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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26/06/08

Number Crunching

A little while back I sat down during a quiet patch and did some sums. I was interested in finding out what my "hit rate" was - how much of my work was actually fitting in with what I want to be shooting, how much ends up in the portfolio and so on. I split the shoots into 5 categories:
  1. Utter Crap - Shoots which I have no intention of ever doing again, and was only doing for the money, or because I felt obliged in some way or other.
  2. Non-commercial - This covers shoots for charities, as well as the occasional "favour" for friends which I don't charge for.
  3. Tests/Personal - Experimental work intended for the portfolio, as well as stuff that goes towards personal projects.
  4. Bread and Butter - The sort of work that comes in all the time, and although it doesn't set my world on fire, I'm quite happy to shoot it, as it's generally a pleasant way to earn a living.
  5. Desirable jobs - All the commercial shoots that "tick all my boxes", jobs that are creatively fulfilling, properly produced, and allow me to exercise some creativity.
I counted up every single shoot from 2007, and this is what I came up with:
  1. Utter Crap: 16 shoots/12% - Of which none made it into the portfolio
  2. Non-commercial: 11 shoots/8% - Of which none made it into the portfolio
  3. Tests/Personal: 25 shoots/19% - Of which 4 made it into the portfolio
  4. Bread and Butter: 36 shoots/27% - Of which none made it into the portfolio
  5. Desirables: 44 shoots/33.3% - Of which 13 made it into the portfolio
Now, there's all sorts of things I can draw from these figures, in fact I've been surprised at how useful this exercise has been. Firstly some general trends. The proportion of personal/test work is particularly high because I was working on my yearbook up until the end of May. Commercial work (crap, bread and butter and desirables) makes up over 72% of my shoots - but then as a working pro this is how it should be if I want to carry on paying the mortgage! I'm trying to remove as many of the "utter crap" jobs as possible from my diary, as they have no redeeming features besides the cash when the invoice gets paid, but it's encouraging to note how small the percentage is already. As far as the overall number goes, I'm fairly happy with the amount. 2007 was an average year in terms of turnover, plus some of the shoots actually represent a whole week or more of shooting, although to balance that out, some only represent about half an hour or so!

On a positive note, desirable work already seems to be the biggest chunk of what I do, and it has the highest proportion that ends up in the portfolio. This would seem to be a very positive, reinforcing trend, as besides the fact that I already want to do more of this kind of work, there's the added incentive that more of it will end up in the portfolio, therefore will enable me to attract more of this kind of work, and so on. I'm slightly disappointed in how few personal and test shoots ended up in the portfolio, but on reflection that's because so much of it was devoted to the yearbook, rather than the more conventional method of shooting tests specifically to get new work into the portfolio. I find it odd that not a single "bread and butter" shoot got into the portfolio. I think I've obviously reached a stage with jobs like this (think golf instruction, fitness instruction, basic portraits etc) where I do a decent job, but have stopped investing gallons of creativity into it, as I'm usually wasting my time if I do!

Moving forward here's what I'm planning to do based on these results:
  1. Completely remove any "utter crap". I've pretty much already ticked this one off, as I've not only got rid of the few clients who used to give me this sort of work, but when clients call out of the blue, I'm very careful to find out what the shoot entails before I say yes.
  2. Plan and execute test shoots more carefully to ensure that more of them end up in the portfolio.
  3. See if I can get more out of "bread and butter" shoots, even if it means shooting extra stuff alongside the job.
  4. Keep aiming for those desirable jobs - they're self-reinforcing, and great to shoot anyway.
This exercise took about an hour all told, all you'll need is an old diary, and I can highly recommend it!

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16/01/08

How to approach Photographers, and a small apology

So, I've been a bit quiet on the blog front lately. There was the Christmas thing obviously, and then the New Year's thing, and then things got really busy with work. And things are still really busy, plus I'm off to Dubai next week for an 8 day shoot.

I've always said I won't post stuff unless I've got something to say - you don't really want to hear about my daily life, but I will try and make a bit more effort to post regularly. Promise.

And now onto something that popped up last week, and has been nagging me for years - people emailing me looking for work/work experience/advice and so on.

I'm not a big name photographer, and yet I still get anywhere between 2 and 10 emails/phonecalls a week from assistants looking for work, students looking for work experience, people after advice generally and so on. I can discard around 60% of these emails/calls straight away for a whole host of reasons, and only a very small percentage of them actually get what they want out of me! Why?

First off, the simplest: people seeking advice. 9 times out of 10 I'll simply point them to this blog, and if the answer's not here I may possibly spend a little time either pointing them in the right direction or writing a quick email. I feel that the time I put into writing this blog, plus all the technical stuff on Flickr, removes me from any moral obligation to answer any cry for help I get!

Next, in order of complication, students seeking work experience. There are many similarities to assistants here, which I'll be covering in more detail below, but essentially most of the applications for work experience can be discarded off the bat because they're illegible, badly put together, and generally impenetrable and hard to decipher. Another common problem is that potential workies don't seem to grasp that I don't shoot 5 days a week, and that a lot of my work is comparatively last minute. Often they've been asked by their school or college to arrange work experience for a particular time, and it may well be that I just don't have much work on that corresponds. I will always explain this clearly and politely, as well as pointing out that I may have something for them in future. In almost every case I never hear from them again. This doesn't really demonstrate the level of motivation and commitment that is required to forge a career in photography, or even to be self-employed. I have even on one occasion had someone arrange to come on work experience, only for them to call me the night before and say that they couldn't make it as "their Dad wanted them to stay home and wait for a delivery".

Now comes the real meat - assistants who are looking for work. This lot makes up the majority of the emails I get, and as before I can answer most of them with a polite "Thanks, but no thanks". Here are some really common faults that I see in job application emails:
  1. Writing too much - as a photographer I want to know what use you'll be to me as an assistant. Therefore all I really need to hear about is what gear you're familiar with, what software you can use, who you've worked with in the past and so on.
  2. Including lots of photos. I'm not looking for another photographer! I need an assistant, I'll handle the piccies thanks. If we work together and get on well, I'll gladly go through your work and give you my opinion, but not in the first email.
  3. Including huge lengthy CV's. As 1, above, I'm only interested in relevant photographic experience. I couldn't care less if you used to drive a fork lift truck, or work in Tesco's. Sorry, but it's got no bearing on the role you're applying for. Likewise, listing every GCSE/A level and so on is a bit pointless - it's sufficient just to list how many you've got.
  4. Bad English skills. I appreciate this penalises people for whom English is a second language, but if I can barely read your email, you're not likely to even get your foot in the door. Plus, as I'm thinking ahead I'm wondering if you'll be able to respond to requests for things when we're working or whether it'll quickly dissolve into a bad pastiche of Fawlty Towers.
  5. Addressing your email "Dear Photographer". This should be obvious.
  6. Sending out a mass email to several photographers at once. Again - it should be obvious that this will not endear people to you.
  7. Trotting out standard phrases like "I work well in a team, but show individual ability as well". Do you really? I've never heard that before. Likewise, a glib "I really like your work" isn't as flattering as you might think!
  8. Pestering. There's a very fine line between staying in touch, and therefore keeping at the forefront of my mind when my usual assistant can't make it, and annoying the crap out of me with incessant emails and phone calls. There's no hard and fast rule here, but as a guideline, I'd say contacting someone every 6 weeks or so, just to "check in" is fine. Much more often and you do risk becoming annoying, less frequently, and the photographer is liable to forget who you are.
Hopefully that will help some people on their way, and with any luck reduce the number of completely useless emails I get. Ah well, I can dream can't I?

