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Interview with Mike Lerner, Justin Bieber’s Concert Photographer


Mike Lerner is a freelance photographer who has worked with some of the music industries hottest stars. He is currently Justin Bieber’s official concert photographer. Visit his website here.

PetaPixel: Can you tell us a little about yourself and your background?

Mike Lerner: I’m 27 years old and based out of Brooklyn, NY. I was born and raised on Long Island. I have been photographing professionally for about 2 years now, but started my interest in photography roughly 5 years ago.

PP: How did you first get into photography, and how did your career develop?

ML: I’ve answered this questions so many times, and every time people still can’t believe that I went from what I was doing to photography. To make a long story somewhat short, I was playing online poker to pay my rent and making some decent money. On the weekends my roommates and I would go out to New York City clubs and they would help me spend my weekly winnings. I remember one night back in late 2006, we were at this club called Stereo. I saw this guy taking party photos — you know, one of those “club photographers.” Anyway, it turned out that the guy was Bronques from Lastnightsparty.com. I remember going back home and seeing the photos and thinking that what he did was pretty cool, but it wasn’t until I saw some of his concert photos that I became more intrigued. Not that they were good, but it was the access that interested me… how physically close you could get to music.

About a month after that, I shot my first show: The Bravery at Terminal 5 in NYC. Up until that point the only photos I had ever taken had been on my dad’s many old 35mm film SLRs and I had never shot anything in motion. I was in that photo pit without a clue as to what I was doing, and using my dad’s Nikon D50, a camera I had never used before (which didn’t help either). Needless to say, I was hooked.

I began shooting a show a week. This was from January to March 2007, and a big break for me came in April when I shot a relatively unknown Katy Perry at the Mercury Lounge in NYC. Networking has always been something very important to me, and I knew her manager was going to be at the show, so I made sure to introduce myself. From then on, whenever Katy was in NYC, he made sure I was at the show taking photos. It was my pictures of her that gave my portfolio what it needed to be taken somewhat seriously, and started a following for me on Tumblr.

After that summer, I flew to London to take some live photos of Katy. It was funny because I had left my camera batteries at JFK airport and the only other cameras I had were two Minolta SRT101s, but out of all the shots from all the photographers in the pit that night (at least 25), a black and white photo I took was chosen to be the ad mat for her next national tour. Unfortunately, that photo was a little bit too noisy for the art director in the end. I also had a photo displayed at the Tate Modern that same summer as part of a group exhibition, and for someone with little under a year’s experience, I thought that it was really exciting. After that I was touring with smaller bands, did the Warped Tour thing, and started to take promotional images, portraits, and candid backstage photos more seriously than live work.

PP: How did you become Justin Bieber’s concert photographer? Can you tell us the story behind that?

ML: It’s a very unexciting story. A roommate of mine at the time in Brooklyn was sharing office space with Brad Haugen, one of Justin’s people who was still based in NYC. He heard that they were looking for a new photographer, and my roommate, knowing of my work since he managed one of the bands I toured with, mentioned my name. He asked if he could see my work. That was on a Friday. I still didn’t have a proper website at the time, so I had a friend build me a really simple one. On Monday Brad told me he really enjoyed my work and that he had to go through a couple more people to get a final answer. A week later I was on the phone with Justin, and he said he liked my work and was looking forward to having me on tour. His world tour started a week and a half later, and my career as Justin Bieber’s tour photographer started.

PP: What gear do you shoot with these days?

ML: My gear is extremely simple. I use a Canon 1D Mark IV and a 50mm for 80% of my work. For tour, I add a 16-35L and a 70-200L. I use a 600EX flash with a transmitter. And that’s really it. For this new tour I will be adding a couple of point and shoot 35mm film cameras, a Canon Sure Shot 60 and a Pentax Mini Sport 35AF. I will use those mostly for backstage candids — a more raw, gritty and overbearing-flash type of photo. I’ll also bring out a medium format Kiev60 to play around with. I love the 1D body because of its focusing system. I go through almost all 45 focus points per show. The 5D Mark II was an option, but after I tested it, I found some low light focusing problems, and its speed was an issue for me. Remember, these are personal feelings I had — the 5D is an awesome camera. I really dont care too much about gear. I use what I want and if I don’t like the results of a camera or type of film, I’ll scrap it.

