Photographer Spotlight: Aaron Parsons
Aaron's euphoric image of IDLES on The Other Stage at Glastonbury was nominated for the Music Moment of Year category at this year’s awards. From Aaron's biggest inspirations and top tips, to shooting live shows and building a portfolio, Aaron shares all in his latest spotlight piece.
How did it feel to be nominated in the Abbey Road Studios Music Photography Awards 2023?
I felt completely shocked to be nominated in truth. When I received the email letting me know, I couldn’t really believe it, but shock soon turned to elation! It really meant a massive amount to me. To have my work recognised by such an esteemed panel of judges; wow.
Why do you think it is important to create a platform like the MPAs to showcase music photography?
In such a crowded market, I think it’s more vital than ever to appreciate art. It’s all too easy to overlook the creativity, effort and passion that goes into making it. In terms of photography, we are bombarded with imagery on a daily basis and it’s easy for great work to go unnoticed or slip through the net. It feels so important for a place as prestigious as Abbey Road Studios to step out from the fast food culture of social media and recognise people and their work properly. Photographers are the peripheral when it comes to capturing rock stars, it’s refreshing to be noticed and talked about.
Have you seen any benefits to you since being nominated?
The main benefit, for want of a better word, is the feedback I’ve received. These days we communicate a lot through likes and emojis which can’t help but seem frivolous and vague. It has been incredibly touching to hear from friends, family and complete strangers talking about my work and congratulating me on such an accolade. For people to take the time to vote for my nomination was heartwarming too.
How did you fall into music photography specifically?
It’s difficult to pinpoint an exact moment or time when I fell into the world of music photography. I think a combination of wanting to be that rock star and knowing I couldn’t; capturing it felt like the next best thing. I am a lover of music though. I always say it’s humankind’s greatest achievement and to be involved in that in any form is incredibly rewarding. Seeing behind the curtain, feeling connected to the artist and collaborating with people that stir so much emotion in you, is an incredible feeling. Aesthetically, there was always something about a live music performance or the artists themselves that I find beautiful. Be it the atmospheric lighting on stage or the intriguing characters you get to capture, it’s a dynamic visual package that draws a lot of appeal.
Was there a particular image, body of work or photographer that was a major inspiration when starting out?
Annie Leibovitz, David Bailey and Eve Arnold really caught my eye at university. Their focus was more on portraiture but the intimacy they seemed to gain with the biggest stars on the planet fascinated me. Shedding light into the lives of people you longed to know, artists who inspire, I guess inspired me. Then there was the simplicity of your most revered musicians being captured in beautiful ways. I’m not sure I was aware of any live music photographers at first, which I guess touches on my point before that photographers are unknown in comparison to their subjects. Now I’m aware of so many incredible photographers including Jamie Simonds, Phoebe Fox and Eva Pentel to name a few.
I have David Bailey’s Paul McCartney and John Lennon portrait on my wall. Annie Leibovitz’s nude John Lennon curled up with Yoko is beautifully haunting and tender. Eve Arnold’s images of Marilyn Monroe are stunning.
What makes a good subject in music photography and what makes a good music photographer?
You do end up being quite objective once you get into shooting mode. It could be your all-time favourite artist but if they aren’t doing much on stage, it can’t help but frustrate you. There is a massive reliance on the subject and what they choose to do. So a good subject is full of energy, movement (not too much) and charisma. You hope they throw some interesting shapes on stage, pull out the poses and basically get into character. Lighting though trumps all. I have so many lighting technicians to thank for making the shot. An acoustic guitarist doing the same thing for 3 songs can be illuminated in mesmerising ways thanks to lighting choices.
A good music photographer? I am still learning about that. I think to be really good, to stand out, you need to have a passion for your subject. If it has become a means to an end or “just a job”, this will reflect in your work. Of course, there’s the technical know-how. Researching your artist and what they do on stage and when they do it, gaining the most of lighting on offer and reacting to it all in very tight time constraints. This all helps!
What advice would you give to someone getting started?