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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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30/11/07

Saying No to Work

Mt Kinabalu, Borneo, at dawn.It may seem the most unnatural thing to turn down work as a freelance, since surely we're desperate for everything and anything that comes our way. In fact it can be an extremely liberating matter for 2 main reasons. The first of these is the most common and involves turning work down as you feel it is unsuitable for you, the second is because you feel a moral or ethical objection to the work or people involved with the work. I have turned down jobs for both these reasons, and perhaps before describing the advantages of turning work down it would be fair to detail the drawbacks

Obviously when you turn down work you won't be getting the fee for the job in question - sounds obvious but I have heard people demand a "kill fee" for work they've refused. Whilst these are occasionally paid out when a shoot is cancelled at short notice or the work handed in is unsuitable for publication due to circumstances beyond the photographers control, they never crop up if a photographer themselves declines the work. If the client in question is new to you it's also possible that you may have shot yourself in the foot for future work as well, and only you can have an idea of how much money that may potentially involve. Given the incestuous nature of the industry this problem is compounded by the fact that you've also just restricted your potential for gathering new clients through the one in question. You could also gain a reputation for yourself for being "difficult", though I've usually found that clients who are sensible and considerate will understand and sympathise if you explain yourself clearly and state your case without resorting to lots of hyperbole.

The Advantages.

On the plus side saying no can be vital on both a personal and professional level. On a personal level it's important to remember that as a freelance your personal freedom and ability to act independently is one of the main things that separates you from the employed masses who have little or no freedom of action. Very few people opt for self-employment as a means of earning more money, most choosing it for (amongst other reasons) the freedom that it represents and the fulfillment offered by making your own decisions and living with the consequences of them.

Part of this could be loosely termed "being able to sleep at night", and while this often refers to work that you opt out of for moral/ethical reasons, it can just as easily be applied to taking on work whose aesthetic aspects are very far removed from where you see yourself as an artist. In my case one of my most prominent examples has been turning down shoots with a couple of well-known politicians a few years back due to my objections to the Iraq war and their fervent support of it. Whilst the shoots in question actually had little or nothing to do with politics I personally feel that working with such people is an endorsement by default, since giving them greater publicity in any form helps to legitimize their position and strengthen their standing. I also have my own personal "black list" of companies whom I refuse to work for, and this can be for a whole host of reasons, often they are notoriously late payers, or maybe their corporate policy is pretty far from what I would deem to be acceptable. Purely for the fact that I want to be able to answer my conscience with a straight face I turn down work like this, as it matters more to me to be able to be honest about what I do and stick to my own principles than it does to earn a couple of hundred pounds more.

On an aesthetic level it becomes more important the further your career develops to avoid work which is not in keeping with the "look" or "feel" you have in mind for your own book or portfolio. It may seem grandiose to compare jobbing photographers to Hollywood movie stars, but there is a similar principle at work in the sense of being remembered for your last job or performance. After a couple of "turkeys" the kudos of a movie star drops dramatically, and this is no different to photographers. If you are trying to get work on high-profile catalogue shoots for example, you may well be let down by some of the shots in your portfolio that were done for a "lad's mag" as an art director or client will tar you with the brush of being a "glamour" photographer. Of course, the simple solution to this problem is keep such images out of your portfolio and ensure that potential clients never see them (not always possible - you can never be entirely sure how much exposure an image will receive). The drawback to doing this is that you're limiting the options available to you in the portfolio.

So in short - remember that as a freelance and a self employed person you're the master of your own destiny, and don't be afraid to turn down work that just isn't you. Mind you, it's easy to say this sitting here with a healthy bank balance , owning my own flat and with a cold beer in hand. I'll look the other way if you're young and struggling, lord knows I've shot enough awards do's (shudder) in my time!

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28/11/07

Basic Business Studies for Photographers: Credit Control and Invoicing.

Or, How to get Paid as soon as Humanly Possible.

Some of this article may overlap with "Good Habits" but that's no bad thing. Here, in as simple a form as I can present it, is the mystery of getting your money out of companies you work for.

Things to Do.

Invest in an accounts package such as Quickbooks or Sage, whilst I don’t make full use of mine (Quickbooks) I find it indispensable for keeping tabs on invoices that are outstanding, as well as preparing VAT returns in a very short time. With a couple of clicks you can bring up tables that show you precisely how much you’re owed, by whom, in a useful summary form, plus you can usually “zoom in” to specific invoices to check dates/numbers etc.

Make sure your invoices are very clear and contain all the information required, but not so much that they become hard to follow. As an absolute minimum an invoice should contain the following info:

  • Date
  • Job Reference
  • Client’s Full Address
  • Invoice Number
  • Your full name, address and contact details.
  • Itemised fees and expenses, totalled at the bottom
  • Your Schedule D Number (evidence of self-employment)
  • Your VAT number (if registered)
  • If VAT is applied, it needs to be listed separately.

You may also wish to add payment terms, usage terms for the images, and bank details for electronic payment. You may also need to attach copies of any receipts to your invoices, though this depends on the client. It’s common sense here, but if your invoices are scruffy, hard to follow or illegible, they’re not going to get paid quickly, and are more likely to go missing.

How to get the Invoices paid, or what happens to your Invoice when it takes the Magical Journey to the Faraway Land called "The Accounts Department".

Always find out from the person who commissioned you, precisely where you need to send the invoice, and if any extra details are required, such as the issue of the magazine it’s aimed at, or the name of the commissioner. Every company works differently, but in my experience (mostly within the magazine world) it’s normal to provide your invoice to the editorial staff who commissioned the work, and they will then approve it, and pass it on to accounts, who will then “put it on the system”* for a while, and then pay you in the next cheque run/scheduled bank transfer. Sometimes this method works backwards, and your invoices go off to accounts first, but clearly, as with sending your invoices as soon as possible, the more accurate you can be with this procedure, the quicker you’ll get paid.

Find out who you need to speak to within the company when it comes to late payment – there’s usually very little point in calling the editorial staff of a magazine, for example. Once you have a name and a department, make a note of every time you call them to chase up outstanding money (record date, time, who you spoke to, which invoice number and what was “promised” - as in, “we’ll get you a cheque in 7 days”) You will need this record if you ever go to the small claims court, as it shows the efforts you have made to recover your money. It’s not a legal requirement, but every little helps in building up your case.

