Musician Solange performing at the Day for Night festival in Houston, Texas, as photographed by Chad Wadsworth.

The Coolest Job in the World

By Kelly Turner

Chad Wadsworth would be the first to admit that he has one of the coolest jobs in the world.

The Austin-based photographer and self-described “music nerd” spends his nights and weekends at clubs, stadiums, and festival stages photographing some of the biggest names in music—and the throngs of fans who adore them. Over the years, his work has appeared in Spin, Rolling Stone, Maxim, and numerous other publications and websites.

“It’s definitely a dream job,” he says. “There have been moments when I’ve been on stage with the band and the energy is so overwhelming and so incredible that you understand what those bands experience.”

For Wadsworth, turning his passions for music and photography into a thriving business has required equal parts luck, hard work, and a willingness to embrace changing technology—even as he holds onto his analog roots.

Chad Wadsworth photographed spectators at the Austin City Limits Music Festival and Israel Nash at his recording studio.

Left, spectators at the 2016 Austin City Limits Music Festival. Right, Israel Nash at his recording studio in Dripping Springs, Texas, in 2017.

MAKE YOUR OWN LUCK

It started with a call to a radio station.

In 2005, Wadsworth, a recent transplant to Austin, was rediscovering a passion for photography that had been largely dormant since high school. With the purchase of his first digital SLR camera, he became determined to find a way to merge his new hobby with his lifelong love of live music. He called a local radio station in hopes of sweet-talking his way into a photo assignment for a Spoon concert he desperately wanted to see.

“Of course they said no,” he laughs.

Undeterred, he went anyway. Although pushing the limits of what his digital camera was capable of at the time, he managed to capture a few shots he was proud of. He sent the images to the radio station, which ended up running them on their website. Soon he was getting media credentials for shows throughout Austin. Those assignments led to new connections and a growing family of concert photographers he could learn from. One of those connections, a photographer for Spin magazine, passed Wadsworth's name to a New York editor.

“It’s like a lot of things,” says Wadsworth. “It’s some part luck, but also putting yourself out there to find that luck.”

Chad Wadsworth photographed the band AFI playing live at the Austin City Limits Music Festival.

AFI playing live at the Austin City Limits Music Festival.

LIFE IN THE PIT

If you’re looking to earn a name for yourself as a concert photographer, Austin isn’t a terrible place to be. The quirky-and-we-love-it city is host to some of the biggest music festivals in the country, including SXSW and Austin City Limits, and draws performers and fans from all over the world.

In the years since he first stepped into the photo pit, Wadsworth has photographed music legends, emerging artists, and nearly everyone in between. It’s thrilling, heart-pumping work, but also grueling. You might be shooting for days in the desert, 10 pounds of equipment strapped to your back, jostling for the shot you want. And then there’s the inherent unpredictability of live performances.

Once, while waiting to get a portrait of legendary rock band Jane’s Addiction for Billboard magazine, Wadsworth meticulously arranged the shot in his head and dialed in his camera settings knowing he’d probably only have a moment or two to capture the shot before the band went on stage. “But only two of the members show up at first,” says Wadsworth ruefully. “As we’re waiting outside the tent for [lead singer] Perry Farrell, he eventually rolls up and is like, ‘OK, go. We’ll just stand here.’ I had absolutely no control over the situation.” On the bright side, he did get to listen as the band did a full warmup to Van Halen tunes.

Chad Wadsworth photographed Jane’s Addiction backstage before their 2015 set at FFF Fest in Austin.

Jane’s Addiction backstage before their 2015 set at FFF Fest in Austin.

“That’s one of the fun and challenging parts of music work,” says Wadsworth. “You can try to control the environment, but you’re never really going to have the time you want or perfect conditions.”

The need to adapt on the fly to nearly any situation eventually led Wadsworth to become an early adopter of mirrorless cameras—a choice that raised more than a few eyebrows in concert photo pits packed with DSLRs.

“When I started showing up with this small mirrorless camera, my friends looked at me like I had five heads,” he laughs.

Although the first models weren’t as full-featured as his DSLR at the time, Wadsworth liked that the cameras were far lighter and that he could use his beautifully manufactured film lenses, albeit with manual focusing. By the time Sony released the Alpha 7 in 2013, with a full-frame sensor and interchangeable lenses, Wadsworth was all in. Today, he shoots almost exclusively with mirrorless cameras and serves as a Sony Global Imaging Ambassador.

“What makes mirrorless cameras so incredible and so powerful is their flexibility,” says Wadsworth. “You can put a tiny lens on it—a really good lens—and it can be small enough to fit in your pocket. Or you can put a big zoom lens on it. Or I can manually focus a vintage lens on it. It can be whatever I need it to be.”

No matter what camera you use, he points out that it’s up to you to learn how to bend it to your will. “We’re living in a golden age; there are so many ways now to customize your camera. On any camera, you should be able to set it up, memorize the controls, and have instant access to exposure controls. You have to commit to learning your gear so it fits like a glove.”

As for the friends who once gave him a hard time, today he estimates that more than half of his close-knit group of peers have made the switch to mirrorless cameras.

BUILDING ON THE PAST

Despite his enthusiasm for digital technology, Wadsworth’s visual style is largely inspired by film. His edited photos evoke the grain and tone of classic film stock, an aesthetic rooted in the music photography of his youth.

“For people of certain age, we grew up and consumed all this media that was created with film,” he says. “I’m trying to extend that style to the digital era.” As a teen, he recalls looking at Anton Corbijn’s photographs on U2’s “Joshua Tree” album cover and thinking he too wanted to do that one day.

Leon Bridges backstage at the 2017 Harvey Can't Mess with Texas Benefit Concert in Austin.

“I love the texture of film," Wadsworth says. "I have a hard time looking at my digital images with my beautiful files that are almost flawless. It’s just so crisp. I like to keep the focus and sharpness of that digital image but then break it down and add some texture.” Although he uses some film-emulation plugins with Adobe Lightroom, he says he never stops there. He constantly experiments with grain, color, and sharpness as he plays with his look. “I’m generally starting with the way traditional film looks, but then I want to push those boundaries.”

Wadsworth captured this photo of Leon Bridges backstage at the 2017 Harvey Can't Mess with Texas Benefit Concert in Austin. 

Wadsworth also keeps an extensive preset catalog in Lightroom of every successful edit he makes, organized by the camera he used, the lens, and even the weather and lighting conditions. “And then I ignore most of it and do whatever I want half the time,” he says laughing. “That’s the fun part about editing; you get to reinvent it every time you import a new batch of photos.”

For Wadsworth, a “film-centric” look isn’t about nostalgia or trying to mimic the past, but rather taking something old and familiar and building on it to create something different. “We’re in a constant visual evolution,” he says. In that way, he’s not so different from many of the musicians he photographs, building on the sounds they first fell in love with to create their own voice. “It’s pretty rare for an artist to go into a cave and walk out with something completely new that blows everyone’s mind.”

Chad Wadsworth captured this photo of Solange performing at the Day for Night festival in Houston, Texas

Solange performing at the Day for Night festival in Houston, Texas. “For me, this photo really reflects everything working together: it was that combination of my photo family helping me out, the performer having a beautiful set, and the camera coming through in a really low-light environment. I would never have been able to get what I got with my older DSLRs or even my older mirrorless cameras. It perfectly catches the vibe for that festival.”

“One thing that makes music photography so amazing,” says Wadsworth, “is that not only are you capturing visually something that you love, but you’re surrounded by people who also love it and who are having the time of their lives.”