Behind the Lens: Interview with Cina Nguyen



Cina Nguyen is a DC-based, 30-year-old freelance music photographer. She has recently shot for artists such as Billie Eilish, The 1975, and Kali Uchis. Her ethereal and otherworldly editing style makes her standout amongst music photographers. Blended’s Brooke Bell sat down with Cina to discuss the realities of concert photography and her distinctive, creative style.

Where did your interest in photography start?

I’ve always been interested in photography since a young age. However, I didn’t start taking photos until my junior year in high school when I took a photography class. I borrowed a 35mm camera from school to get started in shooting and developing my own images. I purchased a compact camera a few months later and started using that for the rest of my assignments. I took photos of my friends, on vacation, and pretty much anything. I tried to capture everything. Years later, I purchased my first DSLR from Craigslist. I started to watch YouTube videos on how to work my camera and what editing software to use and shortly after, I started taking photos again.

How did you get your first job and how old were you?

I didn’t start getting into music photography until 2015 after my trip to SXSW and then got my first photo gig in October of 2015 with a local publication, D.C. Music Download and a month later with Decorated Youth Magazine. I was 26. I didn’t start getting paid gigs until a year or so later.

How would you describe your photographic style?

I experiment a lot with my editing. I was recently told that my brand or style is “.. kaleidoscopic concert photography that directly represents the feeling of immense wonder and pleasure we experience when we enjoy live music” and I resonated with that description so much. For the longest time, I had trouble articulating how to describe my style or what I was trying to portray with my photos but that description was so spot on. My edits can be extreme, but it’s a representation of how I feel when I’m listening to live music: burst of colors and lights that create a sense of nostalgia when watching a live show.

What’s your favorite part of your job?

My favorite thing about what I do is the opportunity of meeting and connecting with so many like-minded individuals. I have built great friendships throughout this journey, and of course, the shows. I love live music so much and getting to attend these shows has been a blessing. 

What equipment do you bring to shoot at shows?

I used to bring a backpack with multiple lens, a Polaroid, my Nikon body, multiple batteries and memory cards, and a variation of light reflective accessories. Nowadays, my gear is typically light. Not because I don’t believe in being over-prepared, but I just found it more difficult for me to lug so much gear in such a tight spot and having too many options took up too much of my thought process throughout the shoot. So now I’ve limited myself to just my Nikon D750 and either a 50mm or my Sigma 24-70mm. If I use my 50mm, I’ll use a star filter. I’ll always have two memory cards and that’s pretty much it. 

How do you post process?

Get home from a shoot, upload everything into Lightroom right away, and go through the images quickly and edit a few while I still have the energy high from the show. Next day I’ll go through all of the images and select a handful and start editing and upload onto Dropbox and send them off. 

PHOTO: Anderson .Paak

PHOTO: Anderson .Paak

How do you differentiate your style from other concert photographers?

I guess I try not to think about it much. Like I’ll try not to think about “how can I be different from others”  but more so, how can I improve from my last post. I’m usually competing with myself and I’m always trying to create something different from what I’ve already done. I love playing with colors and textures. I incorporate that into my style a lot. I use muted, yet vibrant colors with plenty of pink and blue tones. I enjoy making beautiful photos and at this point I’ve been more and more unapologetic about my over-exaggerated edits. I know some may look at my work and wouldn’t consider it photography but would say it’s more in the field of graphic design or an illustrator or whatever. But I stopped caring about labels and whether or not others see me as a true photographer. This has definitely helped me improve with every shoot.

What was your favorite tour/concert experience and why?

I have yet to go on tour so I don’t have a favorite experience yet. Maybe one day. My favorite concert experience would have to be seeing San Cisco for the first time at SXSW in 2015 and seeing The 1975 last month in D.C. San Cisco because I absolutely love that band and I had no idea they were at SXSW so when I saw them on a lineup, I made it my mission to guide the group to see them. It was such a memorable moment and I just remember being so happy during and after their set. I’ve seen The 1975 a few times now, but their most recent performance was out of this world. The production was beautiful, the audience was so inclusive and in sync with the band that it didn’t seem real. It legit felt like I was on a spaceship like something from Zenon, watching some space rock band.

Can you describe the night of photographing a show?

Work 8-10 hours at my day job, rush home to get ready for the shoot, drive out to the city. Arrive at the venue but spend 30 minutes looking for parking. Get to the press window. 70% of the time it goes smoothly the other 30% of the time I’m either not on the list or I’m on the list but no photo pass or I’m on the list but no ticket, only photo pass. So then I’ll have to go through obstacles of getting that handled. Finally, I enter the venue and try to scope out the stage and production setup. I usually stand at the back of the venue until a few minutes before the band goes on just to avoid the angry eyes on me as I try to squeeze to the front to the photo pit.

Get in the pit, freak out a little, shoot first 3 songs, get out of the pit to rush to the back of the venue to find a secure standing spot, watch as much of the show as I can before having to head back home, get home and upload my photos, edit a few and then sleep for a few hours before having to do it all over again.

What would you be doing if you weren’t a photographer? 

To be honest, I’m not really sure. I guess anything to do with music and the arts.

Who is your dream artist to work with?

I would love to work with Jesse Rutherford, Wallows, and The Kooks.

Who influences you creatively?

I’m heavily influenced by all types of music and movies. I love 80’s style movie posters and get a lot of my inspiration from that. 

What band should we all be listening to right now? 

Yumi Zouma, Jeebanoff, Wallows, Astronauts, Cub Sport, Jesse Rutherford, Tillie, Danileigh, Kali Uchis.

PHOTO: Darren Criss

PHOTO: Darren Criss

Do you feel any setbacks in this job or whole industry as a woman?

Yes and no. I have been very fortunate to have been able to work with extremely supportive people. Now, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t any setbacks just because I haven’t personally experienced it from an artist or their management because I know it’s an ongoing issue. I just personally experience more issues with security at venues and random patrons in the crowd than bands themselves. I’ve had incidents at venues with staff members questioning my credentials. I have been held back from entering the photo pit on several occasions for no reason other than just being told I do not have the “proper pass” or that I’ve missed my shot or that I can simply shoot from the crowd with no pit access all while the pit is full of male photographers.

I would then have to get management or someone from the artist’s team involved and it always ends up with security stating they got it mixed up or “didn’t see my photo pass.” The issue doesn’t always get resolved in time and I have missed the window to shoot the show which has resulted in me not being able to deliver on an assignment. This doesn’t happen often if I compare it to how many shows I’ve shot, but even one incident is one too many. 

How has social media enhanced your connection to fans (of the artist or of yourself)?

Social media has played a huge role in my career. I have been approached by artists, labels, PR companies, fans of the artists and even people who are fans of my work all through Instagram and Twitter. Social media has allowed me to network and connect with different people that have either hired me for gigs or have just been extremely supportive of my work. It’s so crazy that you can connect and build relationships with people you’ve never met that are thousands of miles away from you. It’s pretty amazing.

What is your advice for future concert photographers? 

Expect to get rejected a lot but keep going for it. Eventually someone will say yes. Allow yourself to be inspired by your surroundings and try to authentically incorporate that into your work.

Lead Image Credit and All Photos: Cina Nguyen