Backstage with Katy Cummings
Like the tip of an iceberg, a concert offers only a glimpse into what life on tour is really like. Few people understand what goes on behind the scenes when a band sets off for months at a time, crossing counties, countries and sometimes continents.
Katy Cummings is a music photographer who understands this world all too well, documenting life on the road for touring artists including The Hunna, Circa Waves and Two Door Cinema Club.
To get a look behind the lens and learn more about life as a music photographer, keeping reading as we go #BackstageWith Katy Cummings.
Music photography is such an exciting industry and I’m sure many of our readers will be interested to know how you can create a career in this?
It really is an amazingly exciting field to be in and I feel so lucky I get to do what I really love. I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do way back when. My two passions were music and photography, but I started to pursue a career in fashion photography originally. It wasn’t until I moved to London and started going to gigs every night that I realised I could combine my two passions! I started by looking at what gigs were happening locally every week and contacting their management to ask for photo passes. Someone told me when I was starting out that “the worst thing they can say is no” and that really stuck with me. You really have to just go for it and shoot as much as you can, and once I had a few names and gigs under my belt it became easier as I could show my work to prove what I could do. I also started to contact publications and shooting shows for them. I was super lucky as eventually I was hired by a label to tour with a band and it all kicked off from that point on.
When on tour with a band or artist, I imagine you see all the highs and lows of life on the road. How important is the relationship between you as photographer and the band?
My relationship with the band really is the most important thing, especially when on the road. It’s not the easiest life but your tour bus very quickly becomes your home and the people on tour become your family. It’s essential to really understand when people need space and if you create a really respectful relationship it becomes much easier for band to let you in on those euphoric moments as well as harder times.
The Hunna are a band that I toured with since the beginning of my career and two of them are now godfathers to my two-year-old - you really do become family!
What are the most challenging aspects of photographing live music?
It really depends! If you are shooting a smaller band starting out, sometimes there isn’t much in terms of lighting or if there isn’t a photo pit then you have to get creative. You never really know until you get to the show what you are going to be dealing with.
In terms of when you are on tour, the exhaustion can be a lot! As photographers, you are hired to document each show and produce edits or video ready for the next day, which means you will shoot the show and whilst everyone else crashes in their bunks for the night, you still have to stay up and get your edits done ready for the next day. You really have to be prepared to get very little rest!
Having said that, one of the hardest things is when you get home from a tour, even though you are finally getting some rest, you’re suddenly waking up in the same place every day. It’s really easy to fall into a post-tour depression. You get so used to being on the road and being around everyone - it’s a hard shift getting used to being back home.
How does the type of gig effect the way you photograph? What would you do differently for a 20,000-capacity arena show vs a 500-capacity bar?
They are both amazing in different ways! The smaller venues are really something I enjoy - those small sweaty gigs where everyone feels like they’ve had a moment together. The bands can completely let loose and leave everything on the stage. They are the hardest to shoot but so much fun, and some of my favourite shots are from shows like that.
I remember shooting once with The Hunna where the floor of the venue literally started moving up and down from the weight of everybody jumping, and my lens kept fogging up from the heat in the room. For smaller shows, I take a lot more close-up shots to capture those iconic moments like crowd surfing, mosh pits, and the band really connecting with their fans.
Bigger shows are so different but just as incredible to be a part of. It always feels like a moment in your career when you get to shoot an arena show. When shooting bigger shows, it’s always important to have a long lens for close ups as the stage is always much higher when you are in the pit, but also those stunning wide shots of the whole arena from the back. It’s always a real workout as you can find yourself sprinting to the back of the venue and back to the front for the whole show.
If it’s a band that you know and have toured with, it’s incredibly poignant to see them play the big venues and witness their emotions afterwards! Being a part of the most important moments in their careers is really epic.
I imagine 2020 was a quiet year for a music photographer. Do you have any plans to get back on the road now that live music is returning?
It was hard and I am missing live music so much! I was lucky enough to shoot a couple of socially distanced shows before they were shut down. Every bubble had their own little pen to stand in which was a really weird experience and so strange to shoot, but a moment in history I was grateful to be a part of. I have also been working on more behind the scenes music videos and studio photoshoots with bands for press shots etc.
Myself and my sister, who is also a music photographer, have decided to team up for a little venture (www.thecummingsgirls.com) where we will be creating ‘content’ days for bands. The two of us have very different styles so we thought that teaming up for a day might create a really nice variation of results from a single shoot day. Everyone is in need of new imagery at the moment after a year off, so we are currently busy doing that whilst waiting for live music to return to us!
I am hoping to return to touring towards the end of the year if things go ahead.
First gig, last gig, favourite gig?
The first gig I ever went to (that I can remember) was an epic Elton John show. I went to school in Abu Dhabi for a few years and while I was there, he did an incredible show on the grounds of Emirates Palace which really was something I’ll never forget. However, I remember having to leave early with my mum because it was a school night, and I could hear him singing ‘Your Song’ from the car park as we drove away- heart-breaking!
The last gig I went to was The Hunna at the Virgin Money Unity Arena, one of the socially distanced shows. There was only one more show the next night before it was all shut down again, so we were really lucky to get in there!
I have a few favourite gigs! Some The Hunna ones for sure, either when they sold out Brixton Academy for two nights as it was such a highlight in their careers or getting to photograph them in Chicago which will forever be in my memories.
Some other highlights for me include shooting Circa Waves on stage at Community Festival when I was 9 months pregnant. When I photographed Billie Eilish at Glastonbury, it was a real honour getting to photograph on stage at Glastonbury. Touring with Two Door Cinema Club and Circa Waves in the US and Canada was amazing too and shooting them at The O2 Arena. So many highlights over the years!
Can you name a song that can instantly boost your mood? (and why?)
I’m randomly a massive country music fan - ooh I love a bit of Maren Morris for a boogie! My Church is a great song, her 2016 album Hero is full of mood boosters. Me and my sister always have a little dance party to this before going out for a night!
And finally, can you share a song you are loving at the moment so we can add it to our YTL Arena Backstage Pass playlist?
Feet off the ground by Brent Cobb Feat. Jade Bird is on repeat for me at the moment!