can see both sides to the age-old argument. As you say, it’s a real sensitive one and it needs to be looked at purely with common-sense. It’s a bit of a catch-22. Photographers trying to break into the field sometimes really need to do what they think is best for them, which may mean shooting for free to gain experience, portfolio exposure and getting their name out there. But there needs to be a cut off point – a certain moment where you, as a photographer, realise the value of your work – and that moment is when you have to draw the line and start charging. It’s human nature to want things for free – and even moreso to not challenge someone if they’re offering things for free – so the onus is back on the photographer to take the plunge and change the way they approach their assignments. If you are getting a stack of industry and peer praise, there is a reason for that, and in continuing to do free work not only undervalues your offering, but it puts a real dent in the whole industry, making it a lot harder for the ones who are serious about it to be able to sustain it as an income.

Are you into Country Music? Hell yeah! (is that cliché enough?). Just look at the kinds of artists I often get asked to shoot. The portfolio’s covered with them – from individual gigs to the UK’s Country2Country and the two big ones in Nashville – CMA Fest in June & the CMA Awards in November. To me, it’s a genre that takes all aspects of everyday life and puts a positive spin on it – often anecdotal. I like that a lot because it shows real song writing creativity and I’m a big fan of taking something – anything – and using a creative mind to bring out the best in it.

Jason Aldean at CMA Fest, LP Field, Nashville on 8th June 2013. Shot with a Canon EOS 5D Mark III and a Canon 70-200L f/2.8 II lens. Settings: ISO800, 1/640, f/5.6.

Jason Aldean at CMA Fest, LP Field, Nashville on 8th June 2013. Shot with a Canon EOS 5D Mark III and a Canon 70-200L f/2.8 II lens. Settings: ISO 800, 1/640, f/5.6

Is there something about photographing Country Music performers that makes them different to bands from other genres?  Sure is – I usually shoot it wearing a cowboy hat J I think for me, it’s a number of things. The love of the genre really drives me to try and get in there and do something different every time, so the results aren’t stock-standard. It’s also harder than some genres. Take metal bands – you’re almost always guaranteed to get high voltage action shots. Not often the case in country; so it makes it challenging to come up with variety – but that’s what I love about what I do – continually pushing myself to get something “unique”. On the flip side, it’s also about approachability – the kinds of access you get with country artists tends to be a lot more photographer-and fan-friendly than some other genres. It’s pretty rare you’d be given a sound desk job at a country gig irrespective of the calibre of the artist.

The Band Perry at CMA Fest, LP Field, Nashville on 9th June 2013. Shot with a Canon EOS 5D Mark III and a Canon 70-200L f/2.8 II lens. Settings: ISO800, 1/500, f/7.1.

The Band Perry at CMA Fest, LP Field, Nashville on 9th June 2013. Shot with a Canon EOS 5D Mark III and a Canon 70-200L f/2.8 II lens. Settings: ISO 800, 1/500, f/7.1

How has your design experience helped or assisted you in your photography? Looking at your folio, you clearly have a good eye for colour, dynamic angles and composition. You know what, it’s a big plus for me. I’ll sometimes run away from the big cluster of photographers in the pit and find a new vantage point that is going to be my own. Sometimes I miss an opportunity, but sometimes I get one that nobody has gotten – there is a big element of luck, but yeah, my mind keeps ticking because we’ve got limited time, so I’m constantly hopping around like a lunatic in the pit rather than firing 100 frames from the one vantage point. I think I’m also lucky in one way that the commissioned work I get isn’t directed at agencies with ludicrous deadlines – what that does is give me a bit of time to get the images up to speed. So on the post production side, I tend to spend quality time in putting a lot of love into the optimisation – ensuring the vividness of colours, skin tones and cropping for composition really brings the most out of the photo. The most common bit of feedback I get is that the colours and lighting in my shots are really vivid, so yeah; having decades of design experience has definitely helped on the technical side. Post-production to me is an integral part of the whole process. I know some photographers shy away from it, and that’s fine, it’s all about your own style, and mine is to enhance the vividness of the subject and their surroundings so the eye is drawn to a story of the whole photo. I’ve seen some shots completely butchered in the post process and that’s sad, because ultimately you need a good clean and sharp shot to begin with if you’re going to make love to it properly.