On the issue of personnel, there’s often little point in harassing the editorial staff of a magazine, or the creative part of an Ad/design Agency for your outstanding money – all large companies have departments which deal with paying freelancers/outside contractors. These are often called “bought/purchase ledger department” or simply “accounts” (duh). The personnel in these departments are often quite removed from the people commissioning you for work, so while there’s never any need to be rude when chasing an outstanding payment, don’t be too afraid of stepping on toes. In my experience it’s quite common for the commissioning personnel (art directors/creatives/journalists etc) to want you to get paid as swiftly as possible. Although it may seem like they’re the ones with all the power, most people who commission me recognise that having a good freelancer on their side is very helpful when they want something done in a hurry, and will often fight your corner within their company. However, I wouldn’t take this for granted, and whatever you do, don’t start whinging all the time. Occasionally of course, the hold up may be on the commissioning end, and your invoice may still be sitting on the commissioners desk, waiting for signed approval. If this is the case it’s time to use your sweetest, politest voice and remind them to pass it on to accounts.

If you really are getting nowhere and have been pursuing an outstanding debt for what you feel to be an inordinately long time, well in excess of your usual credit period, then you need to issue a final reminder before proceeding to the small claims court (UK only obviously - your country may well be a bit different). Obviously I’m not a solicitor, and can’t offer legal advice, but my understanding of the small claims process is that you have to show evidence that you have made every effort to recover the money, and the final reminder is the last stage before filling in the court forms. You can find suitable examples at: Pay on Time. I’ve had recourse to use the final reminder twice, with the simple wording added that unless payment is received within 7 days of the letter’s date, court action will be an automatic consequence. Thus far it’s always been enough to jerk people into action and payment has been received. Suffice to say, such clients get added to my “black list” and henceforth any work for them has to be paid for up front. This may seem quite an abrasive approach for someone freelance and self-employed, since surely we should all be bending over backwards to get whatever work we can? All I can say is that companies that behave like this are simply not worth wasting time with, you don’t need the hassle and when you start to factor in how much time you’ve spent chasing them for money you realise that you could have spent the time so much more profitably. For example you could have been out gathering new work, or even shooting, and once you calculate your basic hourly rate and factor that in, it’s very realistic indeed to write these clients off as bad news.

*leave it on a pile on their desk.

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Basic Business Studies for Photographers: Equipment and Insurance

Equipment.

For tax purposes, photographic equipment that you own or purchase, can be considered a business asset and therefore the value of it can be taken off your turnover to reduce your tax bill. The specifics of “capital equipment” as it’s officially known, change from year to year, and are not suitable for a brief introductory guide such as this. Your accountant will offer you advice on how best to list this equipment, and may even suggest the most tax effective way to buy more. The definition of "listing" is a bit hard for a non-accountant like me to impart, but essentially something is listed if you used business assets (i.e. your profits) to buy it, and you use it to generate revenue.

One thing to bear in mind is that if a camera or similar is listed as a business asset, you may be forced to sell it if your business runs into trouble and you have to pay your suppliers. Once again your accountant can give you the best advice. Personally speaking I’ve had everything listed in the business from day one, and as I’ve bought new gear in, that’s been listed too. You are also allowed something called “depreciation” against the value of the equipment. Put simply this an allowance each year for the decreasing value of equipment, it will be a percentage of the total amount which then gets deducted from your profits to further reduce your tax bill. The details of this change annually, so once again, your accountant is the best person to turn to. Sorry I can’t be more helpful, but this really is one of those areas that require technical knowledge!

Insurance.

It’s never the first thing on people’s minds, but as a practising professional photographer, and to a lesser extent an assistant photographer, you should think very seriously about insurance. At one level it’s comforting to have all your camera gear, computers and portfolio etc covered in case of loss or damage, but more importantly you should look into public liability insurance. Public liability basically means that should an accident occur involving a member of the public as a result of your actions, you shouldn’t end up paying huge costs (compensation, legal bills etc). This is presuming you didn't cause the accident by negligence or twatting them round the head with a tripod. Most insurers offer a policy for around £50 a year that provides you with about £1 000 000 of cover, but as always it pays to read the small print. Almost all of them are unlikely to pay out if it can be proved that you were negligent/stupid (say for example you left an unsecured power cable running across the pavement) and there will certainly be an excess to pay and other conditions to be met.

Likewise check any conditions relating to the cover of your equipment, the most notorious being theft from parked cars. There was a famous case (possibly an urban myth – an old lecturer was always quoting it!) of a group of photographers attending a conference or similar, on returning to their cars they found that a very thorough thief had made of with the lions share of their collective equipment. Although slightly distraught, they all presumed they were covered by their insurance, only to find that under specifics of the policy, the equipment was only covered if kept locked in the boot of a saloon car. Hatchbacks, estates etc, or any equipment left on display were not covered and collectively they lost thousands. The moral of the story is be careful in the first place and don’t presume that the insurance will cover everything.

As a guide to prices, for approximately £15 000 worth of camera and computer equipment (UK and 45 days worldwide), portfolio cover, goods in transit up to £10 000 (covers you if you lose clothes for a fashion shoot, or objects for a still life) public liability up to £2 000 000 and professional indemnity (for legal disputes), and Employer's liability I’m paying around £750 per year. The Association of Photographers often have deals whereby you can get bits of the insurance you need, but not bits you don’t, and they can often be considerably cheaper than the high st.

Other Posts in "Basic Business Studies for Photographers": Intro, Break Even and Your Money, Tax, Accountants and registering as Self Employed, Good Business Habits, Equipment and Insurance, Credit Control and Invoicing.

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Basic Business Studies for Photographers: Good Business Habits

Business and Personal Accounts.

Although it’s not a legal requirement for a sole trader, the way many people choose to deal with the difference between business and personal expenditure/income is to have 2 different bank accounts. As long as you actually keep things in their relevant place, everything is very straightforward. The usual method of making "owner’s drawings" in this case is to pay yourself money from your business account to your personal one. Don’t get too paranoid about keeping things separate between the accounts, it’s largely for the convenience of yourself and your accountant that things are set up this way, and nobody’s going to penalise you if you buy your week’s food shopping from your business account, just as long as you don’t try and claim it as a business expense!

As far as the banks are concerned, having a business account means they can hit you with more bank charges, but in return they often give you an oversized cheque book. Actually, on balance I think they might be screwing us there. Some things never change.

Common Sense

There’s no magic or mystery to running your own business, it’s simply a case of being methodical, and it really is true that 30 seconds spent dealing with something when it happens can save you hours at a later date. Simple habits of good housekeeping will pay huge dividends at the end of the year when you come to collate your invoices and receipts, as well as being worth a fortune in tax-allowable expenses. Even the most experienced accountants cannot be expected to know the ins and outs of every piece of camera equipment for example, and simply taking a few seconds to write “camera equipment purchase” an a receipt for a lens, could be worth a couple of hundred pounds off your tax bill at the end of the year.

