The First Fifty

Well, it's taken 3 years and 6 months, but I've finally shot my 50th magazine cover. in truth, I've shot quite a few more than this, but I decided quite a while ago to only count my chickens once they'd hatched, and I'd actually got the finished copy in my hand.

By my current reckoning, there's at least 8 that haven't "hatched" yet - about 4 of which I never got sent (!), and another 4 (minimum) which I've shot in recent months and have yet to be published. I can't be certain about this last number, as I've shot quite a few potential images, but whether they'll meet the required standards is yet to be seen, as in most cases the conditions on the day (including yesterday!) were not great.

Some scores:
  1. First cover shot: October 2004, last cover (in order of appearance on the above set) December 2007 - although there are 6 in there that were shot January-April 2008.
  2. Golf Covers - 22, Poker Covers - 18, Woking Magazine Covers (!) - 5, PriceWaterhouseCoopers - 4, Britannia Building Society - 1
  3. Taken in 6 different countries - UK, Spain, Portugal, Dubai, Monte Carlo, Italy.
  4. Only 16 were taken in the studio, and the rest in various locations
  5. Here's where it gets really nerdy, but I know deep down you care - 27 were taken on the 1D Mark II, 22 on the 5D, and 1 on a Hasselblad with a Phase One P30 up it's arse.
Here's to the next 50!

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A Little Highland Fling

Once in a while a job comes along that reminds me exactly why I became a photographer, and why I sometimes put up with all the trials and tribulations that often go with it. I got a call in January from one of my oldest clients, Men's Fitness magazine, asking if I wanted to spend 4 days up in the Highlands of Scotland in February, shooting a story about a journalist trying to use basic survival skills in the most remote part of the British Isles.

Given how much of my spare time I spend in places like the Highlands (and the fact that I'd actually been to the very place in question about a decade ago) I said yes without hesitation. And then the fun began.

The journalist in question was Mr Nick Hutchings, the features editor of the mag. He's far fitter than I am, and has lots of experience in mountainous areas doing trendy things like snowboarding. However, he had almost no experience of navigating, camping or surviving in a place like the Scottish highlands, particularly in February. I was called in not just to take the shots, but to "consult" as it's called these days, on our overall plan of action.

Given my years of tramping round locations like the highlands, I initially started out with a very cautious approach, warning Nick of just how remote we were going to be, how cold it could get, how bad the weather might turn, what the hell we'd do if something went wrong and so on. Initially Nick seemed very confident, but as time passed we seemed to swap places, and with a few days to go before the trip I got a couple of slightly tense calls from him, whilst I felt more and more like we'd get through it and have a good time, even if it didn't quite go according to plan.

The itinerary was:

Sleeper train to Inverness, leaving London 8pm Sunday, arriving 8am Monday, pick up hire car, drive to Kinlochewe, walk to a spot we (I) deem suitable for camping in, taking a few snaps along the way, overnight at the site, Tuesday to be spent getting up to the most remote point, and taking all the "survival" shots, overnight back at base camp, then on Wednesday break camp, walk back to the car, drive to Inverness and catch the 8pm sleeper back to London, arriving back at about 7.30 on Thursday morning.

Our first challenge was when the power failed in our carriage on the way up. There were no other berths left, and we didn't fancy squeezing into seats for 12 hours. A train travelling at about 90mph is quite draughty, and in mid-February it can get bloody freezing. Coupled with the complete darkness, and we ended up cracking out much of the camping gear before we'd even got off the train.

The trek up to the campsite was uneventful, but a bit damp, and, frankly, bloody exhausting. Walking on paths and tracks is all very well with 17-18KG on your back and a camera strapped round your front, but when it comes to yomping across the open moorland it starts to become quite arduous. This of course was going to continue for the entire trip - alleviated slightly on the 2nd day when we didn't have to carry the tent.

Finding a suitable place to pitch the tent proved very difficult indeed. For those of you not familiar with the wilds of Scotland, soft, grassy, level areas are a bit thin on the ground, and we ended up pitching very gingerly on the least spiky bit of heather we could find, taking great care not to pierce the groundsheet. After a little evening stroll down to the the perfectly still Loch we cooked a nutritious and healthy ready meal, played some cards, read a few survival guides and went to bed. Nightlife in the most remote part of the highlands is a little lacking I'm afraid.

