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Mike Lerner is a Brooklyn-based music photographer, but you're unlikely to ever find him at home in New York City. For several years he's worked as Justin Bieber's tour photographer, a job that carries him from city to city, country to country, and time zone to relentless time zone. The tour schedule is long and hectic, but Lerner manages to have fun and find inspiration, despite the constant motion.
Unlike other professional photographers who inherited their first hand-me-down film camera at age three and continued to shoot obsessively straight through college (where one earned a BFA in photography, no doubt), Lerner discovered his love of the craft much later in life. In his early twenties, he found himself in somewhat of a rut, working jobs that he didn't enjoy, and losing money in nefarious enterprises such as online gambling. His life was ripe for change, and he found his calling by looking through the viewfinder.
Like most people on the planet, Lerner was a huge fan of music. He would go to concerts and see photographers right up at the front of the action, and suddenly it clicked: that's what he wanted to do. Without hesitation, he bought a camera and just went for it. Prior to this decision, he had been somewhat listless and drifting, but once he discovered his love of music photography, he became focused and dedicated.
His images are characterized by a dramatic use of light and soft, organic-looking colors. However, monochromatic images are just as plentiful as the color ones, but they all share a fondness for playful light, be it the setting sun or hard shadows from a flash. Other elements found in many of his images are candid and intimate moments, and a graphic awareness in composition. Lerner's work spans live performance to portraits and landscapes, and the colors and moods all tie together somehow, even though the geographical locations and subjects constantly shift. When pressed for a comment about his approach, he says, "I really don't have a shooting style. I see an angle that I like, or lights that look good, and I'll shoot it."
Even at the beginning of his photo career, luck was on Lerner's side, because his first big break came early. He shot a number of live shows of a young artist from California, named Katy Perry, whose career was about to explode. There was more to Lerner's rise to success besides luck or being in the right place at the right time. He showed an obvious talent for capturing the essence of live musicians, but he also had a keen ability to network and get his name out there.
Social Networking: It's More than Just Funny Cat Pictures
Not only did he shoot a series of great images of Katy Perry tearing it up onstage, he also struck up a good relationship with her management. At the same time, Lerner was utilizing every resource available to him to network. He was all over Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and Instagram, spreading his reach with his own website and good, old-fashioned business cards.
His networking chops and shooting skills landed him a tour with a band called VersaEmerge, and just like he had done in the past, Lerner formed strong relationships with everyone involved. The manager of VersaEmerge shared office space with a Justin Bieber associate, who happened to be in the process of seeking a new tour photographer. He was given Lerner's portfolio, and within days he landed the prestigious gig. In just a few short years he had transformed from a totally green novice to the pro in the green room.
Lerner has amassed a large following on most of his social media channels because, from the beginning, they have remained extremely important networking tools. If you check out the engaging videos he posts on Vine or the moody images he shares on Instagram using VSCO Cam filters, it seems almost as if the networking tools have transformed into viable mediums of expression, and act as full-blown creative outlets. But alas, this isn't the case. "For me, it's all networking. I haven't gotten to the point of brands or companies asking me to create through any one network, but we'll have to wait and see."
From the beginning, Lerner has used Canon gear exclusively. He simply clicks with the user interface and the layout of the controls, and his love of the image quality goes without saying. "I've been using a Canon EOS-1D Mark IV for the past two years now. My main lens is the Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM. I also have an EF 50mm f/1.4 USM and the EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM; that is my second-favorite lens. I feel that those three lenses are perfect for concert photography, and I carry the 50mm while I'm backstage. If you substituted the 16-35mm with a 24-70mm, it's pretty much still the same thing."
Finding his favorite set of lenses didn't require very much experimentation. He would borrow a friend's 24-70mm lens from time to time, and later rent a 16-35mm. He preferred the range of the 16-35mm, especially when coupled with his APS-H-sized 1D Mark IV. "I have from 16-200mm covered with three lenses." The only other serious gear experimentation that he embarked upon was a short test run with the EF 135mm f/2L USM. "It was actually a fun lens to use, but having the 70-200mm f/2.8L makes it obsolete."
Lerner has found that his prized three-lens collection is pretty common among other photographers in the field of music photography.
"For the most part, it really doesn't vary too much. There might be a fisheye here and there, or a 400mm for those arena shooters, but other than that, the kits are very similar. The wealthy photographers, though, have more primes, I've noticed." As Justin Bieber's tour photographer, Lerner shoots every show in the tour, for several months at a time. I thought perhaps he had decided to use a smaller bag of gear, because he was shooting the same show night after night. If he missed a certain angle one night, surely he could try to get it again at the next stop on the tour. I wondered if he only had one night to shoot a major pop star's concert, if he would bring a different selection of equipment. "Nope. I work the way I work for a reason and wouldn't change the way I do anything."
