You’re never too young to be a gig photographer

IMG_2075Hi Conor, thanks for agreeing to be interviewed for our website. For those who aren’t aware of you or your work, can you give us a brief run-down of how you started in gig photography to where you are now. Hey, thank you for reaching out to me. I appreciate it. I kind of fell into photography as a whole by accident. I’d always enjoyed taking photos but it wasn’t until my mid teens when I really discovered it. There was a concert that I really wanted to go and see when I was 16 but it was sold out. One of my favorite bands, The Subways, were playing in Manchester and I couldn’t get a ticket anywhere. Having always been at gigs and seeing photographers at the front I decided to, out of the blue, email the band and their management asking if I could get a photo pass for the gig. I put it out there to them that I had never photographed a band before but would really love the opportunity to try it. Amazingly the band replied and told me who to contact. After a few emails back and forth I ended up getting a photo pass for the gig!

How old are you? Honestly. Haha honestly I’m 22. I’ll be 23 next January! Most people think I’m older when I meet them, I guess I seem older? I don’t know.

What would you say are the most significant moments in your music photography career to date? There have been several significant moments for me personally, but I guess the biggest and my most known to others is when I was hired by Kanye West and Kim Kardashian to be their wedding photographer this year. That was a big one for me. My work literally went everywhere. One of the photos became (and still is to this date) the most liked photo ever on Instagram. I seriously couldn’t escape the photos for months, every time I went online or looked through newspapers / magazines it was there staring at me no matter what country I was in. It was pretty much everywhere. I still see it all the time now. It’s very surreal. So yeah, that’s definitely up there for me. It was a good call to get!

Kanye West and Kim Kardashian by Conor McDonnell (the most viewed photo on Instagram, to date) © Conor McDonnell

Kanye West and Kim Kardashian by Conor McDonnell (the most viewed photo on Instagram, to date) © Conor McDonnell

© Conor McDonnell

© Conor McDonnell

Another big moment for me happened quite recently, this one is more personal. I recently got to hang out with my idol Dave Grohl and the Foo Fighters (My favorite band) at one of their London shows. Dave asked me to shoot the show for the band personally. That was a massive thing for me. Having admired them for as long as I can remember to end up working for them was huge for me.

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© Conor McDonnell

You are the current tour photographer for Rita Ora and Ellie Goulding. How did landing those gigs come about? I first met Rita about 3 years ago, not long after she had been signed. She had stepped in last minute to support Drake, who I was shooting in Liverpool. No one really knew who she was as she hadn’t released anything at the time. But I looked her up and really liked the music she had out online, even though there were only about 2/3 songs. I found out who she was managed by and got in touch with her management and asked if I could come take some photos of Rita. They said yes, but when I got to the venue Drakes people wouldn’t allow any cameras backstage so it fell through. I kept in touch with them and amazingly under a month later she was back in Liverpool on tour with DJ Fresh supporting him and promoting her first single ‘Hot Right Now’. I got back in touch and they asked if I could come down to the Liverpool date of the tour. I went, photographed the show and also filmed it, and took some portraits backstage. The photos I took backstage nearly ended up being her first album cover, instead they ended up as artwork for the album. I made a video too which Rita loved. After I had sent everything across she asked me to join her team, as she loved my work. Since then I’ve literally been everywhere with her, practically living with her for the past 3 years. Through working with Rita I’ve met loads of people, one of them being Ellie Goulding. I’ve always been a fan of Ellie and even reached out to her when I was starting out 5 years ago and photographing her live back then. Ellie had seen my work and when Rita’s first album campaign was coming to an end Ellie’s new album campaign was taking off, so she asked me to come do some work with her. I ended up on tour with her and since then I’ve been on 3 tours with her all around the world. I’ve also recently worked very closely with McBusted, which comprises McFly and Busted on their sell out arena tour. And as of next month I’m off on tour with Calvin Harris. I can’t wait!

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© Conor McDonnell

© Conor McDonnell

© Conor McDonnell

How did you find the experience of that first tour on the road? I loved it. It was great. My first experience of touring was with James Morrison, it was brilliant. My first ‘real’ tour, started on my 21st birthday. I’d been on tour prior to that, but never really ‘toured’ for weeks at a time on a tour bus like this. My first ‘proper’ experience of a long tour was with Rita. It was so awesome. On the first gig she pulled me up on stage and made everyone sing happy birthday to me! Which is something I’ll never forget and a great start to real touring. I’ve pretty much been on tour ever since!

