The Concert Photographer

The Concert Photographer

“When you are playing so loud it affects your breathing and the lights are all you can see, it’s like you are the music’s body and it’s pouring out of you.” Kan Lailey – Concert Photographer


As part of the Music Industry Insider Collection, this funny and entertaining interview gives an insight into how your favorite concerts come life and how the global music business really works. By talking with everyone involved in the music industry and by understanding what they do, who they report to, how they started out, and what their jobs are really like, we get an entirely new sense of appreciation for all the work that goes on behind the scenes during music festivals, concerts, and record release dates. If you enjoy this particular interview — please feel free to poke around when you’re done and read more about all the different crazy jobs in the music business.

Hi Kan — thank you for taking time out of your day to talk with us. So we always talk with industry insiders in order to get a better perspective of the “music industry” but we’ve haven’t spoken with a concert photographer yet. And talk about a different perspective! You see the industry from a completely different vantage angle. I can’t wait to pick your brain. But before we get into it, let’s quickly talk about your role as a guitar tech.  So who are you out with now?

Currently… nobody. I’ve been concentrating on a couple of photography jobs which have kept me in the UK. Previously I was out with The Cure.

How long have you been with them?

5 years, a long time to be with one band but they truly are out there on their own. I challenge anyone to find a better bunch of guys to work with or for— it’s more like being part of a family.

And before that, how did you start off?

I started off at home in my bedroom taking apart the guitars my parents brought for me, then quickly realized playing them loud was even more fun. Then college was ditched to make make way for Kan’s rock dream which I chased for probably too long and after a few years playing in bands, touring the world, and playing session for a few people, I ended up looking after Porl Thompon’s guitars. And then Reeves Gabrels after him and here we are.

OK. So when did you first get into photography?

My dad was a photographer so it started pretty early for me. In the murky red light of the dark room, my nose full of the smell of fixer. My dad tipping the trays whilst I peered into the liquid watching the images magically appear. I’m not exactly sure what age I was but I’m pretty sure that’s where the seed was planted.

And when did you realize that it made sense to combine the 2 passions?

When I got back from the first tour with The Cure I had probably taken a couple thousand pictures but at the time I had a little Cannon Compact, you could muck around with the settings a fair bit but I realized that if I had brought a real camera, I would of had some kick ass photos, so…I bought my first DSLR.

Do you usually just shoot the bands you are working for or can anyone hire you?

I’m normally shooting the bands that I’m working for because I have good access to them but I’m always interested in talking to anyone who wants to hire me. Just drop me an email (shameless plug)

Actually, and please forgive my ignorance, who usually hires concert photographers? Is it the band? The manager? Do you have contracts or do you just end up selling your photos freelance?

As far as who hires photographers, it depends. Generally the big clump of photographers you see at the front of the stage in the pit are a mixture of freelance guys who have press passes, people hired by the festival/venue, local/national press, or friends of the band or promoters. As you can guess, they all get paid by different people. Every time I’ve been hired by a band it’s normally to do a studio shoot at a specific location. As for me personally when working with a band, I wouldn’t try to sell the images on and would always offer the band the images to use if they wanted to.

I understand that “officially” you are only allowed to take shots during the first 3 songs. Why is that? But more importantly, are you able to bypass that rule?

The 3 song rule is to give the press and photographers a chance to get their shots then get out the way so the band can get on with the gig. The area at the front of the stage, ‘The Pit’, is generally reserved for the security team to remove people from the crowd if they are in trouble or if there is an emergency. I imagine you could possibly bypass the rule if given permission by the band but personally I wouldn’t want to spend time in the pit getting in the way of a disgruntled security team trying to do their job and me trying to do mine.

OK. So let’s talk nuts and bolts. I’ve seen a LOT of concert shots but your images are unlike anything I’ve seen to date. You capture an essence that only someone on stage or side stage can really understand. There is a life and a soul that you coax out onto the film. So what am I actually seeing? What’s that special something that you are shooting?

Firstly, thank you for the complement and hmm, what are you seeing??…. Well, what I hope you are seeing is my selected frame of a very small slice of time and space. When you are playing so loud it affects your breathing and the lights are all you can see, it’s like you are the music’s body and it’s pouring out of you. That’s what I’m seeing and I instinctively know when to open the shutter and catch those snippets of time when someone is really lost the in moment. Hopefully this comes across in my pictures…

And we have to talk about color. Are those hues in your shots augmented post-production or are you capturing the lighting and the mood from real sets?

Colour. I love colour. When you are on stage and there is thick smoke surrounding, it’s like you’re in the middle of an explosion. You can’t see your hand in front of your face. It can be disorientating but I love it. The colour in my pictures are all as real as I see them. I think some people are more sensitive to colour and I’m sure we all see it differently even though we all have a basic set of colours that we agree on. I try and capture this as true to what I’m seeing as possible but I will be the first to admit I’m maybe seeing things slightly differently to most people ;)

I hear you! And actually, this makes you the perfect person to talk about this. Let’s talk about just how important the lighting is to any show. It’s a huge function of the total experience. Shows are so much more than just music. What are your thoughts on how it all combines? I can tell from your images that this is something you really think about.

I think you are right. The two combine to really make or break a live show — especially for the bigger bands where people are really expecting a more complete experience. I think the right light show can really help to suspend your reality and move you further into the place you are escaping to. Often people have memories associated with the songs they are going to hear and I know I can’t speak for everyone but my memories are much more like a kind of swirling colour light show than a couple of spotlights on a dark stage (well most of them anyway.. I think we’ve all done those gigs?) If I can help someone take a little step to the side of their normal life or inspire them to see things a little differently than before or even smile, I’m a happy man.

So what makes a great shot?

For me, a great shot is one that you (the viewer) doesn’t think you could have captured yourself or that gives you a window into another world — be it real or otherwise. It’s kind of personal to the viewer really. A great shot for me could be a naff one for someone else.. much like the old cliche ‘Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.’

And what makes for a dull shot?

This is a really hard one. Lots of technical things can make a shot a bad one. But a dull one… hard to say really. I guess it’s when you just miss the moment. It’s like the shot that came after the perfect one, all the good stuff got sucked up and your looking at what’s left… For me personally, any shot that looks like it could’ve been taken on an iPhone from the crowd is not going to ‘float my boat!’

What equipment do you use?

A Nikon D800, a super wide, a zoom and couple of primes plus my gut and eyes.

And are there many concert photographers? I mean, is the competition stiff or is there enough work to go around?

I’m not your typical concert photographer so I’m not really involved in the competition. But there is definitely a lot more competition in general because everybody and their dog now has a semi decent camera and a lot of companies/bands  are more than happy to make the trade off of quantity over quality. (More likely a finical decision.)

Are there groups that you all belong to or is the industry small enough where you just sort of know each other’s work and reputations?

Don’t know about this one… I’m sure there are groups out there but I’ve not joined any…

So what comes next? When do I get to see your work on the cover of Rolling Stone?

Well after photographing a few Ultimate Ears endorsees, I have my sights set on Rolling Stone, so watch this space!!

Thank you Kan

This interview was originally published by Mike Dias for Ultimate Ears

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About the author

Mike Dias is a Music Industry Insider and Keynote Business Speaker. He has over 15 years of experience selling custom in-ear monitors to pop stars and sound engineers. He writes and speaks about customer management, networking, and the sales process. He's available for workshops, panels, sessions, and keynotes.

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