Professionals Vs Amateurs

(Warning - this article contains some traces of sarcasm, tread carefully.)

I remember with great fondness (read, a sickening sense of familiarity and fear of internet trolls) some of the discussions that would crop up every few months on various photography forums as to the validity of the labels amateur and professional. These discussions would circle round and round as people argued about how much money they did or didn’t make from photography, whether they’d been published or not, whether it was just an attitude, or simply what cameras they owned. In doing so they improved the world of photography immeasurably, and have helped us all move up to the sun lit uplands of enlightenment which those of us who wield a camera on a daily basis now inhabit. 

STOP!  Before replying to that post about why only amateurs use Sony cameras, think - could those bytes of data you are about to use up be employed more usefully elsewhere?  Such as in a video of a Kitten playing in a box?

Personally, I think amateur and professional are simply different ways of behaving, but more than that, I don’t believe there’s a perfect linear progression from amateur to professional with no slipping back or feedback between the two. There’s a very determinist notion that this progression is what everyone aspires to, and that professionals must by default be better than amateurs. You can probably guess by the fact I’m writing this post, that I don’t agree with this one bit!

Many amateurs look up to professionals - they’ve usually got more toys to play with, and above all it appears (superficially at least) that they’re getting paid money to do something that the amateur enjoys. Of course, many amateurs don’t see how much hard work, and how much tedious admin, marketing, and the rest makes up the actual working life of the average pro. Some pro’s I know spend about 10% of their time actually taking pictures, which is probably less than a few amateurs!

My progression from amateur to professional seems to have involved getting muddy, and losing hair.

It’s not all one way though, and in recent years I’ve found it very useful to assume what you could call an “amateur” mindset. By this I simply mean coming to my subjects and jobs with as fresh a set of eyes as I can, in order to generate new ideas. Being familiar with your subject matter as a professional can be a big advantage. In my case more than 300 shoots for Men’s Fitness magazine, and more than 300 shoots for Golf Monthly has meant that I know a fair bit about those 2 areas, and as such I can produce work very easily and quickly, without needing to have everything explained to me several times. This familiarity makes it easy to slip into autopilot though, defaulting to the same lighting setups, the same sort of shots, and always working with the same people. Coming up with new ideas becomes a challenge, and one trick that can really help is to try and walk into shoots and imagine I’ve never shot anything like this before - in some ways how an amateur would. What interests me about this situation, this person, this location, or this activity? Now, try and come up with some images that express that, rather than resorting to the usual tried and tested shots.

Just as tired and jaded pro’s like me can benefit from a more open-minded, “amateur” mindset, amateurs could benefit from a few professional habits. I don’t mean they should start charging for everything they do, just that they could adopt a few working methods and reap the benefits:

  • First off, stop using “picture modes”. No professional camera has them (this should be a clue), and no professional I know ever uses them. Use manual, or if you're really in trouble, aperture priority, and actually start to learn about the relationship between aperture, shutter speed and ISO, rather than letting the camera make the decisions.
  • Tighten up some of your kit basics - make sure you always carry spare batteries, spare memory cards, some basic tools like a blower brush and a multi-tool, and invest in decent gear that will last years - such as a proper tripod - rather than making a false economy.
  • It is never too early in your career to develop a proper workflow, as you’ll only regret it when work goes missing, or cards get corrupted. You don’t need to go to the same lengths that pro’s go to, with RAID drives, and multiple redundant backups, but since portable hard drives and cloud storage are now so cheap, there’s really no excuse not to back your stuff up properly.
  • Buy gear that’s either called “professional”, or has got the word “professional” printed on it. This makes your shots 37% better immediately, and makes people respect you more. *

I am clearly a professional, as more than 56% of my equipment has "professional" written on it.  So there. 

  • Rather than always just going out on a shoot, and seeing what happens, spend a little time planning the sort of thing you want to shoot in advance. Professionals don’t go out on a job with no idea of what they’re doing - at least, not if they want to stay employed for long - and to increase your chances of getting impressive results you’ll do well to think things through up front. 
  • Start using a logbook Go on, you know you want to!

* May not be 100% true - your mileage may vary.

Right, that’s that eternal argument sorted. Coming next, Nikon vs Canon, to be followed by film vs digital and primes vs zooms, and black coffee vs the milky kind.

(Black obviously - what are you, some kind of pervert? Who in their right mind puts milk in coffee?)


How to create more time for your creativity....

.....or why I wear the same trousers on 80% of my shoots!

There's a psychological phenomenon that I've read about a few times called "Decision Fatigue".  I've come across it in books like Scarcity, as well as stuff by Daniel Kahneman, Malcolm Gladwell, and I recently heard a Tim Ferris podcast on the subject.  In a nutshell, the condition is that we all have a finite amount of attention in any given period - let's say the average waking day of 16 hours or so - and we deplete that attention by having to make more and more decisions.  

