Ray Lowe, ex president of the BIPP, used to write a column in their monthly magazine which would describe a recent shoot he’d been on, or discuss the state of the industry generally. He would always end the piece with the same line: “It’s great being a photographer!” Whilst I didn’t always agree with Ray’s opinions, or those of the BIPP in general, I rather liked how he concluded with such a positive tone. This piece is perhaps a reflection of that, and an effort to balance what is perhaps either downbeat or very serious work that will be appearing elsewhere on the blog. I’ve presented it as a list, as that’s the way it fell out of my head – a subtitle would be: “8 great things about being a photographer”. They’re not in order of precedence, as it would be almost impossible to prioritise.
I’m a bit of an odd one here, as I’m not overly enamoured by foreign travel, and would rather head into the north of England than jet off to somewhere hot (well, usually.) All the same photography has enabled me to travel to parts of the world I would never have seen otherwise, and actually paid me to do so. Currently the “exotic” list stands at Borneo, Brazil, Egypt, Dubai, and Jamaica, with most of Europe thrown in for good measure. As an added bonus I often get to see these places from an angle that the average tourist can’t, as I’m permitted access to other places, people and things which may be out of their reach. Plus I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that photographing bikini clad models on a beach in Brazil isn’t quite a cool way to spend the day.
Off the top of my head one of my favourites has to be a trip to Scotland a couple of years ago – a great little portrait shoot of a blind extreme sportsman, and with lots of time to spare before catching my flight back I stopped for lunch alongside the river Tay. Sitting there, in a beautiful beech wood, with Buzzards wheeling above me, I was struck by the thought that I was actually getting paid to do this! I started laughing rather uncontrollably, so if you were driving along the A93 and you saw an idiot giggling away one lunchtime on his own, don’t be alarmed.
Variety of Work
I used to meet up with mates on Friday or Saturday night, most of whom have “normal” jobs, and we’d chat about the usual stuff. My favourite bit was when politely asked “what have you been up to this week?” Their response was usually relatively mundane, a couple of meetings, down the pub a bit, went to the cinema etc. My response would be something like; well, Monday was lingerie models in the studio, Tuesday I was in Oxford shooting Sir Roger Bannister on the track where he broke the four-minute mile, Wednesday was a corporate shoot in the city, Thursday I was “off” and Friday was the annual homeless football league finals. My mates would usually come back with something along the lines of “and they’re paying you for all that – you bastard?”
The fact that one day can be vastly different from the next more than makes up for the fact that the money can sometimes be crap, the work can come and go dramatically, and it can take months to get paid. Balance this against the fact that in a “normal” job you get a regular salary, some paid holiday, and possibly a pension and/or healthcare. As always, nothing in life is perfect and easy to achieve, else we’d all be doing it.
The range of colourful characters I’ve encountered doing this job is simply vast. I can happily say that I encounter far more inspiring people than I do arseholes, and more people who leave me feeling enthused about life than those who leave me feeling depressed. I’ve met and photographed everyone from A-List celebrities, to strange bald men on council estates in Manchester, visually impaired artists, champion athletes, authors, broadcasters, business magnates, actors, directors, chefs, soldiers, gymnasts, lavatory cleaners(!), politicians, gamblers, beautiful models, surgeons, musicians, the list goes on. Not only does this further augment the “variety” element of the job, but it leads to some very interesting situations (see above).
Some of the time it’s great to try and catch people candidly and unawares, in an attempt to get a “natural” shot of them, and sometimes it’s great to make the whole thing a big performance, and hire a studio, assistants, hair and make-up, styling etc. I’ve encountered very few people who really don’t want to be photographed, though I wish I’d had a pound every time I’d heard the line “oh, I’m not really very good in front of the camera, you should find someone more attractive” or variation thereof. Most people seem to enjoy it, and of course I find that that enjoyment further helps the shoot as they tend to be more relaxed.
I always make a point of talking to people a lot, as not only do I find that by listening to people you can often coerce them into situations they would otherwise avoid, thereby making a better shot, but also for the wealth of information they can impart. It’s my experience that interesting people are wherever you find them, and I’ve learnt as much from a bank clerk as I have from an ex-pilot and so on. I well remember a few years back, I seemed to be going through a phase of photographing ex-servicemen, including 1 particularly famous veteran of the SAS. What all these old soldiers had in common was that they all loved a war story, and would tell you lots of gory details, only to stop 2/3 of the way through and say something along the lines of “sorry I can’t tell you how that one ends – I’m still bound by the official secrets act!” How very frustrating! I often find that subjects are more candid with photographers than they are with journalists, and since in quite a lot of situations the journalists are back in the office it can lead to me noticing some interesting discrepancies when the story is published!
Money Making Potential
Definitely not my main motivation in the job, but there’s no denying that even for an editorial photographer (let alone a corporate/advertising one) the potential for making a good living is definitely there. At a couple of hundred quid per job things can get quite lucrative if you manage to have a busy week – half day shoots don’t take that long, and I’ve squeezed as many as 3 into a day before. On the rare occasions I’ve shot advertising work or similar, the fees are frankly absurd, and I know from my assisting days of photographers who have netted 5 figure sums for a days work. You have to balance all this against the fact that you may only shoot once on a particular week, or even month, and that your income will be very up and down. Granted if you want to be earning over 30 grand by the time you’re 25 you should head towards the city and get into banking (and you’ll be on about 50K by the time you’re 30), but as I’ve already mentioned, that’s not me.
From time to time I also get the pleasant surprise of stock work being sold, or an existing image/article being reproduced, and consequently end up getting sent a cheque for what feels like nothing. This isn’t strictly true of course, as in the case of stock work, not only did I take the stuff in the first place, but I will have spent ages retouching/keywording and sorting it out, but it still feels a bit like a gift. Similarly it’s very uplifting to be in the pub/out for a walk/on holiday etc to receive a call from the licensing department of a magazine company to be told that they’ve just sold your work on to another company, and is £500 OK?
