Behind The Lens with Brian McCain

Brian McCain grew up in Arnold, California, a town in Northern California where the elevation is higher than the population. When it came time to go to college, McCain migrated south to Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego, where he earned a degree in Visual Arts. After college, Brian bounced across the western United States, moving to Lincoln, Nebraska in 2012 but returning to San Diego in 2014 for a year and a half. Things grew old in San Diego, and Brian moved to Salt Lake City for another year and a half — where he first started shooting concerts — before settling in Nebraska, for good. Despite moving from place to place over the last six years, McCain found a home in his soul mate who he later married and together they welcomed a little girl in August of 2017. Balancing a full time job, a full family and his passion for photography, Brian is a busy guy but he will still make the trip to Iowa, Kansas and/or South Dakota for the perfect show! We got to sit down with him and learn more about where his photography passion came from and how he’s mastering a style that is uniquely his.

August Burns Red

How long have you been doing photography? What originally drew you to it?

I’ve been doing music photography for almost two years now, here at the end of July. Back in 2013, I worked as the photographer at an indoor skatepark.  After leaving that, I didn’t pick up a camera for over two years because I thought I didn’t like it.  My wife started her own wedding photo business and had me second shoot a couple of times and then she wouldn’t let me stop because she said I was too good at it.  In 2016 we shot something like 15 weddings.  Second shooting was always the best for me because it allowed me a ton of room for creativity which I feel has bled heavily into my music photography.  

I’ve always been a big drawer. My medium was always my drawings.  Especially after leaving the skatepark, I didn’t think I’d ever pick up a camera again and wanted to  pursue something in the drawing realm.  Drawing will always be my first love mainly because I feel like there’s no rules.  You have the creative freedom to do whatever you want.  Since I started music photo, I’ve tried to take that same mindset into my work now.  I try to treat each photo that I take or edit as a piece of art instead of just a quick documentation of a moment.  Photography should be more than that!

Tonight Alive

What is your favorite part about being a photographer?

Being a music photographer has been a blast. It’s really awesome being so close to the action and making art out the spectacle.  I kinda like the shows that don’t have a photo pit because it can add a different layer to the photos.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten hit in the head or had to dip out of the way of stage divers but for me that’s what has made music photo so fun. 

Music, especially in this genre, has a special place in each individuals heart and means something very special to them.  If my work can make the person viewing feel even remotely close to how they felt at the show then I’ve done a good job.

Silent Planet

If you can remember, what was the first show you shot? What advice would you give to your former self?

The first band I ever shot was Silent Planet.  It was at a tiny venue called The Loading Dock in Salt Lake City.  They were on their way home from their few week run on Warped Tour in 2016 and were doing a small string of shows with Phinehas.  My wife had been telling me that I should shoot shows but I was honestly too scared to do it.  I thought I wouldn’t be any good, and that I didn’t know enough about photography or that I didn’t have what it took.  

I decided on a whim to bring my camera and see what happened.  I immediately fell in love with shooting shows right then and there.  It was also the first time I’d seen Silent Planet or Phinehas so it was an altogether rad experience.  2 days later was the 2016 Warped Tour and I was able to land a photo pass.  Within 3 days of each other, I had enough material to build out a website.  2 weeks after my first show, I dropped my website and started calling myself a music photographer.

If there’s anything I can tell my former self is that I probably should’ve started shooting shows a long long time ago because I knew I wanted to but never had the courage to do it.   I spent so much time doubting myself when I could’ve been like 6 years deep into shooting music.  I guess my journey into it went the way it was supposed to but boy do I wish I started shooting years and years ago.  

August Burns Red

Out of all of the photos in your portfolio, which photo is your favorite and why?

This was really hard to choose.  I feel like I have such a connection to a handful of my photos that I am absolutely obsessed with.  Even ones that are almost 2 years old, I come back to them and I’m just like, dang, this photo was awesome!

This one below I think is my favorite.  I love it when bands are essentially out of control.  I feel as though it can make for such incredible photos.  You have to be on point to capture their craziest moments because they come at you so fast.  This photo is from The Fever 333.  It’s probably the most fun I’ve ever had shooting a band.  I saw Stevie warming up for this kick and was lucky enough to capture it.  I about lost my mind after the set when I looked at the image.

The Fever 333

The first thing that I notice about your work is the use of light and color. Those two elements can often make or break a photo, but for you, every time, they come together seamlessly to create such beautiful images. Can you just speak a little bit about the color influence in your imagery and what role you feel color plays in your images? As well as the circular light orbs that are such a Brian McCain thing! How do you even do those?! 

The funny thing about music photo for me is that the lighting was one of the things I was most scared about. I didn’t think I’d ever be able to conquer the ever-changing light that happens at concerts-  not at the show and certainly not in post.  After a few shows, I started to realize that I didn’t need to conquer the lighting but instead I should just lean into it and make it my friend.  I feel that has really helped me become a better photographer.  You can’t change your surroundings but you can certainly manipulate and enhance the way it is captured.

