There are a lot more music photographers than there are music photography jobs — that’s just how it is in this corner of the industry. It’s a port of entry for many hobbyist photographers, and the result is saturation of the market. A lot of budding photographers are willing to work for free, making the gigs that are out there even tougher to get.
When most bands are composed of young people just out of (or still in) high school, is understandable that most aren’t able to pay photographers much. I used to charge local bands $100 for a band promo shoot. That felt like a fair price back then; I gained valuable experience and it was affordable for the musicians as well.
But a few years down the line when you have thousands invested in gear, $100 shoots aren’t going to cover your costs, not to mention your time. When you reach that point, you have to figure out other ways of simply financially maintaining your hobby. I want to shed light on a few opportunities that I’ve found and seen my peers succeed in, not just breaking even but actually making a living.
I’ll do my best to provide what kind of compensation you might be able to expect from some of these methods. I want to make sure I disclaim that I haven’t done all of these myself, but have friends or acquaintances who I know for a fact have found success in these opportunities.
Note: If anyone reading this has more accurate numbers for any sort of gig I list below, please share it with us in the comments below.
Starting From Scratch
Skip this section if you’re already getting photo passes and shooting shows and just looking to start making some money.
This part isn’t a moneymaking method, but it outlines the first steps that many photographers take. Most beginner concert photographers start by shooting tiny local shows, then finding a small publication to work for to start getting photo passes to shows. That’s the standard piece of advice to newbies, “find a small online publication to shoot for.” It will be unpaid, but it will help you build a portfolio and experience in shooting shows.
How do you find a publication? Search around. There are hundreds of people passionate about music creating small websites, web zines, and music blogs. Find small artists you like and see who they are doing interviews with, what small websites they’re posting links to on their social media pages. You’ll find one in no time.
Working for a small publication will get you access to photo passes, which allow you to bring your camera into venues and shoot concerts. The gatekeepers of photo passes are publicists. Much to the credit of publicists and artist managers in the industry, they’re patient and kind to photographers new to this world despite being inundated with requests from us. It’s a small part of what they do to benefit their artists but they’re extraordinarily respectful of us so please be sure to return the favor.
There is an entire spectrum of the “photo pass” world between shooting an artist in a small bar and shooting a superstar in an arena. But this is where nearly everyone begins, and it allows you to build up contacts in the industry and experience shooting shows.
Shooting for Larger Magazines and Publications
Larger music publications have budgets and can hire experienced photographers to shoot for them. There are multiple types of work in this genre that photographers are hired out for. Cover shoots, editorial shoots, shooting concerts and festivals, shooting behind the scenes or day-in-the-life features — these are all gigs that are hired out. Many of these publications also seek already shot images to use for their stories and send out requests for submissions.
Cover Shoot: $1,000-3,000
Editorial shoot: $200-800
Shooting a festival/concert: $150-$300/day
Shooting a BTS-type feature: $150-300/day
Licensing a photo for them to use: $100-$200
How do you start being considered for these jobs? Networking. Everyone’s introduction to this will be different, but here’s one example:
You get a photo pass to shoot a small band
They like the photos you took of them
A magazine asks said band for an image they can use of them for a feature
You get connected with the magazine’s art department
Now you have a contact at the magazine. Hopefully they like your work. Let them know you’d enjoy working together on other jobs if they’re interested. Local festival coming up that’s right in their wheelhouse? Respectfully ask if they are looking to cover said festival and let them know that it’s in your area.
I have peers who make decent money shooting for larger magazines. They are excellent studio photographers who shoot cover images for magazines very consistently. There are a handful of larger publications like this who have budgets. But these companies are having a tough time, budgets are getting smaller, and monetizing photo galleries, so this work is becoming more sparse.
Band Promos and Album Artwork
Local band promos are a cornerstone of most budding music photographer’s portfolios. Larger bands need promos too. They’ll often tap photographers they know or work with, or their label has a relationship with, to shoot these for them. Some artists, especially in hip-hop and pop also use photos of themselves as album or EP artwork.
Expect $200-$2,500 for this type of work. This is a broad range, but it depends on how many images they need delivered, how intensive and time consuming shooting the concept will be, the cost of renting a studio, props, assistants, etc… the list goes on and on.
