sound and vision
© Peter Neill
Peter Neill is one of life’s nice people. And yet the soft-speaking Irishman works in one of the most volatile businesses imaginable, where egos and excess converge with often-explosive results. The music business is not known for its manners, and yet here we meet a man who is charm itself. Could this be the secret to getting iconic shots of bands on the run? CPN Editor David Corfield finds out...
Even now, Peter Neill occasionally has to pinch himself. His long-held ambition to get close to music seemed impossible when he left school, armed with a load of computer manuals and a prospective career in IT. But a strange twist of fate brought both worlds hurtling together and the rest, as they say...
“I’d always been into photography thanks to my brother and father and even my grandfather, who were all keen photographers,” he recalls. “But I never really took it anywhere. I had an interest but that’s about as far as it went. But on my 18th birthday I bought a camera of my own – just a little APS film thing – and started to teach myself the basics. And then a few years later, in 2008, I got my first SLR and discovered how much I actually loved photography.”
Like so many people Peter got into the wedding business, shooting friends and family and then by word of mouth picking up paid jobs. “They paid the bills for a while,” he remembered, “especially during the Irish downturn when the economy was on its knees. But doing weddings all the time started to destroy my love of photography because of all the after-event stuff like producing albums, all the reprints and so on. There was too much hassle and pressure there for me and so I stopped doing them.”
He continues: “I thought long and hard about what it was that I really wanted to do and then the light bulb went off. I’d taken my camera to events in the past like music festivals and I realised that this concert stuff was kind of interesting. It got my appetite going again and I realised that the energy of a live band engaged my creativity.”
And this is the moment when Peter’s life changed. A tip-off that there might be an opportunity worth exploring within the IT department of U2’s Steve Averill prompted him to make contact. “Steve had designed all the U2 album covers,” Peter explains. “A friend gave me the heads-up on an IT contract that was going at his company. I had done a lot of IT over the years and so I applied for the job hoping I could meet him. As luck would have it I got the contract, met Steve and showed him my work and practically begged him to give me a chance to shoot U2. And that’s how I got my first gig, in 2009. And I did it all for free, obviously!”
The concert went extremely well and rewarded Peter with some stunning images. And a year later he was asked to shoot the band again in concert in France. One of the images he took there resulted in a Billboard magazine cover. And that was really the moment that kick-started Peter’s career.
He laughs: “There’s definitely luck of the Irish in me. I’m actually a relative newcomer to professional photography, but thanks to my perseverance and just being nice to people, it seems to have turned out for the best. It’s certainly a bit different from repairing computers for a living.”
With a portfolio from the two U2 concerts Peter next approached an agency called MCD, Ireland’s biggest concert promoter and offered to shoot their gigs for free, just to build up a bigger body of work. “They accepted the idea and I ended up shooting 60-70 gigs for them over the course of the next couple of years. What it did, was give me loads of experience and more significantly, it got me into contact with loads of bands directly, and the first band to really take me seriously were The Script. I developed a very good long-term relationship with them, which then led to me photographing Gary Barlow, Will.I.Am and, since last year, Justin Timberlake. All from word of mouth. And that really did take me by surprise.”
With precious little time to advertise because of the demands of shooting gigs, Peter built up a following through various social media feeds and recommends it as a low-cost way to attract attention. “In this day and age you can do your own marketing and web development using social media as a major platform with things like Twitter and Facebook. It’s never been easier to get your work out there to a wider public. You need to be able to react quickly and seize the moment – that’s a real skill to have.”
Key skills, and key kit...
“But perhaps the most important skill you need for working in the music industry is to just be really easy to work with,” Peter admits. “The music industry is a business where your personality is so important. Most of the people I photograph are so used to the paparazzi that their default position is to assume you could be someone looking to invade their privacy. So being easy to work with is absolutely vital.”
