Matthias, many thanks for agreeing to have a catch up chat with us Thanks, it’s always a pleasure to be a guest on your website.
You started your project “How To Become A Rockstar Photographer” to help people improve their concert photography. We have collaborated with some webinars and interviews in the past. How is the project going since we last spoke?
It has been an incredible year for me. “How To Become a Rockstar Photographer” spread to a worldwide audience of more than 100 countries! I have over 3000 newsletter subscribers and my blog gets about 15,000 page views per month. Every day I get emails from people thanking me how my project has helped them to do the things that they love the most – becoming a concert photographer.
In January 2016 I launched “Shooting The Rockstars”, the first online academy for concert photography. It’s a five-week video course where I teach everything I’ve learnt about being a music photographer – from getting started to marketing yourself and general business skills. It took me six months to create and the first students have successfully completed the class.
Tell us about your recent success with the HIGHLIGHTS exhibition. In April I flew to Buenos Aires to open one of the biggest music photography exhibitions of this year: ‘Highlights’. I teamed up with Matias Altbach form Argentina and we wanted to bring together international concert photographers to celebrate the coolest job in the world: being a music photographer. It took us several months, tears and sweat to make it happen and I am really proud about how this project turned out. We invited Dana Distortion (USA), Javier Bragado (Spain) and Dean Chalkley (UK) and we were ready to rock. The exhibition took place in one if the most famous art galleries in Buenos Aires, the Centro Cultural Borges. For me it was like a dream come true. Flying 11 000km from Vienna to Argentina to see my photos hanging on the wall next to all those great photographers was just crazy. At the opening were 3 TV stations and I gave my first TV interview. We did a 2 hours Q&A session in front of 150 people and answered all their questions. We all had an awesome time. The best part was that we are all willing to share our experience and knowledge about the music photography industry. We are in the same boat and therefore if we want to change the industry we have to do this together.
Is it your first exhibition of this size? I’ve already had two music exhibitions in Vienna, but HIGHLIGHTS is on a totally different level. Matias and I are the curators of the exhibition and we’ll choose the photos that we want to show. The process was similar to a portfolio review. We choose the pictures that resonate the most with the audience. For us it’s important that the viewer gets the same feeling as if he or she was at the show next to us. We are looking for those goosebumps moments in our photos.
From your experience of putting the exhibition together, can you see a place for a music photographers collective, like Magnum? Do you think that a group of well-known / trusted music photographers could work together as a co-operative to offer their services to bands / press etc? It would be like an agency for music photographers, run by music photographers. I think this would a great idea and honestly I hadn’t thought about it until now. There are some people, such as Danny North, who are doing this already for festivals. I might not be the one to start this project, but I would be happy to participate if one is established.
What else have you been up to since we last spoke? I also teamed up with one of the leaders in ear protection in Austria. I know a lot of music photographers who have an ear damage, because they thought it’s not cool to use ear protection. We, as concert photographers, are standing next to the speakers in the photo pit and therefore I highly suggest that everyone should use them. The cheap disposal foamies are better than nothing. The disadvantage is that you won’t hear your colleagues if they are talking to you nor will the music sounds great from the stage. I prefer to use earplugs with special filters attached. These filters will cut out frequencies that can damage your hearing, but will let you hear everything else. This means you can talk to your friends and also enjoy a good sound from the band in the photopit. I recently teamed up with the Austrian company Earwear. They are specialized in ear protection and I’ll get branded custom moulded ones soon. I will also have the ability to sell both normal and custom made branded Rockstar earplugs. I’ll also start a campaign “Plugin and Shoot” to make people aware of the fact that earplugs are protecting you from hearing damage. You don’t want to be deaf after some years taking photos from the photo pit.
Both you and especially Adam Elmakias have built a strong public following through your branding and marketing. Do you think that nowadays this is as important to success as taking great photos? Being able to take great shots is not enough any more. As a concert photographer you have to be passionate about your job, you have to learn how to network and how to market yourself. I went from being a molecular biologist to becoming a professional photographer, an internet entrepreneur and a marketing whizz. For me, being a music photographer is the most exciting job and I have probably learnt more in the last two years than in the rest of my life.