Tuesday morning was very, very cold, but perfectly clear - not a cloud to be seen, though lots of frost on the tent. We were planning to spend the day making our way to the "official" most remote point in the UK, taking lots of the required survival shots on the way. In the end we failed in the first task because we spent too long on the second. Even without having to set up lights and things, it still takes ages to get all the shots done when you've got to cover a large area and photograph everything from navigating, building shelters, to gathering wood and making fire.

By the afternoon of the Tuesday a problem was starting to develop. One which we'd both been reluctant to talk about, and even now I shall have to tread carefully in my description of forthcoming events. Since Sunday neither of us had felt the need to, shall we say, tear a sheet off a roll of paper. Whilst there was still daylight available we took my brand new ultra-clever folding shovel and dug a small latrine, only for same shovel to snap just as we dug out the last sod. Nick's need was greater than mine, and so he was privileged to partake of the proper facilities - cold running water, splendid views of the Western Highlands, and all the heather you could want to wipe your arse with.

Another splendid dinner was followed by another evening of witty conversation, dancing, backgammon and shove ha'penny, before we retired to bed. Sleeping in a tent in the middle of nowhere is never the easiest thing, even when tired, and when the slightest movement exposes a new bit of you to the cold, slumber rarely comes quickly. In my case I had another factor working against me. My "lower half" was becoming increasingly uncomfortable, but the prospect of going out into the sub-zero temperatures was in no way appealing. I spent a good hour or so going through the same thought process we've all used at one time or other before I was prompted by a grunt from the other end of the tent -"sorry mate, I'm going to have to climb over you and go out for a piss". So that settled it, and I set off shovel-less to find a suitable spot.

It was still a very clear night, with an almost full moon, and frost on almost every surface, and whilst it's not an experience I want to repeat in a hurry, taking a crap in such a remote location is not something I'll forget anytime soon, and I'd urge you all to do it before you die.

By Wednesday morning things had turned nasty on the weather front, and we hurriedly broke camp, trying to keep things as dry as possible, and in the process I LOST A GLOVE AND BECAME QUITE ANGRY ABOUT IT. We skipped breakfast (a stupid thing to do) and headed back, fully laden, as fast as our legs would carry us, which in Nick's case was subtly faster than mine. The return trip to the car with full packs on our backs was something of an endurance test, and to be honest, the last 2 miles were basically achieved on willpower alone. We both adopted variations of marching rhythms simply to persuade the correct leg to swing forward at the right moment.

Returning to Inverness we were disappointed to find no fanfares heralding our arrival, though clean dry clothes, a curry, and a couple of pints more than made up for it.

A few lessons learnt:

  1. The 5D didn't need it's battery changing the entire time I was there. I started shooting on Monday morning, and carried on for 48 hrs. I took 380 shots, and did loads of chimping. When you consider that the temperature often fell below freezing I find this performance quite superb, and can't recommend it highly enough. Neither did I ever need to call on the services of the 20D, loaned to me very generously by an old friend. There was no way i was carrying a "1" series body on a job like this, which leads me to my next point.
  2. Sticking with gear, a glance at the packing shot will make it obvious that I took relatively little in the way of camera equipment. This comes from previous experience of doing shoots where I have to transport myself under my own power (walking/running/cycling/climbing) and still take shots. After having done this a few times I can safely say that it's better to carry very little gear, but be able to move freely and fast, thus permitting me to keep up with if not overtake the action, rather than carrying the kitchen sink, and although prepared for any photographic eventuality, miss out on most of the shots due to physical exhaustion.
  3. No amount of training could have prepared me for how physically demanding this trip was going to be, but I was flattered in a perverse way when Nick said at the end that it was one of the hardest physical things he'd ever done.
  4. It was quite a lot of effort to go to, just to have a romantic poo.
An edited set of piccies is on Flickr, and you can read Nick's article, which differs slightly in approach from mine, in the current (May 2008) Issue of Men's Fitness. The only real downside to the trip was that after 4 days of not eating/drinking/sleeping enough whilst exerting myself quite a lot physically, it left me a bit vulnerable, and the cold that developed almost as soon as we got home very quickly matured into a proper flu that knocked me for six.

