Adam Elmakis is one of the best concert/band photographers I know. He was kind enough to “sit” with us for an interview. I had no idea how demanding his job was.
DIYP: Can you tell us about your background and how you got into photography?
AE: I was born in California, and my parents moved us to Madison, WI when I was young. My family was normal-ish (I like to think). I got into photography in high school.
I started shooting in 2005 when I was a high school sophomore in Madison, WI. School wasn’t really my thing, but I took a yearbook class that I really liked. We were given an assignment to shoot self portraits, and when the school counselor saw my photo he convinced me to give photography a try. Eventually I signed up for dpchallenge.com and shot around for that site, and the same teacher was able to convince someone from the community to generously give me a camera. I’m very competitive, so it dpchallenge was a fun way to get inspired! You can see some of my early work there.
Most of my time outside of school was spent going to local shows, so I started bringing my camera to concerts for fun. Eventually I became friends with local promoters and was able to trade photos for free admission, and from there I scored gigs with online publications that allowed me to start shooting bigger shows from the photo pit. My [parents’] house became a crash pad for touring bands, and we would usually do quick press shoots the next day around town. I went to college for a semester, but ended up deciding it wasn’t my thing. Was making pretty decent money doing press shoots for bands. So yea, stopped school, and started touring.
As you can probably tell by my dpchallenge submissions, photography is not something I was naturally good at. When I first started shooting I didn’t really have an emotional attachment to the art. To me, my job was to position band dudes and make them look cool, and the emotional aspect grew as I started shooting more lifestyle/candid images and realizing how powerful they could be. It took a lot of trial and error to learn my way around the camera and define my style, and seemingly no-brainer details like taking candid shots instead of just press photos only became obvious as time went on.
2008 is when I started traveling, touring, getting really stressed out on the road, and learning life lessons. I made a mobile kit with more gear than I would ever travel with today and started the year out by driving to Canada with my friend Brian Buckley. Something happened and I ended up stranded in Buffalo, so I called my manager and asked if he could get me on the “Man Whores and Open Sores” tour with Just Surrender for the next five days and hop off in Madison. Forcing myself onto this tour probably wasn’t the best strategy, as I’m pretty sure they were all annoyed to have a dirty photographer kid taking up valuable bench space, but through this 5-day stint with Just Surrender I met the rest of the bands on tour: All Time Low, Every Avenue, and Mayday Parade. (You can learn more about my life lessons in part 3 of my “How I Got Started” series.)
My first real cross-country tour was with Four Letter Lie, and making connections through them got me on even more tours. I went to Bamboozle and hit up everyone I could to book shoots (bands, Alternative Press, etc.), with a main goal of making enough money to basically take me to my next destination. When I was home, I kept tabs on all venues in the area, and when bands came through that I wanted to shoot I would hit up the manager or publicist to set something up. Eventually I ended up booking a press shoot with All Time Low down in Milwaukee where we went to a bowling alley and took this now-iconic photo for the band. I remember being so anxious when I picked them up in my minivan that i drove the wrong way down the road
After a year of stalking local venues I started touring constantly. I had a pretty intense self-booked run that involved a lot of uncertainty, traveling around with different bands, and realizing the benefit of touring to continuously make new connections who could help me take the next step in my career.
The last 6 months of 2008 were not a good time for me personally, and I pretty much stopped shooting altogether aside from a Bring Me The Horizon cover shoot for Substream. To earn income, I wrote and filmed a DVD about how I edit my photos, and I used that money to jumpstart the next part of my life. By the end of 2008, I was back in good spirits and ready to use everything I learned that year to make 2009 awesome.
DIYP: When and how did you make the move to be a professional photographer?
AE: I guess there were a few “key” points in my career where I really made some changes to help my career advance. I would say the first was getting a manager when I was 17. He was a band manager, but he knew the industry very well so this helped me get the e-mail, contacting, and whole business etiquette of the career on lock. I remember sending him e-mails and he would go through and reword/retype them, and then I would send them to the client I was trying to get. I was ignorant to how emails worked and not the most well-written person at the time. Still working on the ladder.