Some Simple Habits that will make you Attractive to the Opposite Sex.*

  • Writing on each invoice as it’s paid into the bank, the date, method, and if you have one, the number of the paying in slip. This makes it very easy for your accountant to track exactly what's been paid and what hasn't, as well as identifying any bad debts.
  • Dividing your receipts into payment methods, e.g. cheque payments, petty cash, credit or debit cards. This is something a lot of accountants ask for, and if nothing else, helps to keep their fees down.
  • Keep receipts in separate envelopes for each month, and at the end of each year divide them as above (if you’re really thorough you could do this monthly as you go along!)
  • Keep a simple petty cash record. This needs to be no more than an exercise book with columns for the date, payments in/out, description of the item, and the running balance. Some of the expenses may seem pitiful (buying stamps for example) but if you don’t list them you can’t claim for them against tax.
  • Get into the habit of issuing invoices for jobs as soon as you have all the necessary information (your expenses, purchase order numbers and so on.) You can expect clients to take anything up to 90 days to pay FROM THE DATE THEY RECEIVE YOUR INVOICE! Obviously it’s in your best interests to get the invoice on their desk as soon as possible.
  • As bills are paid, write on them the date and method of payment, with the cheque number if applicable (otherwise put “direct debit/BACS/Visa” etc). It’s also handy to duplicate this information on your cheque stubs if there’s room. Besides helping your accountant out at the end of the year, they can help clear things up in case of any dispute with your suppliers.
  • At the end of each job, or at least weekly, go through and collate your receipts. If you’re particularly busy it can be easy to forget what a certain receipt was for, and since some things are more tax deductible than others it’s important that everything ends up in the right place.
*this might not actually happen, and it's certainly never happened to me. Mind you, these habits could save you money, and how sexy is that! I'll get my coat.

Besides keeping your annual accountancy bills down (and your accountant happy!) the more fundamental reason for practising these habits is that they keep you in touch with your business, which is a good thing, as we don't liek nasty surprises. If your accounts are computerised it can often be very simple to find out how much money is outstanding, but otherwise you’ll need to be maintaining a constant vigil over things like unpaid invoices, otherwise you’ll be out of business before you know it.

Other Posts in "Basic Business Studies for Photographers": Intro, Break Even and Your Money, Tax, Accountants and registering as Self Employed, Good Business Habits, Equipment and Insurance, Credit Control and Invoicing.

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Basic Business Studies for Photographers: Tax, Accountants, and Registering as Self Employed.

REPEATED DISCLAIMER: I am not an accountant or tax specialist! Tax laws change from country to country and year by year. In this post I'm talking about general principles rather than the letter of the law. I'm based in the UK, and although I run my own business, I have an accountant who does all the complicated stuff for me.

The Basics of Getting Taxed.

At a very basic level your annual accounts can be divided into three things, your turnover (or total sales), expenses (sometimes called "cost of sales"), and profit (or loss, in a bad year!). Turnover should be the largest of these figures, and it represents the total amount of all invoices issued within that accounting period (usually a year). From this figure you then deduct all the expenses that you are allowed as a business, such as film and processing, most travel, office costs, any advertising etc. You should then be left with your profit, or if your expenses have exceeded your turnover, a loss. It is this amount that you are taxed on.

For example let’s imagine you have a turnover in one year of £20,000, and expenses of £8000

Turnover: £20 000

Expenses: £8000

Profit: (turnover less expenses) £12 000

Within this profit you are allotted a personal allowance which varies from year to year (currently around £4000) this is the amount of profit you are allowed to make before you start getting taxed. So if we remove this from the profit we come to £8000. This will be taxed at approximately 20%, although rates can vary from year to year. So from that turnover of £20 000 with £8000 expenses you can expect to be paying £1600 tax.

Under the current system you pay tax at the end of January and the end of July, but you also pay tax on account for the year to come. The Inland Revenue assume that you will trade at least as well next year as you did this year, and so they demand payment on account based on this years figures. Using the above example you would receive a bill in January for £1600 for the year in question, plus you would be expected to pay half of next year’s tax on account, (£800) so your total bill for January would be £2400. At the end of July you would then pay the remaining half of next year’s tax so your bill would be £800. Where this system assists the self-employed is when you have a less profitable year, as it is not uncommon for the Inland Revenue to owe you money on tax you have overpaid.

Get an Accountant.

This is a very simplified version of what happens, there are different types of expenses, as well as different types of profit, but essentially the principle is as outlined above. It is well worth finding a good accountant, who will fill in your tax return for you and prepare your end of year accounts. A full set of accounts are not always legally required for sole traders, but they not only help in completing the tax return accurately and hopefully in your favour, but they also function as useful milestones for the business, and can be very handy if you need to borrow money from a bank or similar. All accountants will work slightly differently, but as a rule the fee you pay them should be more than made up for in the tax they save you. For a sole trader with a turnover of between 10 and 40 thousand, expect to pay somewhere between £350 and £450 a year in accounting fees. You can help to keep this figure down by keeping your end of things organised, as the more work your accountant has to do to unravel the mess of invoices and receipts, the more you’ll be charged for their work.

Get Registered.

If you are serious about being self-employed, then the first thing you need to do is get form CWF1 from your tax office or online at the Inland Revenue and fill it in. This is a very simple form that states what sort of work you will be doing, and once it is processed you will be given a "schedule D" number, and it’s this that other businesses need to identify you as self-employed so that they can pay you. You will also now be liable for Class 2 National Insurance contributions, which usually amount to a few pounds a month. The gap between applying for and receiving a Schedule D no is about 6 weeks, and you may find that some photographers (if you're assisting), and certainly most large companies won’t pay an invoice unless this number accompanies it. As a rule, businesses can’t just hand out money to random members of the public; all payments have to be related to an invoice, and usually payable to another business entity of sorts.

The main reasons for registering are long term ones, as although it is actually possible to trade without a number indefinitely, I would not recommend it for a number of reasons. Registration brings extra administration and obviously a tax return at the end of the year, but as already discussed you may find you can’t be paid for some of the work you have done until you have the necessary number. You’ll also find that if you apply for a loan or overdraft from the bank in the future, a nice neat set of accounts with everything transparent and above board will get a better response than a handful of scribbled invoices, and a trading history that seems to have large gaps in.

The real reason to get registered is that sooner or later you'll have to, as it'll become impossible to trade without being legitimate and above board. If you wait for ages to register, and then in future years you're unlucky enough to attract the attention of the taxman for whatever reason, he's going to wonder what you were doing for the years when you were neither in full time employment and paying him tax that way, nor were you in business for yourself and paying him through your earnings from that source. Call me cynical, but he might even be suspicious, and a suspicious tax man is always a bad thing.

VAT. Another good idea we can thank the French for.

Cor, now stuff get's really exciting. VAT is just about the most rip-roaring, buttock clenchingly fun thing about being self-employed. Or not. Your mileage may vary.

Most countries now have some form of VAT, since Maurice Laure kindly thought it up for us. As a consumer you'll rightfully hate it, but if you're in business it can actually be your friend, albeit not one you'd take down the pub. God, what a night that would be.

