Back in 2008 I was asked by a local band to create some new promotional images for their upcoming EP. Even though at that point I had zero experience shooting musicians (I was actually bouncing back and forth between glamour and baby photography, if you can imagine that), I was pretty excited for the challenge.
A few weeks prior to the shoot, I began looking around on the web for tips & advice on band photography, figuring that I'd get a head start on putting together a solid game plan, and hopefully increase my chances of knocking it out of the park for these guys-- after all, they were trusting a total newbie to help define their image and brand, which was an honor and privilege that I didn't take lightly.
Well, as you've probably already discovered for yourself, information on promotional band photography is a bit hard to find online (to put it mildly). Choose virtually any other genre and you'll find more info than you could ever consume in a lifetime. But if you narrow your focus to bands & musicians-- well, good luck.
So I basically had to "wing it". I was stressed out and sweating bullets the whole time, but somehow I made it through. Fortunately, the band was extremely gracious, and they had no problem waiting around as I struggled to find the right lighting setups, put them into reasonably decent-looking poses, and basically fumble my way through the entire shoot until I finally managed to grab a few decent frames.
But here's the thing......why did it ever have to be that way? I mean, I tried my best to do all the necessary research beforehand, taking time to get everything squared away so I wouldn't have to go into that situation feeling stressed out and unprepared. I made an honest effort to ensure that my first promo shoot would be as smooth as silk, but the Internet offered no help.
What I needed was some simple advice. Just a quick-and-easy checklist to let me know what I should expect, and help prepare me for the kinds of challenges I might encounter. What I needed was....well, this exact blog post. So, without further ado, here you go....
1 - Know the Artist
One of the best things you can do to prepare for your first promo shoot is spend some time beforehand getting to know the artist you'll be shooting. Ideally you'll have an opportunity to meet them in person, but if that's not feasible, you should utilize every other resource at your disposal to engage with them and establish rapport-- chat on the phone, fire up a Skype session or two, email them, message them on Facebook-- whatever you can do to build some kind of relationship prior to the shoot.
Also, make a point to memorize their name(s) as soon as possible. Not only does it make posing easier (you generally want to avoid addressing people by saying things like "Hey, you in the back!"), but it'll help establish a sense of familiarity that tends to put people at ease and help them to relax in front of your camera.
Lastly, block off some time to listen to the artist's music (assuming they have something available). Not only will this give you a deeper understanding of their unique musical perspective, which you can then incorporate into your creative direction for the shoot, but it will also let them know that you view them as more than just "some client". It shows that you respect what they stand for, and are willing to go the extra mile to get to know who they really are as an artist.
2 - Have Clear Goals
It's important to know ahead of time what the artist is expecting to gain from the shoot. Are they looking for a couple of solid promo shots? Something to include in a press kit? An album/EP cover? A website header? All of the above?
Each of these image types has unique characteristics that are important to bear in mind as you plan and execute the shoot. For example, if you line up a group of band members shoulder-to-shoulder for a wide horizontal shot, you'll probably end up with something that'd make for a pretty nice website header. But if the client was actually hoping to end up with an EP cover (which is usually cropped to a square shape), then you might be in trouble.
Sometimes it's possible to shoot in such a way that you end up with fairly versatile images that the client can used for a variety of different purposes (and this is recommended, since it maximizes the value they receive from shooting with you). On the other hand, it can be extremely frustrating in the post-production phase to try and force an image into a specific shape, size, or orientation that it's not optimized for. So save yourself the headaches...plan things out in advance.
For more information on this topic, including a thorough discussion on the common types of images that all bands & musicians need (as well how to go about creating them), check out my eBook Shoot for the Stars, available in the Shop:
3 - Set Appropriate Expectations
This one is simple. If you're talking to an artist about doing a promo shoot (and it's going to be your first), don't pretend like you're some mack daddy band photographer with a dozen Rolling Stone covers under your belt. Be straight-up honest with your client and let them know that you're still building your portfolio.
Not only will this set their expectations appropriately and prevent them from getting impatient with you when you hit a snag (and it'll happen...a lot), but it'll also give you an extra bit of confidence, because you'll know that you've got some leeway to take your time and figure things out. Believe me, feeling rushed and/or panicked is hugely detrimental to your chances of success at each shoot-- especially your first-- so don't set the bar too high for yourself.
4 - Maintain Constant Dialogue
This one can be a huge challenge if you're a relatively new shooter, or just a horrible multitasker (like me). However, it's super-important that you keep your subjects engaged as much as possible, because the more "dead air" you allow to creep into your shoot, the more your abilities as a photographer will be called into question.
Basically, you need to project confidence at all times, even if you have to fake it. On those occasions when random things start trying to derail your shoot (e.g. your flash won't fire, or your camera starts bugging out), stay cool and continue to engage with your client.
Sometimes you might even have to completely turn away from whatever technical challenge you're dealing with and spend a few moments just making small talk. Change the subject if you have to. The important thing is just to switch gears and give your mind a few moments to "reset". Then try coming back to whatever it was that was causing you grief.
Oftentimes it'll turn out to be just a temporary glitch and you'll be right back in business. Other times you may need to wash, rinse, and repeat. But whatever you do, avoid acting flustered. It sends a bad signal to the client, and can totally wreck the vibe of your shoot.
5 - Keep it Simple
During the planning phase for your first promotional shoot, when you're deciding which kinds of shots to go for and how you'll execute them, stick to things that you have a high probability of success with. You'll most likely already have have plenty to worry about once the shutter starts clicking, so don't go complicating things by trying to create the most face-melting promo shot in history.
Your goal is to get through the shoot and deliver a professional-looking set of promo images to your client. Period. And assuming you've been completely forthcoming about your experience level (as I advised above), then your client probably isn't going to expect anything truly earth-shattering.
So don't make things unnecessarily difficult on yourself. Stick to what you know. The fancy stuff will come later, once you've got a few promo shoots under your belt.
6 - Keep a Positive Attitude
If you're brand new to the music industry, it probably won't take you very long to realize that it's basically one big, connected family. Everyone kinda knows everyone else, and even the biggest stars are usually only a degree or two of separation away from the lesser-known artists.
What this essentially means is that you should treat every single artist you work with like they're a bona fide megastar. There are two main reasons for this. The first (which is the purely selfish one) is that you never know who an artist might be connected to 2 or 3 levels deep, so if you're rude and/or treat them with disrespect, you might be screwing yourself out of an opportunity to work with an A-lister at some point down the road.
But the bigger reason to treat everyone like megastars is simply the fact that, just like you, they're artists. They go out there every day, pounding the pavement and trying to make a name for themselves so their dreams can someday become a reality. Like you, they create art, and they want that art to be respected, appreciated, and admired. They have the same fears of rejection that you do, the same desire for approval, and the same need to be treated with kindness and dignity.
I could go on for days about the similarities between musicians and photographers, but at the end of the day, what's important is that you always maintain a positive attitude and treat each of your clients like family. Do this consistently, and it won't take long at all for word to get around about you and your work.
Remember, everyone is connected in the music industry, either directly or indirectly. Word gets around very quickly....a bad reputation even quicker. So always bring your "A" game, check your ego at the door, and just have fun with it! After all, as the saying goes, you never forget your first time!
So....if you've got your first promo shoot coming up, and this post helped you at all, please sound off with a comment below. If I'm able to help just one person have a less stressful first experience than I did, I'll be happpier than a camel on Wednesday. 🙂