Networking and shooting are things that I consider constants in my career. This means that no matter what I am doing, I always need to be photographing something and talking to someone. If I am not, my career will end. The next big step I took I would say was moving to San Diego. It didn’t really open up too many more jobs for me, but it got me out of the cold midwest and let me start really enjoying life. I feel like a lot of people get stuck and trapped in their ways even at a young age, but I had the luxury of going to almost every state by the time I was 20 and my thirst to see more never really faded.
I would say the next big step for me happened about 2 years ago, when I made the change from doing photo shoots to making touring my full time job. Instead of staying home and photographing bands in studio, I came up with a business plan that worked and started traveling with a few of my longest running clients. I always follow the fun, and whatever is fun I usually enjoy.
DIYP: How did you get into this very specific field of music photography. Whats does music photographer even mean?
AE: Networking. Lots of networking. Forming relationships with bands, managers, and other people that I support and believe in–and they do the same for me. It is very hard to stay real in this industry, and I am very selective about who I work with because of that. Photography is very important to me, and I want the people that hire me to believe the same. I started most of my relationships with the bands I work with by photographing them live a few times when they came through my area, and then hitting them up to do a quick shoot before or after a show. From there I would keep in touch with them and make sure to see them at least a few times a year. After actually befriending them, I would request they let me come on tour with them, and from there–assuming we got along–our relationship just continued to grow.
Music Photographer means… F**k, I don’t know. It’s the best way to describe someone who photographs people who perform music on stage for other people. To me, it means endless fun and shooting. I have photographed some of the bands I work with over 150 times and have yet to get bored. I think just last year I photographed A Day To Remember 116 times.
DIYP: How does the average Day/week/month look for you?
Average… haha. Is this some kind of joke, Udi? No, but really. I don’t have an average day, week, month… but lets go ahead and break down this next month of work for me.
Today: We are currently in Zurich, Switzerland. I woke up here around 7am on our bus parked next to the venue. First step for me is to edit all images from the day before. I take about 1500 a day, turn around around 25, and then put them in a dropbox for the band to use. Next, I get my own work done. So e-mails, blogs, videos, merch things, all that fun stuff. After that I eat lunch and get my gear ready for the day, and the band is usually awake by noon. After lunch I work out with the band and then our day really starts. I basically live their lives for the rest of the day. Soundcheck, hanging out, going out to nearby places to shop or get food, maybe some sightseeing, hang out with other bands, play the show, shower up, party, get on the bus and on to the next city. Tomorrow we have an off day in Brussels, Belgium, so tonight people will probably party a little bit longer and harder.
Week: My week consists of a new city everyday, so basically take the above and repeat seven times. Throw in some off days where I get some alone time, but I mostly just hang out with the band and go do fun things. I also try to fit in a few quick photo shoots when I can. The idea is to not have to do many formal photo shoots and get a lot of the shots while we are on the road. This saves the band money and everyone time in the long run.
Month: Well, we are in Europe/UK until the 16th, then we fly to Florida for a few days off before heading to Australia for a festival tour called Soundwave. We are on that until March 3rd, and then the band goes home while I fly to another tour back in UK with a different band to do this for them. I like to keep busy.
DIYP: Now, that we got to know you a little better I would love to pick into your photographic brains. What gear do you typically take on a concert?
AE: Gear to a concert…. oh man. I bring a lot with me! Most the time I am shooting the same show at least 10-20 times, so I have a good set of gear with me. Each day I figure out what kind of venue I am shooting at/ how the lighting will be, and I pick the best tools for the job. Here is the full list, its basically everything I own.
The idea is to be prepared for anything. If I am shooting from the pit, I have two cameras on me and 3 lenses on my back. Depending on the situation I’ll have a speedlite with me as well. If I am shooting from the stage, I usually just have one camera because I have to move around a lot. If I am shooting from front of house (where the sound/lighting guys are), then I have one camera, a telephoto lens, wide angle lens, fisheye lens, and my monopod to get some shots from higher up in the air. It all really depends on where and what I am shooting at that time.
DIYP: Do you ever rig the system by setting up your own lights on stage?
AE: Yea, I do. I don’t do it as much as I used to because the lighting is so good most of the times, but there are some days where I can make an exception. I usually only use my own lighting with the venue is dense with fog or it’s just a small show. Foggy because I can backlit my shots and you will see the light rays; small because then I can usually bounce my flash off ceiling or be very close to the audience/ band and get some good close up shots with the flash, plus the venue lighting is pretty dark usually so you have to use a flash.
