Photographer Spotlight: Sam Rockman
Sam was also a finalist in two categories at this year’s awards - Undiscovered Photographer Of The Year and Underground Scenes. Sam has also been back to our house since his nominations, photographing our most recent Lock-In sessions which you’ll get to see soon!
From building a portfolio and top tips, to post-processing techniques and his creative process, Sam reveals all in our latest spotlight piece.
How did it feel to be nominated in the Abbey Road Studios Music Photography Awards 2023?
It felt amazing - having my photos recognised by basically the world’s most famous music studio and the incredibly talented judges, including Rankin, was amazing and super motivating too. It’s great to know that people love my images and connect with my photography, making me feel like the hard work I put into it is worth it.
Why do you think it is important to create a platform like the MPAs to showcase music photography?
I feel like music photography can sometimes be taken for granted. It’s a tough industry to break into and to add your creative mark to, so having an award show that recognises and showcases new and different talent, opens doors to this vast industry and allows music photographers to shine.
Have you seen any benefits to you since being nominated?
Mentally it's given me a massive drive to keep going and really push forward with my work. I have also been lucky that Abbey Road Studios has since hired me to take photos of artists working in their studios, so that has been an incredible benefit to these awards.
How did you fall into music photography specifically?
I’ve always been a very visual person with a passion for film and photography, but I never really thought of music photography as a career. A friend started up a band called Pengshui and asked me to come and take some photos and videos of them which then turned into 2 years of me following them around taking photos. I really enjoyed the live aspect of photographing them. Such a huge burst of adrenaline running around for 40 mins trying to get the best shot. That sparked my interest but it was when I forced myself to learn flash that I really discovered what I could create from a gig. This inspired me to push the boundaries a bit, not follow the norm - create art rather than just documenting a gig.
Was there a particular image, body of work or photographer that was a major inspiration when starting out?
The first time I shot a gig on flash and saw the results gave me a real boost of motivation and energy to pursue this more. Instagram has helped with showing me a lot of talent but my main inspirations have been JG Visuals and Haunted Mattress. Their creativity within photography to really create a style that is totally theirs is amazing. They have pushed the boundaries of what music photography can be and created incredible images.
What makes a good subject in music photography and what makes a good music photographer?
Every passionate musician is a good subject as they ooze their talent and love for music so you just have to work with that and capture amazing images. I’m still continuing to grow with every shoot, but what I’ve learned so far is that it is important to adapt quickly, be confident and enjoy the music.
What advice would you give to someone getting started?
Keep going - it's a tough world filled with people wanting to do this but push through the crowd and you will make it. You will have to shoot a lot for free but pick artists and bands you like so at least you get guest list to gigs you would have gone to anyway. Look at it as an investment in your craft.
How did you go about building a portfolio?
For 7 months I lived in Camden so I basically tried to shoot a gig at the Underworld every week just to try things out and build a better portfolio.
What are your top tips you can give to any music photographer?
Adapt and evolve. I love using flash but realise I can't do it for every gig so I have started to try to bring my style into the images that I don't use flash for. Break rules, experiment and be passionate about the images you create. You might not please everyone but if you love what you create that energy will bring the right people to you.
What are some post-processing techniques that can enhance your music photography?
Have fun in the edit and play with all the settings. This is an art form so the photos don't have to look realistic, you are documenting a performance but you can still make it look cool. It’s nice to have images that depict the moment as it is but also nice to create something different. I didn’t like editing much until I reached out to another photographer who shared their edit presets with me and it made me realise how much you can change a photo with post-processing.
How do you create a distinctive style and visual identity in your music photography?
I actually don’t think I did anything specific to create my ‘look’, but people say my images have a style. I think my visual identity has formed over time, as I’ve been making videos and photos for nearly 20 years, and it’s also constantly evolving, as I’m learning new things.
When shooting a live show, how do you prepare? What challenges do you typically face?
My routine is normally to meet the artist or band first and do some portrait or group shots. Then get in the pit and get ready. Some people have this whole thing of planning and checking the venue but I like to be in the moment. I do have some social anxiety so big crowds can trigger me but once the music starts and I’m there it’s such a wonderful experience, plus a beer before the show can calm the nerves.
Do you have a preference of working on location/on tour vs in a studio?
Small dark venues are my favourite but then it’s also nice being in a studio with a much slower pace. I really enjoy being on tour as well, so this is something I really want to do much more of. If any bands need a photographer for tour drop me a message!
Creativity / Inspiration
Can you share some insights into your creative process? Are there any specific techniques or equipment you prefer to use?
