18/08/08

The Art of Survival

I sit writing this piece just after having completed 10 years in business, first as an assistant, who also shot some stuff, and for the last 7 ½ years, “officially” a photographer. At the risk of blowing my own trumpet, simply being in business for 10 years is an achievement in it’s own right. So well done me, aren’t I clever?

There were 34 people in my year at college; we all graduated in 1998, and by current estimations 3 of us are now fully-fledged photographers, who earn their living solely from taking pictures. Another 2 or 3 are making some money from their photography, and another 4 or so are involved in the industry in some way, with jobs ranging from studio managers to art therapists. What about the other 24? In truth, apart from one or two, I couldn’t tell you, as we’ve all naturally lost touch over the years, but this industry is small enough, and Google is such an efficient way of finding people, that I can be relatively certain they’re not working in photography any more.

Analysing why some succeeded as photographers and some didn’t is obviously a very complex question, and not entirely relevant to an introductory business guide. All the same, the 3 of us from my year who are still taking pictures share quite a few things, which I feel are very appropriate to someone starting out in business:
  1. We were all prepared for the long haul. This is as much a psychological issue as a business/financial one. All 3 of us understood that we would have to spend a significant amount of time assisting other photographers (roughly 3-4 years each) before we would be able to go out on our own. Even then we understood that success would not happen overnight. We didn’t give up within 18 months because we hadn’t shot the cover of GQ yet.
  2. We didn’t spend much money on ourselves. I know I went without what could be termed a “proper” holiday for 5 years, and the others were pretty much the same. The occasional weekend away, no problem, but anything costing hundreds of pounds and involving lots of time away from the office and the phone was a bit of a no-no to begin with. For “holiday” you can also read; expensive clothes, elaborate social lives, fast cars, drug habits, loose women, and effing big televisions. In essence we were boring. Likewise, what surplus money we had we invested in our businesses. Either directly in terms of camera equipment, software and computers, or indirectly in respect of websites, business cards, training and so on.
  3. We understood from the beginning that we needed to be businesslike and professional in our approach. This stemmed right from our behaviour on jobs as an assistant, through to our “business image” both online and in the flesh, all the way down to simple things like answering the phone properly and avoiding the temptation to lie in bed on days when we were not shooting.
  4. We kept looking ahead, and to the best of my knowledge we’re still doing so. Once we’d achieved a certain thing (say, shooting a magazine cover) there was always a new challenge over the horizon. As soon as we’d mastered one technical approach, we’d try and find another and so on. This also manifests itself in our behaviour towards our clients – we always feel there’s something more that we can improve on, whether it be something mundane like the delivery of finished discs, or stumping up more work through a long process of marketing and sales.
Of these, it boils down to 2 things – Professionalism, and long-term thinking. It is my considered opinion, based on much of what I see in the commercial photographic world, that you can be an average photographer, but succeed in business with a hefty dose of these 2. By comparison, I’ve seen many very creative snappers fall by the wayside early on, as they lacked these characteristics, despite their amazing artistic ability.

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03/07/08

Where Work Comes From

I've been meaning to do this for ages, but was prompted by some recent questions at talks I've given, plus a post on the Pro/Semi-pro forum on Flickr. Here, in spider diagram form is where my work has come from over the years:

Clicking on it should take you to the Flickr page where you can download or view a larger version so it's a bit clearer. The key is:
  1. Black for starting points
  2. Red for photographers I assisted
  3. Green for people who may not have employed me directly but were instrumental in getting me work
  4. And Blue is for clients - usually magazines.
First, a few basic principles:
  1. This is a simplified version - I have deliberately only included my main sources of income, rather than clients I've only worked for once or twice, or photographers who I assisted for just one day. If I'd shown you everything it'd be hugely complicated.
  2. In my descriptions below I've kept things to a bare minimum, again to keep things simple. To this end you may wonder how in some cases I was able to move from one place to another, but all will be explained at the end.

Now, a fuller explanation. Let's take each starting point in turn.

