What Makes a Music Photographer Good?


Rick Malkin

SKF NOTE: I wrote in an earlier post about, from my perspective as Modern Drummer‘s managing editor, what makes a music journalist good. I said I would write as well about what makes a music photographer good.

A picture is worth 1,000 words. As much as I love writing, I have always admired photographers and cartoonists with the gift, the skill, of capturing a whole story — or endless stories — in one image. When I first arrived at MD, and making sure we had photos on hand for each issue was one of my responsibilities, improving the magazine’s photos was a prime goal.

This was pre-digital photography. We worked mostly with 8×10 or 5×7 prints for 35mm black-and-white photos, and slides or prints for 35mm color photos.


Chuck Stewart

Finding existing photos of drummers was not easy. That surprised me, but it should not have. Prior to MD the market for drummer photos was small or nonexistent. For example, professional photographers could sell photos of Mick Jagger or John Lennon. But, photos of Charlie Watts and Ringo Starr? Not so much. Plus, drummers were often hidden behind their drumsets and cymbals, sitting under terrible lighting way up and/or back on stage risers, making it extremely tough for photographers to take drummers’ pictures.

It was the same story, only worse, for jazz drummers and photographers.

MD created a new market for photogaphers, a new place where photographers could sell drummer photos. Even with MD‘s 12 issues a year limitation — it was still a new market, new opportunities.


John Lee

The photographer qualities I sought and found were the same as those I sought in music journalists — and then some. If an interviewer needed to clarify a question or otherwise add to a MD interview, he or she could often just pick up the telephone and do so.

That was not true of pre-digital photographers. If something went wrong during a photo shoot, photographer’s really wouldn’t know until they developed their film. So a photographer’s knowledge of light, shutter speed — everything! — was vital. A photographer on assignment taking photos for a MD feature interview probably has one time only to be with the drummer/subject. Experience, plus shooting as many rolls of 35mm as possible, was the photographer’s insurance against failure.

I never met an uninteresting photographer. Rick Malkin, Tom Copi, Jim Marshall, Chuck Stewart, John Lee — consummate professionals who I am so grateful to have met and worked with, and in some cases, to have as lifelong friends. And MD‘s Features Editor, Rick Mattingly, also did some fine photography.


Tom Copi

One final point: I learned fast that the best photo in the world can be reduced in quality — sometimes absolutely — at the magazine printer. Many times my delight at receiving great photos would turn to disappointment and frustration when those photos were reproduced in the magazine.

Digital photography has opened up limitless possibilities for photographers. Still, technological advances do not, cannot, replace the gift of the photographer’s eye. Their sense of composition, of knowing what makes a good picture, and their sixth sense of spotting opportunities and being prepared when opportunities arrive.

Photo credits for Rick Malkin, Tom Copi, Chuck Stewart, John Lee


About Scott K Fish

This entry was posted in Revisiting My Life in Music, SKF Blog and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to What Makes a Music Photographer Good?

  1. Tom Cop says:

    Dear SKF,
    I just saw this piece about musician photographers. Thank you for your kind remarks. I am happily retired. My daughter is studying art/photography in NYC. She took the photo of me with my yellow sunglasses.
    Bright Moments,

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