Now, I know what you're saying - "he only had man flu", and I shan't protest too much, only to add that it's the first time I'd been ill in 5 years (the last time under almost identical circumstances after an expedition to Borneo), and it caused me to take the unprecedented step of cancelling a job at the very last minute as I knew I was simply not physically capable of shooting it! Given that I don't get any sick pay, being laid out by illness is not something I do very often - in fact that's only the 2nd time in 10 years, and I hated every second of it.

Apart from lying on the sofa watching Ferris Bueller's Day Off, which I rather enjoyed.

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Welcome to Dubai.

Been here shooting for a week now, and it's gone pretty well. At the risk of going off-topic for a blog that's supposed to be about professional photography I wanted to whinge about something and get it off my chest.

I've been able to get online roughly every day or so, but it wasn't until about the 3rd or 4th day that I checked Flickr to see if anyone had been leaving comments or suchlike. Instead of the familiar front page, I got a big "site blocked" sign, and this message in Arabic and English:

"We apologize the site you are attempting to visit has been blocked due to its content being inconsistent with the religious, cultural, political and moral values of the United Arab Emirates.

If you think this site should not be blocked, please visit the Feedback Form available on our website.

Which is nice.

Can't quite work out which religious, cultural, political and moral values would be inconsistent with Flickr, any ideas would be appreciated.

It's funny, I didn't like it much here anyway - and that might just be the nail in the coffin.



Off to the land of Sand, Skyscrapers and Building Sites

Just a quick post to say I'm off on location for 9 days starting tomorrow. I'm going back to Dubai, as it's such a charming, natural and lush green paradise, and in no way a desert full of construction traffic.

There's an outside chance I might get an opportunity to post - but I wouldn't hold your breath.

Otherwise you'll turn purple.



The Loneliness of the Long Distance Photographer

British Miltary fitness in Hyde Park - 8.30 am on Monday Morning.

OK, normally if I want to talk about my working life, I'll pick a specific shoot, and hopefully there'll be a similarly specific lesson to be learnt. However, in this post I want to talk about 5 shoots, the reasons being that they all took place within 3 days; August 6th, 7th and 8th 2007. The main lesson I'm trying to impart here is that the job can sometimes be very demanding physically, and that by being organised and doing your homework beforehand, lots of potential lumps can be smoothed out.

I was up at 5am on the 6th (Monday) to be in Hyde Park for a shoot starting at 7am. But not just any shoot. This was a feature on British Military Fitness, for Men's Fitness magazine, which involved the features editor joining in a class. Of course, if I was to photograph it properly, it also required me to keep up with them as well. The session takes the form of sets of exercises, linked together with runs of 1/4 to 1/2 a mile, all performed without any apparatus, and all outdoors. Needless to say, I wasn't expected to join in with the pressups, but then the other guys weren't carrying several kilos of camera gear with them! The session lasted an hour, and was very, very tough indeed. I've worked with the features editor before, and he's proper fit, but the army tested him very close to his limit. I also found it very hard going, as though I run fairly often, I run at my own pace, not the army's, and I don't normally go running with a 1D mark II and a 70-200 f2.8 hanging off my neck.

After getting our breath back, we sat in a nearby cafe to eat a suitably unhealthy breakfast, and to allow me to process the images and burn a disk. I'd already prepared both the box, and a pre-printed disk, so after punting the files through lightroom, and burning them off, I could head home.

A quick turnaround, to collect all my location gear (lighting case, stand bag, tripod bag, webbing gear, vagabond power pack, laptop, camera bag, sandbags, grip/tool bag, full set of chargers) and overnight kit, then a drive up to Hertfordshire to photograph a competition winner for Golf Monthly. The brief was fairly simple - just get some good action shots of the winner enjoying his round, as well as a few of him receiving tuition with one of GM's "Top 25" coaches. Essentially I was on foot again, though luckily not running this time. I probably walked a few miles with and ahead of the group, then, as we passed close to the clubhouse, I took the opportunity to sneak inside and do the post-processing work on the images. As with the BMF shoot, I'd got a pre-printed disk and box ready, and as soon as they came in off the course handed a finished disk to the journalist from GM. Then it was back in the car to drive down to Southampton for tomorrow's job.

I was staying overnight with Katie Dawkins, a golf pro, and her husband, as we were both doing a shoot for Women and Golf magazine the next day, at Katie's club about 20 miles away. I arrived about 7 ish, was fed a very fine meal, then managed to grab a relatively early night, as we were starting early the next morning.