MIKE LERNER'S FAVORITE LENS
The redesigned EF 16-35mm f/2.8 L II USM boasts overhauled optics that ensure the best possible image quality from edge to edge. On full-frame cameras, angle of view encompasses 108º - 63º. Cropped APS-C sensors will see a 35mm focal length equivalency of approximately 26-56mm. The lens contains three high-precision aspherical elements, each of a different type: ground, replica, and glass molded. These minimize many of the common distortions and aberrations typical of wide-angle lenses. A ring-type Ultrasonic Motor and improved AF algorithms (with predictive tracking) ensures super-efficient, high-speed focusing as close as 11.2". A 7-bladed circular aperture renders soft bokeh in out-of-focus areas.
Life on the Road
It's easy to assume that a tour photographer's job is to shoot the live performances, but there's a lot more to it than that. Besides shooting the live shows, a big part of the job is capturing day-to-day life off the stage. But what takes precedence, shooting the show, or documenting the daily grind? "I definitely try to make sure to concentrate more on the behind-the-scenes content. I've photographed over 200 shows this tour, and the show is the same 98% of the time."
Lerner always seems to be shooting, whether he's operating behind the scenes, shooting a mundane scene beside a tour bus, or in a dressing room. His concert shots tend to have a more grandiose presence, with the dramatic stage lighting often creating high-contrast flares and shafts of light, amid the deep blacks of the darkened concert halls. The size of the arenas adds to the larger-than-life feel of his live work as well, as do the throngs of screaming fans, who sometimes gesture with their bodies in unison, creating eye-catching compositions.
When you compare Lerner's live-performance work with his behind-the-scenes shots, the striking compositions are what the two share most closely. Since Lerner is always busy shooting both environments, I wondered if the two types of shots function together, or if they're always separate. "I wouldn't say they function together. They're at two very different times during the day and both evoke a different feeling or mood I want to express."
Even after a week or two on the road, life can get repetitive, and at this point, Lerner has been touring with Justin Bieber for multiple years. I was curious if he ever needed to change his approach to shooting in order to keep things fresh. "I would say my approach, for the most part, stays the same, but the equipment I use may vary from time to time. I've grown to doing things a certain way and I've been getting great results thus far." If you ask him where he shoots from during a concert, he'll tell you, "I shoot from everywhere. Anywhere I can have a camera, that's where I shoot from." A look at his pictures tells you that the common thread that carries throughout his live music work isn't so much the perspective he shoots from, but rather the spontaneous moments where it all comes together: lighting, composition, action, and emotion. "I use an EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM for my farther spots and I'll usually use my EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM for the close stuff."
There's a YouTube video on Lerner's website with a video clip from the last night of the Believe tour, where Justin Bieber asks Lerner and the rest of the crew to join him onstage. The packed arena is going wild and screaming their heads off, just as they've done from the very moment Bieber hit the stage. The young pop star then gets the entire arena to pose for Lerner's camera and counts down, "1, 2, 3... cheese!" In theory, this isn't such a unique event, because Lerner states that "most tours do this at the end of a run or during the last show." But it's still amazing to witness such an epic-scale photo opportunity, and get a little window into Lerner's world.
If You Want to Shoot Music
When asked what others can do to follow in his footsteps, Lerner has offered the same advice for some time: always be shooting, always be doing something creative, and always be networking. At this juncture in his life, fresh from yet another lengthy Justin Bieber tour, I asked if there was anything else he would add to that. "Nope, that sums it up beautifully."
Since Lerner is constantly shooting Justin Bieber, one of the most prominent figures in popular culture today, you can't help but wonder where his work ends up. "My images end up in the inboxes of Justin and his management. I am his in-house photographer, but his photos can end up anywhere without me knowing and sometimes I am commissioned by clients to shoot assignments while traveling with him. I wish I could shoot everything he was involved in, though it would take over my portfolio and I'm trying to not drown my portfolio with Bieber images."
In addition to shooting musicians, Mike Lerner shoots a fair amount of fashion, landscape, and street photography. I asked if he foresaw himself gravitating toward any of those working styles in the coming years. "When this ends, I plan to focus all of my attention on editorial and commercial work. I've also had the luck of making a great contact in the world of modeling, so that will help me push my fashion shoots further."