1. Aop Work Experience. Organised for me whilst I was in my 2nd year at college, and involved coming down to London for a week to get work experience with some Advertising and fashion photographers. One of them was Jonathan Root, who I worked with for 2 days, and then never heard from again. The other was Zanna, who I worked with for 2 days, stayed in touch with, came to visit and work with again several times throughout my final year, then when I left college started assisting on a freelance basis almost straight away.

Through her assistant, Ross (I was 2nd assistant at this time), I later got work with a photographer called Wolfgang, and through him I met the girls at Maxim. I went in to see them with my portfolio not long after I stopped assisting, and expected to hear nothing back, as my work wasn't up to scratch in those days. 2 days later, Marco, the art director at Men's fitness (same publishing company, Dennis, and their desks are about 10 metres apart) called with a shoot for me. That was September 2001, and I'm still working for Men's fitness now. Through Marco I got to know the deputy editor, Andy Dixon, and a while back he left to become editor of Runner's World, the publishing company of which then launched Triathete's world, both of which I shoot for, and funnily enough Marco is currently the art director on T.W.

Going back to Zanna, one of her regular clients, and mates, was Deirdre Callaghan. Deirdre was very good mates with a commercials director/creative director/art director called Graham Fink, who I worked for both as an assistant, and then later as a photographer once he'd started his own company. I met Paul Myatt through him, with whom I did quite a lot of assisting work as well.

Back to the Dennis publishing line (Maxim/MF) - after a quiet beginning I started to get regular work from Maxim itself, mostly portrait and feature work, which continues to this day. Through being known at Dennis publishing, I started shooting events and other odd jobs for them - things like awards do's and so on. It was at one of these that I met the staff of a new gambling magazine - Inside Edge (now Inside Poker), and after shooting their launch party, started shooting portraits for them. About a year later, Dennis launched Poker Player, and I was asked to do more of the same for them as well.

Backtracking slightly, through Wolfgang, I met and worked with Sam Riley, who was art director at a magazine called "Later". As you'll find out in a bit, I'd already shot for them, but I got a couple of last jobs with them, from Sam, just before they folded.

2. Howard. Howard was in the year above me at college, and in October of my first year in London (1998) he called to ask if I could come along as second assistant to a bloke called Iain McKell. Along I went, and worked for Iain on and off for about 9 months. Whilst working for him I met Jo Miller, who at the time was the picture editor on Maxim, and she gave me a few little shoots of my own to do for the magazine, so I ended up working for Maxim even before I was working for them, if you see what I mean.

Through Howard I also met Laura Knox. Another friend of mine from Howard's year at college had been her assistant, but was "graduating", and I went along to do a day's work with her fairly early on in my career. We spent most of that day giggling like idiots, something which has continued to this day, as she's still a good mate, despite not having worked for her since about 2001. Laura shared an office with 2 other photographers, Julia and Ed, both of whom I ended up assisting fairly regularly.

Off the back of Iain McKell I met Steve Read. Steve was an Art Director who was now trying his hand at photography, and he knew Iain from comissioning him for "Loaded" magazine. he asked Iain if he knew any good assistants, Howard wasn't available on the day in question, and along I went in his stead. I worked for Steve for about 9 months, and can't repeat much of what we got up to, as I'd get us both in trouble! Within a short time Steve had me shooting small jobs for the "special project" magazine he was working on called "Later". That's how I got my first work published in a national magazine! He left for LA in the summer of 1999, but his deputy at the magazine kept using me for small jobs here and there on Later, and then when she moved to go to the Independent on Sunday I carried on shooting for her, and it was this work which allowed me to graduate out of assisting. Through Later I also scored a fairly large shoot for Loaded fashion magazine, on the basis of Steve praising my "technical skills" to anyone who would listen. After Kate left, my work with "Later" dried up a bit, until I met Sam Riley, as mentioned above, and the circle was rounded off.