There is a fine line with post production. As you say, some shots can get completely butchered in post. We have even had HDR photos sent to our site before – which we cannot bring ourselves to exhibit. Have you ever finished a shot, put it out there – only to look at it 48hrs later and realise you have gone too far with the post? 24, 48, 72, a week, a month – of course! You are editing loads and loads of photos so sometimes you end up with bleary eyes and your judgement waivers. Countless times I’ve looked back and asked myself “what the hell was I thinking?!” I think for the most part you see a photo which is a real stunner in terms of composition but you’ve misfired slightly and you are thinking with your heart – and just editing in hope to try and salvage it. But as I mentioned, what you’re actually doing is butchering it. I said it before, like anything, you need a solid foundation to begin with otherwise the walls will come tumbling down as you dig further into it.

When you first look at a photo, if the first thing you think of is “this has been messed with in Photoshop” then that’s not really right is it? If the first thing you think is “wow, how the heck has he/she managed to get such life into the photo. Must have been photoshopped” then I don’t see a real problem. But if the first thing you think is “man, that’s way too much work – it doesn’t even look real” then yes, that’s not going to do you any favours. I think for me, post processing is there to enhance a photo, not salvage it. If you’re doing it for the wrong reasons, it’s going to be evident. Subtlety is the key – for me, what I want to achieve in post is to bring out the best in a photo and give it life. I spent a few weeks doing work experience in my teens in a colour lab and the big machines of the day were all about getting the colour balance right. Essentially, that’s an Aperture or Lightroom job nowadays. But post processing was still a tool of the trade back then, just in a prehistoric way.

There are those ‘concept photos’ that sometimes get away with ‘looking like’ being overly adjusted – it’s a tricky subject. It all depends on what you’re aiming to achieve from the photograph, or what you’ve been asked to achieve. Posters / tour books / album covers etc – there’s more freedom than editorial because there’s often a theme behind them and a “look” that needs to be achieved. I took a shot of the mega-talented Canadian artist Lindsey Ell late last year with a fisheye, and that became a “concept” photo (with a number of people including Lindsey earmarking it as a potential album cover). It’s not a perfect photo by any means, but as it was taken with a fisheye, and its composition, rendered it atmospheric. So on that basis, I wanted to focus on the atmosphere and enhance that. Sure it’s overexposed, the facial features are hidden deep in shadows – as a straight editorial photo, it wouldn’t make the cut, but it’s one of my favourites of last year purely because I caught the right moment and it was frozen in time with the atmosphere being the soul of it.

Lindsey Ell, HMV Forum, London on 2nd December 2013. Canon EOS 1DX, Canon 15mm Fisheye, ISO 1600, 1/160, f/5.6

Lindsey Ell at the HMV Forum in London on 2nd December 2013. Shot with a Canon EOS 1DX and a Canon 15mm Fisheye lens. Settings: ISO 1600, 1/160, f/5.6

How would you describe your style? I wouldn’t really consciously pigeon-hole myself to a particular style. Better ask the people who follow my work I guess. But my thought process has definitely changed over the course of time. It was once all about the subject so I’d shoot mainly between 100-200. Then I discovered that the wider shots freeze the moment for a fan to relive the experience because there’s so much going on in the shot. That’s why in some venues; I will bring out the fisheye. What I try to do is get a good balance between subject and background. So for me, now, live concerts are about more than just the front man/artist – they’re about the entire setting – I mean the guys that put those big arena stages together and the lighting guys need to have their works shown because it’s what creates the spectacle and that’s what the fans remember.

Brad Paisley at the O2 Arena, London on 16th March 2014. Shot with a Canon EOS 1DX, Canon 15mm Fisheye, ISO1600, 1/800, f/2.8

Brad Paisley at the O2 Arena, London on 16th March 2014. Shot with a Canon EOS 1DX and a Canon 15mm Fisheye lens. Settings: ISO1600, 1/800, f/2.8

What’s in the kit bag? Loads! But I only use 3 lenses (24-70 f/2.8L II and 70-200 f/2.8L II and the 15mm fisheye). 2 bodies – the 1DX and the 5DMark III as a backup. On the odd soundboard shoot, I’d hire the 500 f/4 II.

