Jack Alexander: Music Photography Newcomer
It’s always heartening to hear about young photographers breaking into challenging industries. Portrait photographer Jack Alexander has done just that. Through determination and persistence, Alexander forged connections in London’s global music scene and developed a career in portrait photography, specializing in musicians. You can read an excerpt from our exclusive interview with Alexander and learn more about his music photography below. Read the complete musician photography interview on Artist’s Market Online or in the 2015 Photographer’s Market.
Keep creating and good luck!
Jack Alexander: Intimate Portraits of the Global Music Scene by Luke McLaughlin
When you are starting out, you may feel that you need tons of expensive gear to become a professional photographer. You might think you need a bagful of reflectors, speedlights, camera bodies, and a lens for every situation. Jack Alexander prefers to leave most of the gear in the studio and head out with only his camera, a Nikon D7000, and his favorite lens, a 50mm 1.4 prime lens.
He uses only this relatively inexpensive lens for all of his portraits and for shooting at concerts. Alexander specializes in shooting casual, intimate portraits of musicians, and his low-gear approach helps keep the subject comfortable, making it seem more like they are just hanging out than on a photo shoot.
A Typical Photo Shoot
Most of Alexander’s shoots are just one-on-one. He usually spends 2 to 3 hours but tries to keep the pace relaxed and natural. “It’s not a strenuous 2 to 3 hours,” he explains: “I prefer for it to be almost as if we were just hanging out.”
He says that an important part of a shoot is talking for a good 10 minutes. He tries to get to know the person he is shooting while walking to a location and finds that that can be really helpful in getting the model to relax. He explains, “Say we will meet somewhere and we are walking to a location—I find that that’s great for just kind of breaking the ice. I think that’s an essential part to any shoot, just warming up. Then I always start with simple, straightforward portraits to get people used to the camera.” Alexander rarely uses photos from the first 15 or 20 minutes of his shoots. He likes his pictures to appear spontaneous and relaxed, and it takes time to find out how comfortable the person is being photographed and how best to work with him or her.
. . . .
To Alexander editing and post-processing are an essential part of making great photos. He explains, “You can take a great photo, but if you can’t edit it to complement the kind of mood that you are going for, you can make or break the photo.” He has made his own Photoshop action in Adobe Photoshop CS3 that applies the common elements of his own basic style to each image, but he uses the Curves tool to set the level and color values for each image by eye. Alexander observes, “I think that Curves are the best thing about Photoshop when you get to know them and realize what they can do; it’s actually quite surprising how much of a difference Curves can make, and it can round a photo off quite nicely. It can make a good photo great.” By individually editing the tone of each image, Alexander has developed a recognizable style while still giving each image a unique look. He likes to use contrast to make his photographs more striking.
Alexander uses a minimal amount of gear in his shoots. He uses the same equipment for pretty much everything. To him the 50mm 1.4 lens is the most essential element of his photography equipment. He explains, “It’s actually quite cheaply priced for what it is capable of producing. I find that it is perfect for portraits. The focus is really nice and really clear, and obviously the depth of field is great as well.” He prefers the optical qualities of prime lenses to zoom lenses and says that it feels strange to use a zoom lens now.
The excellent ISO performance of the D7000 coupled with the wide aperture allowed by the 50mm 1.4 lens means that Alexander can shoot under available light wherever he goes. He uses that combination to great effect for portraits, events, and gigs. He notes, “At a lot of gigs you aren’t allowed to use flash, but the 50mm lets a lot of light in.”
. . . .
It was always photos of people that interested Alexander the most. “There are so many things, the possibilities that you can do with photographing people is kind of endless,” he says. Alexander feels that you can incorporate many other aspects of photography into a portrait. He says that confidence is the most important thing when photographing people. By using equipment that he is comfortable with, he can remain confident and his confidence carries over to the subject.
He always researches ahead of time to learn about the subject’s latest projects and asks questions about what they are working on. He explains, “I always ask about them. If it’s a musician, I do a bit of research and see what they’re up to at the moment. I like to start up a conversation and keep talking to make the shoot just as if we were having a normal conversation.”
