Photo Shoot Essentials for Musicians

Posted by Pamela Ricci on Mar 4, 2015 08:00 AM

Steve-Aoki-by-Jim-DonnellySteve Aoki. (Photo by Jim Donnelly)

This article originally appeared on Performer Magazine.


Recently, at a panel discussion featuring several members of the Boston-area music press, a local musician asked, "What do I need to have in order for local press to cover my band?" One panelist, the editor of a weekly paper, told the crowd that they must have a photo. He said he didn't care if it was just the band standing in front of a brick wall, taken by their friend, as long as there was a photo.

His advice was dangerous, and indie artists should be cautioned against it. If you simply send any old picture to a publication, regardless of the quality, you're wasting a press opportunity. Musicians must face an obvious, if unfortunate, truth: people are visual creatures. If your band photo makes you look second-rate, that is exactly what consumers will think you are. No matter how glowing the review, some number of readers will disregard your band if you look like a bunch of amateurs. When you have an opportunity to be featured in press, it's your responsibility to take advantage of that opportunity by putting your best foot forward. Using a poor-quality photo that doesn't represent the spirit of your band is not making the most of the press you're receiving.

As photographer Hayley Young of Hayley Young Photography in Seattle, WA, puts it, "Photographs, if successfully executed, have the power to engage your fans (and those who may become fans) beyond the listening experience." The right photo can spark a reader's interest to learn more about you and your music.

There's a lot that goes into a great press photo. First, you need to make some decisions about who you are as an artist, and make sure that your photos convey that message. Start by defining your band (brand) with a good biography. This is the first step to understanding the tone and attributes that you want people to walk away with after seeing or hearing you. Work with a publicist to craft a biography that not only tells your story, but also leaves the reader with the right feeling. For example, if you're defining yourself as the girl-next-door with a lot more sass, your bio should have that same vibe, and it should paint that portrait of you for the reader.

Find the right photographer

Once you have a great bio and have defined your image, start thinking about how a photograph can convey that message. Choosing the right photographer is the most important factor in the success of your photo shoot. Photographers have their own styles, and are artists in their own right. Make sure you select a photographer whose photographic style complements your goals. Keep in mind that the person behind the lens has as much control as you do in the success of the shoot. Young suggests that artists look for more than just a good-quality camera: "Successful images come from photographers that have both a solid grasp of their photographic style and the skill to execute that style consistently. There are thousands of people with cameras. Your neighbor's digital camera will not produce the same quality image as an experienced professional."

Make sure the photographer you choose understands the image that you want the photos to convey. Give the photographer a copy of your bio beforehand, and send him or her examples of photos where you like the lighting, angles, and poses. It's also helpful to let the photographer know what the photos will be used for, so that he or she can frame the shots in a suitable manner. Photographer Brittany Marshall of BRM Imaging in Seattle, WA, offers this advice: "Know beforehand what you are going to use the photos for, and tell the photographer so they know how to compose your shots. For example, if you are taking a photo for a CD cover and need room for copy, tell the photographer what your layout will look like so they can take the photo correctly."

Likewise, if you hope to score a magazine cover, remember that vertical shots are essential. Generally speaking, studio photos are usually the best option for press shots. It's extremely important that there are no issues with shadows or glaring sunlight in your photos. You should be the absolute focus, and the studio setting allows for the most controlled and flattering lighting environment.

Finding a studio photographer can be tricky, especially in suburban or rural areas, so one suggestion is to look into modeling studios. It might be a surprising concept, but a modeling studio knows how to make you look good, and that is what you want. Try to avoid photographers that spend most of their time shooting high school portraits, as it's easy to end up with something that looks more like a Sears family portrait than a musician's headshot. Brittany Marshall suggests meeting the photographer beforehand to determine his or her passion for the project. "It's never good to set up an important shoot with a photographer who has either lost their passion, or is so busy that they crank out photo sessions like a production line. They won’t be giving you 100 percent, and it won't be a good experience."

If you choose to shoot on location, make sure to select a photographer who is capable of working with the lighting available. According to photographer Danin Drahos of Ocean Springs, MS, "Lighting can drastically affect the outcome of the photo, but a knowledgeable photographer should be able to conduct the shoot in a manner that uses the lighting to his or her benefit. I tend to work in the early mornings or late afternoons to achieve a soft natural light that can be mixed with my studio lights."

Motherfeather-by-Shervin-LainezMotherfeather. (Photo by Shervin Lainez)

Understanding copyrights

Another important factor when choosing a photographer is understanding how he or she handles the copyrights to your photos. Photographers vary on approaches to copyright, with some requiring that you purchase the copyrights outright if you want to use them without permission, some allowing you to purchase individual per-use licenses while he or she retains the copyrights, and others treating it as a work-for-hire situation where you retain all copyrights. It's extremely important that you understand what rights you will have to the photos before you finalize your decision.