Time and again I have had to hide my face from my client/subject as I’ve been giggling uncontrollably, usually brought on by the simple thought “what the hell am I doing?”. Such thoughts usually occur when I’m hanging out of a tree on a golf course, sitting in the bow of an inflatable tearing across the Solent at 30 Knots, or when I’ve just persuaded a journalist to pose waist deep in a puddle because it will make the story that much more believable. In a way this is an extension of “variety”, but I think deep down it’s an expression of what you want out of life, and I certainly like to have a story to tell at the end of the day. Just this week for example I’ve been following a journalist around on the South Bank, fully painted Silver in an attempt to scare passers-by and tourists, and the next day I had to shoot a “commuter race” between a cyclist, taxi, runner, skateboarder and inline skater from Waterloo to the West End. The former involved a lot of candid, voyeuristic shots, as well as some amusing set-ups, and the latter involved leaning out of a fast moving black cab with a long lens “riding shotgun”. Beats a day in front of the computer anytime.
For me I think this trend started when I was very young, as mentioned in my intro, a portrait shoot is more enjoyable in my experience if it can be a little bit different, and it’s almost a guarantee of producing more striking results. Put it this way, would you like to be remembered as the photographer who turned up, produced a good result, and went away quietly, or as the bloke who turned up, produced a really memorable shot, which you achieved by turning off all the lights in the building and shooting from the branches of an outside tree? OK, maybe that’s just me.
I’d also be lying if I didn’t admit that I find photographing attractive women, particularly ones who aren’t wearing many clothes, very pleasant indeed. Does that make me a dirty old man – or simply in touch with my heterosexuality?
Using My Imagination/Creativity.
This is something that personally has only really come to the fore in the past 4 years, as I spent far too long tarring myself with the brush of “commercial whore” and felt like I was concentrating solely on getting the job done and making money. This is not to say that these days I turn up to a shoot with no preparation, dressed in oversize paratrooper trousers, ripped T-shirts and sporting a Hoxton fin, but that I have come to view “creativity” as a very good thing rather than a flouncy, namby-pamby obstacle to getting the job done.This is closely tied in with interesting situations and variety of work in a sense, though at it’s root is the fact that working as a photographer permits you to use your creativity on a daily basis and allows you to live by the maxim of “you get out what you put in”. I can say with hand on heart that in the past few years since I started being more creative in my work, and approaching each job with an open rather than a closed mind, I’ve enjoyed myself a great deal more and found work that much more satisfying.
By creativity I don’t just mean in the artistic sense, but also the practical, problem solving aspect of the job. Realising some of the ideas I have, alongside the available personnel/equipment/location etc often calls for a great deal of ingenuity. Whether this manifests itself as rigging a light in a particularly difficult, hard to reach spot, or setting up an elaborate dolly system so that I can be moved alongside a running subject, it always adds an aspect of physical challenge and interest to a shoot. I know this sounds snobbish, but I suspect you don’t encounter quite the same problems working in an office.
The Feeling of Having Produced Something.
A little bit esoteric I know, but how many people in the modern world can honestly say they create something on a regular basis? I don’t for a minute compare the job of a photographer with something actually worthwhile like teaching, nursing or policing the streets, but at least I can hold something (or look at something) at the end of my day and honestly say “I made that”. Even though the novelty has worn off a little, I still get a thrill when I see my work in print, even if it’s to find out how the art director has ended up using it. This thrill was renewed 3 years ago when I scored my first magazine cover (and if you’d told me 9 years ago that the first cover I shot would be for a Golf magazine I would have laughed my arse off!) I’ve also had the pleasure of seeing my work on billboards and buses around London, and that can be very weird – to have people sitting in front of one of your shots that measures about 15 by 6 feet. Beats having a couple of prints in an exhibition in my experience.
On very rare occasions I’ve also witnessed my work actually affect people, which, given that I would hardly class myself a social documentary photographer, was quite something. Whenever this has happened it’s been a very personal matter, and is usually brought about because the subject of the photograph has since passed on, or that the moment captured in the photograph sums up the relationship between a couple. It certainly adds an extra dimension to my work if it has any emotional appeal, and it’s definitely not something I’m ashamed of.
Come on, we can be honest here, we like expensive black boxes that whirr and click, and go really fast. I can shamefully admit that I get a little glimmer of pride when I’m covering an event for a magazine and an amateur with a cheaper camera comes sidling up to me, glances at the badge on my camera, as well as the huge great bit of glass on the front, and goes “ooh, you’re a professional then”. Besides the cameras themselves there are all the surrounding bits, particularly studio equipment. On the last fashion shoot I shot, I was using Strobe lighting, which is antique British designed gear that gives out quite an unprecedented kick from a huge bank of oil capacitors. In total, although I’d turned the power right down there was still about 5kw of power coming out every time I pressed the shutter. Not only does it make a very satisfying explosion when it’s fired, but when I first encountered it 6 years ago, the cocky little idiot who showed me how it worked was demonstrating how NOT to use it and blew himself across the studio. He was intact, though with slightly injured pride, and I laughed so hard that milk came out of my nose.
I don’t get to have letters after my name, I don’t drive a fast car or have corner office, neither do I own any designer clothes, but I get to play with great big powerful lights, huge studios, and fun things like radio triggers. Plus, my camera will shoot at 8 frames a second, and frankly, that’s really cool. Girls love it – honest.
So there you go, a nice positive list, which hopefully I’ll be adding to as time passes. One to dig up when I haven’t been paid in months, clients are demanding more and more from me for less money and all my camera gear is in for repair.