Concert photography is an art many believe they can do, but few actually master. It is about framing, lighting, timing and that innate ability to just get the “shot.” Self-taught photographer Nicole Davis has developed into one of the best at it, taking dark, brooding and vibrant photos for concerts, in addition to lifestyle and portrait shots. Her clients have included the likes of Joey Bada$$, Playboi Carti, Tokimonsta, Jessie Reyez, Zeds Dead and Delaney Jane, including others outside of the music business.
We chat with Nicole Davis for our second Industry Insider of the year to learn more about how she got into the business, how she works shows where the conditions aren’t favorable, her process for editing and much more. If you are interested in getting into photography for brands, individuals and music, she is here to impart some important wisdom on the craft and the business.
What is your favorite photo that you have ever taken?
I’d have to say out of all the concerts I've done - definitely any of the photos I took of Jessie Reyez at her Toronto show last year.
How do you manage concerts with less than favorable photographer conditions (low light, tons of fog etc)?
Every venue and every show is so different. Most of the time it’s always a surprise. You never know what you are going to get but I think that’s what makes it fun. If it’s dull lighting or fog, I try to manipulate the light to create a moodier cinematic look. My trick is to take your time to find the one shot, work around the elements and use them to your favor.
What is something about people that you are drawn to when photographing them
Weirdly enough, energy. I’m really big on connecting with the people I work with, so if the depth or story isn’t there - it really loses me. I think that it’s really easy to capture someone who is generally pleasing to the eye, but the only thing for me that really brings something from just a photo to something actually worth looking at twice, is the story behind it.
What do you look for in artists who you might want to shoot?
I’d say the biggest thing for me would be their music. Music is a story in itself so when the music is right - it’s so much easier trying to visually come up with ways to incorporate that story with the artist you are shooting.
How has Instagram changed the way you work? Do you worry about people stealing photos or them not looking great in the IG compression?
I think the platform itself was a great power source for creative, but has now mainstreamed itself so much that it’s really at a loss. Initially, it was a great way to get noticed, interact with people and artists and now it’s a how to beat the algorithm game. No one sees your actual posts, no one interacts as much and the quality of the work gets compressed. It gradually became something that moved away from its initial purpose to artists or entrepreneurs. In a world where most of our connection in personal/work comes from the internet, it really did shift the mindset for what I was creating.
How does working with brands like Remy Martin differ from a musician beyond the obvious concert or press shots versus marketing campaigns?
I feel like they are a whole different beast. When working with artists, they are creative people - so they are open to new ideas and ways to capture things. When you are working on campaigns, a lot of the time, they already have the idea and just need someone to creatively fine tune it or execute it. The biggest difference between the two, is the inability to really be creative. One is more a tool to completion and the other one is being apart of a team and creating something together.
How did you get into the business?
I’ve been in and around the music scene for as long as I can remember now. It wasn't until I moved to Arizona roughly 4 years ago, that I started putting it in the forefront. I started photography as an outlet and a channel to pass the time, and shortly after I started shooting with a local vocalist who was still pretty new to the music industry. In a short period of time and practice, my love for music and that friendship grew my skills and talents immensely - I was inspired. As a person who didn’t really like the spotlight, I saw the music scene as an opportunity to use my talents to help a friend and that pushed my motivation beyond what I could of ever done for myself. Eventually through trial and error, a lot of love/hate for the industry and a few solid people who believed in me, it became something I just grew to love and there was no going back from there.
How much editing do you normally do on shots?
I am big on postproduction and I usually spend anywhere from 20 minutes per photo to two hours editing, depending on the amount of retouching. It takes a lot to be a great photographer but I think it also takes a lot to be a great editor. Without the two, something about the photo never feels complete, so to me every detail counts.
Where did you learn to shoot and edit photos?
I started shooting film way back when I was 19. I would bring my film camera almost everywhere I went. This initially sparked my interest behind the camera, it also taught me everything I knew about light and framing without actually seeing it digitally. I then moved out to Arizona for work about 4 years ago and didn’t know a single person. I started digital photography as a hobby to learn and possibly make new friends. Shortly after, I started shooting with a local vocalist who was still pretty new to the music industry and from there, I was shooting every day since. Everything that I know to date has been self-taught through a lot of trial and error. It has taken years to really find a style that’s really felt like me.