And how do you set up for a gig? Main rule for me is Shutter priority, minimum of 1/250. ISO depends on the venue. Smaller venues are a bit trickier, but the arenas and stadiums you can often shoot at 800. But these days, 3200 is still very useable (on the 1DX). Metering-mode depends on the lighting, as does selectable AF point range. It’s a real tricky one when you’re on the 3 song rule because you just don’t have time to sit and fiddle with settings, so you set a benchmark and go from there. Position-wise, it’s something I decide in the moment. I try to learn as much about the artist I’m shooting before the shoot so I can stay a step ahead of their routine – doesn’t always work – but as an example, Dierks Bentley ALWAYS does the “pretend guitar smash” and it’s always in the same song, so I’ve come to know that and over time you get to know the best position to be in. Like I said earlier, it’s hit and miss – sometimes you win, sometimes you kick yourself. But overall, I’ll move around as much as possible.

Dierks Bentley at the O2 Arena, London on the 15th March 2014. Shot with a Canon EOS 1DX, Canon 24-70L f/2.8 II, ISO1600, 1/250, f/5.6.

Dierks Bentley at the O2 Arena, London on the 15th March 2014. Shot with a Canon EOS 1DX and a Canon 24-70L f/2.8 II lens. Settings: ISO1600, 1/250, f/5.6

And after the gig what is your usual workflow? I am a big fan of post production as I’ve already mentioned. But I’m ONLY a fan of it if you know what you’re doing. I’m lucky to have the background experience that it helps me to at least “believe” I know what I’m doing haha! Lightroom and/or Aperture are the starting points for me to get the most out of the shot. I’ll then decide if I need to move to Photoshop for more work. If I do, I treat each image as a bespoke job. Standard levels/curves and dodging and burning to bring out the different tones, colours, shadows & highlights. I’ll decide if I think it works better in black & white and then go to work on channel mixing.

Do you have a favourite live music photo that you have taken? For me there are three. The Taylor Swift hair flick at CMA Fest, the Dierks Bentley “riser” guitar shot and the P!nk silhouette taken back in 2009. Two of these are action shots and I guess the reason I love them so much is that I managed to be in the right spot at the right time and have the right settings to capture them sharp. There are loads of shots I prefer for composition and mood, but these two bring me a real sense of achievement. The P!nk shot was underexposed, but really worked well and has always been one of my favourites for the silhouetted curves of her body and the nostalgic feel to it.

Taylor Swift at CMA Fest in LP Field, Nashville on 6th June 2013. Shot with a Canon EOS 5D Mark III, Canon 70-200L f/2.8 II, ISO800, 1/320, f/4.

Taylor Swift at CMA Fest at LP Field, Nashville on 6th June 2013. Shot with a Canon EOS 5D Mark III and a Canon 70-200L f/2.8 II lens. Settings: ISO800, 1/320, f/4

What do you think makes a perfect live music photo? A photo that someone who attended the gig can look at and say “That brings back all my memories” … Better still, a photo that someone who DIDN’T attend the gig can look at and say “I missed out, but your shot makes me feel like I was there” … There’s no tangible explanation for this – it’s a vibe. I often say “there are no rules for good photographs – there are only good photographs”. Pretty much sums it up.

Which music photographers do you most admire? I think all music photographers have such a tough gig that they’re all to be admired. But two guys that I’m completely blown away by are Adam Elmakias and Todd Owyoung. Adam’s shots are exactly what I aspire to – thinking outside the box, doing something different – freezing something that is not going to be your standard image library shot. Todd is someone I owe a lot to as I started following him and reading his tips and blogs over 5 years ago. I think he’s got some very good advice and speaks no bullshit. Both these guys are world class. Also very fortunate to appreciate the work and also personally know Christie Goodwin here in the UK.

Bon Jovi at Hyde Park, London on 5th July 2013. Shot with a Canon EOS 5D Mark III and a Canon 500L  f/4 II lens. Settings: ISO400, 1/500, f/9.

Bon Jovi at Hyde Park, London on 5th July 2013. Shot with a Canon EOS 5D Mark III and a Canon 500L f/4 II lens. Settings: ISO400, 1/500, f/9

How have you seen the music industry change over the years? It’s definitely become more accessible. That’s not so much the music industry, but the social media growth especially in the past few years. Artists have become accessible for fans mainly, but it means your work as a photographer can get noticed and you can get a lucky break. I’ve had some amazing feedback from some artists and their entourages, which is actually quite surreal when you think 10 years ago how would anybody be able to be noticed by their favourite musician or pop star. It works both ways too. Social media has given unsigned talent a real opportunity at making it into the big league. Stuff like this would have been fantasy before Mr. Zuckerberg decided to stick an F on a blue background!