I love flash but know it’s not for every job. I also love my Fuji x100v and use it a lot - I would love to change my whole kit to Fuji one day. My creative process is something I can’t really define. I’d love to say it’s very organised and precise but often it’s turning up and going with my gut. I’ve been doing it for years and I feel that being spontaneous and flexible in my approach is the best way for me to get great images. Repetition is the key to success, and I have repeated a lot of similar jobs and it starts to become muscle memory which means once I know I’ve got the shot I can try something new, experiment and learn.
In your opinion, what distinguishes a remarkable photograph from an ordinary one? What elements do you priorities when framing your shots?
I think remarkable photographs happen when you break the rules and follow your gut. Creating art, rather than just creating an image, and capturing feelings and moments, is the priority for me. I want the viewer to hear the music, feel the energy in the room, and be immersed in the moment.
Do you think there’s a genre of music that naturally lends itself to photography?
All music works well with photography. I think different genres work with different styles. My style does fit better to smaller venues with louder music and an energetic crowd.
Who is someone, alive or dead, you’d love to photograph?
Viagra Boys. 100%. Please take me on tour.
Working with artists:
How does your approach differ when working with upcoming talent versus established artists?
I don’t think I change my approach. We are all humans trying to create art from a place of passion. Sometimes established artists can be more comfortable in front of the camera and know what they want, but emerging artists might be more willing to experiment and try things out. So I love working with both.
Can you share an interesting or memorable experience you've had while collaborating with an artist?
I absolutely love my job; it's incredibly varied, making every day interesting and memorable. Throughout my career, I've had some amazing experiences. Standout moments include photographing iconic artists like Limp Bizkit, Dabbla, and Foreign Beggars—artists I've been listening to since my youth. There's a unique thrill in capturing the energy of new bands especially if you haven’t listened to their music yet, such as Knife Bride and Burns Well, and being blown away by their performances. One unforgettable memory is photographing Show Me The Body as they played a gig in the middle of Brixton Market to the rowdiest crowd I've ever seen. I've even found myself on unexpected adventures, like accompanying a rapper to a gig in Norwich and ending up at a warehouse party at 5 am on the way back. Photographing Onoe Capone stands out as possibly one of the best gigs I've ever captured. There are also moments of seeing members of the audience singing the lyrics to a song - I think those are really magical, especially for newer bands. These moments remind me of the power and impact of music, making my job not only exciting but also deeply fulfilling.
How does the photographic process differ between working with introverts and extroverts?
I think the core process is still the same - you need to capture nice photos of them but the way you approach that might change. I always love a good chat with whoever I am photographing but I think if they are more introverted then that takes a bit of place in the preparation. There might be more conversation at the start just to get comfortable. I’d show them the images a bit more so they can see the process, help them with poses and compliments to boost their confidence. Extroverted people are easier to photograph but the issue comes with ending up talking too much. I have had a couple of shoots where you have to stop the conversation to carry on with the work - but that's not the worst problem to have.
Have you ever been starstruck when photographing someone? How do you overcome that?
I think the aim of capturing the essence of an artist and creating an outstanding imagine, overcomes any feelings of being starstruck. It’s good to remember that we are all humans with similar emotions and the goal is always the same: take photos of them that capture who they are and that they are happy with. Once I was starstuck after a shoot with a DJ I photographed. I knew he was established but it wasn’t until I got home and Googled him that I realised how famous he was, and how incredible his music was.
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 a blessing and curse. It has oversaturated the market with hobbyist and new ‘guru’ photographers getting famous by giving average advice. BUT it’s also an amazing tool to get your work in front of the right people and for you to create a well-curated portfolio that you can share and post. If used right it has amazing potential. I wouldn’t have known about the MPAs if it wasn’t for social media, for example.
What are some common mistakes new photographers make when starting out on the business side of things, and how can they be avoided?
As for any industry, it takes a while to establish your photography as a successful business and I’m still getting to grips with it too. Some people suggest that if you want to make a lot of money in photography then you have to take a business course, which might be a way to go. But as much as I’d love to become super rich off of photography, it is the thing I’m most passionate about and enjoy the most, so I would do it regardless of money. Because of this, I’ve done a lot of work for free initially, which the. resulted in paid work, because people recommended me and spread the word. That’s how a lot of my photography jobs come about - word of mouth. So I would suggest working with as many people as you can, especially in the style of music that you are passionate about, even if they can’t pay much in the beginning, cause it will very often get you bigger jobs down the line.
In one word, how would you describe your photography?