3. Carol Rogerson. Carol was engaged to a very good friend of mine at college, and had always been an Art Director, initially on small circulation magazines in Manchester. When we all headed down to London she started working for Slimming magazine, and initially gave lots of work to her Fiance. Eventually work commitments meant that he couldn't keep doing it, and I started filling in for him on a regular basis. I shot for slimming for about 2 1/2 years - mostly portraits and features. It was on one of these features that I met a freelance journalist called Mike Harris, over Christmas in 2003. 6 months later I got a phone call saying "Hi, it's Mike here, I'm editing a golf magazine now, and I need a snapper". Despite never having been near a golf club (in both senses of the term) in my life, I did a shoot for him, for the short-lived "Total Golf" magazine, and it started an avalanche of work that continues to this day. From "Total" I followed Mike to "Golf Monthly", and it's sister (pardon the pun) title, "Women and Golf". Those 3 have made up roughly 25-30% of my work since mid-2004.

4. The BIPP. I passed the BIPP's PQE (Professional Qualifying Exam) at the end of my college course, which entitled me to automatic status as an Associate of the British Institute of Professional Photographers. This included being listed on their website, with it's very efficient "find a photographer" search engine. This alone used to bring in about £1500 - £2000 a year in PR and small scale commercial work. The vast majority of this was one-off clients who just wanted a quick "grip and grin". However, a company called Words and Pictures, who produce in-house magazines for companies like AIG, PriceWaterhouseCoopers, and Asda, found me through this site in mid 2004, and I shot tonnes of stuff for them up until early last year. I also shot quite a bit for PWC directly, as I'd built up a relationship with their own people besides those at W+P.

So, what does all this tell us, other than that I appear to be a jammy sod?

Well, first off, it doesn't even say that really. If you look at all my "lucky breaks" (meeting Steve Read, Wolfgang and so on) they didn't come about randomly. I was already in a position where I could not only take advantage of such opportunities, but in such a place where the opportunities actually existed. To make it really clear, imagine if I'd ducked out of moving down to London at the end of College, and had instead set up in the Midlands. I would never have met any of these people, or had any of these "lucky breaks". It's because I moved down to London, and put up with the miserable wages, the long stretches without work, no social life, no new clothes or holidays, that I was not only presented with these opportunities, but could exploit them when they appeared.

What amazes me sometimes with the people I encounter, and I'm talking here about Students, Work Experience folk and assistants, is how often they don't see what's in front of their eyes. When I was offered the work experience from the AoP in my 2nd year at college, it was just that - offered. It wasn't forced upon me, and about half my year at the time didn't bother to apply for it. It was through staying in close touch with Zanna that I was able to secure freelance assisting work as soon as I moved to London, and because I'd not stayed in touch with Jonathan Root, that door was slightly closed to me. These days, as someone who gets regular emails from people asking for work experience, and tries to use them wherever possible, I'm stunned at how few don't make the minimal effort required to stay in touch. If you don't enter the competition, you can hardly expect to win can you?

Further along this line of reasoning is "why did I keep getting given these opportunities, and not the next guy?" Beyond the simple fact of being there, was the fact that I worked bloody hard, and was always keen, despite some incredibly long hours and tough conditions. Probably the hardest ever point was a shoot with Zanna for Vogue, back in December 1998. We spent roughly 3 days one week building sets and suchlike, all day Sunday pre-lighting and setting up, then 3 days of 15 hours each actually shooting the fashion story, followed by a half day on Thursday to break the set. For this I was paid for the shoot days, at a rate of £35 a day, with a £50 concession thrown in for the other days. This was probably the toughest it got, but there have been many contenders for the prize!

My point is that it's very competitive out there, and whilst it's not necessarily a case of whoever's still standing when the music stops gets the work, it's not a million miles away. There were far better photographers than me in my year at college (graduating 10 years ago) who are now not shooting. Whilst there will inevitably be lots of reasons for this in each individual case, I can think of a few who simply fell by the wayside when things didn't go their way or got tough.