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© Conor McDonnell

What have you learnt on the road as a music photographer, that you weren’t exposed to prior to doing tours? There’s lots I’ve learnt. Without sounding pretentious there’s lots I’ve learnt about myself and the world. Until I was in this job I hadn’t traveled that much besides the annual family holidays. No one in my family is in this industry so I’ve had no prior experience or knowledge of it and what to expect. There are lots you learn about people. Working in close quarters everyday with the same people for months at a time is something you can’t really prepare yourself for. They become an extended family and you look out for each other. I’ve been very lucky in that everyone I’ve worked with on every tour has been awesome and now some of my best friends are the people I currently tour with. I couldn’t ask for anything more. I’ve also learnt to sleep whenever I get the chance to, as I don’t know when the next opportunity will be! Hah!

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© Conor McDonnell

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© Conor McDonnell

What’s in the kit bag when you go on tour? I use 2 Canon 5D Mk3’s. 24-70 2.8. 70-200 2.8. 50mm 1.4. 15mm 2.8. Fujix100. A couple of GoPro’s. Flash gun, a bunch of cards etc etc. I also have a Canon S110, which I use just for the video when I have to be discreet about filming and a big SLR is out of the question.

Do you also shoot for magazines whilst you’re on tour or are you employed solely for the artist? No, I almost always shoot solely for the artists. I’ve never really shot for magazines if I’m honest. Although when starting out I did shoot mostly for websites such as Gigwise, the editor at the time Jason was very supportive when I was starting out. I’ve had a few shoots for music magazines a few years back for the likes of NME and others but I much prefer working with and for the artist or their management. Sometimes magazines will want to shoot the artists that I’m working with and management will get me to shoot for them instead of their own photographer but that’s not often; 99% of the time it’s solely for the artist, record label or management. I also don’t/have never syndicated my photos. I’ve never wanted to go down that road, I’ve been offered to do this lots of times but I don’t like that way, personally I think it devalues what you do as a photographer. It’s certainly been a struggle to get where I am without going down that route but I think it has definitely paid off. My career hasn’t developed overnight either which some people think when they see my age, it’s been years of hard work.

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© Conor McDonnell

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© Conor McDonnell

Do you have the same deadline pressures as working for a magazine when the artist employs you? Sometimes yes sometimes no. I very rarely get a deadline. But I tend/like to give who ever I’m working with an edit of photos from the gig by the next day if not the same night as the majority of them like to post them as soon as possible on their websites, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter etc. and sometimes after the gig they might request if I can send over a couple so asap, so I do. Also sometimes, for example, with Rita, she has her own Adidas clothing range and I’ve worked closely with her and Adidas on the project, sometimes at events for the brand they want the photos pretty much as soon as they are taken. So it totally depends on the situation really. It varies depending on who and what they are going to be used for. The majority of the time it’s normally for the next day or two.

Would you say you have a particular style? I don’t think I have a style. If I had to say, I guess you could say I get the shots that no one else gets. I tend to be the sole photographer with a free reign whenever these artists perform. Sometimes there’s the odd pap or press photographer shooting the first song or two from the photo pit or sound desk but I get to shoot the whole set with from wherever I want to.

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© Conor McDonnell

Do you have any particular routines, techniques or viewpoints that you always like to cross off – like a shot from behind the artist in front of the crowd? I always scope out viewpoints no matter where I am. I’ll spend time before the gig, normally during sound check, exploring the venue, often getting right up into places like the rigging at the very top of the venue, places I’m probably not really supposed to be. I like to plan my routes and know exactly how and where I’m going to get to before the gig starts. I like to know what’s going on at all times. I’m kind of OCD about that. I tend to over think about it really, often thinking, ‘well what if this door is locked during the gig, I need to find another way up to here’ and finding several ways also etc. Figuring it out during the gig is wasted time and opportunities. I love taking shots from behind looking out to the crowd, that’s probably my favorite, as the artists always love to see those shots.

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© Conor McDonnell

Are you a fan of post processing? What’s your typical workflow after shooting a gig? I am and I’m not. I like to try and not do much work to my photos in post both live or portrait. I like to keep it minimal. I really don’t like seeing photos where people have added so much stuff to the original photo like fake lens flares etc. I think it just looks really cheesy and so crappy and cheap. I like to keep it as real as it can get as you can’t get better than the real thing. Taking a photo is the closest you can get to the real thing so why bother adding to it. If you’re going to retouch a photo at least do it well or don’t do it at all. There are so many bad examples out there.