DIYP: What cool tips can you offer to anyone who is battling with concert lighting?
Work with what you have. Don’t wish you had something else, and don’t go into a concert with a set mindset of what you want your images to look like. Most people who shoot shows have no control over the lights and what is going on during the show, and they also only get three songs. So it’s best to shoot as much as you can of whatever you are given and make it work. Black and white is your best friend with a lot of shows, as lots of lighting designers suck at smaller gigs and the lights they have to work with aren’t very great either. In the past two weeks I have shot the same show about 10 times, and only two of the days had ideal lighting. One of them was too crowded for me to even get the shots.
DIYP: How Do you position yourself in a concert? Do you care about blocking the view? do you get close and personal with the band during a live performance?
I position myself all over. It really depends on what shot I am going for. Here are some areas I shoot from frequently:
- The pit – Area in front of the stage – Nice live shots of each member performing.
- Behind the drum riser – Crowd shots that include full band.
- Stage left and right, hiding behind speakers – Shots of band interacting with crowd, or over-the-shoulder shots of the band with audience in front.
- Front Of House / area in crowd where sound/lighting people are positioned – Crowd shots and nice full stage shots.
- As far back in venue as possible – Crowd shots.
Yes, I do care about blocking people’s view. I will never block someone’s view for more than a few seconds, and if I am going to, I ask them first, take my minute or so to get my shot, and get out of the way. But I will never go and stand in front of a paying fan and try to get my shot if it ruins their show for more than a few seconds. They are the reason any of us are at the show, so it would be rude for me to disregard that. I get close and personal, yes–but again, I only ever stay in spots for extended periods of time that won’t block the band or the fans experience. I think its rude, and it’s kinda fun to play hide and seek with everyone else on stage. I have gotten pretty good at hiding behind cabs, monitor, risers and other things on stage, and I try to always wear all black.
DIYP: Adam, I understand that you found time for creating and selling products, can you share the products and how they came to life?
AE: Yes! I have a few products, and ironically I didn’t really expect to make money on any of them. Lens Bracelet started as my business card, but once people began requesting it online I decided to open an online store. For the record, I was the first person I create a silicone bracelet like this–the rest are fakes. The shirt was kind of a joke that I rolled with a few months after releasing my face logo, but the response was great and I’ve just been going with it. My fans also inspire me and can be thanked for the design of my “Don’t Make Me Crop You” crew neck and “Shut up Adam” sticker. I have a few more items in the works that I plan on releasing before summer festival season starts.
DIYP: What tip do you have for anyone starting in the concert photography biz?
AE: Just keep shooting, network as much as you can, and try not to compare yourself to other people. Just do your thing and keep shooting. It’s important to realize that most of your shoots will come from personal connections in this industry, and you work needs to be solid to back it up, but in my experience almost all of my shoots have come from my relationship with the client.
DIYP: What is the weirdest thing that happened to you on stage or on tour?
AE: On stage – Well I guess that most of my on stage stories stem from me crowd surfing as an angry bird/ shooting a t-shirt canon on stage at the crowd. I am always shooting from stage, but not as much happens when i am doing that. At one festival in Canada the band forgot their Angry Bird outfit so I just had to crowd surf in an blow up boat without a costume, this led the security to believe that I was a fan with an unacceptable device and one of the guys at the barricade sliced it open with a knife…. kinda sketchy haha. stabbing an inflatable object while there are plenty of people you could injure.
Off stage? I was shooting a small Blink-182 show on the roof of the Cosmopolitan in Vegas and right before they went on stage, Mark Hoppus looked at at me and asked where he could get my camera ( it was a mirroless one, I forget the name, i was borrowing it) – I responded with “Uhhh… well you can’t have this… but maybe a camera store?” haha. I didn’t know what to say, kind of caught me off guard.
The DIYP Quick Quiz:
- What’s your favorite band?
Right now, Noah Gundersen
- Dogs or Cats?
- Wide or Tele?
- Best Snack for the road?
Nuts or dried fruit
- Must have item for each trip?
iPhone and wifi
- How do you take your coffee?
Black and australian
Thanks Adam for talking to us!