If you're in business, and trading with other businesses, being VAT registered is pretty much win/win. Your clients don't care if the invoices you give them have got VAT slapped on them, as they'll claim it back, and if you're VAT registered you can claim back the VAT on stuff you buy. It's almost as simple as that. I would class any editorial/commercial/advertising photographers in the above group, as the only photographers who regularly invoice people who aren't VAT registered are wedding/social photographers, and even if such people were it would be very tricky trying to explain why they'd tried to claim their wedding photos as a "work expense".

Right, enough attempts at humour, here's how it works. If your turnover exceeds £49,000 in a year (subject to change obviously), you must register for VAT. You can voluntarily register at any time as well, and it may be in your interest to, as it could save you money. Once registered, every invoice you issue must have VAT added onto it. Every 3 months you will be sent a VAT return, and here's where the fun begins. You now need to add up your total turnover, then the amount of VAT you've charged, and finally (the good bit) all the VAT you've been charged by other people. Usually, unless you've been out and bought a new car or something, you'll have charged more VAT than you were charged, and you simply pay the taxman the difference. Thereby becoming a taxman in your own right. Bugger.

Of course, it can work the other way, and sometimes the VAT man will pay you back if you've been spending money like water, but not invoicing very much. Adding all this up can take a while, even with a well-organised accounting system, as even computerised ones that can spit the answers out quickly still have to have all the data stuffed into them first. As a nice bonus, when you first register you're allowed to "back date" your VAT payments, and I recall I got about a grand from the taxman by claiming back the VAT on stuff I'd bought for the business in the past few years.

Flat rate vs Old-Fashioned.

This bit's pretty much UK only, but anyway. A few years ago the Customs and Excise (VAT) lot came up with a new idea: flat-rate VAT. What this meant was that rather than paying the VAT man 17.5% on top of all your invoices, and claiming back from him all the VAT you'd paid, you simply paid him a fixed percentage of your turnover. This percentage was arrived at from years of study and investigation (I presume), and is different for each type of business. Currently the percentage for photographer's is 9.5%.

You can use the flat rate scheme if you ask to, as long as your turnover is less than about £150 000 p.a. (as always, this figure might change.) From my experience it's bloody brilliant. Looking back at my accounts, I'm paying less (no, I'm not saying how much), but more importantly, what used to take me a half day per month, then another half day per quarter, now takes me about 20 minutes every quarter. If you factor in my day rate, it's pretty clear that this is a good idea, as I can spend more time earning money, and less time fannying about with taxes.

So, a quick VAT summary:
  1. If you're trading with other businesses, don't worry about the 17.5% added to your invoices - they'll almost certainly be VAT registered, and so effectively won't pay it. In fact, since the compulsory tunrover threshold is £49 000, if they see you're not VAT registered, they might think you're not playing with the big boys.
  2. Being VAT registered means you don't pay VAT on business purchases, and you may even get a golden handshake in the form of a big payback when you start.
  3. Flat rate is really, really simple to do, and will save you loads of time - if you're able to take this option, I heartily recommend it.
  4. If, however you deal directly with the general public, I'd avoid it as long as you legally can, since it'll add a healthy chunk to your prices. Plus whichever version you pick, there's the extra admin.
And as a last word, heed this warning. Once upon a time, in the UK there were 2 different tax agencies - the Inland Revenue, who dealt with Income Tax, and Customs and Excise, who dealt with VAT. Inland Revenue were usually fairly harmless, and if you crossed them you'd get a fine, and only end up in prison if you'd done something really heinous. Customs and Excise however, were a different bunch of bananas. They had the power to move in with very little warning, and close you down, seize assets, send you to Guantanamo Bay, the whole kit and kaboodle. A couple of years ago these 2 agencies merged. And you can bet your bum they kept the best bits from each agency, at least as far as they're concerned. All I'm saying is, don't muck about with these people. Check your details before you do anything, and don't think you can pull the wool over their eyes. This post is obviously only a rough guide - go and read stuff in depth before you jump in, and if at all possible, speak to an accountant. And possibly a priest. Or a psychologist.

Other Posts in "Basic Business Studies for Photographers": Intro, Break Even and Your Money, Tax, Accountants and registering as Self Employed, Good Business Habits, Equipment and Insurance, Credit Control and Invoicing.

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Basic Business Studies for Photographers: Break Even/Your Money

Break Even.

One of the most useful things you can do before you start your own business is get a feel for finance. The first exercise you should do is to keep a record of how much you spend over a couple of weeks/months (include everything possible – regular costs such as food and rent, plus irregularities such as someone’s birthday piss-up). From this you should be able to work out with a degree of accuracy how much money you spend every month, this figure (plus at least 10% contingency) is your basic “break even”, that is the amount of money that needs to come in to prevent you sliding into debt.

Although this seems very basic, it’s staggering how many people are ignorant of how much they need to live on, and is one of the key causes of bankruptcy. This figure will of course change over time, and it’s important to keep an eye on creeping costs, and changes in the cost of living. It’s stating the obvious that your living costs will escalate dramatically if you move from a small town in the UK to London, or even Manchester, and you need to reflect this in your break even. For example, the average rent of a flat, or room in a shared house in Blackpool (where I studied) is currently around £50 per week. Contrast this with London, where it’s more like £100, and you’ll see that in one easy move you can double one of your largest costs of living.

Your break even is a purely personal figure, and no bank or accountant are going to be particularly interested in it, however, as an aid to keeping you afloat, its importance is paramount. If you have no idea how much money you need to make to stay alive, pay the rent etc, the first indication that you’re in trouble will usually be a red bill through the door, or the phone being cut off (or worse). If you have a notion of how much should be coming in, you can be better prepared when things go quiet, as they inevitably will from time to time.

Once you’ve arrived at this magical figure, your next job is to forget it, or at least, put it at the back of your mind. I shan’t wax lyrical about the “power of positive thinking” and suchlike, but I can speak from experience when I say that getting fixated on your break even can reduce your potential income quite dramatically. What I’m getting at is that if you become stuck on a figure which is the bare minimum you need to survive, it’s highly likely that’s all you’ll make each month. I can’t provide scientific evidence of this other than my own experience, but a far better option is to consider your break even, then add a healthy percentage on top, as keeping this in mind will almost certainly bring in a higher revenue.

Your Money and the Business' Money.

It is important at this stage to recognise the difference between what is classed as “turnover” in a business, and the money that you are actually able to pay yourself to stay alive. Put simply, turnover (sometimes referred to as “sales”) is the total amount of any invoices you issue over any given period, be it weekly, monthly or annually. This amount will include a certain amount of expenses, which are obviously owed to other people. Turnover is significantly different to your “owner’s drawings” which are monies that you pay yourself out of surplus business funds, after all your business costs have been met. It's these owner's drawings which you can then use to pay your rent, buy sweets (but only if you've been good), and feed and clothe yourself with.