“Core to my work are the Canon EF L-series prime lenses. I am the only person to rarely use zooms in this business. I found that apart from the obvious technical benefit of how fast primes let in more light, they actually impose on me a restriction. I can’t suddenly zoom in on something or zoom out. That restriction forces me to be more creative and work for my shots more. That is one of the core elements of how I approach my work. At the end of the day you are trying to capture something that shows the feel of the event, rather than just taking a regular square on photo of something. So capturing the atmosphere is really important and I like having to work for my rewards. A lot of my pictures use the lights in the show as part of the composition. Those lead to shots from an unusual perspective and I use them to make things more emotive.”
“A sense of timing is also so important too,” he continues. “Timing is massive and when you work with the same band a lot you do develop an ability to anticipate where the most dramatic shots might occur. You have to try and anticipate where the action will be happening. Bands will try and divide their time between the left and the right of the stage, for instance, giving the audience plenty of chances to see them. So as a photographer you have to go to the opposite side to where the lead singer is, in order to get shots of them walking towards you. Things like that are what you learn when you’re in a live environment.”
Peter uses the EOS 5D Mark III for the majority of his images, having moved up recently from an EOS 5D Mark II. “The 5D Mark III is phenomenal in terms of low-light performance but it stood on the shoulder of a giant as the Mark II was a total game changer in terms of what a digital SLR could do.”
“In terms of lenses, I use the EF35mm, 50mm and 85mm primes, with the 50mm being the lens I use the most. Although I say I use primes a lot, I have to admit that the new EF24-70 is absolutely phenomenal. It has the sharpness of a prime with flexibility, so I might become a convert...”
Freedom to create
Peter’s working relationship means that he pretty much has access all areas, which leaves him with plenty of options to explore lighting. “Lighting is so key,” he explains. “You can be creative with someone else’s creativity. And with a camera like the EOS 5D Mark III where I can work at ISO speeds as fast as ISO 8000 it allows you to combine shadows into your compositions, using the lights to pick out faces. I have masses of room for creativity and there’s always things I can try like shooting from the stage at the side to capture a unique perspective. A long shutter release cable can work too, allowing me to shoot with a camera on a monopod and get high shots of the crowd. I’ve even been known to give a camera to a band member!”
Peter decided early on that he wanted to work with bands directly. “I figured that if I wanted to have a good relationship with them and get the best access then I needed to work with them direct. And that is what I do now pretty much exclusively. And that leads to personal recommendations from bands, which for me has led to other work as well.”
Keeping it in balance
“But the work-life balance is something I am always conscious of,” Peter concedes. “I have a beautiful young family I am absolutely devoted to and a big family back home in Ireland who I do miss an awful lot. We moved over to London a few years ago because a lot of bands have the city as a base. It’s not easy being away from family, whether that be family back in Ireland or when I’m on tour, but I usually only need to be away a couple of weeks at a time.”
He adds: “Apart from the music and photography my family means everything to me. I have a four-year-old girl and a little boy on the way in September and I’m quite a spiritual individual as well with a strong Christian faith. Travel is a huge kick for me; I do enjoy visiting new places and I love taking photographs just for the heck of it too. But my passion is the music and I count myself so lucky that I have combined sound and vision to turn it into a quite amazing career.”
Peter Neill’s kitbag
EOS 5D Mark III
EOS 5D Mark II
EF24-70mm f/2.8L II USM
EF35mm f/1.4L USM
EF50mm f/1.2L USM
EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM
EF85mm f/1.8 USM
Biography: Peter Neill
© Peter Neill
London-based music photographer Peter Neill was born and grew up in County Mayo, Ireland. He specialises in producing high quality live music photography that retains the excitement and atmosphere of the moment. Clients include Justin Timberlake, The Script, U2, Ennio Morricone, Gary Barlow, Steve Averill (U2's Art director), Billboard Magazine, Coldplay, Bruno Mars, Alice Cooper, Christy Moore, Rubyworks Records, Vladimir, Foy Vance, Rend Collective Experiment and many more.