Q&A with live music photographer Jason Miller

From rank amateur to acclaimed pro in just four years, Jason Miller has combined his love of music and photography with impressive results. Having notched up over 500 gigs and festivals, we thought it was time we found out Jason’s secrets…

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Why live music?
Having grown up playing in a hair metal band and working in the music industry for more than a decade, I’ve always loved music and going to concerts. When I quit the music business, I wanted to stay connected to the industry, so I started writing a music blog. This led to my first photo pass and concert shoot. It’s all about the music for me and every show I shoot is my opportunity to showcase an artist to the world through my unique perspective.

Describe your first live music photos?
I was writing concert reviews for a weekly newspaper and got offered to cover Mötley Crüe (an all-time favorite band of mine). I’d never picked up a DSLR in my entire life, but that day I went out and bought a Nikon D3200. I stayed up all night learning how to shoot with this camera by giving myself a crash course. On the day of the show, my shots were awful. After that experience, I vowed to master concert photography.

How did you improve?
I’m completely self-taught. While Nikon cameras are easy to use as they cater for all levels, I learned a tremendous amount from the Nikon tutorials, as well as expert tips and tricks and also from following Jared Polan. Immersing yourself in photographic communities is a great way to learn very quickly, as you can share your experiences with one another. Beyond that, I practiced with the DSLR every chance I got and did a tremendous amount of experimentation and research until I felt comfortable shooting in manual.

What are you trying to capture and what makes a good gig photo?
The general rule for concert photographers is that you’re allowed to shoot the artist for the first three songs, but only without flash. A DSLR is particularly beneficial in these low-light circumstances, offering the combination of a higher ISO, larger aperture and slower shutter speed to let more light in. My D810 is great for this. The first thing I try to do is capture a story within those three songs, along with the energy of the crowd and the general atmosphere. I’m looking to do two things - capture the moment for the crowd to relive later, and share the experience for those who couldn’t make it. I’m more focused on capturing that one standout image.

How many gigs/concerts/festivals have you photographed?
I’ve probably shot around 500 gigs and concerts since I began in 2012. I’ve also done quite a few festivals, but I really like the smaller theater and club shows.

What have been the highlights?
The highlights have been many, including Guns N' Roses in Vegas, Roger Waters at AT&T Park, AC/DC twice in one year, Kiss, Sam Smith kicking off his first US tour in Boston, Metallica on Super Bowl eve, and my all-time favourite band The Cult multiple times. I could go on forever - I have so many great moments.

Any lowlights? Broken cameras, beer showers, stage divers etc…
I had a crowd surfer fall on my head while shooting Taking Back Sunday. Another time, the singer of Yak reached off the stage and hit my DSLR with the head of his guitar. I also got covered in fake blood and God knows what else while shooting GWAR. Beer, spit, water, vodka, whiskey, sweat; you name it, it’s been on my camera and me more than once.

What are the challenges of live music photography?
The challenges are many - unpredictable lights, unpredictable movements, little to no light, shooting in a crowded photo pit (or no pit at all), stage divers, artists who don’t particularly like photographers, and having the right gear in place with the right settings for the right show. You often need to be able to capture those split-second moments, with harsh lighting. These perfect moments are so fleeting that you need reliable equipment, like the D810, so you’re prepared to capture them when they present themselves. 

What skills (photographic or otherwise) does a live music photographer need?
I think the most important skill is being able to shoot effectively in full manual. The only thing that I set to auto is the AF, since it’s virtually impossible to focus manually on a singer or guitar player flying through the air doing an epic leg kick. DSLRs have lots of AF points, so utilise these and press the shutter halfway to find your desired focus. It’s also essential to anticipate the lights that are constantly changing while focusing on composition.

Has being a marketing manager helped your photography in any way?
Absolutely. The fact that I can capture the visuals, write the story, market the content and optimise it to be found on the web, gives me an edge. In addition, being a photographer on a marketing team can be incredibly helpful for content creation. I use my DSLR at work almost daily to capture team photos, stock photography alternatives, video interviews, product shots etc. It adds an entirely new level of originality and unleashes the constraints on creativity that would be in place if I had to rely on others to interpret my vision. I think being an expert in only one thing in today’s professional world is limiting for anyone.

What advice would you give you to a budding live music photographer?
Find a DLSR that you love and get a couple of starter lenses (Nikon’s 50mm f/1.8G lens is a beauty, and a kit zoom lens is fine for starters). Then get out of auto immediately. Take a class on composition and lighting then go and experiment. I would also advise making friends with some local bands and go and practice shooting them - just remember the ‘no flash’ rule unless you have permission in the location you’re shooting. Once you get the hang of things, then I recommend finding a music publication or blog to shoot for so you can request your first photo pass and take the next step.

Jason Miller is a marketer and global content marketing leader at LinkedIn by day, and a rock ‘n’ roll photographer by night. Check out his blog here.