So Where Did It All Start?
Well, it's a long story. I am the second cousin of guitarist genius Luke Thomas and after not seeing him for ten years I started to watch and listen to the stuff he was playing, and over the course of a few months, I had got to know quite a few artists on the scene and I was being introduced to more music and when a chance opportunity arrived to attend a festival, my partner and I just had to go.
Photography started for me in mid 2014 after a chance meeting with someone who would inspire me to pick up a camera and begin documenting what was happening in the country scene at the time, at a festival called Rockingham, where, by this time, I had built up a friendship with quite a few artists on the scene and wanted to experience them live on a proper festival stage. So I had a cheap Nikon Coolpix point and shoot camera from Argos and I did reasonably well with it, but in those days I was mainly interested in videoing stuff, so I could watch it back, and in the hotel bar where most of the artists were staying after the gig, I met someone who other than my future wife, changed my direction ultimately, and that person was Anthony D'Angio, or Flex The Frog, who is more or less country music’s leading photographer, and after seeing his work I thought, I could do that, not on that scale but I thought I would give it a go.
What Happened Next?
In December that year, I had scraped enough money to buy a Nikon D3200 camera with a standard kit lens and thought that it was easy, well, Wrong!! I had no clue what all the settings meant or any idea how to take decent images so at Luke and Mel's EP launch in The Castle Hotel in Manchester, I took it along hoping that I could not do wrong... It was a total disaster for me and my new camera. The shots were in focus, but terrible, the lights were a mess and the images were not flattering at all, so I went away and learned what it all meant, via YouTube and various other study material, and a few very late nights facebooking Flex (as he was known back then) for help and advice and it sort of paid off.
In What Way?
In January of the next year we went to Midwinterfest, which is a country weekend festival in Torquay and I knew quite a few of the artists playing including Luke, Raintown, who I am a massive fan of, and Ward Thomas who were the headliners, so again I thought I would give it another go with my little camera, and as it happened Rob Davis, the editor of the then country magazine 'Up Country' was sitting with some of my family, and it was Luke’s dad who suggested that I sent some images to him for publication. So I did, and boom, they were good enough to feature on the centre pages of the February edition and with that result, I was hooked. I also met another friend for the first time at this event who was shooting it for the festival organisers, who told me his first proper camera body cost him over a grand, and that sort of almost put me off it but I was not to be deterred, and in the March of that year, C2C Country to Country was happening and I planned to head on down to see more of my new friends playing on the 'pop up' stages and of course hone my camera skills.
You Had Learned Quite A Bit Then At This Point?
Yeah, I had started to invest in different lenses, and I was exploring the capabilities, not just of my new skills but of the equipment I had, and I remember that I was using manual focus as opposed to automatic, so this is where my eye for detail came up to scratch and it wasn't long, before I was spotted by Rob, the editor of 'Up Country Magazine' who was on press duties for his publication, in the crowd at the Town Square Stage and he asked me if I was able to get him some shots of the main stage artists in the C2C press room. I couldn't say no! So there it was, my first press pass, and along with Flex, and numerous other press media photographers from all the major outlets, I was within ten feet of Brantley Gilbert, Lee Ann Womack and of course Florida Georgia Line, and this experience for me was amazing.
Had You Been Bitten By The Bug Of Live Music Photography By This Point?
In a way yes. I then spent the next two years or so travelling to as many country gigs as I could afford to attend and of course the epic FSA Fest, or Fort San Antone Festival at its true home of Great Birchwood in Lytham St Anne’s, and with over fifty acts performing I soon realised how much hard work is involved in not only achieving the great shots, but all the post-processing of the images that comes with it. I had learned loads of new techniques and what it takes to make an artist look good on stage but I felt that I had to take shots of every artist and with that number performing over the weekend the images on the SD Card soon piled up. I think I took over nine hundred shots and in the end only used eighty or so in the final cut, but afterwards, my Computer at home went into meltdown, with those artists asking me for some shots, which was rewarding.
You Mentioned Country To Country, Did You See That Festival As A Potentially Big Step Forward Into Mainstream Live Music Photography Or Did You Think That You Were Not Up For That Level Of Pressure?
I did always think that it was possible, but it took me until 2016 to be confident enough to start pestering people for photo passes, but it worked, and I knew that these shots had to be the absolute best if I was to successfully do it again, and the first time I was escorted down into the photo pit, with photographers who were professionals, was an eye-opening moment as I thought I could see them ridiculing the quaintness of my equipment, which had grown into what I carry nowadays, but with their 'gear' they would get better shots obviously, and I ended up being facebook mates with some of them, and a few photographers who work for Getty Images, but I had my stuff and dynamite in my pocket, and I was about to blow the roof off because I had the confidence and determination, and had also learned the do's and don’ts of arena photography.
What Are The Do's and Don’ts As You Put It?
You only can 'shoot' artists if they approve it. And those who do ask you to sign a Photo Release form, meaning that you are limited to what you can do with the images. You have to have an approved Media Outlet who you will submit your images to, and only get to shoot the first three songs then it's off you go. So in broad terms, I had nine minutes to get everything I needed of that artist - that's pressure.
And Do You Apply This Standard To Every Festival You Cover?