Try not to get bogged down in others. I am still working on this mantra. Don’t compare yourself, feel inspired by other work, driven, but not inferior to! There are a million photographers, but no one can take exactly the same photograph as you, embrace that.
And of course the cliche. Practice, practice, practice. We all say the same thing but get used to being in a pit, they are hectic and tough conditions to work in. Photograph bands/artists who are also starting out and get used to being in the environment and what works best for you. If it’s portraiture, practice with your partner or your friend, experiment with lighting, settings etc. Know everything about your camera. If you are confident in your technical ability, you can put all your energy into creativity - the most important bit!
How did you go about building a portfolio?
It takes time and I did do stuff for free. I’m not sure I would advise this though. I think everyone should be paid even if it’s a comparatively low fee, something that at least recognises your time and work and how expensive it is for you to actually do the job. You have to weigh up what it’s worth to you. There’s not a great deal of money in the music industry, not for photography anyway, but without photographers, artists wouldn’t have promotional material, so there’s massive value in it!
Shoot a lot of shows. Some stages and lighting won’t set the world on fire, others will, so keep the odds in your favour in getting a good variety of work.
What are your top tips you can give to any music photographer?
Get yourself decent equipment. A good camera and lens that can handle low light is really important.
Follow the rules! Don’t annoy the staff in the pit, don’t annoy the artist and try your best to be respectful of the crowd. It’s their dream come true, it’s their moment to cherish, don’t perch in front of one person for 3 songs just to get “the shot”. Empathy is everything! Move about and be friendly.
Believe in yourself, don’t focus on others unless it inspires you! Discover your own style which might take time, but let it happen naturally.
What are some post-processing techniques that can enhance your music photography?
I put a lot of value in post-processing. It’s part of making the art! Don’t be hasty or lazy, just because the world needs everything straight away. Respect your work and if there is a tight deadline, be more decisive. This is all dependent on your client though. If they need imagery right away and are paying you, don’t be snobby about it and fulfill the brief. Or don’t work with them if it compromises your work.
Don’t go OTT in post, bring the image alive, it might be a 2-second tweak or 30-minute thorough edit but don’t go overkill in the hope of making it a killer shot.
How do you create a distinctive style and visual identity in your music photography?
There are a lot of music photographers and a lot of amazing ones at that. It’s one of the more cool and desirable areas of photography to work in. This makes it hard to stand out from the crowd and therefore finding a style that’s your own is key. I believe this comes naturally with time and passion.
I think having “stand out” as your main aim is probably not beneficial to your work or your mental well-being. Art is subjective and making art has to come instinctively to an extent. Finding an approach and style that makes you feel happy is my advice. If it’s depicting an artist as technically astute as possible, then that’s your “gig”. If it’s long exposures on a medium format Rolleicord, then great! But don’t do things just for the sake of it. Trends don’t last but art does! Striving to be different will probably lead to a miserable slog. Without a doubt, it’s good to be distinctive but I doubt that will come without believing in your methods or enjoying them. Let your taste dictate the image, not what others say is on trend.
I think there’s a growing obsession to be different which inevitably ends up taking away from the initial photographic aims in the first place. You’re capturing a moment in time, in a way that brings you and others enjoyment. A sharp image manipulating light, shape and composition is still a magical process.
When shooting a live show, how do you prepare? What challenges do you typically face?
Good preparation is crucial. Don’t try to be cool. Do your homework, charge everything, clear SD cards and have backups! Clean your lenses and sensors. If you are ready in every possible way technically, you can put all your energy into the creative process. Clear desk, clear mind yada yada yada.
Know your artist. When does the lead singer walk over to the lead guitarist? When do they jump off the riser? When is the lighting perfect for a silhouette? When do they light the crowd? And so on.
You can’t be too prepared as it’s such a volatile area of photography to work in with some very tight time constraints. You often only have 2 or 3 songs to get it right. The lighting can be crap, the stage can be high, you may only be allowed to shoot from a specific area. So be ready for it to go wrong and be ready to react to it. Have a good energy about you and remain positive. Do the best you can with challenging parameters! Often limitations bring out the best images.
