What I Wish I Knew as an Aspiring Music Photographer

From the very beginning of my photography explorations when I was in high school, I knew that one day I wanted to find a way to capture the magic that is live music. I’d often browse Pinterest and Instagram for concert photos of my favorite artists, marveling at the people behind the lens who surely could touch the stages from the pit of the venues they’d managed to find their way into. I imagined what it would be like to look up at the stage with camera in hand, free to document the electric environment around me.

During college, I’ve been lucky enough to take photos at San Diego events such as the Wonderfront Music Festival and at on-campus concerts at The Loft or the A.S. Concerts & Events’ Horizons festival. Jumping from pit to pit for performances by a wide variety of artists is a surge of adrenaline and gives me a sort of rebooted feeling every time. I love photography, I love music, and I love live events so, to me, it’s a match made in heaven. Through exploring this world of music photography, I’ve started to accumulate stories from my adventures in the pit, a major highlight of my college experience.

My main reason for writing this article is to hopefully pass along some of the guidance I wish I’d gotten when I was trying to figure out how to get started. Despite talking to a few different music/concert photographers working in the field, not one of them suggested I join a publication such as my college newspaper. I had absolutely no direction and wasn’t even aware that if I did I could be in a position to request access to the events I wanted to photograph. Obtaining press passes seemed utterly out of reach. As I came to learn, having a publication backing your name is the key to scoring press passes. 

If you’re a step ahead of me reading this article though, upon reading the previous sentence, you just realized that there could be a major barrier to entry. Much like internships, experience is required to gain experience. This can create a closed loop that makes one wonder where they can possibly squeeze in an on-ramp to get started. If you need a portfolio in order to join a publication but you need to be part of the publication in order to score press passes to build your portfolio, how are you going to do it? Of the concert photographers I’ve now met, who are part of The UCSD Guardian or not, almost none of them started in concert photography. We all started with what we had access to at the time. This could have been anything from portrait photography to street photography or sports photography. In doing so, we were able to build portfolios that earned us a spot on the staff of the publications we are now a part of, which then turned the key of opportunity to obtain press passes since we now have a publication tied to our names. In between artists at the Wonderfront Music Festival in 2019, I met someone who took another route to the pit: starting her own publication — a music magazine of her own. So even if you aren’t currently in school or at a school with a student newspaper, there’s always a way. 

While we all wait for live, in-person events to resume after COVID-19, maybe the time right now can serve as your launching pad to prepare yourself for what you hope to accomplish when opportunities such as press passes become available again. As I stare at my running list of dream artists to photograph that is taped to my bedroom wall, I can’t help but look back on my experiences, living the goals I set for myself even when they felt unrealistic because I didn’t know how to get started. I look at the work of music photographers like Alfredo Flores, a staple of Ariana Grande’s team, Jermey Cowart, who is responsible for many iconic album covers, and B+ (aka Brian Cross), professor in the UCSD Visual Arts department and my faculty advisor, and I can’t help but feel a surge of inspiration to keep taking photos in the environments that encapsulate the exhilarating nature of live music.

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