Teaching is one way of building a following of fans, and this is exactly what Adam and I are doing with our brands. For me it’s the most natural thing to help other colleagues with their struggles, because I also started from scratch and I know exactly how frustrating it can be, especially when you’re beginning.
Because it’s not enough to only take great photos these days, you also have to be an entrepreneur and you have to work on your personal brand. You have to become a networker.
You can have the best concert photos sitting on your hard drives, but if nobody sees them, you will never be successful. One piece of advice: talk to people. You never know who the guy next to you knows.
For most gig photographers, getting in the pit is not such a problem, especially at small venues – but for those with ambitions to actually make some money, how do you get access beyond three songs? I can only talk from my experience, but there are not many ways as a concert photographer to get access beyond the three songs rule. If you want to shoot in a bigger venue you always have the restriction that you have to leave the pit after three songs. This also depends on the band’s management. When I was shooting Leonard Cohen we had to leave after the first song. Luckily it was nine minutes long. You’re usually not allowed to shoot the concert from the crowd with your “professional” camera equipment and venue security will guide you outside the venue to make sure you are not taking any more photos.
Having said that, the only way to shoot the complete concert is working directly with the bands. Because of the three songs restriction I started to work with bands such as Iggy Pop, The Prodigy, Calexico, Fink, Fatboy Slim, Vintage Trouble, Shantel and many more. This allows me to capture moments during a concert that are otherwise impossible to get from the photo pit. It’s clear that working with bands is the hardest route to take. Thousands of photographers want to work with a relatively small number of bands.
From my experience, making money is not connected to getting access beyond the three-songs rule. You might make some money if you’re shooting for a big magazine, but you have to obey the restrictions, whereas you can tour with a band and get not paid at all.
I always tell my followers this: Become a concert photographer because it’s your passion and you love what you do. Don’t become a music photographer because of the money, otherwise you’ll soon get frustrated.
When a band is on tour, getting portrait shots is usually limited to the venue. What tips do you have for, firstly, getting access to shoot portraits and, secondly, make them more interesting than just people against a wall? Shooting portraits of musicians can be the most challenging task for a photographer. Let me tell you a short story of my last portrait session. I was working with The Prodigy in Vienna, waiting in the backstage area for more information regarding the shooting. A couple of minutes later their tour manager told me to follow him. At the time I had my 80-200mm f/2.8 lens on my Nikon D800. We arrived at Liam Howlett’s dressing room. The whole crew of Public Enemy were in front of the door. Seconds later Liam and Chuck D were standing in front of my camera and wanted to get a portrait. I took two photos and off they went. In this situation you can’t go back to your camera bag and put on your flash or mount another lens that might better suit the situation. You have to deal with what you have.
In general, when I have the opportunity to shoot portraits I get in contact with the band’s management beforehand. If you shoot for a magazine then you might also get the chance, but often the bands are very limited with their time. I would say a normal band portrait, shooting backstage, is about two to five minutes. Sometimes you are lucky and have more time. Sometimes you get two photos like it was for The Prodigy.
Not only do you have the time pressure, but you are also limited with your locations. You can’t have bands posing for you outside the venue when thousands of fans are waiting there. You have to work with what you’ve got – and this is the backstage area. Depending on the area, you have to think really quickly and decide where you want to take your photos. Set everything up beforehand, so that the band don’t have to wait for you to be ready. I always try to tell a story with my photos. If you don’t find a good spot, you can also use a backdrop or curtain.
I normally use an Elinchrom Quadra, which is a portable battery flash system with light modifiers such as an umbrella or a soft box. If you’re just starting out I would suggest using available light so you don’t have to think about all the technical details of using off-camera flash.
You have been on tour with several bands. How does one become a tour photographer Yes, I have been on a world tour with the German Balkan band Shantel and joined bands such as Peter Gabriel, Elvis Costello and Fink for a couple of days during their tour in Austria. I am also joining one of my favourite Swedish punk metal bands Atlas Losing Grip on their German tour in February and March.
Becoming so close to a band and touring with them is only possible if they trust you. They have no control over what you’re going to do with your photos and therefore no one will just take a stranger on their tour bus.
I already had long-term relationships with the bands I went on tour with. For example, with Shantel it took three concerts and two portrait shoots over a three-year period before I flew to Mexico to join him on tour.