A variety of work in the same vein is available too; behind the scenes photos at video shoots, or documenting a band in the studio for example. I will usually get this type of work from artists that I have a relationship with and have worked with in the past.
Bands often license photos from photographers to use for many purposes. Usage of photos for posters, shirts, and other merchandise is very common. Sometimes the artist will give you a portion of sales of the merch item. Having a relationship with artists and their teams often helps with these opportunities because it puts you on their radar. Expect a minimum of $100 to license a photo for one of these uses. Hope to get more, especially if it’s for a large run of shirts or posters being sold on tour.
Companies also often license photos for marketing or advertising purposes. This licensing deals will often be more lucrative than licensing to artists because of a difference in budget size. Some photographers also build long-term relationships with companies that license music, sell instruments, or other products geared towards musicians. This type of work can also net you a lot of money and help sustain you in-between tours or other work.
Most of my successful peers’ income comes from this type of work, myself included. It’s a very rewarding and challenging gig. Being able to travel with your friends and make money doing so is hard to beat.
If you start shooting small shows, you’ll inevitably create a network of publicists, managers of bands, and artists themselves.
A lot of bands feel that it’s important to have a photographer with them when on tour. Photographers can provide a ton of value to artists, I’ve covered this before if you want to read more about it. When hiring a photographer to bring on tour, most artists or their managers are looking for a few things… (1) they like your work and it fits their brand. (2) you are a person they enjoy being around or are vouched for by someone they trust. Because of this, once you get the experience of one tour, you’re “qualified” to tour with others. Especially if you’ve expanded your network and others can speak to your quality of work and back you up as a good human.
What kind of pay can you expect as a tour photographer? It depends on a lot of factors, including how much work you’re expected to do. Some photographers on small tours are also expected to sell merch. Will you be shooting just photos, or video too?
Because of this, actual rates are all over. But if it’s your first tour, with a small artist, I would recommend asking for at least $250/week. Providing accurate numbers for more experienced tour photographers is tough to do… it’s not an often discussed subject. From my personal frame of reference, $1,000-$1,500/week is not unheard of for medium to larger bands. As you gain experience and demand for you rises, your rates should quickly rise as well.
Tour photographers are often on the payroll of the artist directly, but I have also heard of situations where you are working for the label and they cut your checks. Sometimes labels will help the artist with the cost of a photographer. Many situations will be different.
Working for a Label
Some record labels have photographers and videographers as part of their creative department. They can be responsible for art direction or production of music videos, promos, and tour with the label’s artists. There aren’t many of these jobs available, and they are often filled with some of the most talented photographers and videographers in the industry.
I can’t provide an accurate estimation of how much these artists are making. I expect some are on salary, and others may be getting perpetual contract work.
Creating Music Videos
I have never created any music videos with artists, so I’ll only speak on this one in broad terms. A lot of photographers become interested in the peripheral discipline of filmmaking. Many musicians have longstanding relationships with photographers, and they feel that their artistic vision aligns with theirs.Though there’s obvious overlap, creating a music video is an entirely different skill set and knowledge base than shooting photos. It’s a ton of work, planning, and in most cases you will need different gear rather than just your photo equipment. You also need a crew, location, ability to edit, color grade, etc.
Taking all of this into consideration, music video budgets are much higher than many of the photography opportunities, but it’s not something you can just “jump into” with a basic music photography portfolio like some other methods.
Again, this is another category where I won’t give you an estimate on money; it’s an entirely different category than the rest. Sorry!
Using a combination of these methods, it’s possible to sustain yourself as a music photographer. It’s absolutely not easy, but if you’re dedicated and get a little bit lucky, you can make it financially viable long-term.
Photographers in this niche, and most others, are usually protective of their moneymaking methods, and rates are rarely shared publicly. I tried to be as specific as I could based on my personal experience. There may be people who read this who have had entirely different experiences with rates for different types of work, or opportunities to make money shooting music — I hope that you’ll leave a comment to provide us all with some more perspective.
About the author: Matty Vogel is a music photographer based out of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. You can find out more about him and his work through his website and his blog. This article was also published here.
Image credits: Header photograph by Matty Vogel