It’s funny too because I absolutely love black and white music photography.  I feel that it holds so much feeling and emotion to it, and I usually want every photo to be in black and white.  I really don’t know the secret recipe for color but I usually have to put a ton of thought into my color imagery because I’m challenging myself to not go black and white, yet again.  Each time I land on an image being color, it’s usually after an internal battle.  It’s become a lot easier now as I’ve learned to lean into what the lighting and colors at each venue are offering me.  You just gotta take it and run with it and see what you’re capable of. I feel my editing in color is a mix of what I’ve been given through the lighting, as well as making you feel the emotion with color instead of just seeing the emotion of faces.

The circular lighting has kinda become my special sauce in music photo.  I have to give credit to the “Lord of the Ring”, a wedding photographer named Sam Hurd.  He implements such a crazy use of lighting and has been a huge inspiration.  After meeting him at “Heck Yeah Photo Camp” in Joshua Tree, California, I decided to take some of the things I learned from him and give it a try in my music photography.  I usually don’t tell folks too much about how it’s done other than letting them know that it’s done “in-camera” and that they shouldn’t overthink it too much.  The answer is right in front of you, literally, haha!

Oh Sleeper

You tend to lean more towards shooting shows that fall under the hardcore/pop-punk genres. Is there a reason for that? What significance does that genre of music have for you or is it just that it is more visually interesting than other genres? 

Oh man, I love hardcore music.  I started listening to it in the early 2000’s because my older brothers both did so I’ve been pretty immersed in it for a while now.  It’s crazy how much things have changed since then.  From going in shows in small churches and tiny little venues with 30 people to seeing hundreds or thousands of people at a show in the same genre is crazy.  Also shirts used to be 10 bucks so seeing shirts at 30 bucks now has also been a travesty haha!

I’ve spent a lot of time crowd surfing, stage diving and hardcore dancing over the years.  Over the last couple of years and probably the main catalyst that got me shooting at shows was how terribly sore I was the next day.  I guess I was way more out of shape then I thought so after a night of stage diving and hardcore dancing I was usually out of commission for a few days.  I would go to a show and turn into one of the grandparents in Willy Wonka.  I thought to myself, how can I keep going to these shows and have a good excuse in doing so? Okay, I guess I’ll start bringing my camera.  And here we are haha

Early Norma Jean, As I Lay Dying, Atreyu and August Burns Red were some of the first bands that really got me listening to this genre.  It’s been absolutely wild having had shot some of the same bands that I jammed non-stop in High School while driving through the parking lot with my “The Chariot” and “Demon Hunter” stickers on my Toyota Corolla. But to speak and hang out with some of those bands and then have them share some of my work is still pretty surreal all these years later.

This genre has been so fun to shoot.  Not only because of my affinity for it but how easy it is to shoot and capture some really awesome moments.  There’s so much movement and craziness to capture that “3 songs, no flash” really is enough to get a ton of rad shots. 

The Devil Wears Prada

When shooting, what is your typical gear setup?

More often than not, I have a two camera set up. I basically use the setup that my wife used during wedding season.  I have two Canon 6D’s and usually have a 35mm and 50mm Sigma Art lenses.  Although, lately I’ve been using a 16-35mm to get the really wide shots and interchange the 35 & 50mm throughout the show.  Depends on the venue. I also have a Holdfast  ‘Moneymaker’ camera harness that allows me to carry around two cameras. So I’m kinda my own sherpa but at least I don’t have to switch lenses a bunch which I’m okay with. 

Warped Tour Crowd

You were recently published in Alt Press Magazine. Congratulations! Was this your first time being published? What was that experience like for you?

Yes, that was the first time I have been published!  Man was that a pretty neat experience.  I had been in talks with someone at Alternative Press for the few weeks leading up to it but wasn’t going to believe it until I actually saw it.  I had no idea what to expect.  I think I thought it was going to be a small little photo on a page but nope, it was a whole two page spread!  My wife captured a very candid photo of me opening up the magazine and seeing the image for the first time and she said it was pure joy.  It was also pretty neat having it be an image of August Burns Red who has been one of my favorite bands since I discovered them in like 2005. I’d be okay if I got more images published!

August Burns Red (published photo)

I ask a lot of photographers this — do you prefer shooting shows in clubs/venues or at festivals and why?

This one is kinda hard.  I love the experience and opportunity that shooting a festival offers.  There’s a ton of bands at festivals that make it awesome to be able to capture that many.  I feel though I’m a bit stifled at festivals though because so much of my work is done with enhancing the lighting and colors that come with indoor shows.  I’m going to have to say indoor shows for the work but festivals for the experience. 

For Today

What advice do you have for up and coming photographers?

One thing I’ve learned about being an artist is that you yourself have to call yourself one first.  If you don’t consider yourself an artist, why would anyone else?  I shot a few shows and I remember having a talk with my wife and saying, I really like doing this- and right then I decided to be a music photographer and pursue that in whatever way I wanted to.  In photography there sure seems to be a lot of rules.  You have to shoot “this way” or “that” and you have to edit like “this”.  I say go ahead and break those rules.  Shoot and edit however the heck you want.  You’re the greatest instrument in your own success in what you do and if you allow others or the scene or the “rules” of music photography to hinder you, you’re only doing yourself a disservice.  If you are constantly catering your work to “what you think the internet is going to like” you’re going to get burnt out and photography isn’t going to be fun anymore because you’re not creating for yourself.

If you want to be a music photographer, just go for it! Make it your own and have fun with it!

Number Twelve Looks Like You

You can stay up to date with Brian on Instagram, Facebook and his website.

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