I'm with the band. Not just tagging along to take photos of a live show, I'm literally in the band. I'm Chris Hershman from Chicago and I'm a rock n' roll filmmaker, photographer, and musician. Being the bassist of my Chicago-based band, Tall Walker, doesn't always make it easy for me to film or photograph my own band. After all, I'm the photographer and filmmaker that produces nothing but rock n' roll content for a living and here I am now facing the challenge of having to visually brand the band, all while playing my instrument and being equally as effective as a musician; A challenge that I imagine faces many photographers who are also musicians.
Nikon Cinema: Filming a Music Video Feat. Tall Walker
I'm honored to be asked to speak on the Kelby Guest Blog. I'm 27 and I've have lived through some really excellent adventures all due to picking up a camera. So I'd love to share all the things that seemed most important to my success as a young creative making a living with his camera alone!
I've been shooting stills since my junior year of high school, so it’s been a full decade of working with DSLRs. Photography was only a part time job for me, and I was working at a music store selling instruments to bands like Mos Def, Sigur Ros, Angus Young and even Slash. It was a great place to be surrounded by musicians but I knew I was meant to take my photography to the next level and turn my passion into my profession. I figured it was time, and I was done making excuses for not becoming a professional photographer, so I went to a federal credit union and took out a loan for my first semi-professional camera body. And that’s when much like the Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air, my life got flipped turned up side down.
I was 24 and a proud owner of a Nikon D300s and a 50mm f/1.4. It was time to start making my mark and defining myself as a photographer, not just a music retail employee. One day when I was managing the drum shop, a fresh professional walked in doing some tire kicking on some drums. After striking up conversation, he mentioned that he was from out of town and here to supervise a photoshoot. I immediately lit up! I was talking to a professional photographer, perfect! I'll never forget the moment he said, "I work for Nikon." All of a sudden, this man became the greatest rock star that I had ever met in my music store. I had so many questions and so many awesome things to tell him about my new camera and my journey into professional photography. After working around so many professional musicians and famous rock stars, I learned that the key is to keep it cool. So, I kept conversation light and just made mention of my new camera purchase and that I'm excited to test it out. Right before he left he handed me his card and said, "Keep in touch." Little did he know, he just gave me the open door that would change my career forever.
I bought the D300s because it was one of the cameras in my price range to offer video recording features. My brother was a video editor so I figured if I shot some video maybe he and I could work together one day or at least I had someone to go to if I needed help with video. It was time to test out the video function on my camera so I asked a good customer friend of mine from the music store if I could film his band performing live at their next show in Chicago. He granted me all access to film them where ever I'd like. On stage, off stage, in the green room, full access! I had overheard them say that they've been wanting a music video for one of their new songs so I made sure to film the singer as much as possible when I heard the song they mentioned begin to play. Since I only had one camera but all access I filmed from every possible angle of this venue to make it feel like I was using several cameras. I wanted to have a surplus of footage to fool the viewer into thinking this was a live multi-camera shoot. I shot behind the drummer on stage, from the balcony, and everywhere imaginable on the main floor of the venue. By the end of the night I had captured about an hour of this band’s performance. I took the entire next day to edit the video and ended up staying put for over ten hours mashing together footage and syncing it all together to look like a proper multi-camera shoot! I had caught the fever, for more video!
That day I had created my first music video. After delivering it to the band to check out, they immediately asked if they could use it as their official music video and post it online. I said, "heck yes!" Soon after, that band went on to compete for the chance to be featured on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine. The competition lasted several weeks and drew a lot of attention to the band. The best part of it all is that they submitted the video I shot of them to be in their band's bio for the Rolling Stone competition. Which is how, in a strange round-about way, my first music video made it straight to RollingStone.com! This is when I started feeling like filming bands and music was going to be a big part of my next move to become a professional photographer who recently tagged on "and filmmaker" to the end of my title.
