As a musician, getting just the right headshot can feel like a lot of pressure.
Afterall, your headshot isn’t just about having a flattering picture. It must convey the type of performer you are, hint at your personality, capture the attention of presenters and/or directors — and align with the rest of your brand.
So, how do you stand out from the crowd?
A lot depends on your photographer.
That’s why we reached out to one of the most innovative and creative photographers we know, Nikolaj Lund, whose photos of musicians are some of the most extraordinary that you’ll ever come across.
He shares his journey from cellist to photographer, plus offers plenty of tips for using your headshots to distinguish yourself as an artist and person.
From Cellist to Photographer
Q: Learning an instrument and being involved in music programs growing up helps many of us find our career path. How did classical music lead you into photography?
Photography was always a big part of my life. It was a passionate hobby that I brought along wherever I went to play in the world. I loved the act of catching all kind of moments through the lens.
During the last years of my studies, I struggled to find joy in my music-making, so I started spending more and more time on my photography.
Just before I ended my post graduate schooling, I won second place in a photo competition with more than 45,000 entries. That was the push I needed to find the courage to change my career path.
Q: Many modern musicians finish school and say, “I don’t want to become an orchestral musician,” or “I’m burnt out. What now?” An accident that left you in a lot of pain — plus, you were exploring your photography skills at the end of your degree. Emotionally and mentally, how hard was it to make the switch from cello to photography full time?
It was very hard and it was a process that took many years. As classical musicians, most of us chose our career path at the age of 12-13. And from that point it becomes our identity.
When I was 19 I had my Bachelor’s degree and I couldn’t imagine anything pushing me away from a musical career. But shortly after this I got a whiplash injury and playing the cello started becoming harder, both physically and mentally.
For five years I kept fighting until I finally gave in. But giving in was the best thing I could ever have done. It led to a very privileged career as a photographer where I can use more of my talent than I could as a musician.
The Musician-Photographer Relationship
Q: You have a very distinctive style and your portraits have emotional depth. Can you talk about the type of musician you enjoy working with and how you prepare for a shoot?
Sounds like a bad sales speech, but I enjoy working with all types of musicians. I have always loved diversity, both in people and in photography. I aim to create photos that suit the personality of my clients.
Preparations include discussions with my client regarding the type of photos he or she needs, location options, what clothes to wear, etc.
Q: Why is it so important for professional musicians to have great headshots? What impact can great set of photos have on their career?
We live in a very visual world where we get bombarded with information all the time. We often have to make decisions in a split second when deciding if something is interesting or not. A good, powerful photo can be the difference between a person taking a closer look at who you are or not.
In all aspects of your career it’s important to show that you are serious about yourself and what you do. If you use unprofessional photos, it will reflect on to you as an artist.
Q: How collaborative is your approach to a shoot with a musician or group?
I am always very well prepared for a session and have very specific ideas in my mind. But when I come to the session I often let go of my control and start working more intuitively. (This couldn’t be done without the preparations though.)
It’s similar to a musician who practices hard on the small details until the concert, at which time s/he is able to let go of control and simply be in the music.
For me this includes having an open dialogue with my client at all times. I see it a bit as a chamber musical relation between me and the musician.
Getting the Best Shot
Q: How do you typically tell the musician(s) you photograph to prepare for the shoot?
We typically only discuss the shooting schedule, locations, hair, wardrobe, etc. I normally don’t ask for more from my client. Too much information and direction can lead to stress — and since my clients are not trained photo models, I like to keep things simple.
This also applies to the photo shoot itself. If I give too many directions, the musician easily becomes too self-aware. And since I am always aiming for an honest expression, the less information and direction I need to give, the better.
Q: You ask musicians to do some pretty crazy things with instruments (often in extreme settings). Do you see a difference in the way a musician acts when you take them out of their normal environment of a practice room or concert hall?
Yes, absolutely. As I already mentioned, musicians are not trained models. And even though they are used to perform in front of more than a thousand people, posing in front of a camera can be very intimidating. And I know it from my own experience — I hate having my photo taken!
So having a musician pose in an extreme way can make for very honest expressions. For example, when jumping into the ocean it is pretty hard to stay aware of your hair or your smile.
But it is important for me to say that I only do these kind of shots when it fits the personality and artistic vision of the musician.
Q: I’m sure you have some great stories! Can you tell us a quick story from one of your favorite shoots or most difficult shoots?
In most cases I use Photoshop very little and tend not to make actual manipulations (adding or removing things, changing the background etc.) at all. The photo of the flutist on a black background in a big splash of water is one of those shots.
It was made on a chilly April day (around 50 degrees F) in my parent’s backyard. We had set up a black backdrop with the sun coming from behind and big silver reflectors in front to bounce back light to her face. We essentially simulated a studio.
We then had a gardening hose taped to the end of the flute (which I bought second hand for $100).
Mind that the water coming through a gardening hose is only about 40 degrees. And in order to get the shot, we were shooting for more than half an hour. In the end my dear client was pretty cold and rushed inside to get a warm shower. But it was a small adventure for both of us and she ended up really happy with the result.
Q: Can you give our readers a few quick tips on how to find the right photographer for their work and what qualities they should look for?
Go with your gut. It is important that you find a style that suits you. But be aware that photographers only show the best of their work and some might not be able to live up to the 10 photos they show off on their website. So also do a little background check and find out whom they worked with before. If they come highly recommended by other musicians this is a good sign.
It can also be a good investment to go to one of the high-end, renowned photographers who work with classical musicians, since their brand can help build yours. It is always a good idea to be associated with people high in their game.
And last, but not least: Be aware if the price is too low. This is always a bad sign. Good photos comes at a price — and this is an investment in your career and brand.
U.S. based musicians, are you Interested in having distinctive headshots and portraits taken by Nikolaj? Send us an email if you would like to be notified about his upcoming trips to the US.
About Nikolaj Lund: Based in Copenhagen, Denmark, Nikolaj is an internationally acclaimed photographer specializing in portraying classical music. He has always had two big passions, classical music and photography, which first lead to a Master’s degree in cello performance in 2006. In 2008, he decided to put all his effort into photography. A decision has never regretted! Learn more at nikolajlund.com and follow him on Facebook.