Another vital principle to understand about turnover is the portion of which will be expenses, and is therefore owed to someone else. Allow me to give you an example (kept deliberately simple for the purposes of this piece - no VAT or anything like that!):

Early on in your career you're given a small editorial commission for which you will receive £300 fees, plus the "allowed" expenses. You have to travel from London to Glasgow by train for it, with an assistant, and stay overnight. So let's say that the client allows you to invoice them for 2 days worth of fees (£600), plus 2 days of assisting fees (£160), the 2 train tickets come to another £160, the hotel is £110 for the 2 of you, and food consumed on your little trip came to £55. So, The total invoice comes to £1085. For a couple of day’s work that looks like a very healthy figure. It is vital that you realise 2 things at this stage; firstly that even if you invoice the client straight away you probably won’t see the money for a month, sometimes two, therefore don’t go out and start spending it before it has arrived. Secondly out of that £1085, nearly £485 is expenses that you will have to pay for, and you'll almost certainly have to pay for them before the cheque for the invoice turns up.

Some of those expenses can be on credit; labs and hire companies for example will usually give you a month, some can be put on a credit card, and some will have to be paid on the spot (usually any petty cash purchases, or deposits for things you make whilst on the shoot). If your business is to last more than 10 minutes it is vital that you settle your expenses before you start paying yourself an exorbitant wage. The £1085 is not yours to spend exactly how you choose, and whilst a new pair of jeans is very tempting, not buying them only means you will be unfashionable for another couple of months, whereas not paying your suppliers usually entails ending up in court, or facing bankruptcy proceedings.

And therein lies one of the simplest and most fundamental rules of being self-employed:

Don't spend the money until you've got it and then paid everyone else!

It’s also vital to get clear in your mind the difference between the figure of turnover, and the amount of money you have available to yourself as a person or to invest in the business. As a guide, in my first year in business as an assistant/photographer in London my turnover was £8169. How I lived on that is still a mystery. Of this £3333 was expenses, leaving me with £4836 to either pay myself or invest in future business activities. By comparison in my second year turnover was £14,751, with £6525 expenses leaving me £8226. In percentage terms turnover has increased by 80%, expenses by a whopping 95% but profit by only 70%, so don’t be distracted by a large turnover figure, as it will rarely match the money in your pocket.

At various times of the year the financial picture can look very rosy indeed, with lots of invoices on the books and a very healthy turnover figure. However, a significant amount of this will be expenses, and even more importantly, a large portion may be outstanding and not due to be paid for another month or six weeks. And don’t forget to allow for tax, as well as expenses that often crop up annually such as insurance! As a guide, at this precise moment in time (28/11/7) I’m owed over £6000, down from 8 a couple of weeks ago. Most of this is from jobs in the past 2 months.

Other Posts in "Basic Business Studies for Photographers": Intro, Break Even and Your Money, Tax, Accountants and registering as Self Employed, Good Business Habits, Equipment and Insurance, Credit Control and Invoicing.

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Basic Business Studies for Photographers: Intro

I'm still in the process of editing down and posting all the content from my old site, so here comes the latest batch - business studies.

None of this is terribly exciting I'm afraid. You can look forward to topics such as "break even" (ooooh), "Invoicing" (aaaaaah), "Insurance" (erm, eeeeeek?) and so on. However, I'm not exaggerating here when I say that without a basic business knowledge you'll last about 10 minutes as a self-employed freelance photographer.

Some of it comes under the heading of "common bleedin' sense", and some is stuff that you will only really find out after you've been in business for a while.

LARGE DISCLAIMER - PLEASE TAKE NOTE:

I'm going to touch on areas of tax, and other intricate accounting matters, and I am not an accountant. I will make as few specific references as possible for the following reasons:
  1. Tax laws vary enormously from country to country.
  2. They also change over time.
  3. They often carry stiff penalties for breaking them, and I don't want anyone saying "photosmudger told me so!" when they're dragged off in chains.
What I'm aiming to do is talk about broad principles that can be applied irrespective of the precise laws that are in force. The 2 things you should do if you're in business for yourself as a photographer is firstly, and above all else, get an accountant, and secondly read one of the 2 following books:
  1. If you're in the UK, you need "Financial management for the small business".
  2. And if you're in the US, you need "Best Business Practices for Photographers".
If you're somewhere in the rest of the world, then to be honest with you, I haven't a clue. Sorry about that. At least I'm honest.

I won't touch upon the more esoteric/psychological aspects of being self-employed, as whilst I feel they're absolutely essential, I'm saving them for later. Like a nice pudding.

Other Posts in "Basic Business Studies for Photographers": Intro, Break Even and Your Money, Tax, Accountants and registering as Self Employed, Good Business Habits, Equipment and Insurance, Credit Control and Invoicing.

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22/11/07

Making the Transition from Assistant to Photographer.

This piece was published earlier this year in an AoP book, as well as being a rough transcript of a talk I gave at the AoP gallery back in June. I'm reproducing it here because I think it may be relevant to a few people, and because I'm lazy! The title should be self-explanatory.


The Transition from Assistant to Photographer.

From both my experience and the experience of those around me, this is probably one of the hardest things in a photographer’s career - at least as difficult as setting up in business for yourself the first time. It's as much a psychological as a practical problem, though to avoid rambling on forever, I've simply concentrated on the practical for this piece.

My own experience:

I worked as a freelance assistant for around 30 different photographers between 1998 and 2001. Within this number were around 10 for whom I worked very regularly over the 3 years, another 10 for whom I worked occasionally, and 10 who I only worked for once or twice. Alongside this I was lucky enough to secure some regular, small scale editorial commissions of my own, and as time progressed these became more and more frequent. I officially "retired" as an assistant at the end of May 2001, and the next week managed to shoot 6 editorial jobs in 4 days and make what for me at the time was a small fortune. I thought I had it made, and then the following Monday morning 2 of the magazines that were making up the bulk of my work closed at the same time, and I was almost back to square 1. Partly because of this, and partly because of psychological factors, it took me about another 18 months to properly leave assisting behind. Over this period assisting work still made up around 25% of my income. To an extent this was for financial reasons, but it was also due to my own failure at getting out and selling myself - I simply didn't "see" myself as a photographer yet, and would take the easy money assisting offered, rather than face the consequences of having to get my portfolio out there and tout for work. For more insight into this problem, see the conclusion.

This situation eventually changed largely because I remembered what I was supposed to be doing - taking creative, interesting photos, and getting well paid for it, rather than trundling along quite happily at a subsistence level. I also took the plunge and invested in equipment and infrastructure, and I've always found that making any sort of commitment like this leads to a response from the market - usually because I'm able to present a more professional product to my clients.

When to stop Assisting:

Only you will know, but here are a few things to bear in mind:

- has your learning curve levelled off? Do you feel as if you're only going to learn more by shooting stuff yourself?
- are you already shooting some stuff yourself, therefore is assisting holding you back?
- are you getting bored and frustrated working for other photographers?

Things to do whilst assisting that will help the transition:

1. Keep shooting - keep interested, you need to move out of one state and into another, and this takes momentum. This is very important indeed - most friends of mine who got "stuck" in assisting did so because they forgot they were photographers, and simply never shot anything. Those of us that managed to make the jump were the ones who were shooting all the time. Take every opportunity that presents itself to shoot stuff - tests, small commissions, competitions, PR jobs and so forth.