I understand the whole “3 bodies and 5 lenses” sort of thing with some photographers, but to me it’s overkill. I have to run around arenas. Have you ever used a 1D body with a 70-200? That thing weighs a ton. The great thing about tour is that I have 90 opportunities to make different photos, so I have an advantage over the photographers who are only there for 1 show, carrying 2 bodies and 5 lenses. I have the freedom to be super selective and less rushed.

PP: What does a typical day look like while you’re on tour with Justin?

ML: That’s the thing, there really is no typical day, but I’ll give answer this a try. I guess a “typical” day would be either hotel or bus in the morning before the show. If it’s a show day I usually make it to the venue around 2-3pm for a bit of lunch. Then some of the dancers/band members and I might go check out if there is anything around the venue that we can check out. If not, I’m just listening to music in a corner and napping. At certain shows, Justin will do what’s called a “soundcheck party” where people are given the chance to watch him and the band soundcheck a couple of songs and ask him questions. These are always great to photograph.

Sometime after that there is the meet and greet. I don’t take the meet and greet photos, but I make sure I’m there because the kid is amazing with his fans, and I want to be there to capture that. Seriously, anyone who has a bad thing to say about Justin has never seen him interact with his fans at a meet and greet. The kid has a warm heart.

After meet and greet it’s dinner time and a little bit of candid stuff in the green rooms. About an hour before the show, I’m shooting everything backstage. Then comes the pre-show huddle/prayer, and then I’m off to shoot the show for 2 hours. After the show it’s either go have a fun time with everyone or start editing early. I usually have a bit of fun before I start editing, and if there is a bus call time/curfew that night, that’s when I’ll start my editing. I’ll edit anywhere from 40-80 shots and send those rough edits the same night or the next morning, depending on the Wi-Fi situation, to the 5 people who need them. I generally send shots out the same day. Bed time is usually anywhere between 4-6am and then I do the same thing the next day. It would be so monotonous were it not for the lovely off days.

Sometimes “typical” doesn’t come into mind because one day I played golf with Justin on a private course in Brazil under the watch of armed guards, or visited a children’s hospital in Liverpool, or have taken my first private jet trip, or have been on the sets of the Jimmy Fallon Show, the Today Show and MTV studios all in the same day to do BTS photos. That probably wouldn’t classify as “typical” typical.

PP: How much are you traveling, and how much free time do you have while on tour?

ML: We’re traveling constantly. In Europe and the US & Canada it’s all busses. Asia, Australia, Middle East, and Latin America is all by flight and there are some insanely early lobby calls. I’ve racked up quite the bit of sky smiles, but I’m a newbie as far as everyone else is concerned and most of the crew are diamond status flyers.

My off days are precious. I’m either sleeping or catching the sights like a normal tourist. Latin America was tough because I wasn’t venturing out in the streets of Caracas with 6 grand worth of equipment.

PP: What is the one photo you’re most proud of creating?

ML: This one is probably one of my all time favorite images:

He had just ended one of his songs in Singapore. The stage was nice and small, maybe only 3-4 feet off of the ground. He was staring into the video camera to my left and on the huge screen it looked like he was staring directly at me. It’s one of my all time favorites. I shoot my stills RAW but display them in black and white, and this image just jumped out at me.

PP: What are some unique challenges that come with working with a musician as popular as Justin?

ML: There was this one example in London when O2 security told me I couldn’t shoot in or around the arena. They didn’t want any photographers outside the photo pit because they thought it would rile up the fans even more than they already were, and that really limited me as far as getting a variety of photos. Also, venturing out into the city and shooting proves difficult because kids always find us. Other than that, I can pretty much shoot whatever I want, but I have my own limitations when it comes to invading privacy. I know when not to take a photo.

PP: As his official concert photographer, how much of the personal life of Justin Bieber are you given access to?

ML: PP: I’m not really “given” access. It’s more what I’m invited to take part in. Over the past year and a half we’ve grown closer in our professional relationship. He invited me to shoot his 18th birthday earlier this year and totally trusts me. There are times when I know when not to take a photo. Everyone needs his personal space and I can easily feel out those moments. I’m glad I’m not attached at the hip though. I work with him when he’s in his element and those make for the best photos, the iconic photos. What will you remember, any paparazzi photo you see of him exiting a 7-11 or the photo above?

PP: This isn’t quite photography related but, from your experiences so far, what’s one thing about Justin that most people don’t know?

ML: But the answer is photography related! He’s a big camera nerd. Whenever I bring any of my film cameras around, he’s always interested in checking them out and eager to learn how they work. For the most part he uses a 7D with a 50mm 1.2, which I told him wasn’t at all necessary. But then again, he can afford it.