Moving past assisting, I believe the main reason I kept getting work after nudging my foot in the door, was that I was a safe pair of hands. I'm on time, my gear works, I understand and can interpret briefs, I don't get lost easily, I don't spend the entire shoot chatting up the model or Make-Up Artist, I can handle celebrities without wetting myself and so on. Most art directors would love to employ the best photographers on the planet every day, but they simply can't afford to, and the next best thing is someone like me who gets the job done with very little hassle.

I also can't ignore the work that came in from the BIPP website, and I include it here to make the point that you should always have a "professional presence" so that potential clients have somewhere to look at your work and some way to contact you. In the case of lots of PR and basic commercial work, it's usually enough for a client to look at a few images and be content that you can handle the job. I've stopped doing all this sort of work over the past couple of years, as frankly it bores the living crap out of me, but it's possible to make a very good living out of it with very little effort if it floats your boat. Whatever line of work you choose, making sure your website works and is up to date, having business cards about your person, and generally being amenable and pleasant to get along with will serve you pretty well for a very long time.

So there you are, some very big secrets about how to actually get work as a photographer. Despite the fact that this post has dragged on for ages, it really is the heavily edited version - the world's not ready for the full story just yet.......

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01/12/07

Shooting Celebrities - A Beginner's Guide.


Jonah Lomu in a small bath.

Taking portraits of celebrities is not something every photographer ends up doing, or even aspires to end up doing, so this may be something of a specialised post. All the same, I feel that much of the advice I'm going to offer is relevant to any portrait shoot, as there's so much common ground. These days, with the exception of absolute A-listers, I treat a celebrity shoot just the same as any other portrait job. That is to say that I approach all my jobs with the same level of professionalism, regardless of whether the subject has just released a new album, or if they're the secretary of a golf club.

So I can validate some of what I'm saying, here's a brief list of some famous folk I've shot over the years:

Richard Branson, Tim Westwood, Ian Woosnam, Colin Montgomerie, Ricky Hatton, Jean Claude Van-Damme, Dara O Briain, Darren Campbell, Dermot Murnaghan, Jerry Springer, Armand Assante, Jonah Lomu, Jodie Kidd, Bobby George, Danielle lloyd, John Reid, Tessa Jowell, Andrew Strauss, Sophie Wessex, Matt Dawson, Jimmy Carr, Darren Clarke, Retief Goosen, Devilfish, Victoria Coren, Eammon Holmes, Kyran Bracken, Sir Roger Bannister, Phil Hellmuth, Goldie Lookin' Chain, Gilberto Silva

This is only an edited list (and it's a pretty odd list when you look at it)- there's several others, but I think I've made my point! All the links got to the relevant page on Wikipedia, just in case they're not as famous as they think they are and you've never heard of them! There's lots of others I could add from my assisting days, but since I wasn't actually behind the camera I think that would be cheating.

Anyway, enough of blowing my own trumpet, how do you turn what could potentially be a very intimidating encounter into a memorable shot that keeps your client happy? Well, in one word: Preparation.

Be Prepared. (And yes, I was a boy scout once upon a time)