I have certainly toned it down a bit where the shutter count in concerned. For example, when I do Buckle and Boots I do it for them and not the bands. The festival has first rights to the images and I have been told NOT to post any on social media until they have. In a way it works well for me doing it that way, as it offers the festivals a chance to showcase how good they are with the gig, but I try to limit shooting as not to get in the way, and offer the crowd a chance to watch the live acts without seeing me all over the front of the stage all the time, and also to give the acts freedom to enjoy playing the event. Not every artist wants a camera poked at them, no matter who or how good the photographer is.
If You Were Shooting A Gig What Are Your Preparations Leading Up To It?
It's always good to do the homework. Listen to some albums, try to visualise the artist on stage and look for potential 'moment capture' opportunities. I cannot do this with every artist, but I have learned to apply the same technique, and it usually pays off. Everything else is the technical side of it. For example, what focal length and shutter speed can I use, and what's going on with the lights, is it over or under exposed, and is the shot going to be in focus and not blurred. These are the things that run through my head every time I frame up a composure. Also I cannot use ANY shots that are out of focus or have 'clutter'. For example, mic stands obscuring the face. A good forty-five degree angle from stage right usually works well.
Tell Us About The Shoot Itself And Editing Afterwards.
A General Day In The Life (A Festival Day)
Full day shoots are hard to do. That's why I don't do every one of them and usually, at the end of the day, I start to feel it in my legs and lower back. But they are still fun to do with great rewards. As with Buckle and Boots I start at midday and don't finish until nine or even sometimes eleven at night, then there are all the days shots to look at and of course edit them and clear all the SD cards ready for the next day. I have found with experience that I can achieve great results without relying on and post editing software to rescue any shots. This is the way I have learned to handle the equipment and get the best that I can from it.
Equipment: Do You Still Have That Little D3200 From Years Ago Or Has It Been Banished To The Loft?
Yes! I seldom use it these days. I last used it at the BCMA Awards in Wolverhampton in 2017 in front of the sponsor wall and I noticed that the image quality was very poor, as opposed to the stuff I have now. I guess the reason for upgrading my gear was that I wasn't getting the results I wanted to with it, but that's not to say that better equipment gets you everything. Better equipment never advocates the photographer it just allows them to be more creative. I will not shoot a hole-in-one just because I have Rory McIlroy's seven iron in my bag!
What's The Best Shot You Have Ever Taken And Do You Have A Favourite One?
Oh god that's a good one! There are a few killer shots that I have done, and I looked at them and thought, jeez, I did that one! There are many country music artists from the UK scene who are still using them, but I suppose the real answer is, that if it's a shot that the artist likes, and if it's good enough for them, then it's good enough for me. But having said that I have recently branched out into the non country music genre and some of the artists I have had the pleasure of shooting shots of include The Lightning Seeds, Space (band) Peter Hook from New Order, Pete Doherty from Libertines, The Bluetones plus many more and I have managed to become successful with what I have got, and those mentioned acts have been kind to me when I have 'tagged' them, which is better than receiving a fee for my services.
So How Much Do You Charge? What's The Going Rate?
I am not, and never have claimed to be a professional photographer. I just get to do some pretty amazing stuff. I have taken a fee for shoots here and there but it's not my reliable main income but I am always open to offers. Will I ever turn pro? I don't know. We'll see.
Are There Any Plans For A Business Venture In The Future Maybe?
Well, I have had a lot of sleepless nights thinking about where I am going with all that I do, and how long I want to keep going! The thing is, I now have a 2 year old, which means that my time has never been more limited, so I just cannot do what I used to do. I still try to get out. I had a photo pass for the Brothers Osbourne in Manchester and the Long Road Festival in Lutterworth and I was on my own at those not with the family in tow! Sometimes they tag along. When I did Chase Rice in Manchester, my wife and child were in the green room and he was singing a song to my daughter. It was magical. I will never forget that, so balancing work, photography and home life is challenging but not impossible, so as far as the future is concerned, I have taken shots of artists from the UK and the US country scene, and I have been able to do this in some pretty amazing venues for a number of media outlets, so I could say that I am almost full circle with photography but I really am not.
I have gone from knowing absolutely nothing about photography to contributing some of the best imagery out there right now and I have built up fantastic friendships with not only the artists, but their management and publishers, so I am going to keep at it for as long as people need me there for them, and of course, for as long as this passion continues.
What Changes Have You Seen Since You Have Been Visually Documenting The UK Country Scene?
As with everything, change happens and there have been a few that I can remember. For example, I have images of artists who were very active in 2014 who have either left the genre, have moved on into other projects, or who have given up altogether. But also, I have seen a lot of new arrivals and more often than not, I find myself shooting artists who I have never seen before, which is good in a way as this proves the UK Country scene is evolving and I am looking forward to embracing this change because if you don't evolve then you become a stranger. But If I was to quit tomorrow, then I would have had a fantastic time doing what I have done and enjoyed evolving in the way I have, but I would never be able to repeat it, and I probably couldn't.
How Can Everyone Find You And Take A Look At The Portfolios?
Easy www.djsphoto.co.uk or on facebook as DJS Photography and I am also on Instagram as Dan_Schofield_photo.