Finding the Art in Music Photography

Music photography is a heavily saturated industry. With many emerging photographers happy to shoot for free to have their name associated with musicians, it has become very difficult to make a living by specializing in music. But there are a few pioneers who have risen amongst this heightened competition; this is the story of renowned music photographer Kana Waiwaiku.

The 31 year old Londoner, Kana, has swam against the tide his entire life both personally and professionally. He describes trying to establish himself whilst being true to his personal vision as an uphill struggle. But with great dedication to his craft, Kana's brand of music photography has gained many admirers. Yet the biggest compliment I can give is that you can identify his work without needing to look at the credits. 

Kana’s first exposure into photography came whilst at design college after being invited into a studio and laying his hands on a Pentax 67. Many of these early experiences shaped Kana’s photographic eye, especially his use of film. Bear in mind this was during an era where almost all professionals were shooting digital.

The guy who taught photography knew I was struggling in my course, took me into the studio, put a Pentax 67 in my hands and said "This will save your life." Somebody hadn’t turned up to do their shoot so he pointed over to a model called Mercedes and said, "Shoot her." The rest is history.

As a young, black, British man growing up in London, Kana’s early experimentation in photography is full of elegant anecdotes that he describes as love letter to the craft. My favorite one was of his run-in with the police when out taking long exposures in a dark London park.

I got stopped by the police once because they had thought I’d nicked all this camera gear. I’d tried to convince them I was taking 30 second exposures, but they were having none of it.


It’s this reality in his personal experiences that I feel comes across in his work, yet he never shies away from how difficult an industry it was to crack whilst trying to stay true to the spirit of his work. Even his first few times spent in the photo pit at gigs he was shooting film, then taking his work into the dark room to physically mark his expression in post.

There are some photographers who see their profession as a means to an end, something to pay the bills. And there are the ones whom we hold a candle to, those ones that maintain an honest and a clear direction with their work. From spending a few hours talking all things photography with Kana, you quickly realize he is firmly the latter. His description of his craft as “art” goes a long way in determining the integrity of his portfolio.

“I see work as a record or your time. I was never interested in design to serve a purpose, but rather to create art. I always shoot with the idea of making people feel. Design is to fix, art is to be free”

When Kana isn’t shooting film, he uses his Canon EOS 7D. I could write plenty on his technical expertise, but this isn’t what differentiates himself from the crowd, it’s his ability to break down that barrier between photographer and subject.

It’s important I’m there for the whole day of a show, from sound check to the after party usually. When I get on location I sit in the corner for 20 minutes and just look. I want them to forget I’m there. That’s when I can get to work”

Kana’s work is a mixture of energetic performance shots, reportage moments and vulnerable portraiture. His secret? The immersion into a band’s existence and their music is key he says.

When I know I’m going to be shooting a new band, I remove all music from my phone and only listen to their music for a week. I ask them questions and go into a kind of research mode. Sometimes it’s easy to work out where they are coming from, sometimes they are new it takes time. But it’s so important to be patient.

You can see more of Kana’s work here.

Images used with permission of Kana Waiwaiku

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Hans Rosemond's picture

Nice. Always good to learn about a film shooter. Really cool work and style.

Kana Waiwaiku's picture

Thank you

Chris Hooper's picture

It is interesting that Kana "only listen to their music for a week" because when I am marking my "expression in post" (digital), I listen to the music of the subject as well. I wonder if most live music photographers do that.---Chris "AoxoA" Hooper of Austin Tx.

Kana Waiwaiku's picture

Hey man, slightly confused by the question but I'll try and answer it if I can. I don't think there's any particularly special about my approach with regards of listening to a new act or any act over and over. It just puts me in a place that I can work, it's just part of the process. It's the same if I'm shooting Pete Dotherty, The Libertines, The Bots or anyone. Everyone has their own way that's just one of the steps I take. Everyone has something to offer and what I offer is me.
Hope you're good and that answers your question.

Chris Hooper's picture

(Another nice shot). It wasn't really a specific question for you. But I appreciate your thoughtful response. I was just saying, I listen to the music of the particular band when I am working on their shots in post. Like you said, it puts me in a place and is sorta part of the process. You listen to bands music before shooting, etc.. So, it is sorta a similar type of thing. I bet lots of music photogs do stuff like that. --Chris "AoxoA" Hooper of Austin Tx.

Marc DeGeorge's picture

A good (if brief...would like to learn more!) article. I can appreciate how Kana has found a way of working that not just works for him, but creates unique images. I wonder if being a musician helps or detracts from making great music images, though I suspect knowledge of your subject will always result in better photos.

Kana Waiwaiku's picture

Hi Marc, thanks for the kind words. Feel free yo drop me a message anytime with any questions. I love talking photography. I think I'm going to do a few videos too I've had a few questions and would cool to address the questions people have. Hope you're good. Kana

Joe Black's picture

Kana you now fall in my "please stop taking pictures so I can feel better as a photographer" box :P

Amazing work. Breathtaking.