music photography

The art of music photography

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The following article was originally posted on Music Consultant Rick Goetz’s website –

Jason Gardner is a professional photographer who primarily shoots musicians. He has photographed such artists as Manu Chao, Gogol Bordello and Antibalas and captured live performances by notables like Bob Dylan, Dave Matthews, Willie Nelson and Neil Young. His photos have appeared in numerous periodicals, including Rolling Stone, Spin, New York Magazine and Time Out, among many others.

Jason Gardner (photo by Mitch Bernstein)

To start off, tell me what musicians should do to prepare for a photo shoot.
Jason Gardner: The biggest prep work is to help the photographer pre-visualize, or at least share with the photographer what you think are “good photos.” A typical conversation I have is a musician or a band goes: “I’m ready for a photo shoot.” And I say, “Great. Which types of photos would you like?” And they say, “I don’t know. Kickass ones,” or “cool ones” or “hip ones.” And I say, “Okay, I get that. But photos are somewhat subjective, and there’s a difference between what you think is hip and what I think is hip, or what your neighbor thinks is hip and you think is hip.”

A lot of the work I do before actually showing up on the day of the shoot is pre-production and planning. That’s split up into three areas: creative visualization, scouting and props/wardrobe/other planning for the actual items of the shoot. The pre-visualization part is the most homework a band can do before coming to me.

What does pre-visualization entail?
The conversation usually continues on that same track. I will ask things like, “Do you want to shoot inside or outside? Do you want gritty or clean?” I try to make sure we’re speaking the same language. Often I’ve found musicians are geniuses aurally, but are not used to thinking in visual terms. What it usually comes down to is asking them, “Which photos do you like? Which photos have you seen in the last few weeks or months that somehow resonate with you, not necessarily limited to portraits.” I ask them what they have seen in going online and looking at websites or other bands or random photos and portraits. I ask what has caught their eye and why. That helps me to understand their visual vocabulary. So, if I had my druthers, going back to your question, they would come to me saying, “We want to do photos with you. We have these 5-10 photos that we really love, but we’re not sure why or we have different reasons why, but we want to keep those in mind when we’re planning our shoot.”

The Band. Photo © Elliott Landy

I’ll give you a very specific example. I worked with this group called the Chris Bergson band. They are cool guys who do blues and roots music. Chris said, “I just want groovy photos. I don’t know what I want.” So, I said, “Okay, send me some photos that you like.” And he said, “I don’t know any photos I like.” So I thought, “Let’s go back to our common language” and said, “Send me five album covers you like.” He sent them to me right away because he knew. One of them was that classic shot of The Band from the 70s, with them looking up and the river in the background.

The point is that this image tells me he likes black and white, that he likes stuff that was straight up and not super conceptual. So I said, “Send me a couple mp3s of your music so I can hear what you play.” And it was kind of bluesy and rootsy. One of the tracks was titled “In Gowanus.” And of course Gowanus is a really industrial area in Brooklyn. It happened that at the time he lived in upper Park Slope, so it was in between the neighborhood where he lived and where I lived. And I asked him, “Why don’t we do the shoot in Gowanus?” It has this edgy, urban background with a lot of graffiti and old water towers.

Chris Bergson Band
Chris Bergson Band

He said okay, but I knew every time you shoot more than one or two people, especially musicians, you really have to know your where you are going. I jumped on my bike and met him and we did some location scouting. I had my camera, and we just biked around and went to some places I knew and some other places and shot about 15-20 locations in about an hour and a half or two hours. What we did was edited from there and sent over to his manager. That was huge, because he and his manager were able to pre-approve a few locations. That’s the second part of the process I mentioned – scouting. For the third part, he asked “ What should I wear?” And I said, “Wear whatever you like, whatever you’re comfortable with, whatever you want the image to be.” And he wasn’t sure, so I said, “Why don’t you wear whatever you’d wear for a gig.” And that’s common sense. You don’t want an artist to wear a clown suit unless that is what they wear on stage or in real life. We had our four or five locations set before the shoot started and you have to plan ahead like this because as I mentioned- herding musicians is a little like herding cats. You have to know where you’re going. One of the photos of this shoot got into Mojo Magazine.

I am awful at being photographed because I never know what to do with my face or my eyes. Can you advise someone on how to take better photos? Is there something to being a good subject?
That’s a good question. Part of it is in the pre-visualization/collaboration. It’s talking about what image you want to portray. I shot this guy recently, who is starting a punk music label. He never smiles, and we knew that was happening. He was scowling and fist clenching. That’s kind of an extreme. It depends on the image you want to portray. You don’t want to be too smiley/goofy when the desired result is a somewhat serious photo. What I like to do is provide musicians with a whole different bunch of looks. Let’s say we’re doing five locations and three wardrobes. All the sub-categories within those. Some they are looking at the camera, some they are looking away, some they are looking at each other. Some they are with their instruments, and some without. Some are more contemplative, and some aren’t.