Up at 5am again, and on the course and shooting by 6.30. We were producing loads of instruction features (hold the club this way up, hit the ball towards the flag and the hole), and we had a lot to get done. Many of the shots were supplemented by flash, and I was using my Alien Bees heads running off a vagabond power pack. This gives lots of power, and is a very versatile system, but it's not the quickest to move or set up, so care has to be taken when choosing locations. Also, when shooting under occluded skies, it's possible to spend a great deal of the day waiting for the clouds to position themselves so you can shoot in the right light. We shot until about 9am, took a quick breakfast break, then carried on until about 2pm, when we stopped for a brief lunch. After this point it decided to rain, so we had to alter our plans and shoot from under trees, and claim that rain was what we'd needed all along. We also shot some "setup" shots inside, where it was both warm and dry.

At the end of the day I sat down in front of the laptop, processed everything through lightroom, and burnt off a disk (again, one that I'd prepared earlier). Then it was back to London, arriving relatively late at night, and quite tired to boot.

Up at 5.30 the next morning (oh goody, a lie-in) to collect the art director of Men's Fitness from Docklands, then drive out to Kent to photograph John Hamer, a figure skater for a feature on alternative sports and
fitness. This was great fun, and I enjoyed sliding about on the ice whilst John performed seemingly impossible and very dangerous manoeuvres, sometimes over my head. Due to the nature of shooting on ice, I opted to use my small flashes for this shot, rather then have to run cables anywhere, and the final picture graced a nice double page spread in the magazine when it came out. John was superb to work with, full of ideas of his own and very patient with me setting things up. He even gave the art director (a somewhat ungainly fellow) a basic lesson in ice-skating for free.

We returned to London, and back to my flat, where I processed the images and burned off the disk, then after a very quick lunch I grabbed my camera bag, and the lighting case (now attached to a rolling trolley) and headed off, via the bus and the tube, to the City for another Men's Fitness shoot. This one was less elaborate, as it was simply fitness instruction, with a bloke waving things called "kettlebells" around. My only opportunity for creativity came in the form of the opening shot, which you see pictured here.

I got back home by early evening, processed all the images from that afternoon, and had an early night. Which I felt I had earned.

Now, what's the point of all this? For one thing this is not a typical week, though I'd say I get stretches like this roughly 4-5 times a year. My personal record was shooting for 15 days straight, with 8 of those spent abroad. Likewise I can have a week when I'm hardly booked at all, so I guess the first lesson is a psychological one. Work as a freelance is going to come and go, and if you're the sort of person who craves the security and predictability of a 9 to 5 - I'd think very long and hard about a career in photography. Quiet periods can be as difficult to deal with as busy periods, as cabin fever takes the place of tiredness, and the fear of work never turning up again takes over from the stress of meeting deadlines.

On a practical level, periods like this prove the worth of having versatile, robust and capable professional equipment, and not just cameras but tripods, lights, laptops and so on. Being carted about the place constantly, strapped to the back of golf buggies, thrown in the boots of cars, rained on, and dropped on ice-rinks will soon start to take their toll on any equipment, and stuff that's cheap and badly made really is a false economy if it has to be replaced often. A stretch like this also covers almost every type of job I'm asked to do, and it becomes very important to pick the right tools, and have them properly prepared before I leave. The BMF shoot had different requirements to the Women and Golf Shoots, for example, and I used the appropriate equipment.

Every bit as practical is the back-room organisation that's required to keep the wheels turning. Phone numbers, addresses, briefs, blank discs, fully charged laptops and mobile phones - without all these sort of things, the job would be nigh-on impossible, and would quickly unravel into a chaotic mess. I made frequent mention of stopping and processing on the laptop - without this quick turnaround it's almost impossible to shoot so much in a short space of time. If I'd not done things this way, I'd have been fielding calls from Men's Fitness whilst I was in the middle of shooting for Women and Golf and so on.

A few scores on the board:

Number of shots taken (after the initial edit - any utterly useless frames disappear quite quickly):

Monday am: 109
Monday pm: 212
Tuesday: 573
Wednesday am: 81
Wednesday pm: 91

Total: 1066

I also clocked up about 350 miles, not including any taken on my 2 round trips on public transport, and my total turnover for these 3 days was £1320 ex-VAT. I'm not breaking it down any more than that - I've got to keep SOME secrets!