Hayley Young, Brittany Marshall, and Danin Drahos all suggest that you get agreements in writing before the shoot to avoid any future confusion. The most beneficial arrangement for artists is to enter into a work-for-hire agreement with the photographer. This allows the artist complete control over the use of photographs and eliminates red tape and hurdles for publications trying to clear photos for print. If a magazine has to wait for the photographer to give permission to use your photos, it's just one more step that can hold up the process, especially if the photographer is also requesting additional payments from the publication for use of your press shots.

A work-for-hire agreement makes things easier on all fronts and allows the publication to run with your photos quickly and worry-free. Be aware that as artists themselves, some photographers may not be comfortable with this arrangement. If you aren't able to secure complete copyright ownership over your photos, you should at least work out a written agreement with the photographer stating that you are free to distribute the photos to press at will and upon request. Most professional photographers understand the purpose of press shots, so this request is typically not an issue. Do be sure to always provide photo credits to press outlets, no matter what arrangement you have agreed upon.

Wardrobe and makeup considerations

When choosing what to wear for the shoot, remember that details matter: think about clothing, hairstyles, accessories, and props. Work with a stylist to be sure that you are conveying the image that you want in your photos. Keep in mind that your clothing and accessories need to translate well on camera. Drahos advises, "Unless pertinent to the idea or theme of the photo, I always suggest that the musician should avoid wearing distracting clothing patterns or too many accessories."

Your stylist should understand how to choose wardrobe for photos, while being able to capture the right look for your image. Give the stylist a copy of your bio, and work together to find pieces of clothing and accessories that fit that image. Have at least two looks for your photo shoot, and start preparing for your photo shoot about a month in advance. Make sure to pay attention to the little things – get a manicure (ladies), make sure you step up your skin care routine (if possible, get a facial from a professional aesthetician), and most importantly, drink a lot of water, and get enough sleep during the weeks leading up to your shoot.

Another recommendation, even though you may feel ridiculous doing it, is to practice posing. Pose in front of a mirror and get a feeling for the way your face feels when it is in a flattering position. Get to know what poses look good on your body. Do a full dress rehearsal for all your looks, making sure that everything (including hair and makeup) goes together the way you want it to. All these elements make a difference in the overall picture. The more prepared you are when you arrive for your shoot, the more usable pictures you're going to get from it.

Even for male artists, it's important to make sure that you're well-groomed and put together. Don't disregard the importance of good hygiene, regardless of gender. You (typically) want to look clean and well-groomed in your press photos. You may want to preserve the indie rock vibe of your band, but that doesn't mean looking dirty and unkempt. For example, look at photos of Zach Galifianakis – his beard is trimmed, his hair may be long and is often purposely disorderly, but it's not matted, frizzy, or greasy, and his eyebrows are trimmed and brushed (yes, that matters). These are factors that make the difference between looking like an indie rocker and looking like a homeless person. Rock 'n' roll should look sexy, not smelly. Make the extra effort and it will pay off in the photos.

Sending to press outlets

When you're ready to begin sending your photos to press, keep in mind that you want to send the image in a manner that will display well, whether that be for print or online. You should always send high-resolution (hi-res) images for print publications. A hi-res photo means more than just 300 dpi (dots per inch) – resolution refers to how many pixels the image contains and is actually a better gauge for potential print quality than dpi. For example, a 600 pixel by 600 pixel image at 300 dpi will print at two inches by two inches – this is hardly big enough for the average press use, even though your image editing software is correct in telling you that it's 300 dpi.

For general online and print usage, best practice is to send images that print to four inches by six inches, which is at least 1200 by 1800 pixels. For a print feature or cover, get the image specs from the publication's art director or editor beforehand to ensure that you're sending an appropriate file. Generally, you'll need something larger than eight inches by 10 inches, which would be at least 2400 by 3000 pixels in vertical orientation. And finally, JPEGs are fine for the web, but be prepared with uncompressed TIFF files for print. They'll typically print sharper, especially at larger sizes, than a compressed JPEG. Also, please don't send horizontal images as cover options. Make sure you have vertical shots available.

Remember – every press opportunity is a chance to reach new fans, so use your photos to make the most of it.

Here are some common mistakes you can avoid:

  • wearing uncomfortable clothing (if you are completely uncomfortable in your outfit, it'll show in your photos and they'll be awkward)
  • being on a tight schedule (make sure you have set aside the entire day for your shoot and that you don't have to stress about finishing at a certain time)
  • shooting in extreme sun
  • shooting in rough terrain without appropriate walking shoes to move around the location
  • wearing distracting clothing patterns or too many accessories


Pamela Ricci is an artist manager and consumer marketing manager in the Boston area.

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Topics: photos, Music Business 101, Marketing & Promotion


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