2. Keep involved - stay in touch with people as you go along the assisting route, and take every opportunity to get out and sell yourself (without pissing off the photographer you're working for) Always have a portfolio and web site where you can direct potentially interested parties to. Join the AoP and get involved - opportunities will come your way as a result of people you meet and are in touch with. Keep up with MUA's, Stylists, Models etc, so that putting together a test shoot isn't an impossibility, likewise stay on good terms with lighting/equipment hire companies, hire studios, and labs. You may well be able to call in favours when you want to shoot elaborate tests.

Likewise, stay in touch with people who may be able to offer you work in the future. Some photographers will be happy for you to show your portfolio to art directors they work with, though don't take this for granted, and be careful of treading on photographer's toes!

3. On the subject of portfolios, take every opportunity to show your work - even if you feel your portfolio isn't the polished, expensive publication you want it to be. If you're seeing an art director or similar, and they know your background, they won't be expecting to see an advertising photographer's portfolio, and will understand if your stuff looks lower budget. They may have smaller jobs that would suit you anyway. Don't let the excuse of "my portfolio's not ready" stop you from taking it out - he said with a certain air of "been there, done that".

4. Start to take more responsibility. I'll go into this in more detail below, but perhaps the biggest difference between an assistant and a photographer on the shoot is that of responsibility. It's not exaggerating too much to say that as a photographer the buck stops with you, no matter what the problem is. As an assistant there are many areas which you can wash your hands of and not worry about. The sooner you start to take on more of the burden of looking after everything, the easier you'll find the transition.

A good way to look at this area is to think in terms of being a problem solver rather than a problem creator. As a photographer, you will very soon get a reputation as a pain in the arse if every time something goes wrong you turn to the client and say "oh, that's a bit crap, what do we do now?" You may have been lucky enough to work for some very patient photographers so far in your career as an assistant, who may have tolerated you making mistakes, and bringing them problems, but as a photographer this route is no longer open to you. The analogy here is with the military world, where all complaints go up through the chain of command, not the other way round. Since, as a photographer, you are pretty much in command, it's not recommended that you gripe to the client about things, whilst at the same time you must be prepared to listen to gripes from your own assistant, from the model, from the make-up artist and so on.

5. Start paying close attention to the photographers you assist whose work and style you want to emulate. This is particularly relevant if you've started to get a bit jaded and cynical - try and look at the way they're working with a fresh pair of eyes, and try and take in the whole picture. Watch how they deal with a difficult client, how they come up with ideas, how they organise things and so on. It may be that the photographer you are working for doesn't set a very good example in this respect, in which case just note that down as well, and resolve to do things differently when it's your turn.

6. Save every penny you can. There's no chance that you'll be well off as an assistant, and you may already have put lots of personal plans on hold due to financial constraints. However, building a small cushion of cash is very useful indeed when it comes to making the jump. The overheads of working as a snapper rather than as an assistant are much larger, and as has been mentioned before - you'll be bearing the responsibility for paying for things. Of course, you won't get the money back from the client any day soon, so you'll need to bear that in mind as well.

Making the Break:

There seem to be 2 general approaches:

1. The traditional approach - shoot a big plush portfolio and start at roughly the level of the photographers you've been assisting. Very good for those who have a clear vision and can get it across well in the portfolio. Once the initial start up phase is over it offers much higher creative and financial returns than the 2nd approach.

However, this involves quite a lot of selling - you'll need to take the portfolio out a lot, and if this is not your bag you may need to find another method, or get an agent (which is a whole other discussion) The nature of the work means that at least to begin with you'll probably only be shooting once or twice a month - this in itself can be very off-putting, and financially it's a proper roller-coaster. You'll move from assistants wages of £100 a day to suddenly having to play with a budget of thousands, and you'll need an understanding bank - expect to go very overdrawn very soon.

2. The slow steady approach (mine). Build up gradually, low-level editorial, PR, commercial work. Roughly double the money of assisting to begin with, but in some ways can feel like a bit of a come down after you've been assisting on large scale shoots with 10 crew - suddenly your own work is just you and a camera bag. This approach offers a very good learning curve if you've never really shot stuff for yourself before, the type of work will be good and varied, expect a diverse range of shoots, and it’s initially quite cool to have work in print. This is also a very effective way to build confidence in yourself as a photographer - as you steadily take on bigger and bigger work, you never quite feel you're operating outside your reach. Beware, though, of the glass ceiling - if you're seen as the jack-of-all-trades snapper who shoots the office party, they're not likely to give you the cover of the magazine or a big advertising job. Financially it's a bit more secure than going out looking for advertising work, as it tends to be a few hundred quid a few times a week, rather than a few grand every 6 weeks. Much easier to put a portfolio together - expectations aren't quite so high, can be knocked together for less production budget and therefore quicker.

A slight variation on this approach is to work for a photographer who lets you take some smaller jobs from them, and build your work up this way. Obviously this is highly dependant on the photographers you work with, as not everyone is prepared to work like this, and it involves a certain degree of trust. I was lucky enough to benefit from this very early in my career, as were a couple of close friends of mine, and it can be essential to building both your career and your confidence, which brings me neatly to my final point.

Confidence.

By the time you feel ready to move on from assisting, it's likely that you'll feel quite confident and full of yourself. You've probably been working on some large-scale stuff, with a big budget, lots of equipment, several crew, and are starting to feel that you can handle anything that comes your way. There is, however, one big difference between assisting and shooting and it's responsibility. As an assistant you'll have had quite a bit of responsibility, though this varies from photographer to photographer, but no matter how much or how little you've had, the ultimate responsibility for producing the finished image and bringing everything together resides with the photographer, and on a whole host of areas you're able to pass the buck as an assistant.

Of course, this changes once you start shooting in your own right - if something goes wrong there's no-one to turn to and ask for help, plus some of the more esoteric aspects of the shoot have now landed in your lap. Could you handle a cantankerous or difficult subject, particularly a celebrity? Are you able to placate a demanding client, and fulfil what they think they want, whilst at the same time guiding them towards the results they actually need? Can you take it in your stride when the model hasn't slept, moans about the studio, and several key pieces of equipment break down at once? These problems, and thousands more like them, may have passed you by as an assistant, but they will crop up all too often once you shoot your own stuff, and ultimately, the responsibility for dealing with them is yours.

Coping with this is obvious really. Just like any other area of your life, the way to build confidence is to try and develop gradually, and see progress as a series of discrete steps rather than an occasional giant leap. Maybe 5% of assistants are confident enough to walk out of assisting and straight into high-level advertising/commercial work. The vast majority of people are better served by taking it one step at a time - and those steps begin whilst you're still assisting.

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13/11/07

Post Production


Setup shot for a slightly disappointing (and overly elaborate) test earlier this year.

Immediately After the Shoot.

OK, so the shoot's over, the client thinks you're the bees knees, and they've booked you for another job next week - how do you keep the ball rolling, stay on the horse, get ahead of the game and max the envelope?

Not sure about that last one.

Get Paid. (Always a Good Thing).