I don’t think musicians need to put a lot of pressure on themselves to be a good subject. I think part of that is the photographer’s burden/job. But part of it is keeping your mind and heart open to the photographer’s suggestions. A portrait is like a conversation, and not just a one-way conversation. A one-way conversation would be the subject saying, “This is what I have to say, and it’s here.” A two-way conversation would be the photographer judiciously and subtly art directing them and moving them here, to and fro or adjusting the group dynamic.

And let me as a tangent say, group music photography is another beast all together, because once you have more than two people it gets to be a group and a lot more challenging. There’s getting everyone’s eyes open at the same time and things like doing it at nine in the morning when some might be hung over and maybe not too happy to be there. The one-way/two-way conversation is where the photographer should be putting something into the conversation, whether it be directing them or just connecting with them and their type of music so they don’t feel like they’re on a photo shoot. One of the things I say to my subjects is, “My style is I shoot a lot. You may think, ‘He has to have it by now,’ but I tend to shoot a lot, and it’s more work for me to get the best photo because I’m editing them myself.” But I tell them, “In the end, you’re going to end up with only nine or ten good ones, and you’re going to have to pick three or four shots from that group.” That usually helps them to relax a lot. It’s not we’re only taking twelve photos, and they all have to be great.

Which advice would you give someone when selecting a photographer?
The first thing to do is look at the work. Look at the photos they choose to display on their site. You want to see a couple things, and if you can determine it from the photos, great. If not, that’s fine too. Do they specialize in outdoor/exotic locations, or is it all studio? That’s the big thing with music and photographers in general and speaks to what kind of work you want to produce for yourself too. Maybe I’m stating the obvious, but the outdoor work tends to be a little bit more visually interesting than just a blank wall. It tends to be less artificially lit. Studios inside could be five lights, and this could just be one light. Part of that is a little soul searching as to what kind of vibe you think you and your band mates would react to more. Some bands love to go into the studio with six lights because they feel like rock stars. And some have had so much of that they want to go to a random corner in remote Brooklyn where no one knows them and they can run around naked.

If you can’t afford a photographer, are there some simple things you can advise people about their photographs? When you look at a crappy, amateurish photo, are there a handful of things you can steer people away from doing?
One thing I would say would be regarding your wardrobe. Unless your persona onstage is to wear crazy costumes or you are like KISS with full-on makeup, I would say for musicians it depends, but the photo should be about you and not what you’re wearing. What you’re wearing should not call the attention away from your face, instrument, facial expressions, mohawk, whatever. I’d say wearing plaids and polka dots and major patterns is more distracting than solid colored clothes. Of course someone like Eugene from Gogol Bordello would be a different story, because he is all about that kind of craziness.

GR article - Gogol Bordello
GR article - Gogol Bordello

In general, the musicians I’ve shot, when they ask me that it makes sense. The wardrobe shouldn’t be the major event. I also would recommend against wearing all white, especially if you’re dark skinned, because white blows out a little bit in digital. Solid colors, light or dark, are usually the best. I’d say if you’re doing a shoot yourself, ask a friend or a girlfriend or boyfriend to do your hair and make-up instead of doing it yourself. It is also always good to have someone else besides the photographer on the set, looking for that random stray hair or random things in the background. Also if you’re shooting on the street, you want to make sure you don’t get hit by a truck. One of the other things is, if you’re shooting with more than two people in a public space in New York City, you have to get a permit from the mayor’s office. It’s free if you’re not doing a major production where you have to shut down traffic. It’s basically that within 24-48 hours before the shoot you have to get a permit. Go Google “TV and photo work permit,” and it’s a one-page form that you print and fax back. If it’s one person shooting one person, fine, but cops are pretty good at telling a professional shoot vs. a non-professional shoot.

For example, I did a shoot with Antibalas (by the way, Antibalas is a laaaaaarge Afrobeat group) that for sure needed to get permitted, because they were playing, and I had an assistant and lights and their manager and other people on the shoot, and within five minutes, the police were there. I had all the right permits – so this was not an issue.

We went through the process of pre-visualization and scouting and decided to pick a place in Madison Square Park. We went, and I made some creative consultation ideas and said, “Hey, I’ve got these five or ten ideas, what do you think?” And Antibalas is tricky to shoot, not just because they are a big band, but because they are a collective and all come from different places, so they are only in one place at one time before a big show from about 9 a.m. to 11 a.m.


I know. They are like a baseball team. It’s amazing.

It was supposed to rain that day, so I only had about 45 minutes anyway. What I decided to do was a shot in front of the Flatiron first, but then get them together and have them start playing, because it would warm them up and make them not think about the shoot and get them going. The few members that were not so used to being “on” at 9 a.m. were dragged out of the element of a photo shoot. And as they were playing, they started dancing and one of them jumped, and that was one of the shots.

Then our next location was in front of this court building, for the cover of this world music magazine Global Rhythm, now defunct. It was across from Madison Square Park, because one of the big tracks on that album featured a lyric “order in the court!” So, we had the backdrop of the court building and there’s a connection.