Empires "Hello Lover" Live in Chicago
I immediately sent the video to the Nikon executive that I had met in the music store and sent him a link to the video. He then told me he was passing it around internally and everyone was really enjoying it. The important thing to remember is that Nikon was specific to still photography cameras up until recently when they began releasing video into their cameras. They're not like Canon who have always made video cameras, printers, scanners. They were just still photographers at corporate and were happy to see what people were doing with the video features in their cameras. This was also at the beginning of their introduction of these features in the cameras and they were not quite meant for professional filmmaking. The camera only shot 720p and had no manual control over the exposure of the video.
After my new Nikon friend started passing my video internally, he suggested that I add it to Nikon's Vimeo Cinema group. Its a collection of videos that users on the Vimeo platform can add their videos to if they were shot on a Nikon. After posting the video another Nikon employee commented on my video and asked me how many cameras I shot this music video with. I replied by saying that it was shot with only one camera. He then replied again saying that we have to get lunch and talk about how I put that video together.
That’s when Scott Diussa, Nikon Professional Services Field Manager, became my new best cinema friend. Scott was kind enough to make some time to sit me down and encourage me with my work, letting me know that I was onto something and he also said the he was excited to see where all this will lead me. He was onto something himself by making that statement and 5 years later, I'm here getting to the story of how I quit my day job to follow my passion and to make visual art my career.
That's the story of how I transitioned into what I'm doing now, professionally. I took so much time going into detail about it because I think there are several extremely valuable and pivotal things that happened in that process. It was about surrounding myself with what I love, what makes me happy, and inspires me the most: Music! I listened to my heart and followed the opportunities that opened once I applied myself. The funny bit of it all is that I began this journey to become a photographer, not a filmmaker. However it was a hidden talent and once discovered, became the most valuable skill I had acquired. I used my ability to socially network to reach the people who could help me reach the next level in my career. The people at Nikon have been so kind to believe in me so much, that it's been like having an entire company mentor me and cheer me on as I take on new territory. You never know who you're going to meet and what that connection might do for your life. So smile, shake some hands and be genuine about getting to know people. Establish authentic relationships with people and they'll see that you're someone they can trust and invest in.
Let’s fast forward to right now. We just rang in the new year and it’s 2015. I'm currently several days away from giving a presentation at the CES show in Las Vegas. One of the world's largest consumer electronic shows. I'm speaking on making music videos with Nikon cameras in the Nikon Theatre set up in the Nikon Booth. I love speaking and sharing all the great information I've learned throughout the past few years and I feel that its equally important to share what I've learn to others eager to learn about it.
Back to my opening paragraph… I mentioned being in a band and needing to create content for my own band’s branding needs. That was the result of me creating an entire presentation earlier in 2014 about how I had stepped out from playing in my band for a day so that I could create our live music video. It was a collaboration I did with Nikon and their Cinema Blog, which is amazing and full of inspiring articles from excellent filmmakers that use Nikon cameras specifically for cinema use. It’s a great resource if you're looking to learn all about what you can do with Nikon cameras when you flip them into video mode. Nikon asked me to speak at NAB earlier in 2014, and that’s when I gave my first presentation as featured director at the age of 26. I had only begun using video features on my camera four years previous to that moment.
From the moment I began making videos on my Nikon camera to right now, I've created over 400 videos consisting of live performances, interviews, gear demos, and inspiring music performances like the one I made called "100 Riffs." This video is super simple, just one guy, one camera, and in one take plays 100 guitar riffs in a row without stopping or messing up. This video has over 10 million views and continues to be one of the most inspirational videos to many aspiring musicians.
The fun doesn't stop there! Nikon reached out to me again in summer of 2014 and asked if I thought it would be possible to make a music video using the Nikon 1 v3. However, I wouldn't be able to use the video function. They wanted me to use rapid fire burst of RAW images and string them together like video clips to make a full music video. Well I wasn't going to say no before I had even tried it, so I took on their challenge and ended up creating a 4K music video that is made completely out of still images. This took several months and over 20,000 RAW images to create. There is a whole article and behind the scenes look at how we accomplished this film.