For me, as a photographer, touring with a band is a master-class in concert photography. You don’t have any restrictions on what you’re allowed to photograph, but it’s also so much more. You get to know each other and you become a family. So it’s not only about getting great shots, but also about friendship. I am still in contact with Shantel and meet him at least twice a year.
What are the highs and lows of what many would see as a dream job? Is being a tour photographer one of the few ways left for a music photographer to get paid? Being a tour photographer also allows you to have a look behind the curtain of rock stardom. Being a musician on the road is a hard job. You can’t get ill and your body has to function on stage every night. I know of bands that tour six weeks in row, with three days off in between. That is 39 days playing the same set every night.
I think being a tour photographer is one way to earn (at least) some money as music photographer, but only with the famous bands. Smaller bands drive their own minivans from venue to venue, so there are no big Nightliners or private jets involved. They fight for their existence as a band and therefore aren’t able to spend a lot of money on a photographer. If you choose to do it, at least make sure that they cover your travel expanses.
You are from Vienna, which doesn’t really have a reputation for being one of the world’s rock capitals. Does the city you are based in make a difference to how easy it is to get noticed or hired? Vienna is a great city to live in and almost all bands make a tour stop here. On the other hand, there are no big music media outlets such as Rolling Stone or NME. I started working for small online magazines and shoot now for VICE/NOISEY. Because of these limitations I started to find other ways how to get access and one way is to work with bands directly. I don’t think it really matters where you are based nowadays since everything and everyone is accessible via internet. I was invited to shoot for Instagram Paris, and they found me through my Instagram profile.
What gear do you take with you on the road? And is there anything non-photographic you couldn’t tour without (apart from the obvious clothing, etc essentials)? I use a Nikon D700 and D800. Both are great cameras for low-light concert photography. Furthermore, I use Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8, 80-200mm f/2.8, 85mm f/1.4 and a Samyang 14mm f/2.8. In addition, I have my Fuji XT-1 with a 23mm f1.4 for candid shots. For my next tour I’ll bring my GoPro Hero3, since I was sponsored by them and want to experiment with video as well. As for non-photographic items, I always take my Kindle ebook reader and my MacBook Pro with me.
With bands seemingly putting more and more restrictions on photographers, can you see more bands hiring their own tour photographers to supply images they can control to the media? If so, is this a positive result for photographers? I think the situation for music photographers is getting harder and harder. We all know the problem with signing rights-grabbing contracts and the recent Pat Pope / Garbage and Justin Sheldon / Taylor Swift fights.
For me it seems that the music industry sees concert photographers as more of a hassle than a partner to work with. In my opinion it should be a win/win situation for both the band and the photographer. The fact is that photographers get more restrictions and less financial compensation. For example, I turned down a concert shoot of Rihanna because the management told the photographers a couple of hours before the show that we would have to shoot from 30 metres away, at the back of the concert hall.
I don’t own a $10,000 300mm or 400mm lens and there wasn’t enough time to rent one. If a fan in the first row can take better photos of Rihanna with a compact camera than professional photographers at the back of the venue can, then something is clearly wrong.
I also understand the point of view of the artist and management. They want to control photos that get published. This also limits the possibility to shoot the famous bands because most likely, only staff photographers from big print media are allowed. It happened to me several times at festivals where 50 photographers were allowed to shoot the whole day, but only ten were allowed for the headliners.
There are also artists, like Danzig who prohibit taking photos, even with cell phones from the audience. I get it, not every artist wants to be photographed and that it’s better if they just have a general restriction, but placing us 20-30 metres away from the stage doesn’t make sense.
From this point of view, I also understand why bands hire their own tour photographer. As I mentioned before, you’ll also get more variety in the photos compared to just shooting from the pit. Nobody else can get these shots.
Thanks very much Matthias for your time and contributing your photos.
You can find out more about Matthias by the following links:
- Website: www.howtobecomearockstarphotographer.com
- Twitter: @MatHombauer
- Instagram: instagram.com/matthiashombauer
- Facebook: facebook.com/MatthiasHombauerPhotography
- Flickr: flickr.com/photos/matthiashombauer
- 500px: 500px.com/MatthiasHombauer
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