The downside is that if we spend most of our waking hours making decisions about not very important stuff (what TV show to watch, which pair of shoes to put on in the morning) we'll have much less attention left to devote to the important things - in our case coming up with ideas for shoots, solving technical and logistical problems, or managing people on a shoot.  

Irrespective of any scientific studies on the matter (and there appear to have been several) I'm sure we can all think of times when we've made bad/lazy decisions due to being exhausted, or simply felt bewildered when confronted by a range of options.

So how do you manage this finite resource?  With trousers.  Obviously.

Me and my beige combat trousers in a variety of situations.  I took them to meet, amongst others, Paula Radcliffe, Jeremy Piven, and Dean Macey.  I think they were impressed.  The celebs, that is, not my trousers.  That would be weird.

More than one of my clients has remarked, in a gently mocking way, that I seem to own only one pair of trousers, due to what appears to be a very limited wardrobe when they meet me on shoots.  The truth is that several years ago I found the perfect pair of "work" trousers (you can buy them here, and if they'd like to chuck me a free pair or two in return for all the custom, I won't say no) and I simply buy more pairs when my existing ones wear out.  They're such suitable work trousers because:
  • They're smart enough to allow me to work in places like posh golf courses without getting thrown out, but tough enough to put up with all the location work I do.
  • They've got stacks of pockets on, which I frequently make use of.
  • They're very hard wearing - I don't know how many pairs I've owned in total, but I've never actually destroyed a pair yet, although I've had a good go.
  • They've got a good practical fit - something that can't be said for jeans, which are awful at flexing with you when you move about, squat, climb up things, and generally do all the running about that I do on the job.
  • They dry out very quickly, which is essential for the amount of times I get soaked out on location.  Again, something jeans are awful at - once wet, they're staying wet.
  • And last but not least, they're about £20 a pop.  Not to sound tight-fisted, but knowing they only cost this much means I'm much less likely to worry about damaging them - not something I should be thinking about on a shoot when my prime concern should be to get the best shot.
But above all, and the reason for this post in the first place, is that wearing one pair of trousers for work helps me avoid decision fatigue, and allows me to spend more of my limited mental energy on stuff that actually matters, like solving problems and being creative.  It's why I always pack my camera bags the same way, and tend to have the same thing for breakfast, though there are other good reasons for these 2 habits as well.

So if you want to be more creative, just change your wardrobe.


2014 Blackbox

My "Blackbox" for 2014

So that's another year wrapped up, and the scores are all up there in my Blackbox.  142 shoots in total, which is down from last year, but certainly doesn't feel like it, since the bias was towards the end of the year, and I did nearly 3 months with only 1 non-shooting weekend!

Some thoughts for the year ahead, based not just on this year, but on steady accumulation of things I'm finally learning:

  • I've really got to work on the whole "Charge more/shoot less" concept, as I can't manage another Autumn like 2014.  If, by the end of November, you'd approached me and said "Hey Tom, we've got an infinite budget, an amazing location, a fascinating subject - what ideas have you got?"  I'd have replied something like "Snuh.  Buh.  Fllrt.  Huff."  Being as busy as this obviously brings the money in, but above and beyond the physical burnout is the mental exhaustion, and I need to make more space from now on for developing new ideas, and learning new skills.
  • I say this every year, but I really will write more blog posts and do more videos in 2015.  Partly this is because I've come to recognise that perfectionism keeps me from posting stuff - I'm not happy with something unless I think I've written every possible thing on the subject, and this obviously takes a loooong time!
A few stats on the shoots this year, as I know we all love stats:
  •  23 different clients
  • Almost no foreign travel - just the one trip to Paris for Runner's World (I could get used to not having to get on planes very often!)  But masses of driving - 2 trips to Northumberland, 1 to the Lakes, 3 to the South West, and so on.
  • A good, steady reduction in the amount of Golf stuff I'm shooting.  This is something I've been working on for about 18 months, and I'm pleased to be at a stage where I still shoot it occasionally, as I don't actually want to piss any clients off, but at the same time it's never been something that's moved or motivated me personally, and spending a lot of time around something that doesn't motivate me isn't good for the soul!
Here's to 2015!


Assistant Training Courses at Calumet

Back by popular demand (sort of) I'm teaching another Assistant training course at Calumet Drummond St.  If you've just left college, are considering a change in career, or just starting work as an assistant this course can give you a head start.

The course covers the following topics:
  • An overall description of the Assistant's job - as well as the different types of assistant
  • Lots of basic do's and dont's as well as what could be considered "Assistant Etiquette"
  • Key Assistant skills
  • Stacks of hands on technical and equipment instruction.  We've got access to lots of hire equipment from Calumet, and I'll be showing you how to rig things safely, what things are called, how you can use magic arms to impress photographers, and how to not electrocute everyone on set.  All good stuff
  • Current advice on shooting video and being a digital operator
  • Suggestions on what to carry in your own assisting kit
  • Advice on how to get work as an assistant, including the perfect CV
  • Brand new for this year - lots of info about making the move from assistant to photographer.
  • And last, but definitely not least, some basic business studies stuff that will help you set up as self-employed, and ideally keep you in business for as long as possible!
You can book your place here, and the date for the course the 4th December, and it's taking place at Calumet Drummond Street for the bargain price of £36 for the day.