  1. At a really basic level, do your essential pre-production work. The link goes to a post that will give you more detail, but at the risk of repetition - know where you're supposed to be, when, how to get there, what you're taking, who you're meeting, what facilities you can expect, how much time you'll have, what sort of shot the client is after and so on. This is the same for any shoot, but celebrity shoots have a tendency to be very short and sweet, so you need to have everything ready. To give you some idea of how short and sweet, I photographed Jean Claude Van-Damme in 45 seconds, and Tessa Jowell in 12. Both of these were official shoots - not grabbed on the street or anything like that. That's simply how much time they permitted me. It's not the time to run out of batteries, or try out a new lighting technique. Mind you, I did spend all afternoon in the pub with Dara O'Briain earlier this year, so it's not always like this.
  2. Do some background research on who you're shooting. Primarily this is so you can get a grasp on who they are, what they've been up to lately and so on. This can give you ideas for shots to try and get, provide subjects for conversation (or subjects to avoid!), as well as preventing you from shooting something that's already been shot. Some of this might seem daft - surely these people are famous and we all know what they're up to? Well, I for one don't watch the telly, and I hardly bother to read the papers either. I certainly have no idea what's happening at the "tabloid" end of the market, and neither do I want to. Yes, I'm a cultural snob and proud of it! On a recent shoot I had to do the full monty and read up as much as I could about the subject I was photographing, as even though she's been on the front page of the tabloids many times, I didn't know her from Adam.
  3. Get your technical stuff well sorted in advance. Make sure every bit of gear is functioning properly, fully charged, cleaned and so on. If the opportunity to set the shot up beforehand is available - do it, and get someone to stand in (the art director, your assistant, a passing dog) for some test shots. Then once the real deal arrives simply slot them into place, and away you go. I've still got stacks of polaroids from my assisting days of me "sitting in" for people prior to them turning up on set. If you think you'll be able to get (or have been requested to get) several set ups done, then prep as many of them as time permits. It's at this point that the stuff you've been doing in No.1 above will tie-in nicely, as you'll already have a good idea of the location and so on, so you should be able to set up and shoot accordingly.
  4. Have your ideas already sketched out and as ready to go as possible. Obviously your ideas will be tying closely in to the brief you've been given by your client, but at the same time it's worth having a range of them. This is for two main reasons, the first is that you can never be sure which ones will work, or which ones the celeb will simply go "no" to, and the second is to try and present your client with something more than they were hoping for. The first of these is perhaps the most critical, and I tend to have a few "fallback" ideas in mind in case my hero shot doesn't come off. Despite the impression given above of quite rigid sounding setups, the key thing is actually to be flexible. Lots can change on shoots like this - the subject can turn up late, refuse to be shot outdoors/indoors, the weather can change, they might refuse to take their shades off (it's happened to me twice!) and so on. If you've got a range of ideas to play with, you can just roll with the punches on this one.
  5. Now is not the time to try a brand new lighting technique, or give some new equipment a test run. By all means, if you've got lots of time with the celeb, and they seem amenable to it, go ahead and muck about - you may get some fantastic results. However, your client is expecting something usable on their desk, and if all they get are lots of unprintable experiments there may be trouble ahead! If you're keen to shoot something particularly interesting and arresting, brilliant, but make sure it's something you've already perfected elsewhere. The other facet of this problem is that if you're mucking about, and generally looking unsure of what you're doing you will give off the impression that you don't know what you're doing to your subject. This can be a bad thing. At worst they may simply leave (no, really), and at best you'll destroy any rapport you've managed to build up. This applies on both a creative level, with respect to the ideas you come up with, and a technical level, with regard to how you shoot and light something.
So that's the basics. Now onto something a little less tangible - the psychological side of things. I'd be the first to admit that if you're just starting out, being asked to go and shoot someone famous can be more than a little intimidating. If you didn't feel nervous, you wouldn't be human. One of the best ways to build your confidence is by following the methods prescribed above. If you know that all your equipment works, that you've got lots of ideas to fall back on, that you've got lots to chat with the celebrity about, and you arrive nice and early with ample time to set up, then your confidence in yourself and your abilities will naturally rise as well.

Part of this nervousness seems to develop because in our current culture we seem to think of people who've gained some level of fame as superhuman, when of course in reality they're pretty much the same as you and me. Admittedly they might earn a bit more, and get recognised on the street, but they still have good days and bad days, and in my experience the best way to behave around them is to act normal. Just be friendly and polite - though not too friendly! Out of all the celebs I've worked with down the years, the vast majority have been polite, down-to-earth, and businesslike. From their point of view, things like photoshoots are part of the job, and although they may get tired of being asked to jump through the same hoops over and over again, they all understand that part of their fame is based upon working and collaborating with us in the media.

That's not to say I haven't seen my fair share of tantrums now and again, or had to deal with someone who got out of bed on the wrong side that morning. For reasons that should be blatantly obvious, I will not be going in any details about those!

