Talking Shop is a series where women, trans and non-binary folks in the music business give you a behind-the-scenes look at their day-to-day lives. Talking Shop was created with the philosophy that representation matters, not only for performers, but for all careers in the music industry. The series demystifies jobs in music with the goal inspiring younger generations to pursue their dream job.
Sara Fish is a freelance concert photographer based in Minneapolis. Completely self-taught when it comes to photography, Fish has developed her own tight-framed and true-colored style. Since her early days of sneaking her camera into venues, Fish has now established herself within the local scene and regularly shoots at venues like First Avenue, the Fine Line, Palace Theatre, and Xcel Energy Center.
Name: Sara Fish (she/her/hers)
Job Title: Freelance concert photographer
What does being freelance mean as a photographer? How do you usually find work?
It’s funny, I find a lot of work nowadays because of social media, which sounds super millennial, but it’s incredibly helpful. I’ve gotten some of my highest-paying gigs from Instagram; someone will repost a photo— someone from Red Bull reached out to me, and now I work with Red Bull. Artists who I’ve worked with in the past will send photos to their record label, and people from the record label will contact me.
I like not working for one company specifically, or having anyone else own my photos but me. Finding clients can be a struggle sometimes, but there is always a show coming through, when someone doesn’t have a photographer and they need some photos, or they need some sort of event worked on. I’ll do portraits too, but I don’t prefer that kind of work.
What does a typical work day, or work week look like for you?
I don’t even know if I have a typical one. It varies a lot. I also do have a part-time job; I work at Electric Fetus. I’ll be there for 20 hours a week, and then I usually have three or four shows to cover [per week]. That is a commitment. It doesn’t sound like much, but you get to the show, editing, everything. Most people like a fast turnaround, which makes sense, so I’ll be up all night editing, barely sleep, go into work, and go to another show. So it’s kind of exhausting, and I do wear myself out pretty frequently, but I can’t really complain about it because I do love what I do.
It does vary though. Because some months will slow down completely when there aren’t shows coming through. That’s actually why I had to pick up a part-time job and why I kept doing more portrait work.
Could you walk me through the process of shooting and editing? When you get to a show, how do you set up and what are you doing throughout the show?
I like to get there 15 minutes to half an hour before the first band’s set time. I’ve been told that I look very unapproachable, because I’m in my zone; I have earplugs in, I’m just focusing in, dialing in the settings on my camera. Usually when the show starts I’m very much in my head— I’m in my zone.
When I do a lot of shows back-to-back it gets a little mundane, and I do have a very specific way that I frame photos, and every photo ends up looking the same to me. So I’l try shooting double exposures or weird light trails; doing different stuff to make it more interesting for me and diversify my work.
I’m completely self-taught when it comes to photography, so I have actually no idea what I’m really supposed to be doing, but I just do it to where it works for me. I don’t even like editing in front of other photographers, because I’m like, I don’t know if what I’m doing is right— but it works. There is probably an easier way to do it, or a better way to do it, but this is what I do for myself.
I don’t use presets in Lightroom, I do pretty much every photo on its own. I usually put them all through Lightroom and then Photoshop if a couple shots need it. I like to take out little distractions in the back, like little specks of dust flying around, to just make it cleaner. It can take a while; shooting shows at the Entry or Fine Line, where the lighting isn’t that great is a bit of a struggle. I usually get done by like 2 in the morning, and then I try to go to sleep.
Do you have any tips for anyone who is aspiring to do the teach-yourself approach? Do you have any resources that you used, or was it mostly trial and error?
Completely trial and error. I’d say, my biggest tip is just keep taking photos. When I first started I was terrible— I was really bad. I can pull up old photos, they were not good. I learned by just doing it. I would sneak my camera into venues before I could get a photo pass, hide it in my bag. It did help meeting other photographers. Because now when I go to shows there are the same kind of people who cover every show, and getting to know some of them and seeing how people approach things differently is really helpful. I’d say just keep taking photos and messing with Lightroom until you figure out what you like.
Do you have any other tips on building your network or getting to know other photographers in your scene?
It really helps to go to a lot of shows, I guess. Before I even started really shooting here, I was a regular concert-goer. I met my friend Darin [Kamnetz] who shoots for everyone, and he’s probably one of the best photographers in Minneapolis; so I knew him even before I knew him [professionally].
There are a lot of people who will look at a girl or a younger person with a Canon Rebel, a starter camera, and they’ll be like, “Mmhm, ok.” I still get that from some people, and I have a pretty solid portfolio to back myself up; I’m pretty confident in my work nowadays. But just starting out, it can be really intimidating and daunting. But just don’t take yourself too seriously, don’t compare yourself to others— that’s really important, but so much easier said than done. Just go to a lot of shows, sneak your camera in where you can, and talk to people, I guess.
