The Do’s and Don’ts of Taking An Artist Photo

The rapper YG, photographed by Misha Vladimirskiy for the series "My Own Devices"
The rapper YG, photographed by Misha Vladimirskiy for the series "My Own Devices"

A seasoned photographer shares tips and tricks for getting the perfect shot.

We all know the old saw that a picture is worth a thousand words. According to Misha Vladimirskiy, it could also be worth a thousand streams. As you might expect from a photographer and dedicated music fan, sometimes he’ll listen to an artist just because he likes their Spotify profile picture—and he's not alone.

"I'm of a smaller tier of people that does that, because I'm visual," he admits, but he also insists that artists that don't take the time to get a good image are missing an opportunity to win fans. "A photo is really important for marketing and promotion, because that's also something that people will maybe post on their profile and share. And if your photo looks like poo, then sharing is...not going to [happen] as much."

Vladimirskiy got his start in party planning and promotion, documenting his friend's SF club nights and eventually transitioning into photography. He was one of the first to shoot Lady Gaga, has done portraiture and live shots of artists ranging from Phoenix to The Rolling Stones, and cofounded the creative agency FilterlessCo. While established artists usually have some media training and “know their shit,” he’s used to coaching the less experienced through the process. Naturally, he’ll bring his own ideas to the table, but he says it’s always best when the musician and photographer are actually collaborating.

“It really is up to them what they feel they want. And I think it's really important to trust yourself, as an artist,” he says. “And luckily a lot of bands have a vision. Sometimes that vision's a little skewed and you have to push it to the right side.”

Two Gallants
Two Gallants

He admits that thanks to the proliferation of digital cameras “everyone is a photographer." But he thinks it is still worthwhile to pay a professional to take your photo. "You can tell," he says. "Not always, but you can tell when they went the cheap route." There are plenty of young photography professionals that are trying to build a portfolio and will be willing to work for a few hundred bucks. So whether you've just signed your first deal or are uploading your first single, here are Vladimirskiy’s thoughts on what to look for when hiring a photographer—and the pitfalls to avoid. (We're looking at you, brick wall.)

Take Some Time to Get to Know Your Photographer

Every artist is different, and that applies to both musicians and photographers, so Vladimirskiy suggests you take some time and talk with a photographer to make sure you click before they start clicking.

"Don't just go with someone because they're famous. Find somebody you actually like, and that you get along with," Vladimirskiy says. "And then meet with that person and chat with them. Just because you like somebody's work does not mean that they're gonna be the person that you want to work with. They might have a style that makes you uncomfortable, and then the photos aren't gonna come out well."

You might be in a hurry, but it's worth it to take a few minutes and really talk about the image and what you want to convey, rather than rush in and rush out, which sometimes happens but is not ideal, Vladimirskiy says. "I really hate when they're like, 'You have five minutes.' And you're just like, 'Thanks, dude.’" Not only will you get a better image if you and the photographer establish a rapport, but you never know where things could lead.

"Maybe that photographer is the guy who does a lot of photos for a really great magazine or a really massive brand," he says. "Your manager might not even know. And all of a sudden you're getting a phone call because that guy is shooting a campaign for Nike, and he's like, 'I love you guys.' You never know."

Stand Your Ground

Vladimirskiy has heard his share of horror stories, from bands feeling pressured to wear high-fashion couture for magazine shoots to photographers pushing their dodgiest creative ideas on their clients. This usually doesn’t fly, “but there's that 10% of the time where the bands say ‘Okay, I'll try it.’ Then later, obviously, there's a lot of regret.” Just remember that you can always say no.

Also, don’t feel the need to tolerate disrespectful comments or actions that make you uncomfortable.

“I've seen it happen. The photographer will say something and the band's just like, ‘Wow, wow, okay,’” he says. “It usually happens when there's a female singer and the photographer, whether it's a man or a woman, will say something really bizarre. And then it's downhill.” Just remember that you are paying them and you don’t have to put up with bad behavior. “You should always feel comfortable on set. You should never feel like somebody's not listening and somebody's doing something you really don't want them to do.”