These cold facts aren't meant to set any records (and they're not even close to my own records, which are 2100 shots in a day, and 1700 miles in a week), but simply to further illustrate the notion of working as an editorial photographer. I'd love to have more time to set up every shot properly, but often the nature of the job, or the conditions I'm working under simply mean that's impossible, and I have to do the best I can whilst still producing an acceptable result for the client. However, the far more positive side, is that I get to lead a really varied life, and the opportunity for adventures and interesting experiences is always there.

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Update on Photo Diary Pieces

Right, I was planning to add lots of "diary" pieces to this blog, as they were a useful way to give insights into the business. I'm planning to use them to illustrate lots of behind the scenes stuff - and not just the technical stuff either, but all the more esoteric things like psychology, creativity, and even some tangible stuff like production.

I've got a backlog of pieces waiting to be written from shoots that have already taken place, and obviously as new stuff happens I can write about that as well, but first there are 2 problems:
  1. The lead times between shooting stuff and my client's publishing it can be quite lengthy, and is never less than a couple of weeks. I can't go public with stuff until my clients do, else I'll get my wrist slapped. Given that the majority of my clients are monthly magazines, and that they sometimes bank stories up well in advance, this is going to be an ongoing problem, so don't be too surprised if a piece on a shoot from September appears in mid-December. It's not laziness (erm, well maybe a little), just professional caution.
  2. On a similar note, whilst I don't have to get everything I write about that concerns my clients proof read by them and fully approved, it's still a good idea to get some ground rules established with them as regards what they're happy for me to talk about. I'm no lawyer, and I'm not trying to be controversial on this blog, but it's possible that in talking about, say, working with celebrities, I could say something that could end me and my client up in very hot water. A few little chats are called for first I believe!
So, with that I'm off for a natter with Men's Fitness, Golf Monthly, Runner's World, Maxim, Poker Player, Inside Poker, and all the rest. Back in a bit.



"It's Great Being a Photographer!"

Ray Lowe - This picture was uncredited when I found it, if it's yours please let me know!

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.

Dean Dunbar - Blind Extreme Sportsman

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.

Pete Astles turning somersaults in his canoe. Nutter.

Interesting People.

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?

Amusing Situations.

Martin having his chest waxed by the Girls of "Femme Fatale". He cried. I laughed.

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?

Bailey in the Kitchen

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.

Celebrations after winning the Street League Cup Finals.

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.

Cool Toys.

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.

Spitfire Mark IX - probably the coolest toy of the lot, but I only got to sit in it.

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.

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A Case of Mistaken Identity

Back in June I had another "pint glass" shoot, just like the one with Dara O'Briain, but this time with the comedians Alexander Armstrong and Ben Miller in a pub in Primrose Hill.

Same drill as before, as far as the questions go, and both lads were very intelligent and entertaining - quick to laugh and very friendly. The interest in this shoot arose from the behaviour of some other photographers, and for matters of professional interest I shall expound upon them herein!

On arriving at the pub myself and the journalist were greeted by the landlord, who was very pleased to see us, and very happy to have us shoot in, and thereby promote his drinking establishment. However, he pointed out to us that a small gang (is that the correct collective noun?) of paparazzi were drinking in one corner. He promised that as soon as they got out of hand he'd kick them out. I began setting up my lights, much to the interest of the paps, whom I treated to one of my "special" stares.

Ben playing with his invisible ball. It kept him occupied for hours.

A slight digression at this point if you'll permit me. I don't look down on paparazzi, although from my experience they can often be relatively unpleasant people. Their job will always be essential as long as a large portion of society has an insatiable demand for pictures of complete nobodies getting out of cars, buying milk, going to the zoo and so on. Without this huge market demand there would be no paps, it's as simple as that, so please stop buying the Scun, and Heat magazine, and all the rest before you accuse them of anything. And don't even start me on the whole princess Di thing!

Sorry, back to the story.

5 minutes before they were expected, our 2 boys rocked up. The paps leapt into action - shooting them from within the pub. Both Alex and Ben didn't bat an eyelid, and the landlord promptly threw the paps out, where they continued to shoot through the windows for a few minutes before he fetched a broom. Then they retreated to a safer distance. About half an hour passed, and then Alexander announced he had to nip round the corner to put some more money in the parking meter. And then things started to get interesting.