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© Conor McDonnell

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© Conor McDonnell

How much freedom do you have when you are doing a shoot with a band or an artist? How does the creative process between you and the artist usually work? With Rita and Ellie I can literally go where I want and do what I want. Obviously within reason and respectfully. I respect the fact that it’s their show, and that the fans have paid to come so I never want to get in the fans way or jeopardise anyone’s experience of the show, the fans come first. It’s also the same vibe with McBusted and Calvin. I have a great relationship with them all. They know how I work and I know how they work, there’s mutual respect as artists and they know I won’t take the piss. Obviously I’m not running around on the stage in the view of everyone. It’s a show and I’m not part of it. I’m just there to document it, I don’t want to get in the way but I do hide behind amps, stage props, wear stage blacks etc. The people I work with know I’m going to get shots different to everyone else so they let me have free roam, which is awesome as there’s almost always no limitations.

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© Conor McDonnell

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© Conor McDonnell

When you are on tour, how do you keep the photos fresh and new when it’s the same show and the same artist every night? Touring can get very repetitive. Specially after doing a month on the road shooting arenas. Arenas are all pretty much the same. When I feel like I’m starting to get the same shots every night I tend to focus on certain things and make themes for the night. For example one night I might decide that my theme is to focus on details; another night my theme could be emotions etc. That sort of thing. I think it’s important to mix it up otherwise after a long tour you will just end up with the same shots every single gig.

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© Conor McDonnell

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© Conor McDonnell

What’s involved on a typical day on the road? It varies from artist to artist. Normally if it’s on a tour bus, it’ll start waking up on the tour bus either in the venue or just outside. Shower, breakfast, chill a little bit. I like to go and explore whenever I can. Even if I’ve been to the place before, I go out and take personal photos, sometimes I’ll go out with the crew and have a wander and shoot, and sometimes I’ll go out with the artist and we will wander and shoot. With Ellie we go running pretty much every day wherever we are and I really enjoy that. It’s a great way to see wherever we are and escape for an hour or two. After that is normally lunch. Then soundcheck which is where I tend to go and scope out the venue for vantage points. Depending on who I’m with there’s sometimes press after and interviews. Dinner, then after there’s the concert. Shower. Back on the bus. Edit. Bed.

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© Conor McDonnell

It’s clearly a tough job and not as glamorous as all of us may think. It depends who you work with but yeah; sometimes it’s not all as glamorous as some people think. For example I’m currently sat in an airport about to get a 14 hour flight to Tokyo after being awake for nearly 48 hours. But I can’t complain at all. It’s the best job in the world. I love it so much. I get to do so many amazing things and meet so many amazing people. I get to travel the world. I really can’t complain!

What do you think makes a great live music photo? Anticipating the moment. I see so many photographers in the pit running up and down the pit following the performer, back and forth. I don’t get it. They chase things that have already happened. There’s no point chasing the past it’s gone and not coming back.

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© Conor McDonnell

IMG_2679 How do you see the music photography industry in 2014? For me, 2014 has been the best year of my career with no signs of it slowing down in 2015. So for me my experience of the photography industry in 2014 has been amazing! Some of the things that have happened for me this year have truly been out of this world and I can honestly say I never expected them to happen. So yeah, 2014 has been absolutely incredible for me.

What do you think is the key to standing out from this densely crowded industry of music photographers? For me personally, being genuine and doing it for the right reasons has worked for me. When I started it was purely for my love of music and that has never changed. I never expected it to be my job and that I could make a career out of it. I’m completely self-taught and I never thought that I’d get to where I am without studying photography or knowing no one in the industry when I started out. I still wake up and can’t believe where I am.

© Conor McDonnell

© Conor McDonnell

And how do you see the future of music photography? How different do you think the industry will be in a few years time? For me, probably a lot more video based. I’ve been doing both stills and video for the past 3 years with all the artists I work with. Video is definitely where I think it’s heading, my work is currently 50/50 photography and video. There are so many opportunities for both mediums now with the cameras that are available and with social media.

Do you have any tips for new music photographers? Enjoy yourself. Take every opportunity you can and don’t be afraid to ask. What’s the worst that could happen? Also don’t shoot JPEG. No, I don’t want to hear your arguments. Just don’t!

© Conor McDonnell

© Conor McDonnell

What advice would you give to professional music photographers just starting out in their career? Don’t be a dick. There’s already too many.

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

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