An Interview with Photographer and Videographer Robert John

Insights, advice and more from an iconic rock band shooter

If you follow photography or music, the name Robert John might strike a chord (pun intended). Many of us who know the name recognize him primarily as the touring photographer for bands like Guns N Roses, Motorhead and The Cult. His work has been featured on Rolling Stone covers and in hundreds of other magazines as well as CD and DVD labels everywhere. His photos of bands and artists run the gamut from gritty to soft and sensual and his shots put the faces behind the names for many a young rock fan.

Kenny Perez, in a  shot for the back cover of his EP ©Robert John Photography. All rights reserved.

I’m a wide angle guy, always have been. I use the 15mm Irix Blackstone. I love this lens. 

©Robert John Photography. All rights reserved.
©Robert John Photography. All rights reserved.

As is the case with most photographers, there’s much more to the man than the legend. Luckily for us, he’s also an Irix shooter and graciously agreed to answer a few questions for us. I had the distinct pleasure of asking those questions and I’m happy to share his insights and very sound advice here with our friends and followers. Be sure to follow the links in the text and at the end of the article to his past and current work! Here we go:

My style is my style and I incorporate that in everything I shoot.

Hi Robert, and thanks for agreeing to give me a few minutes of your time. Let me start by completing the introduction. Most fans of your photography, including myself, know you from your work with popular rock groups. Is there another side to Robert John’s photography? Do you dabble in any other styles or genres? 

I love shooting nature. When I was touring with the hectic pace and all the people and traveling, when we’d come home for breaks I would take off for a week or so with a friend to places like Yellowstone, Zion, Death Valley – places like that. Go camping and photograph nature and beautiful landscapes. Would have loved to have been a National Geographic photographer. My style is my style and I incorporate that in everything I shoot.

©Robert John Photography. All rights reserved.
©Robert John Photography. All rights reserved.

I’ll spare you all the usual questions about how you got into photography and so on. If you don’t mind, though, can you tell our readers if there was a decisive moment for you, when you realized that photography was going to be a career rather than a hobby? 

Really, I wanted to make films. My friend Grant Chamberlain got me into photography and filming. As kids, we use to take our Kodak box cameras and shoot stuff. We used old 8mm movie cameras and made little short films. I don’t know exactly when I decided to photograph for a living, it just kind of happened. Another friend of mine, Kurt Levis, is the one who got me into shooting bands. He was the one who suggested shooting the band of a mutual friend. Our friend Chris Holmes was the lead guitarist for a band called W.A.S.P. That was the band I started with. That led to me shooting local bands and meeting Izzy Stradilin and then Guns N’ Roses.

Don’t just sit in a hotel room.

Touring with musicians must come with a unique set of challenges. Is there any general advice you can share with aspiring photographers about that particular choice?

Make sure you take lots of candid shots of who you’re touring with when they are out and about. You never know what they can be used for. Just enjoy it and take advantage of your days off to check out everything. Don’t just sit in a hotel room. If you’re in countries that are not your own, learn about different cultures. I don’t really tour anymore; that was when I was younger. I might go out if asked by a friend. I mainly do videos and studio shoots now.

©Robert John Photography. All rights reserved.
©Robert John Photography. All rights reserved.

What about gear? A rock photographer obviously needs to work in several different areas, like portraiture, events, outdoors, etc. Do you have a list of “must haves” in equipment for concert/band photography?

I believe in using what works for you and your style of shooting. Myself, I want fast lenses, 2.8 and lower. I think photographers should get the best quality equipment that they can afford. There’s nothing worse than having your gear fail in the middle of a shoot. Don’t just buy what everyone else is using. Read about and test gear before purchasing it. But it’s not just about equipment. It’s about capturing the moment. I once bet another photographer that I could get a shot published using a throw away camera. I bought one in a grocery store and shot part of a show with it. One of the shots got published in RIP magazine. It was a cool, grainy image. That was back in the film days, back in the 90’s.

You’ve spent a lot of time in different locations around the world. Is there a country or venue that really stands out for you, and if so, why?

There are a few countries that I love. Japan, England, Ireland, Romania, Italy etc. Mostly because of the people. I love Europe with the old architecture. Old churches, Medieval  structures. Love history. But probably my favorite would be Australia. The animals they have there are amazing. When I was touring with GNR  we stayed in Queensland for awhile. We scuba dived on the Great Barrier Reef while we were in the rain forest. I just love that area.

©Robert John Photography. All rights reserved.
©Robert John Photography. All rights reserved.

Let’s get into something other than rock stars for a minute. Can you tell me a little bit about your other enterprises?

Years ago, I started a little biz with my partners, Billy White and Jeff Boerio, called FusedArts. We do album stuff. Billy is the one who created the GNR “Appetite for Destruction” cross. I’m also the staff photographer for Twisted South magazine. My friend Zeke Loftin started that mag and it covers a different side of southern art, living, music and likes to delve into the oddities of the south.

Another friend, Lathan Mckay, is an actor, entrepreneur and professional skateboarder. He’s buying up and creating the largest collection of Evel Knievel memorabilia in the world. I was introduced to Lathan through Zeke, as they were in business together. I shot all of the motorcycles and leathers, helmets gloves, memorabilia. There was tons and it ended up being a grueling, three day shoot.

I shoot video with this lens…

You’ve been good enough to give Irix Lenses a plug on your personal website. How does our product line fit in with your gear?

I’m a wide angle guy, always have been. I use the 15mm Irix Blackstone. I love this lens. Distortion is controlled very well and it is nice and sharp. I also shoot real estate once in awhile and this lens is perfect for that. The build quality is excellent. I love the focusing ring on this lens. It is just still enough for super controlled focusing. And it has a ring to lock your focus. I shoot video with this lens and that is a great feature to have. [See one of Robert’s feature film videos here] I also love the fact you can use gel ND filters on the back of the lens. Saves money because with a filter thread of 95mm, ND filters can get expensive.

©Robert John Photography. All rights reserved.
©Robert John Photography. All rights reserved.

Show the world how you see things through your camera. Also, learn about business.

Let’s close with the obligatory question: What advice would you give to any photographer in today’s competitive world?

Yes, please learn your craft and your gear. It seems because of the capabilities of the cameras today, I see so many young photographers on auto settings. They let the camera do all the thinking for them. You should learn about exposure and how to control it for different looks. Along with composition. I hear too many say, “I’ll just fix it in Photoshop.”

Develop your own style. Show the world how you see things through your camera. Also, learn about business. If you want to be a profession photographer you also need to know how to run your business.

And please, to all you young photographers who want to make a living, stop shooting for free. I see too many starting photographers shooting for photo credit and no pay. You are being taken advantage of. Ask yourself, how do you start charging a client when you have been doing everything for free? You can get your name out there by doing good work. Professionals charge for their services.

There you have it, folks. I’d like to thank Robert again for his time, his words of wisdom and for allowing us to share some of his work in this article. Please visit the sites linked in the interview – I guarantee you’ll be glad you did. To learn more about Robert and view his online portfolio, visit his website: www.robertjohnphotography.com.

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