How to be a live music and portrait photographer, with Oscar Blair

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Always wanted to be a music photographer, but don’t know where to start? We got Oscar’s insider tips to help you break into the industry. 

Oscar Blair (he/him) is 17 and currently studying for his A-Levels (History, Geography and Photography) in Hertfordshire. He’s also a proficient photographer and spends his evenings and weekends shooting live music, portraiture and taking pictures for the Youth Climate Activism movement. We chatted with him to find out more about how he got into photography and got his advice on helping you do the same! 

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Low Life Network, October 2020 by Oscar Blair 

What made you want to become a photographer in the first place?

I think it was just a natural interest. I went from taking photos on holidays with my mum's phone to using my dad's old DSLR camera to getting my own camera.

And why specifically was it music photography that interests you?

It doesn’t interest me more than any other form of portraiture - I would consider myself more of a documentary photographer than a music photographer. In a way, I suppose I document the musicians and this is something I’m conscious of - I keep an eye out for little things they do, (their mannerisms) and then I try to get them to do it again. 

What kind of music do you enjoy?

It’s really cliche, but I enjoy all music. I think everything that’s ever been made has an appeal, but only in certain circumstances. I tend to listen to more indie stuff, but I would say my favourite artist at the moment is Declan Mckenna. 

How did you first start shooting gigs?

I’ve only ever shot three gigs because when I started photographing musicians in June of 2020, there were no gigs due to covid. The first gig I shot was Declan Mckenna for Climate Live, in April 2021. I got into that because I have many of my documentary (and indeed photography) roots in the Youth Climate Activism movement, and I was asked to do that because they knew me and knew my type of work. 

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Declan McKenna, April 2021 by Oscar Blair 

What inspires you aesthetically in photography?

The environment around the subject. When I shoot with people, I generally meet them at their house and then walk around their area. I look firstly for good light, and then good colours. What interests me most are ‘unfinished’ photos that bring questions to the viewer. I think what I love most though are photos that can truly be called timeless. 

How do you prepare for a shoot?

I always listen to the artists’ music. It’s such a great icebreaker, and it allows me to think of questions. A lot of artists, despite regularly performing in front of thousands, find it hard to be natural around new people and this is something I want to get into. Apart from that, I make sure my SD card is formatted and that my batteries are charged. 

How do you relax your subject when shooting?

I have two questions that I repeat to every musician I photograph. These are 

  • How did you get into music? 
  • What do you have out next? 

This lets the musician talk about what they love most, music. It also allows for follow up questions, such as how they changed from playing piano (for instance) to singing. They’re great conversation starters, and they can be dragged out to last for an entire shoot. 

What’s your post process like in terms of editing and choosing shots? 

The first thing I do when I get back is import the photos, back up the photos and then I go through the ‘develop’ tab in Lightroom. I’ll know of some that I love from taking them, and then I’ll go back to them and rate them as 1 star. I’ll then go back, chronologically, and go through and find others that are workable. I then edit these photos that have jumped out at me most, using presets that I’ve tuned over my 3 years of taking photos. I generally have a 10% rate of photos that I like from a shoot, and then I’ll narrow these down to a few I love to put on my portfolio. 

How do you balance pursuing photography with your work/studies?

It doesn’t really take up that much time. It’d be a great month to have 3 shoots at weekends, and then I edit after school. What’s worse is to have to say no to great opportunities because of school, for instance recently I had to turn down photographing a national tour because it would make me miss loads of school. 

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Second Thoughts, October 2021 by Oscar Blair  

What advice would you give to someone wanting to start doing music photography?

I got into music photography in a very unconventional way. I went from taking portraits of the artists to shooting their gigs, whereas it generally goes the other way. If I were to get into it today, I’d find small artists, and then email their manager (or them) with a strong portfolio of work, and ask to shoot for their social media. Then, if they love the photos and want to use them on their money making sites (e.g. Spotify) then you can charge, but if they don’t want to use them there you still get traffic to your social media, often driving more shoots from other musicians. 

I’d also tell them to get thick skin, and to get used to rejection and no replies. 

What is the best way to gain experience?The best way to get experience is to do it. This could be practising shooting portraits with your friends, and then emailing managers, or just sneaking a camera into a gig and taking photos from the crowd. Once you’ve got a few portraits or gigs in your portfolio, go and make a PDF file to send to managers and explain what you want to do. 

Any major tips for aspiring gig photographers?

Wear ear protection - you might be an amazing photographer, but if you can’t hear later in life then you’re making a major sacrifice that isn’t worth it. Apart from that, just shoot and ask for feedback - you should also be harsh with your own work, and look at what is successful and ask yourself why it is successful. My walls are full of annotated photos, and constantly seeing what makes a good photo I think has an osmotic effect that leads to you making decisions whilst shooting. 

Can you describe how it feels to be in the pit shooting an artist that you love?

It’s incredible shooting an artist you love. My first gig has been my favourite, (Declan Mckenna for climate live) as there were about 30 of us on a boat, and I could make jokes with him and just chat with him. It was great hearing them rehearse as well. 

What has been your favourite photography moment so far?

It’s not one moment, but I love the people I’ve met through photography. I’ve met countless people that have made changing impressions on me, or even musicians who I’m friends with now after shooting with them. 

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TinyUmbrellas, August 2021 by Oscar Blair 

Oscar’s top 10 tips for working in the industry:

  • Look at other successful photography and ask yourself why it is successful?
  • Practice, practice, practice! Take pictures of friends or start reaching out to managers.
  • Find small artists and email their manager (or them) with a strong portfolio of work, and ask to shoot for their social media.
  • Try to get a thick skin, and to get used to rejection and no replies.
  • Make sure your SD card is formatted and your batteries are charged before a shoot - sounds simple but it’s fundamental.
  • If you’re photographing an artist, make sure to listen to their music first. That way you will understand them better and have something to chat to them about!
  • When you arrive at a shoot location, first look for good light, and then good colours.
  • Look at the environment around the person when taking their picture, how can you capture their personality from what is around?
  • Import and backup your photos as soon as you’re back from a shoot!
  • Wear ear protection at gigs!
  • Ask for feedback - you should also be harsh with your own work

Find more of Oscar's work on Instagram @oscarxblair

 

 

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