Do you have a preference of working on location/on tour vs in a studio?
I think there’s an electricity about a live performance which is unbeatable personally. It’s unpredictable, raw and organic. Hearing the crowd scream behind you, you know you’re part of a moment. However, a good portrait or band shoot is satisfying. It’s an area of photography I’ve explored more in recent years and I do really enjoy a good studio shoot. But in some ways, there’s more pressure in the latter. You’re in control but you have to encourage poses, set up lighting and think creatively on the spot. It’s an entirely different challenge.
Creativity / Inspiration
In your opinion, what distinguishes a remarkable photograph from an ordinary one? What elements do you priorities when framing your shots?
I know it’s cheesy but there’s something fascinating about a moment that’s captured in time by an individual. “I think, therefore I am”. Someone’s instinct, someone’s impulse and someone’s choice in that split second. It’s what will always separate us from AI. No image can be exactly the same and there’s a thrill in that. So when it comes to composition, it’s letting it flow naturally and shooting for something that ticks a subconscious box in your head of “this looks good”.
There are styles that are more appealing than others for me. I often like minimalist imagery using space and the rule of thirds. I do find some photographers are amazing at utilising available light too, creating atmosphere and encapsulating emotion in artists.
There’s also a huge element of luck involved and being in the right place at the right time. The really remarkable and iconic shots often depend on something happening in that fleeting moment that's memorable, poignant or simply beautiful.
Do you think there’s a genre of music that naturally lends itself to photography?
Probably not. But a high-profile rock concert offers a lot in terms of lighting, stage presence and set design. On the flip side, there’s something striking about a solo performer bathed in a white spotlight. Capturing different genres keeps things fresh and opens your eyes to other cultures, sounds and styles outside your taste or comfort zone. Which is a great thing.
Who is someone, alive or dead, you’d love to photograph?
Sadly a lot of obvious ones are no longer with us. I would have loved to have photographed The Beatles, to witness that miracle alone would be sensational, forget capturing it. It was a dream to photograph Paul McCartney in Liverpool though. Bob Marley, David Bowie and Amy Winehouse are a few inspirational artists that would have been amazing to shoot.
I really want to photograph Little Simz at the mo. She’s awesome. Maybe some big hip-hop acts too. I’ve not really dipped my toes into that genre. Eminem, Kendrick Lamar or Snoop would be really cool. Oooh Beyoncé too!
Working with artists:
Can you share an interesting or memorable experience you've had while collaborating with an artist?
I’ve been incredibly lucky to have a few dreams come true. There’s one moment that stands out early on in my music photography days. I had been a fan of Australian band The Cat Empire since I was 12 years old. As an adult, I had the opportunity to work with them at Glastonbury Festival capturing two shows, one opening the festival on the Other Stage and the other headlining The Avalon. There were two goosebump inducing moments to note. Firstly, shooting from the stage and looking out at the mammoth Glasto crowd was mind blowing. The horn section souring, my favourite band, it was mad. The second moment was backstage after the first set. I had to quickly edit some files for them to use on socials and send them to management (sweat on!). It turned out that the band and management decided to gather around a laptop to review the images in front of me. Seeing the band ponder over the shots, discussing which ones they liked was surreal and a wonderful, somewhat groundbreaking moment in my career.
It would be wrong of me not to mention my recent and possibly greatest achievement in photography so far. I joined up with Arctic Monkeys for the last leg of their world tour in Ireland. A favourite band of mine and the biggest on the planet in my opinion. They felt like the most distant of dreams, the peak of all aims and ambition and it somehow came together. I could write pages on my experiences in Ireland. It was an emotional thing that still hasn’t sunk in.
How does the photographic process differ between working with introverts and extroverts?