Be Yourself. Not Someone Else.

You want to look your best for your photo. But you also want to look like yourself. Vladimirskiy says that styling and thinking about your clothing choices ahead of time is useful, and it's best to shoot for being the best possible version of who you are, not some other artist. "I've definitely seen stuff where you're like, ‘Wow, you stretched it there buddy. Come on, be yourself.’”

He stresses that he likes stylists, but as with photographers, it's important to make sure you find the right one. If you are fundamentally a beard-and-flannel type, don’t fight it—embrace it. "It's great to have a stylist. But you also need a stylist that understands you as a band," he says. "You can't have a stylist that tries to stick you in cool outfits because it's a thing. It's gonna fail, it's gonna backfire, you're gonna look like a penguin."

Makeup? It's Up To You

As with a stylist, paying extra for a makeup artist might be the right call, but Vladimirskiy insists that artists shouldn't feel pressure to go overboard or reach for a look that just doesn't work for them.

"It really depends," he says. "Sometimes it's great, especially for the overall aesthetic. It's up to the person, if they want it. I personally am not a huge fan of, 'You have to have perfect makeup, you have to have all this stuff because you're a musician.' Your visual aesthetics should be related to what you are."

As always, artists shouldn't feel pressured to do anything that feels inauthentic.

"You have to be honest and transparent about yourself,” he says. "It's often forced on women. And I don't really think it's fair, the whole thing of the perfect skin or the perfect makeup. That shouldn't be the life of the singer. If somebody's comfortable getting makeup done and they love it, then they should. If they're not, then why force it, basically."

Don't Be Afraid To Go For The Big Swing

Bands on their first album or signed to a small label might not have the resources to hire, say, a David LaChapelle or Anton Corbijn. But it can't hurt to ask. Music photographers are music fans first and foremost, and while it's not a good idea to get your hopes up, you just might get lucky. Assuming you're good, of course.

Vladimirskiy says that "there are so many photographers that are really well known that definitely shoot small bands," pointing to the example of Danny Clinch, a close associate of Pearl Jam who has photographed Johnny Cash and 2Pac. "He's a dude that can walk into Springsteen's dressing room. Or walk on stage while whatever band is playing," he says. "I've seen him shoot bands where I'm like, 'There's no way they can afford Clinch.' He does it for the love of it. I say it in a corny way, but I think he's does it because he's like, 'These guys deserve a chance. I make enough money.'"

Have a Concept

Vladimirskiy admits that he has his tastes and personal pet peeves, and gets very annoyed whenever limbs get cut off in photos. But he concedes that there’s no real rules about what makes for a good photo. Anything is theoretically on the table, as long as the photographer and the artist have a clear vision that makes sense.

"I'm not a huge fan of flip-flops. If they're wearing flip flops and they're walking down the street in Manhattan, I think somebody should have said, 'Listen, I know that's your personal style, but it looks a little poopy.' But walking in flip flops in mud, that's kind of rad. It's just the setting. It's really just about the image."

But Seriously, Don’t Do Any of These

While anything is theoretically possible, there are a few things that Vladimirskiy urges newbies to avoid.

1) Don't Get Your Photo Taken Against a Brick Wall

"Dude, seriously, haven't we seen that a million and a half times?"

2) Don't Make "Cool Rock Guy" Faces

"It happens to men, it happens to women," he says. "I’ll tell them, ‘Can you just relax?’"

3) Concepts Are Great, But Don't Ignore Common Sense

"I've seen some '80s and even '90s albums covers where it was just like, 'Did somebody not say something? This is just bad...' Where people are wearing pirate clothing."

4) Don't Forget About Your Friend The Search Engine

"Do some research. Don't just go with somebody that has a big name. You should look into it, because what if he's got skeletons in his closet? You don't want that. In this day and age, this is very earnest advice."

—Michael Tedder

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