Tall Walker "Dance All Night" 4K Music Video
I've been a massive fan of a band called Switchfoot. I grew up listening to this band in High School and probably attended upwards of 8-10 of their shows. I was a huge fan. Recently, my aspiration has been to travel and document rock n' roll tours. So one day I reached out to the band and asked if I could join them for a small leg of their tour to take photos and videos of whatever they needed. Several emails later I ended up snagging a bunk on their bus and joining them on the road. I've worked some of the band members on projects outside of their band, so we were not complete strangers by any means. Establishing a relationship previous to scoring that tour was totally needed in order to make that happen.
Every night I would get to stand right in front of these guys pouring everything they got into their music and performance. It reminded me of why I fell in love with this band in the first place, because they were the definition of rock n' roll to me. All musical taste and preference aside, you can't attend a Switchfoot show and leave there without your heart pumping and your neck sore from rocking out with the band. The frontman, Jon Foreman, surfs crowds and runs through crowds to make them part of the experience. When you watch this band, you understand that music performed live is incredibly special. It's worth buying tickets and experiencing in person. To actually "feel" their music and the sound waves rush through your body is not something you can get in your car or through headphones. Ever since that tour I've gotten the itch to do it again to help preserve the live performances of bands and the lives they live on tour.
A lot of these opportunities happened, not because I'm the best or most talented creative out there, but I can contribute some very important attributes that I learned about myself that helped get me to where I got in my career in visual art. There will also always be someone better than you, more qualified than you. But if you let those things cloud your vision, you're unable to realize that talent doesn't always get you there. People don't care how talented you are if working with you is a pain in their ass because of your attitude or rude behavior. One of the most important things I've ever been told was by my mentor at the age of 16. He said "Chris, talent gets you there, but character keeps you there." I have found this to be more and more true as I get older and further both in my musical and visual career. I work hard on keeping healthy relationships and a balanced lifestyle so that no matter where I am with my career, I'll always maintain a level of professionalism and believe in myself that will keep me working hard toward accomplishing my professional goals.
If there is ONE, just one thing you walk away with by reading this article, it should be that you cannot let fear stop you from the flood gates of awesome opportunities waiting to swing open and pour out into your life. I have countless people ask me daily how I snagged certain opportunities like joining a tour or filming a music video for a popular artist, and I always some back to same answer, which is to live bold and without fear.
Fear can so quickly prevent you from reaching out and taking what you want. Whether it’s getting photo passes for a show you want to cover, or a band interview you want to do, or if you want to join a band on tour and live on their bus. We don't ask, mostly because we fear they will say no, resulting in some form of embarrassment. I can live with embarrassment, but what I can't live with, is regret. If I hadn't taken bold moves in reaching out to people who seemed very out of reach or intimidating, I wouldn't be writing you, I wouldn't be shooting photos and videos for a living. I'd be retreating back to living at my parents’ place in rural Indiana, working behind the counter of a music store! Which is exactly where I started and loved working there, but just knew I had a passion for photography and video that needed to be pursued in order for me to feel completely fulfilled with my work.
Living with the parents is not a negative thing for all people, however I moved to downtown Chicago eight years ago, immediately after high school, to surround myself with other artists and musicians. I knew that I was meant for something bigger than what a rural town could offer me when it came to opportunity. If I had decided to give up and move back when things got tough and full of financial struggle, I wouldn't have been able to sneak into greenrooms at my favorite Chicago rock-venues. I wouldn't be able to be surround myself by bands, music industry professionals, and rock shows that occur every night of the week in our lovely city. I threw myself into the music scene by boldly introducing myself to bands after their sets. Not to just tell them about how great they sounded, but that I'd love to work with them and help create a video with them next time they pass through town. I reached out to bands’ management and shot them emails to ask questions like, "Would your band like some new press photos when they swing through Chicago?" or let them know, "I have a studio that your band is welcome to come film and perform live in to make a music video." Even if they didn't have time to film a video or take some new photos, I'd ask if my band could open for theirs.
