Niall, thank you for taking the time out in a busy festival season for this interview. For those students new to music photography, can you tell us about your back ground.
I’m a 17 year old music photographer from St Helens, not far from Liverpool. Being near Liverpool it makes it ideal for what I do. I started shooting Music in May 2014, a few months over a year from when I write this. Absolutely none of my family have an interest in Photography, and it has been something I’ve found on my own pretty much.
How did you become interested in photography?
I became interested in photography at a really early age just using some old camera phone I had, before eventually acquiring a DSLR at 12 that I bought from my brother. From there I would go out and photograph more or less anything, I just loved everything about the art and also my inner geek loved the technology/gear element of it too. The internet then just perpetuated the whole thing what with the infinite source of information, entertainment and people online with the same passion.
Was there much scope to do music photography within your A level studies?
Not so much within Photography, just because of the particular question or starting point that I chose for my project. But my Graphics course offered scope for it because I chose a music festival related project that photography could be a component of for the likes of mock leaflets and posters etc. In Media my coursework was a music magazine actually, so that offered good scope for music photography. Of course, I just used work I was doing anyway for it!
Did you have a “break through” moment in the music photography industry?
Not particularly no, for me it has just been a slow accumulation of both experience and contacts. If your work is improving and you meet the right people (and present yourself in the right way) eventually things start to fall into place for you when you go out there and ask. The important thing there is to ask, worst case scenario is that they say no.
You have recently shot Slaves impromptu set on the streets of Manchester for NME – how did that come about?
I woke up that morning and saw that it was happening on Twitter, so I decided to go down and naturally I wanted to shoot it because of how cool these unorganised gigs can look and also the rarity of a band of their scale doing something like this. So at this point NME weren’t in the picture (excuse the pun). I then contacted NME because I knew they would be interested in this sort of thing, who swiftly snapped them up for a price to go on an online gallery. Subsequently, I mentioned my interest in getting onboard with them, and after viewing my portfolio we were soon sorting out my contract!
Following your first NME publication, you shot at V Festival – tell us about how this happened.
V Festival came about from a contact of mine whom I had worked with at Liverpool Sound City who has just moved to SJM Concerts (very large promoter) and so he recommended me to SJM who run V Festival, from there they contacted me about covering the festival as 1 of 2 main photographers, backed up by a few other photographers. But again, this proves that contacts are king (providing you have the work to back you up).
You have achieved a lot in the last 12 months, what do you plan to achieve in the next year?
I’m hoping to get more work done for NME as the new mag launches and keep climbing the ladder within them until I’m one of their main contributors. Along side that I’m just hoping to work with bigger and bigger artists, as well as having a steady workflow of normal work with smaller artists which pays me well constantly in-between the more exiting projects.
What do you do to prepare for a gig or festival?
Well there are the obvious things such as charging things, checking you have all the things that you need; equipment, access passes etc. But there are the things such as thinking about the sort of shots you want out of the event, looking up artists online and trying to immerse myself in their style in order to tailor my photos to represent them in the right way artistically based upon their style and genre.
Your portfolio includes live shots and location portraits – what photographic skills do you think student photographers need to be successful in the music photography industry?
You need a whole host of skills:
Composition – Composition is just extremely important for the photo to look correct and/or interesting. Watching what’s in the background, framing artists with the surroundings, thinking about the placement of people (particularly with bands). Composition can make or break a photo ultimately.
Exposure – Exposure is the one that people always struggle with for Live music, because it has extremes of lighting very often, with dark venues and bright lights. So you need to be very careful on this one, editing is always required to make adjustments to the shadows and highlights I find. You need to be checking your photos aren’t too overexposed or too underexposed. You can bring back some highlights and some shadows in editing, but only to an extent. You will only learn this with practise and knowing your camera well.
Lighting – This ties in with exposure. Think about how you want the photo to look, do you want a silhouette? Do you want more mood? Do you want a more grungy look? In live music photography you need to consider lighting massively, consider where the light source is in relation to the subject and the effect that has is the simplest way to think about lighting in any photo in any area of photography. This affects the whole look of the image. Quite often I like to use a flash in smaller venues with worse lighting, this means I have control of my own lighting and can make sure the artists are lit to how I would like. Of course some venues may not allow use of flash so consider that.
Editing – Editing is a marmite thing depending on how it is done. Photographers who don’t edit aren’t very successful nowadays, it is a harsh truth for those photographers I’m afraid. A photograph as a professional, without editing is like making a cake without icing. I like to be in control of the look of an image, I have my base image from the camera that is exposed, composed/lit in the way I want, and now I will alter the colour, exposure, temperature and make other slight fixes such as sharpness and noise reduction to make it perfect. Think of it as makeup for a photograph.
What do you take in your camera bag to a festival?
– Camera: Canon 5D Mark II (soon to be 2 cameras so I can put different lenses on them for quick changing between lenses. Also for a backup should one fail).
– All lenses (you never know what may happen):
– All other such as memory cards, batteries, flash (Canon 430EX Speedlite) etc.
– Camera battery charger (Festivals are long).
– Laptop (often Festivals like you to be uploading material constantly, or right after a performance, such as my shot of Kasabian at V Festival).
– Extras such as a drink, a bit of food, some printed stuff such as site maps etc should my phone run out of charge. Basically stuff you may need to do your job and to be comfortable for hours on end at a festival.
Can you describe your workflow and software used following a gig or festival?
So, my photos get imported straight into Adobe Lightroom. I cannot recommend that programme enough for the bulk of editing you will do, it is very quick, very friendly to use and just so powerful. When you want to get the job done quickly and simply (important as a pro) this programme is the one. In there I can make all my adjustments and make my images look the way I want. Often when working with a set, I will edit one to look how I want it to look, then simply copy and paste the settings over to the rest of the set and the make micro-adjustments specific to each image. This will ensure consistency across the set which is crucial in my opinion. It means your style will be cemented across all of the images.
Organising your photos into folders helps a lot too, especially when sending photos over to clients, organisation is boring, but not nearly as frustrating as when you’re trying to hunt for 1 photo out of a set of 1000 on your computer.
Niall, again a huge thank you for taking the time out of your busy schedule for this interview!
You can view some of Niall’s work in a critique here, or catch up with him on the web at the following addresses:
Facebook – www.facebook.com/nialllea
Twitter – @NiallLeaPhoto
Website – www.nialllea.com