As we were walking over, they were walking naturally in a “V” formation. So I ran backwards while they were walking, and I shot a few and they were a little self-conscious. But then Amayo (lead singer of Antibalas) was in front and just opened his arms in a way that he was leading his flock, and that was the shot Time Out used.

I guess it says that sometimes the best shots are the spontaneous moments in between, and photographers should be ready for that. It loops a little bit back to what you asked me when you asked about musicians evaluating photographers. If they want portraits that are unscripted, they should see if the photographer does any journalism work and can think on his/her feet. Because studio work can be like a product shoot – very still life.

Visit Jason Gardner’s website.

Big thank yous to Antibalas and The Chris Bergson Band – check them out, too!

Rick Goetz is a music consultant and musician coach by way of a fifteen year career at major record labels and various online and television projects. For more articles like this you can visit his site,

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6 thoughts on “The art of music photography

  1. Very nice article! I would call you one one issue, however, your pre-judgement that musicians do not think in visual terms. The process of creating music–composition or performance–is not necessarily mutually exclusive from “an eye,” or even graphic talent. On the contrary, I have found many musicians to be talented visual artists and/or photographers. But the musician can’t be in front of, and running the camera at the same time. If he/she could, there might be a few non-musician photographers out of work.

  2. Well then, this is like a summary of everything I did wrong in my album cover photos!
    Next one I swear will be smarter. Thanks for the tips!

  3. I only glanced at this article, so I will not state anything about it at all. I will tell you how I work as a Photographer.

    1. I like to hear the music, see the group at practice and how they are on stage to get an impression of what I see.

    2. They will give me some Photos of what they would like to see and that can help. For the most part I find that the ones they choose are the ones I visualize.

    I like to keep it simple for the most part. A Cd can only hold so much on the cover before it is all lost in confusion.. It is kind of like when doing a recording (I’m a Musician as well), the more you have on the mix the better it better be clear and clean or all is lost in distortion. and it loses meaning.

    Color is important as well, for Reds and colors around red go crazy on film and on digital. Having colors that do not clash is important as well. These things need to be considered with the knowledge of printing as well, for sometimes what you see in film/digital is not what the ink will see.

    You need a photographer who knows the effects of different lenses, for not all who say they are, are photographers (I say this for those who cannot afford a well-known photographer). I can’t count how many times I have come in to restore people’s trust in photographers.

    Lighting is another important part that can break or make a Photo. I personally like to use what is called, “Hollywood Lighting.” It is like the old Black & White Movie effects like in Bogart. Then if there is not a time set I like to do night shots just at dusk, but that depends on the personality of the band or person.

    The photo does not have to be a photo of the group, I might add. That can be on the back or inside the cover. The cover has to say what the music is about like with many Super Tramp albums.(one of my favorite groups).

    A good photographer will make you feel relaxed, if not, let him go. Attitudes do not make the Photographer anymore than it does a band. They should really listen to you, if not, dump them and move on.

    One thing I ask is this, “Havre Money Up Front and reserve it for the shoot..” When I was young I got stiffed a lot by Bands, so I ask for the money up front anymore. I figure if you don’t have cash, then you are not serious enough to hire me. No, this is not arrogance, it is experience.

    Remember, the Photographer is working for you, but at the same time allow them to be free and enjoy and be creative for you never know what they have inside that creative mind of theirs.

    Charles R. Batchelor
    c/o A “Higher Call” To Artists

  4. Nice! Good article, as well as comments from Jon Patton up there! Its ridiculous how many bands think railroad tracks and brick walls make great photos haha.

    Working with photographers who know what they are doing is key! They can shoot quality photos while making sure they will be usable for the next phase (putting the photos to use).

    And as a shameless self-plug: If you’re in the greater Chicago-land area and in need of photos, or worldwider and need help with putting them to use, check out! We specialize in this stuff, and we all have backgrounds in the industry, from performing to marketing!

  5. This is all good advice for GETTING good people and press photos, but people might like some info on what to do with them. Press photos should show the band, but you will probably want to use something very different for a CD cover photo.

    The most common place a photo relating to a band will be on the CD cover. So here’s a little advice, from a music editor/writer ( and musician, for bands when choosing one:

    1) If you can avoid a picture of yourself, do so, unless it’s a fantastic picture OR unless the visual of the band is as important as the music (in which case, show reviews are probably better for you than CD reviews). Cover photos of people are both commonplace and often boring. Cover photos of weird and strange things, art pieces, illustrations? These can all reflect something about the content.

    2) If you’ve seen someone else (or many people) do a pose, try not to do it. Examples: Do not lie on the ground with your heads at the center to make your bodies look like spokes of a wheel. Do not take a picture on the railroad tracks or with a boxcar. Do not take your picture against a brick wall. Do not take a picture of you facing one way on the front and put the same composition showing your backs on the reverse. These are overdone and cliche, and they WILL provoke a negative reaction from people who see lots of CDs. You want an image that reflects YOU and YOUR MUSIC, not an image that reflects everyone else in your genre.

    3) Do not play around with the filters in photoshop. A photo of you converted to a painting looks amateurish. (Got one to screen earlier today. Provoked a negative reaction.)

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