. . . .
Becoming a Photographer
Alexander says that while a lot of the things that helped him find success as a photographer have been lucky, he believes you have to work to make your own luck. He kept sending e-mails even if they didn’t seem to be leading specifically to the kind of work he was looking for and kept using every form of social media that was freely available to keep his name out there and his work in view.
Alexander came across a website that does acoustic sessions with musicians in London, and though it didn’t seem like something that would have a budget for a photographer, he followed up anyway. He recalls, “I thought, well, they aren’t really what I am looking for. They don’t look after artists, they don’t really have a budget for anything like this, but I sent the e-mail anyway, and the guy got back to me. We met up and had a talk about what they do and that kind of thing, and it just happened that they were looking for a photographer.”
In addition, that “guy” happened to be a producer for Capital FM, a radio station in London, and drafted Alexander to shoot some big names such as Britney Spears and Olly Murs. Shooting these sessions also helped him meet a whole group of people who work in the music industry in London including the owner of a pop music website, which led to his shooting Ariana Grande, who had just had a number one album in the U.S.
Alexander’s location has been a key to his success. “I have found that being in London has just helped massively,” he explains. “A lot of people here are the same age, working in the same industry, everyone is in the same boat. Some of my friends are managers, some are producers, presenters, and we all watch each others’ backs.” Alexander says that word of mouth is still very important. He continues, “Although we are friends, we work as a team as well. We’ll all look out for jobs for each other or opportunities or competitions, anything like that.”
Alexander uses every social media platform that he can to keep in touch with musicians and fans. He explains, “I use literally every photo social media site you can get. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, deviantART, Flickr. They are all free, so it’s all free promotion.”
Social media has allowed him to reach out to artists directly. He has landed some photo shoots by tweeting musicians, actors, and actresses whom he wanted to work with. He has found that management is much less likely to ignore him if he is already in conversation with their client through social media.
He says that social media also helps him get the smaller jobs that help keep the money coming in, allowing him to stay in London.
Alexander says that the hardest thing when you are starting out is standing your ground when people are trying to get free work from you. He says that a lot of people in the music industry take it for granted that they can get photography done for free. “I have received so many e-mails that say things like ‘You really need to think about what having such a person in your portfolio will do for you,’” he laughs. Also, because he was self-taught, he felt thrown into an industry where he didn’t know the technical terms that industry people use. He had to learn as he went along.
Alexander says that having good contracts in place is crucial to good working relationships with clients. He explains, “I think it’s really important to lay down the ground rules. A lot of the time it can be a kind of blasé affair. There isn’t much decided or set in stone. It can cause problems if you don’t have a contract that everyone has agreed to, which means that everyone knows where they stand and what they are and are not allowed to do with the photos.” He says it can be very damaging and difficult to resolve if you have a disagreement later on about how the photographs can be used.
In the past he has had instances when work that he produced in good faith was used to promote something or bring the client money. and he would have charged more if he had known they were going to be used in that way. Now he is careful to make sure that everyone agrees beforehand how the photographs are going to be used. “If you are organizing a shoot, you’ve got everyone from a photographer, makeup, stylists, managers, PR, and the record label if it’s a musician,” he explains. “There can be quite a lot of people involved in organizing and you kind of all need to be on the same page. It can be confusing about who’s allowed to use the images and what they are going to be used for.”
. . . .
Looking for Faces
Alexander is always looking at faces. He describes it as an obsession. He especially enjoys photographing musicians and actors. “If I want a lot of energy, they’ll always bring it to the table and we just bounce off each other. I like working with different faces all the time.”
If he is walking down a street, he finds that his being a portrait photographer means that he always has an eye open for people to photograph. He will sometimes see a face and feel a need to photograph it. He often approaches people, gives them his card, and asks them if they would be interested in a photo shoot. He explains, “I just love photographing people. It’s like an addiction, I need a fix of it.”
Luke McLaughlin is an American writer based in Oxford, England. Find out more about what he is working on at lucasmclaughlin.com.