Alexander steals the ball, and won't let him have it back.

A few minutes later he returned, almost bent double with laughter and barely able to contain his mirth. Eventually he was able to tell us what had happened. On leaving the pub one of the paps had started snapping away with a telephoto, and Alexander had thought nothing of it. Then, as he rounded a corner one of them started running alongside him holding a camcorder and shouting: "Paul, Paul, how does it feel Paul? Isn't it ironic 10 years after her death that you're still making money out of her? How do you feel about her children Paul?" and so on. Alexander was very confused indeed until it dawned on him that the idiot, sorry, Pap, had mistaken him for ex-royal butler Paul Burrel. Since Ben Miller bears a faint resemblance to Rob Brydon, we spent the rest of the interview concocting various evil schemes that the 2 of them would have been hatching if they'd been working together.

As with Dara, not a lot of business info to pass on here, but a reminder that the job can bring some very amusing moments, even if it is at the expense of other photographers!

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Drinks with Dara

No setup shots or technical info to speak of here, simply an account of one of those shoots when I consider myself very lucky to be doing my job!

Dara demonstrates the "Lee Harvey Oswald" sexual position. Fill in the blanks yourselves.

Way back in February I had the pleasure of doing a shoot with Mr Dara O'Briain, for MAXIM magazine. The format for the interview is one that we've done several times since, with a host of other celebrities - we meet up with them in a pub, and they answer questions that have been submitted by "readers", which they pull from a pint glass. Normally the celeb will hang around for the minimum amount of time required, and then politely toddle off. Not in Dara's case!

Nick gets a bit too friendly with Dara

We got to the pub early, being the professionals we are, as we won't supposed to start until 4 in the afternoon. Dara turned up about 5 minutes later, and we proceeded to chat for a good while before we even started the interview. During the interview he answered every question at great length, and with much hilarity. Towards the end I had to take a few posed portraits, and grabbed the chance to shoot a personal one (see below). By now it was about 6 O'clock and the private room we'd been using was opened to the public. This being Friday evening it filled up pretty quickly, but at around the same time Dara said "fancy a beer?" And we did.

Dara looking uncharacteristically threatening

The three of us were sitting there chatting for a couple more hours, until at about half 8, Dara suddenly went "oh crap, the wife's expecting me home", made his excuses and left. Not a bad performance for an interview that normally takes people about an hour. All in all a very amusing, intelligent and friendly chap - I urge you all to go out now and buy anything he's selling, so that he may long continue to be able to buy us rounds of cider!

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Poker Player Magazine Covers

A few weeks back the World Series of Poker came to the UK (specifically, dear old London Town) for the first time, and 2 of my clients (both Poker magazines, obviously) jumped at the chance to grab shots of various players whilst they were in the vicinity. So for a few weeks I seemed to be doing nothing other than running round after various gambling types and taking shots with big blank backgrounds that can have stuff comped in afterwards.

Marc Goodwin

The list included: Johnny Chan, Devilfish, Daniel Negreanu, Ram Vaswani, Marc Goodwin, Brian Townsend, and Paul Wasicka. Most of these (except Devilfish and Johnny Chan) were shot in Blank Space studios in Chalk Farm, which I hire from time to time. As always, I can't go sticking lots of photos up online just yet, as the magazine hasn't gone to print and I'll get my wrist slapped. In fact the situation is worse than usual in that since we were taking advantage of the glut of players in London, we shot several months worth, so most of them won't be visible for quite a while yet. All the studio shoots had a similar brief - to get a cover shot as well as a couple of feature portraits for use inside to accompany interviews etc.

Generic Cover Shot setup

Technically most of these shoots were pretty straightforward. The cover image was always shot the same way, as explained on the Marc Goodwin shoot, I would either turn the polyboards to white or black depending on how contrasty the art director wanted them to be, and on occasions I'd add a 2nd head to either backlight the subject, or throw some colour onto the back wall. All the "feature" shots/portraits were shot in a variety of different ways, including ringflash, softboxes and windowlight mix, ambient and flash mix outside, just ambient, slow-snyc flash and pretty much anything that helped to add a bit of mood or give something an edge when I had only a few minutes with someone.

The aftermath of opening a bottle of lucozade between my legs whilst driving home from shooting devilfish - oh the excitement!

