Everyone’s spent their summer at some point jostling with a crowd of thousands in a vain attempt to snap a band playing far off on the horizon. Most of us are lucky if we get the odd photo of a lit-up speck in the distance, partially blocked by hundreds of hands. Getting a front of line, close-up image is something many of us can only dream of.
For Ellen Offredy, however, getting front stage access – and sometimes backstage – has become a mere formality. The 20 year-old University of Sheffield student has been a freelance music photographer for the past two years, and has spent this summer travelling to some of the country’s biggest festivals, catching artists at their best mid-jam. We asked how she worked her way into the most ideal summer a student can have without leaving home.
1. So what exactly is your job at the moment?
I’m a freelance music photographer, I work for various magazines and online publications to help provide coverage of live music events across the country. It usually just involves me grabbing my camera and jumping on a bus, train or in a taxi to wherever I’m being sent. Sometimes it’s planned way in advance and others it’s a case of “this is happening in an hour, can you go?”, like the impromptu Slaves gig in Manchester Piccadilly Gardens recently.
I also freelance for bands and artists, so sometimes they take me on tour or to festivals with them and I work for them directly. I think I prefer the latter because I usually get access to the stage instead of just the photo pit when I’m working for the artist, so you get some really unique shots!
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2. How did you get into it in the first place?
I originally went to university to do a degree in Korean Studies because I adore learning about different cultures and languages. I was really keen on going into government intelligence and working in translation, but three weeks into the degree I realised that actually I wasn’t about that at all.
I decided I really wanted to work in music, whether it be as a musician, a music journalist, managing artists, putting on events, anything. At the time, music journalism seemed like the easiest option so I transferred to a Journalism degree instead.
To start with I was that kid that would turn up to gigs on my own and sit in the corner scared to talk to anyone and go home and write it up on my blog. But eventually I started talking to people and before I knew it I’d made this whole network of contacts (most I now like to call friends) who were willing to help me get on my feet.
I started writing for little known magazines, working my way up to national publications. Last summer one of them (British American Media) sent me to Y Not Festival and asked if I could take some pictures too, but I didn’t even own a camera. I decided to buy a bog standard DSLR and see how I got on. Turned out I actually wasn’t too bad at it, and from there I started teaching myself photography, upgraded my kit and now I don’t really write anymore, I just take pictures.
3. How did you go about teaching yourself photography?
The internet is your best friend when you’re trying to learn something new. I first set about Googling concert photography but to be honest it didn’t help much, so I just searched for settings in different lighting conditions, got my head around ISO and aperture, shutter speeds and so on. I’m still not 100% sure what all of that means or does, I just know certain things work and certain things don’t. I also had some great advice along the way from other photographers and I’m incredibly grateful for the support I got.
4. You said you prefer working directly with bands – are there any bands who were particularly memorable?
Earlier this year Bang Bang Romeo took me down to the Isle of Wight Festival to shoot their set. They were a great bunch to work with and I had so much fun. We drove down in the van and everyone was so hyped up and excited, it was all just a bit ridiculous. Someone brought a yoda torch and we were making it mime to their songs and it was just hilarious.
They have so much energy and enthusiasm on stage, I got some really great photos and I got to film some of the set and behind the scene too. That weekend as a whole was just great. I think it’s that which has inspired me to start taking serious bookings for tour photography. Being on the road with them was heaps of fun, I want that again.
I’ve always liked to travel around a lot too, so touring is ideal for me. I could sit in the back of a van and just look out of the window for hours on end and never get tired of it. Then to arrive at a destination, get my camera out and be ready to go and get ‘the shot’, man, what a great feeling.
I always get this incredibly weird sense of being proud of the band too. I love seeing audiences respond to the music and get really into it. Some of my favourite shots are ones I’ve taken from the back of the venue where you can see everyone really going for it. Or from the back of the stage, the kind of view the artist has. It’s incredible.
5. Explain to me how you’re feeling when you’re at the front of a gig, and the band and crowd are really going for it? How do you keep focused on the job at hand?
Usually you only get to shoot the first three songs so you don’t have much choice but to focus, if you don’t get the shot in those songs you’ve missed your chance. Once I said at the end of a gig ‘oh, they didn’t play x song’ and my friends were like yes they did, they played that first. That’s when I realised just how focused I am when I’m in the photo pit. It’s almost like I completely switch off and I just see everything through the lens, all other senses are irrelevant.
6. Are there any other photographers or music journalists in particular you look up to?
There’s a photographer I follow on instagram called Joshua Halling and his shots are incredible. I’m still trying to work out just how he does it but I’m really inspired by his work. I’ve been following him for a long time now and seeing him go from one level to the next has been amazing. If one day I can be half as good as he is, I’ll be made up.
7. How has your student media experience helped you so far?
Student media has been a big part of my career so far. When I joined Forge Radio I was quite shy and scared to say anything, but radio has really benefited my public speaking and helped me with interviewing skills. It also boosted my confidence incredibly alongside making some amazing friends. Without it, I fear I’d still be that person in the corner of a gig scared to talk to anyone. I’ve also got to know tech equipment and learn a lot about sound, which of course is all relevant in music!
8. You’ve still got one more year of uni left – are you going to be working part-time during it?
The work with DIY magazine [Ellen’s current employer] will be quite similar to freelancing, so it’s as and when I can make it to photograph the gigs. I’m really determined to make it in the music industry and for me this is just a stepping stone. I’ve got quite a few eggs in bigger baskets so to speak and music photography falls somewhere in the middle ground.
It’s hard to make a living from unless you get hired for some big tours, but I do love it and I think (although I probably shouldn’t say this) I do prioritise it over my studies sometimes. When a good opportunity comes up I find it impossible to say no. I’m currently looking at getting in on some tours this winter, so fingers crossed my degree won’t suffer too much! Thinking about the long-term though, whatever happens I don’t intend to put down my camera any time soon. Even when I enter full-time work, I’m certain whatever I end up doing will put me in the right place to continue.
9. What advice would you give someone starting out in music photography who feels as shy and nervous as you once did?
My best advice is to just do it. It might seem hard and quite daunting to start with, but if you want something enough, you’ll work for it and do whatever it takes (within reason). It’s easier said than done, but I’ve overcome a lot of obstacles and no doubt there’ll be many more as I’ve still got a long way to go. If I can do it, then anyone can.
And also, remember your work has value. A lot of people expect you to work for free, and admittedly I’m guilty of doing so from time to time, but if people want your photos they should be willing to pay for them, or at least cover your expenses.