This is an interesting question. I am a classic contradiction myself, being an introvert who is a people person. This has meant shoots being a challenge at times. I am not your pushy, bossy or bolshy photographer and this is reflected within my subjects. I suppose my job is easier when dealing with extroverts. They can exude confidence and enjoy the attention and spotlight. An introvert working with an introvert can sometimes make for an uncomfortable situation, but over the years I have learned to bring out the extrovert in me to make people feel comfortable in front of the camera. It might be fake and I feel like an actor but I suppose lots of us have to act in our jobs at times.
I love working with both ends of the spectrum.
Have you ever been starstruck when photographing someone? How do you overcome that?
I would feel very starstruck in the early days but now, work mode really does take over. There’s so much to concentrate on, your mind can’t help but see these artists, these stars, as just another subject you need to photograph. Of course, you get used to it too, but there’s always someone larger than life that makes you feel like that little kid again. I think if I was to meet Flea or Anthony Kiedis, I would turn mute.
I bumped into Alex Turner backstage in Ireland and gave the squeakiest, cringiest “hey Alex”, I got a cool crooner “hey” back so it was all good. I love that there are still people in the world who can make me feel like that. Being a fan of something or someone is a really lucky feeling to have.
I worked with Self Esteem a few times on her recent tour. Photographing on stage at Wembley Stadium and at her final show in her hometown Sheffield. Yet I didn’t ever meet her. I was a phantom photographer! Probably too scared and intimated, these people are so powerful on stage, they’re so cool and in their fame and social media presence, I guess it can be scary to rock up and just say hello for the sake of it. You hope these moments come naturally with a beer after the gig, but sticking to the work serves me and them well on the whole.
Business / Social Media:
How has social media shaped music photography, both as a craft more generally, as well as your personal work?
Social media is both a bane and a blessing. I adore the fact I can share a photo and potentially hundreds or thousands of people can see it and like it, comment on it, share it. It’s still a novel thing and an awesome thing at that. The buzz you get when an artist uses your photo is a thrill in itself. I guess social media has opened the door to collaboration which is great.
But there are so many negatives too. Social media is challenging and poisonous at times. Without going off on a tangent and sticking to music photography, I think due to the sheer amount of content, it can be overwhelming. It’s heavily saturated and hard to really appreciate photos for what they are. It’s a quick scroll, it’s a flippant “like”.
It can be very competitive which leaves you with a negative feeling at times. The way achievements come and go can result in massive highs which quickly turn to debilitating lows. It feels like everyone is trying to outdo one another and it’s incredibly difficult not to compare yourself with others. “If only I got that shot at that moment.” “Why was I not standing there?” “How did they work with that artist?” “How did they capture that type of shot?” It breeds insecurity and it negates worth in work and art. So this is a massive question and subject for me. I think it drives creativity but also squanders it. It creates trends and reasons to capture subjects in certain ways in order to fit within an algorithm which of course is not why anyone started doing anything artistic originally. It’s recently got to the point where if you are a photographer rather than a videographer, you are punished in the algorithm world where stills do not get viewed anywhere near as much as a video. I guess it's thrown a lot of doubt into the authenticity of art and what makes it what it is online.
Hopefully, there will be future platforms where commercialism and gaining clicks don’t take precedence.
What are some common mistakes new photographers make when starting out on the business side of things, and how can they be avoided?
If I’m honest, I’m not aware of many common mistakes being made. I would suggest creating clear boundaries for work time. Don’t burn out trying to “make it” as this will impact your love for the job and your work. It’s not easy getting paid to photograph music, so you do have to work hard but that doesn’t mean you work all day and all night.
Striking the balance of being humble yet retaining a level of self-respect is important. There’s value in your art and your work if someone is open to acquiring your services. You don’t want to miss out on an opportunity that might open more doors but at the same time, you deserve your work and time to be recognised. It’s a really tricky one to nail but being communicative is key. A good communicator who is clear and concise yet realises the opportunity will benefit your approach. Present your work beautifully. Don’t write too much (I’m one to talk) and don’t undersell yourself.
Get a professional to create a good contract for you.
Get free food!
In one word, how would you describe your photography?