As so often happens with jobs, it wasn't the technical side that was interesting, but the people involved. Poker Players are an idiosyncratic lot - maybe it's the gambling lifestyle that creates some of these idiosyncrasies, or maybe they're drawn to it in the first place. I can happily report that there were no ego explosions to speak of, though I was amused by the fact that the British players always turned up alone, and the Americans (and 1 Canadian) always brought an entourage. A couple of idiosyncracies: Johnny Chan had completely forgotten about the shoot, and had I not bumped into him as he was leaving his Hotel it would never have happened, Daniel Negreanu couldn't leave the golf club that we'd brought as a prop alone, and Devilfish was, well, Devilfish really.

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Time to break some eggs

Painting my new flat
Originally uploaded by Photosmudger

So there's been a bit of a gap since my last post, caused in no small part by me buying my first flat (well done me), a couple of very intense periods of work, and my still having problems coming to terms with blogging rather than building a conventional website.

However, I've decided that I'm not going to get it perfectly right the first time, and that I will only learn by doing. So here goes.

I wouldn't sit there pressing "refresh" if I were you - I doubt the sudden change in attitude on my part will take effect immediately. Go and make a cup of tea or something, or take the dog for a walk. See you when you get back.



Welcome to Photosmudger

At work in the studio. I'm the one behind the camera, not the one drinking the beer

This blog is an evolution of a site I started over a couple of years ago. For some time I had been receiving a steady trickle of emails and phonecalls that ran along the lines of: "How do I get to be a professional photographer?" I'd also given a few lectures and talks at colleges and similar places that sought to answer this question. Whilst I recognised that there was a wealth of information on the internet that addressed technical matters (everything from lighting to equipment, to digital workflow) there seemed to be very little that covered the more esoteric aspects of professional photography. So I decided to start writing about it, and in about 2 years I'd amassed about 50 000 words of content on such subjects.

Early in 2007 I realised that the content would reach a wider audience, and would be better presented if I turned photosmudger into a blog. This was not as simple as I thought, and there is still a long way to go to convert and edit down all the old pieces, plus I've had a right headache getting into the mindset of a blogger as opposed to someone who only updates their website every month or so.

My aim is to provide a resource of information that throws light upon relatively obscure and arcane aspects of a photographer's life, such as production, psychology, creativity, business, finance, and professional practice. I reckon this stuff will be of most interest to students of photography, other professional photographers, photographer's assistants, and very keen amateurs. As always in these situations what I say is based upon my experiences or the experiences of those close to me - I'm not necessarily right, and your mileage may vary. Please feel free to comment if you think you can bring something to the party - if not, don't.

Where possible I'll also include diary pieces as well as setup shots and links to other useful goodies. A note of caution at this point - working for magazines means that the "lead" times on shoots I do can sometimes be very long, and I can't go publicising stuff until the magazine has used it first. Because of this there will almost always be a gap (sometimes a huge one) between doing a shoot and posting the results.

So I can qualify what I'm saying, here's a very brief biography:

I first picked up an SLR at 13, then within 18 months did some work experience at my local paper in the Midlands. Overnight I fell in love with the whole "shooting for a living" lark, and for the next 2 years I proceeded to heavily supplement my small amount of pocket money with photographic jobs, and was usually earning more (and having far more fun) than mates who were doing more conventional evening/weekend jobs. After studying photography formally at night school, I went to Blackpool College to study for a degree.

Again I scored some work experience, but this time through the AoP, down in London with advertising and Editorial photographers. I stayed in touch with the people I'd worked with, and on leaving college in summer 1998 I started working as a freelance assistant in London. Thanks to some lucky breaks I was shooting for magazines myself within 9 months of leaving, and after 3 years of assisting, during which time I'd worked for nearly 30 different photographers, I "retired" from being an assistant and set out on my own.

Since then I have been working primarily in the editorial market (magazines to the layman), for titles such as Maxim, Men's Fitness, Golf Monthly, Runner's World and so on. A minority of my work is made up of shooting directly for commercial clients, very occasional advertising, and a few charities. I shot my first cover nearly 3 years ago, and was very chuffed when I managed to fulfill one of my ambitions and shoot 30 by the time I was 30 back in May 2007.

I'm based, like most other editorial photographers in the UK, in London, though I have to travel extensively for work. I currently shoot almost everything with DSLR's, though I still keep film cameras for the times when clients request them.