How do you see the music photography industry in 2014? That’s a tricky question because I’m still new to all of this. Adam or Todd may answer this better, but from hearsay, it seems there’s a lot of talk about it declining because of organisations such as publications, newspapers, agencies all wanting stuff for nothing – but more importantly – being given stuff for nothing by non-professionals – and compromising on quality. Ultimately, anyone can do what they want and everyone has their own reasons for taking photographs. I completely agree with how Caitlin Mogridge put it – “just be aware that their decisions to do this for free may affect others who do it for a living”.

Ritchie Neville of 5ive at the New Theatre, Oxford on 5th December 2013. Shot with a Canon EOS 1DX and a Canon 24-70L f/2.8 II lens. Settings: ISO1600, 1/400, f/7.1.

Ritchie Neville of 5ive at the New Theatre, Oxford on 5th December 2013. Shot with a Canon EOS 1DX and a Canon 24-70L f/2.8 II lens. Settings: ISO1600, 1/400, f/7.1

What’s your opinion on the various rules music photographers have to conform to these days – like first three songs and rights grab contracts? Well of course, I’d love to be given access to the entire performance – you tend to miss out on a lot when on assignment – some special guest brought on in the encore is usually the big one. But like everything, you do what you’ve been given access to. If I were a tour photographer (hint hint!) then things would be different obviously. I have no problem with the 1, 2 or 3 song rule – I understand the reasons behind it. I also quite happily accept the last minute changes from 3 to 1 if so. Remember, I’ve only been doing it a year, so I’m not hardened to it or bitter about treatment. I doubt I really ever will be because for me first and foremost, I feel so lucky to be able to combine my love of photography with my love of music. Secondly, I’m not shooting for agencies, so I have more freedom. I do have a real thing about rights grab contracts BUT I’ve not been in a position with any of my gigs that I’ve been faced with this situation, so have no idea how I’d react to it until such time as it happens

What are your top 3 tips for a beginner just starting out in gig photography?

  1. Persist
  2. Build relationships
  3. Save up for good equipment.

That’s it. Don’t compromise on quality. You may have a creative eye, which is a great start, but you need fast lenses and good sensors. An entry level SLR will hold you back. It’s not about the equipment; it’s about the photographer. But, if you’re serious and want work to sell or be useable, you need to back it up with decent equipment. Building relationships is what I’m quickly learning that this industry is all about. Be kind to other photographers – remember we’re all in it for the same cause – and don’t be arrogant. Treat others as you’d like to be treated and you can’t go wrong. And just persist. If you get a no to a pass, go off, build your portfolio on local acts in small venues, and try again. Soon your name will become known and you may get a commissioned job, which begins the chain of contacts.

And for those who are considering going pro – do you have any advice on staying ahead of the game and standing out from the crowd? That’s a really tough one to answer – because there are SO many incredible, inspiring and just raw talented photographers out there – it means there is very little that can be done because it’s probably already been done. I think to develop your own style – in anything really – is key to creating an identity, which will go a long way to help you stand out. Once you’ve developed a style, you’re developing a brand. This is what Adam Elmakias has done in my mind.

See more of Ant’s work:

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Join the discussion 4 Comments

  • Shea Deighan says:

    What a great interview. Anthony is fast becoming one of the best music photographers in the world.

    His work is amazing and he’s such a great down to earth guy. The images on display here are brilliant and just a taste of the high quality work he produces gig after gig.

  • What an excellent and in depth interview. I am Fortunate enough to know Flex personally and with his ideas and creative style I am crediting him for being the reason I picked up a camera and started shooting live music. This guy is an inspiration to everyone who wants to take their photography passion to the next level.

    • Flex says:

      Thanks Dan. Very kind of you to say and also glad I can help with people pursuing their creativity. The world would be pretty boring without creative people 🙂

  • Mike McQuerter says:

    There are a lot of great music photographers out there but I remember the day I laid eyes on Anthony’s work, I was in awe and just sat and stared at the images for a very long time and still do. I usually see a great photo from someone and I take it in for a moment and move on. With Anthony’s I sit and study it, from composition to lighting to post, I just pour over the entire image and get inspired to go out and shoot. If I had to pick one that I consider my favorite music photographer it would be Anthony, not to take away from others and even the shooters he mentioned but his shots move me.

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