How did you develop your own shooting and editing style? What are some places that you look to for inspiration?
That’s interesting, because for the longest time I didn’t think I would have a style. It’s very hard for me, and I’m sure as an artist in general, to look at your work objectively. I would look at [my work] and be like, “Everything is so different, I don’t do anything that is the same.” I could look at my friend’s page on Instagram, and be like, that’s clearly my friend Patrick, that’s his unique style. And I would look at mine and be like, it’s all over the place.
As I kept shooting I noticed that the way I frame things is very my style. There are some people who like to do cool colors with split-toning; one of my friends always does blue and oranges, there is another girl who does pink and blues. I like to keep colors what they were, which is just my choice. They are completely different styles, and all are amazing photographers, but I’m big about making skin-tones look like skin-tones and blacks look black, whites look white. That’s not for everyone; some people don’t like it, but that’s what I try to do. I think that is what can really define my style I guess.
What is your usual gear setup? What type of camera and lenses do you typically use?
I have a Canon 5D Mark IV, usually with a 24-70mm lens, and then I have a Canon 6D with a 70-200mm lens. Whatever I’m primarily shooting with is the 5D Mark IV, and if it’s a smaller venue I’ll have the 24-70, if it’s a larger venue or festival or tall stage where I need a reach, I’ll put on the 70-200. Typically I prefer tighter-frame shots rather than wide-frames, so I do use a 70-200 a little bit more. I do have other lenses, like 50mm, but those are my go-to’s for almost everything.
What was the process like of finding the gear that was right for you?
I got the 6D — it’s very old, really beat up — I got it from one of my friends who switched to Nikon. That was a big step up, because before that I had a [Canon] Rebel T2i which is like everyone’s starter camera. To go from that and jump up several notches to a full-frame camera was amazing. I lucked out with that one.
I really recommend going to camera stores and talking to the people who work there, because they know their shit. Specifically, I go to either West Photo in Northeast and National Camera— those guys are super helpful. I came in one day, it was because I got approved for Cage the Elephant, who is one of my favorite bands, and I did not have the right lens for it. So I was like, okay, I’m shooting Cage the Elephant tomorrow, I need a lens that is good for low light and has a solid zoom, so that’s when I got my 24-70mm.
Everything is very expensive, so you have to be aware of that. Renting lenses is also helpful; both National Camera and West Photo will rent lenses. And they will both always sell used stuff. Almost all of my gear is used, which is nice for the price point, obviously, and everything works fine. I just have to tighten my lens a couple times before every show because it’s falling apart a little, but it’s worth it. My flashes are all used, everything.
How did you get started in concert photography?
I had a side-hobby of photography, but I wasn’t that into it. There was one specific show that I can look back on, and it was December of 2012 that my friend wanted to see this band Grouplove, one of my favorite bands. We got there super early to volunteer and set up, and I ended up bringing my camera just to snap photos around. I ended up having my camera on me, and we ended up being in the front row all day. I was like, this is really fun. All of the photos are bad— they’re really bad. But it was really fun for me to work around people. I don’t like portrait work because I don’t like directing people or posing them; so it’s the challenge of working with lights and moving subjects who aren’t posing for you. So it was just one show specifically that got me into that.
Are there any aspects of working as a freelance photographer that have been challenging, and how did you get over those things?
I struggle a lot with mental health issues like anxiety, depression, bipolar; specifically the bipolar thing gets in my way a lot, because I have depressive episodes where I don’t want to do anything, and in freelance photography you have to make yourself work. No one is making you work. It’s really hard; sometimes the only thing keeping me going is, I need money; I will be evicted if I don’t make money and pay rent. It is a struggle, but it helps that I do genuinely love taking photos. When I force myself to get out, and I actually get out, I have a good time. But it’s the getting myself out there that’s really difficult sometimes.
I have a couple freelance photographer friends who also struggle with that kind of stuff, and we are there for each other. It’s nice to have someone who really understands exactly what your situation is.
Is there anything you wish you knew when you were first starting out?
Don’t be intimidated by other photographers; I have a crazy setup with two cameras and crazy lenses, and I would see that starting out and be like, “Oh my god, I don’t belong here, they’re going to judge me for using my nifty fifty and tiny camera.” But you can crush it with any gear. Gear doesn’t make the photographer, the photographer makes the photographer.
You can find more of Sara Fish’s work at her website. You can also find her on Twitter and Instagram.