PP: After shooting concert after concert, how do you manage to still find “fresh ideas” and new angles to capture?

ML: After I see a shot that I love, I can usually remember during what song the action took place in. This lets me go back the next day and get either wider or tighter or change the angle and get a totally different perspective. What type of photographer would I be if I simply took the same photo over and over again? Also, I can take the same image, but use a different camera to change the overall feel of the image.

PP: What kind of copyright agreement do you have? Do you completely own the rights to all the photos you’ve captured?

ML: I can’t really go into it, but we (myself and his lawyers, publicists, managers) came up with an awesome contract that we were both happy with in the end.

PP: How do you determine how much to charge for your work, especially given the “star power” of the artists you work with?

ML: On these type of jobs, the last thing to discuss is money. I usually find out what the client is looking for from me, the exclusivity of the photos, the duration of tour, and what the original budget is. Once all of that is considered, I start negotiations on a rate. I’m sure people want to know how much I make, especially from a photographer’s point of view. They want to aspire to make the big money doing the work they love. I’m lucky to be making what I make, and I do very well, especially with so many people out of work, but I work f**king hard to do the best job I can. There are sleepless nights, and months of being away from my loved ones. I know it’s definitely not like being in the military, but it’s hard sometimes.

PP: Do tabloids and other publications ever offer to pay you for photos from your inside point of view?

ML: Oh, they have alright, and they’ve offered me obscene amounts per photo, but I’m not a paparrazzi, and I don’t betray trust. Even working with Katy I remember early on in her career Spin Magazine contacted about the use of a photo in the magazine. I was stoked until I heard the title of the article was “Why I hate Katy Perry.” To have a one-page photo in a national magazine is one thing, but to sell out for a little bit of notoriety is another. Justin and I are not only professional colleagues, but we have become friends and to throw that away over money is never worth it. Also, I have gone on to work with many other well known musicians as a result of my work with Justin and it wouldn’t be good press if I was known as a photographer who was known for selling private moments to s**tty grocery store magazines.

PP: What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned so far in concert photography?

ML: I’ve learned to become less obvious. There have been so many shows that I’ve done where I noticed 10 photographers going for the same shot. What I’ve learned to do is to step back and take the less obvious shot. I’ve always liked this result. That, and always remember to have a backup battery… maybe two. Trust me.

PP: What advice do you have for photographers looking to follow in your footsteps?

ML: I can’t stress enough the importance of good networking and a strong social media presence, especially nowadays. But, the most important thing and the first thing you have to do is to master is your image. You can know everyone, have thousands of media followers, but if your photos are boring, dull, and uninteresting, people won’t hire you.

PP: Anything else you’d like to say to PetaPixel readers?

ML: I know I will get a lot of hate for this. People will hate me because I work for Bieber. People will hate me just because they hate the kid. People will hate me over the “way I hold a camera.” People will hate on me because I use Canon gear (seriously, it’s the most pathetic thing). Any photographer, any photographer would kill to be in my position and if he says he wouldn’t, he is blatantly lying. I’m documenting someone who’s making history.

Ready for the hate on this one? It’s almost like touring with the Beatles; working your way through thousands of fans on the street like A Hard Day’s Night and being the only photographer in a 30,000 seat venue is thrilling. I mean, yeah, I would love to tour with some of my favorite bands. I would absolutely love to be on the road with Kings of Leon or Bloc Party, but I got hooked up with shooting possibly the most famous person on the planet right now. Would any of you say no? Really think about it. I can’t stand Lady Gaga, but if someone offered me the chance to do a US tour, I’d jump at the chance without any hesitation. I know the whole indie aspect of touring with lesser known bands may make for better “art,” but sometimes you can make incredible art and get paid very well to do so.

I think a lot of other negativity comes from me not going to school for photography. I majored in History, received my BA from St. John’s University, and never took a class in photography… which means that I never learned the rules to anything. In art there are no rules, and that would have to be my biggest piece of advice to anyone. Work outside of the rules to create a body of work regardless of how everybody else was taught to do so. The reason agencies hire me isn’t because I hold my camera correctly (I don’t, anyway). They hire me because I’ve created a brand in my work, and I make people feel something when they look at my photos. If you don’t like what I do, fine, but instead of bashing what I do and who I am or who I work for, I challenge you to go out and try to be better. Strive to be better. I guarantee you’ll get my attention then.

Image credits: Photograph of Lerner and Bieber by Lloyd Bishop. All other photos by Mike Lerner.