As far as the shoot itself goes, one thing that will always help is trying to establish some sort of connection or rapport with them as soon as possible. This is where some of your background research can come in handy, as it can give you something to talk about. Beware of being sycophantic - it won't get you anywhere. The best trick I've found is when discussing something they've done, talk ABOUT it rather than going "oh my god, you were brilliant in that film, I loved that stunt you did!" This way you can appear interested without being awestruck, though I must admit it has happened to me once. Try also to keep your chatter to a polite minimum, don't overwhelm them with your own stories/problems etc, and
it's here that I want to bring in the one golden rule I've not mentioned so far - there's only room for one ego on a shoot, and it should be that of the person in FRONT of the camera. The reasons for this should be self-explanatory.

Bear in mind also, that there may be a lot of personnel around on shoots like these, the star may have brought their own entourage with them, you may have your own people (assistants, make-up etc), and the client may have a presence as well, and all this will create it's own atmosphere and something of a performance, as well as an opportunity for egos to flourish. I well remember in my early days of assisting, looking round the studio and going:

"OK, he's the photographer, that's the celeb, there's the stylist, that's the make-up artist, that's the journalist to do the interview - who are those other 5 people?"

Celebs can turn up with any number of people in tow - agents, publicists, friends, their own personal make-up artists/stylists, pets, family - the list is endless. 99% of the time these people will have no bearing on a shoot, though agents particularly can be a touch overbearing now and again. On a recent shoot the celeb I was shooting got so pissed off with the agent moaning at him to keep the sponsor's label visible, that he removed it from his shirt and stuck it over his mouth! I of course, was more than happy to photograph him like this. As always, a calm confident air around these people is all that's required, many of them are actually there because it's preferable to a day in the office, and who can blame them? If you're working with an assistant, then one of their jobs should be to keep this crowd off your back so you can concentrate on taking the picture.

One last thought, as this has already rambled on longer than I'd planned. With respect to equipment, I've already
pointed out that it should be in proper working order and so on, but what I haven't mentioned is that it should also look the part. I'm in grave danger here of sounding like an equipment snob, which I'm most certainly not, but if you'll indulge me a moment I'll try and explain why. Put yourself in the shoes of the celeb you may be photographing. They walk off a film or TV set where everything is hugely expensive and lavishly produced, and waiting for them in the green room to do a quick portrait is you, with your tiny little camera, your cardboard and silver foil reflector and your cheap plastic tripod. This appearance may reflect badly on you, and similarly the client you are representing, and anything that undermines your confidence is a bad thing!

This not to say that you need a full set of Profoto flashes, a Hasselblad with a P45 back and so on, but a little investment here and there can work wonders. Buy a grip for your DSLR, and instantly it looks bigger and more professional, get some monoblocs rather than hand-held flashes and so on. None of this costs the earth, and helps to create the right impression. Along the same lines try and dress appropriately - not necessarily your wedding suit, but looking like you just rolled out of bed might not give the correct professional impression! I hate to sound like I'm cow-towing to celeb's ego's here - but effective;y that's exactly what I'm doing. At this sort of level a lot of stuff is actually about show, performance and looking the part (sad but true). It's quite a holistic thing, and as part of the whole picture your confidence will count for far more than a fancy camera, but it's best not overlook the details.

At a glance lots of this may seem very "celeb specific", and of no interest or use to those who shoot Joe Public. However, I firmly believe that the fundamental principles are exactly the same whomever you're taking pictures of. Being properly prepared at every level, and ensuring that the person in front of the camera is the only one in the room with an ego will serve you well whether you're shooting your mates or the Prime Minister of Azerbaijan. Though it is particularly useful when you've only got 45 seconds with Jean Claude Van-Damme!

P.S. I just know that the only comments I get are going to be about my last statement about equipment. Ah well, so be it.

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27/10/07

"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.

Travel.

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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21/10/07

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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16/10/07

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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09/10/07

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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