Logbooks - A quick Video Guide.

So, after promising to talk about them countless times over previous years, I've finally got my act together and produced some info about my fabled Logbooks.  Here's the video I've just made:

I've tried as much as possible to keep it short and sweet, but bearing in mind I've been working with these things for 19 years now, and have struggled with them, stopped using them, then in recent years fallen back in love with them, and you'll perhaps understand why it's taken so long to produce this post, and why it's so hard to summarise them!

As briefly as I can, here's a quick round up of what logbooks are, why they're useful, and how to use them:

  • First off, you need to get your head around the idea that creativity is a process, and a methodology that can be followed, nurtured and developed, rather than simply some mythical artistic inspiration over which you have no control.
  • Now, in my experience the best way to develop this creative methodology is to record your ideas, methods, techniques, and thoughts in a logbook.  I was first required to do this as part of my college degree back in 1995-98, and it formed a key part of how they assessed and marked the photographic part of our course.  During college I actually found them very hard work, and didn't use them much immediately after I left.  About 8 years ago however, I started turning to them again, and I can say with hand on heart that they've been hugely influential in the improvement I've made in my work in recent years.
  • Exactly how you use them is completely up to you, but for me, the first thing is always a brief - whether this is client lead - "I need to shoot some images for a social media campaign", or personal - "I want to shoot some sexy fitness shots in the studio".  Without some sort of direction your work is unlikely to go anywhere - creativity needs a framework, even a loose one, to operate in.
  • Now lay down your initial ideas, as well as your inspiration.  These images can be previous images you've shot, or other people's work.  When referring to other people's work, always credit them - it's professional courtesy, and you'll probably want to look them up again at a later date.  You should also draw different things from these images - some will be references for lighting, some for mood, pose, styling, location, photoshop treatment, and so on.  Just slapping some in, and then copying them is basically plagiarism, and rather pointless.
  • At this point you may want to record any essential production details for the shoot - shots of the subject/model, shots of the location, notes you'll need to bear in mind for shooting, and so on.  Go into as much or as little detail as you like here.
  • By now you've got all you need to go out on the shoot, so off you go, referring to the logbook as and when you need to.
  • Once you've shot everything, stick in any finished images you feel are relevant, or out takes you think make a salient point.  Grab any setup shots you took, or draw lighting diagrams if you'd prefer. 
  • And finally comes one of the most important reasons for using a logbook - assessing the shoot after the event.  This was a key part of being marked at college, and in the real world it's even more vital, as the conclusions you draw after a shoot are what enable you to grow and move on as a photographer.  You should always be as honest as possible with yourself at this stage - if the shoot didn't work for some reason, you need to ascertain why, not just shrug your shoulders and put it down to bad luck!  Draw as many positives and negatives from the shoot at you can, and next time you'll be better prepared.
So why go to all this trouble?  Well the logbook serves several very useful purposes:

  • Initially, it serves as a technical resource - a "recipe book" if you like, for how you created your images.  This is invaluable when you want to recreate a certain look or image in future.  The more detail you put in when shooting, the more useful it will be in future.
  • If you ever find yourself losing your way in your photography, trawling back through your logbooks can often flag up where you should be going.  Your (hopefully) insightful assessments and conclusions after each shoot will serve a signposts along the way, and guide you in the right direction.
  • Lastly, but by no means least, Clients LOVE it.  They love looking into your creative thought process, they love using it as a resource to get ideas for shoots, locations and treatments from, and they love seeing their own work crop up in it further down the line.  I take it on as many shoots as possible when I know the client will be around, and I've even been specifically asked to bring it sometimes.
 There you go, a rather quick intro to using logbooks, I hope I've sold you on the concept, as they've been hugely useful to me over the years, and have become more and more relevant as time has passed and my career has developed.  They are well worth the time and effort it takes to put them together - get started on one now!


Shooting Male Cover Models - a How To Video

Made myself another video, this one with the help of Richard Scrivener.  It's a quick guide to shooting male models for things like magazine covers, and there's lots of info on lighting, posing and all the obvious stuff.  Here you go:


Behind the Scenes on a Men's Fitness Studio Shoot

Just finished putting together this behind the scenes video from a shoot back in May for my good friends at Men's Fitness.  The main challenge in this shoot was in mixing the light from Fluorescent tubes with flash to freeze motion, although hopefully I've gone into enough detail in the video to explain what we did.

I'm getting the hang of putting these together, so hopefully there'll be some more on the way.  I'd like to do them when there's something particular to be learnt from a shoot, rather than just a video that shows what my camera looks like, and some flashes going off!