Alabama Shakes "Hold On" Official Music Video
The most inspiring thing about what I do has got to be the fact that anything I work on, is based around my first passion and love, music. If I'm using my camera to film or shoot stills, you can bet it’s mostly music related. Press shots, live shots, music videos or tour updates. At some point you realize what kind of work brings you the greatest joy, and you try to focus in that arena. Mine was music and I made the decision to not try and be the jack of all trades, but to pick one direction that I knew inspired me the most and to strive to be come an expert in that thing, which for me, became anything related to rock n' roll!
One of my favorite quotes, which originally came from a Nuclear physicist named Niels Bohr, brilliantly phrases his opinion on what its means to be an "Expert". It goes as such: "An expert is a man who has made all the mistakes which can be made in a narrow field." This rolls into my second point of what contributed to me getting from where I started to where I am now with my actual skill level. I didn't go to film school or take photography classes. I just picked it up and messed with every knob on the damn thing. Ten years later I still have not tried every available function on my camera or in my editing software. However I try on nearly every photo to take a different approach. I know that I have to push myself to learn the things I don't know, and for me I learn through personal discovery and attempting it on my own. I don't think I've nailed down my exact post process, however I try every which way to edit and to snap an image with a different approach. And yes, sometimes I make massive mistakes, but each time I screw something up, I learn what not to do next time around. And I'm not afraid to make "mistakes" by being bold with new approaches to finding angles or for coloring images, because through that process I've found all the different and small characters that are embedded in my films that make people enjoy what they see in my work.
Live Performance Music Videos
Small examples that led to me having my signature "Chris Hershman look and feel" were things like putting large DSLR cameras directly over top of the drummers drum kit in my live music video performances. As a musician I have a huge appreciation for musicianship and I don't like to "glam" up a live music video as much as I want to clearly show just how talented a band's performance can be, not just by showing cool rock moves from low positioned wide angles but showing close-ups of the musicians actually playing their instruments. Their performance is the important factor in live music videos. So by focusing on the actual musicianship of the band by choosing angles and positioning cameras in places that you can show a musician's precision and actual talent to play their instrument, I think you're putting more purpose, more heart into what you're filming. People need to be captivated and that doesn't have to be by flashy lights and awesome denim jackets, but by giving them the reason why they came to watch the live performance video, to see music performance with authenticity displayed in a way that respects the music and musician. Of course they need to look cool in the process, but if you stay true to capture the honest and real moments that happen in live music performances, you get to show the love that musicians have for music, and again, add purpose to your work.
Brian Blade and The Fellowship Band (Live) at Chicago Music Exchange
Find Your Fight
Are you happy with what you do? Are you madly in love with the work that you’re producing, and if not, why not?! It's just my opinion, but I firmly believe that photography and filmmaking is one of the most enjoyable jobs to ever have. But I've been in places where I was working with my camera and still wasn’t completely satisfied with what I was doing. A good example of how often I see this is when I asked one of the young photographers I mentor to tell me what she's hoping to accomplish in the next year of her life when it came to her work. She began with a dollar amount, then broke that dollar amount into how many gigs and of what sort that she'd need to do in order to hit that goal. I stopped her right there as she was sighing about how much time she spends on gigs that she has no aspiration or drive to do, just to make a dollar figure. I asked, "Why are you shooting things that you don't enjoy?" I explained that I think she could keep that kind of mental attitude toward photography for about a year before she would become too burned out on photography that she may never want to pick her camera up again. Don’t let photography always be the source of your income, but the source of your inspiration.
When you talk about what makes you happy, I think it’s important to ask yourself, what's going to continually make you happy and have longevity? To answer that I think you can just look at happiness when it comes to your work, however it's inspiration that continues to constantly drive ourselves to keep going, keep growing, to keep feeling like the work that we're doing matters most to us as artists.
I have to look at what I'm doing all the time to make sure the work I'm accepting is work that’s inspiring me, not dragging me down and wearing me out. That may mean less work at the beginning, but when you find what you're most passionate about, you quickly thrive in that area and can end up becoming an "expert" in that field. When you find your deepest aspirations in the work you choose, you find that it's somewhat that that can sustain you, fill you with propose and drive you further than you ever thought you could go before. So find your fight, find what makes you truly driven, and make sure that every time you pick up a camera, you realize that you have the best job in the entire world.