The first thing I usually do is gather together all the necessary info to invoice the client - receipts, mileage costs, invoices from other personnel and so on. Then I prepare and send out the invoice. I'll be talking about business and finance soon enough, but in a nutshell, when you take into account all the delays that can occur between you sending out an invoice and actually receiving the money, you'll realise that you should be as quick off the mark as possible to get things started.

Workflow.

Now, moving on to the computer. The next most important thing is to back your work up. I'm presuming at this stage that you've delivered a disk on the job to the client, if not then priority one is to get the images processed, burned onto a disk (if that's how they want them) and delivered. You'll have established at the outset of the job (or found out whilst shooting) how the client wants their images, so it should be a simple job of picking one of your versatile workflows and letting the computer work it's magic. I'll be covering workflows in more depth in a later post, as mine continually evolve, and there's no need to go into greater detail here. Once the images are on their way to the client, then get backing things up. Everyone has their own preferences, but my backup system currently involves:

An exact copy of the clients disk
A disk copy of the RAW files from the camera (stored off-site)
A copy of the RAW files on a removable/portable hard drive

When you consider that the client has a copy as well then there should be 4 copies in existence. I feel any more than this getting a bit silly, we used to managed quite happily with 1 set of negatives/trannies, and although I'm aware that digital files may not be quite as stable in longevity terms as film I thing making any more copies is a little pointless - you soon reach the stage where you have a backup of a backup of a backup and so forth. I would always suggest having an exact copy of the clients' disk, ideally burnt at the same time, so that if they encounter any problems you can hopefully see what they're referring to. Storing images off-site should be self-explanatory, and the copy on the removable hard drive allows ready access from my main computer. You can find lots more info about backing things up all over the web, as I've pointed out, everyone approaches the subject slightly differently.

Equipment and Paperwork.

Turning to equipment, I suspect many people can predict exactly what I'm about to say next: Now's the time to clean, recharge maintain and reformat all your gear so that it will be ready for you when you next shoot. If anything untoward occurred during the shoot, now's the time to check it out, rather than as you start working next time.

At this point I try and catch up with any paperwork that I gathered on the shoot - things like adding details from business cards to my address book, putting dates in the diary and so on. Then, providing you didn't cock the shoot up completely, the phone rings and you start the whole process all over again....

Related Posts: Production for Photographers - An Intro, Pre-Production 1 - Production Begins at Home, 2 - Organisation, 3 - Equipment, 4 - Car and Mobile/Laptop, Useful sites, Production on the Job.

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Production on the Job


Shooting Vicky Coren for a magazine cover.

Bit of a Cop-Out.

I'll expand on this section in more detail in the piece I'm intending to write, which I shall boldly title: "1001 quick production tips", otherwise it will come to dominate this series of posts. However there are still a few production aspects that I can't really cover under the heading of "tips for working quickly and improvising" so here they are:

Communication.

Communication is just as important, if not more important during a job than before it. The clearer everybody involved knows what's going on the less likely problems are to occur, and I can't say it simpler than that. If plans change either immediately before or during a shoot, then everyone needs to stay up to date with any changes, whether it be location, or personnel, or even a change in the brief itself. If your client, or a representative of your client is on the shoot, then you need to keep them constantly informed of what you're doing, and ensuring that you're carrying out the brief to their requirements. Rest assured that it's highly likely that communication from them will be fairly prompt and abrupt if they think you're straying from the brief.

In olden times, when men were bold, and dragons roamed the earth, you would shoot a Polaroid and everyone would huddle round it and voice their opinion. In the blistering white heat of the 21st century we use either the back of the camera or the laptop screen, but the principle is the same. You don't need to show your client or subject an image every time you shoot something, but it's very important to get their feedback now and again, and it's quicker than waiting for a Polaroid to develop. If you're shooting people, always communicate with your subject - I used to assist some photographers years ago who kept up a wall of silence whilst photographing - this might be OK for fashion models, who are accustomed to being in front of the lens, but for almost everyone else you're much better off chatting away, keeping them informed of what you're doing.

Delegation.

Moving on from communication comes delegation - something that those of us who are one-person businesses can often find difficult. If you've got extra personnel on the shoot, such as assistants, work experience monkeys or studio staff - use them to take care of the mundane tasks. Your job when shooting is just to shoot stuff - it's absolutely fine to hand your mobile to your assistant for the 20 minutes or so you might be concentrating on the last shot. Likewise, don't get caught up over the basic aspects of a shoot, from cleaning the floor to getting tea for everyone - that's what you're paying your assistants a good day rate for. You don't have to become a fascist sergeant major and boss them about like worms (though we've all done it once or twice - the power, the power!!!!!), but if a client is paying you a decent day-rate then they've booked you for your creative and technical skills, not your floor-sweeping ability, and they'll expect you to concentrate on the job in hand.

Image Delivery.

As the shoot finishes you may need to deliver the images to the client. Usually this takes the form of burning a disk from your laptop, for which you have of course brought a sufficient supply of blank disks and ready-made boxes. Precise details about this are covered in the much awaited (and continually being revised) article on workflow, which I will finish soon. Honest.

Paperwork.

Lastly, keep up to date with paperwork. Collect every relevant piece of paper as you go along. This can include; receipts, invoices, business cards, delivery notes, faxes, and emails. Likewise, take down any information you may need with regards to invoicing, turnaround times and delivery of the job, and possible future work. This includes things like totalling up your mileage if necessary. I've alluded to it already a couple of times on this site - but the vast majority of your work as freelance photographer is going to come, in some way or other, from existing clients, and gathering contact details with everyone you work with should be second nature. Even overlooking actual paid work, you'll want to take down details of models who you might want to test with, similarly make-up artists or stylists, or an assistant who was particularly good.

Related Posts: Production for Photographers - An Intro, Pre-Production 1 - Production Begins at Home, 2 - Organisation, 3 - Equipment, 4 - Car and Mobile/Laptop, Useful sites, Post Production.

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Pre-Production 4 - Car and Mobile Phone/Laptop


Setup for a portrait of Sarah and Abdul.

Here in my Car, I Feel Safest of all.

Strangely enough I managed nearly 8 years down here in London without a car, only hiring them once or twice when the job required it, and using taxis for large scale jobs within central London. London is one of the few places in the world where this is possible, as despite it's many failings we do have a fairly comprehensive public transport network, plus I'm a tough old git who's prepared to heave a heavy camera bag and a rolling case around the place. However, just recently I've bought a car, for a whole host of reasons, which I won't go into, and this obviously has an effect on the gear I can carry to jobs.

The first main principle is that it allows me to load the car with equipment almost to capacity on any job, and then make decisions once at the location. The second is that I have the car set up as a mobile "base", with almost everything else I could need out of the office. Things like my list of phone numbers are duplicated in the glove box of my car. I've even gone so far as to stash things like all weather gear and an overnight bag in the space around the spare wheel so that they're hidden away, and permanently in the car whenever I might need them. It's quite comforting to know that I've got the gear for any weather, plus I can comfortably stop overnight in a travelodge if I feel exhausted. I've also got things like sat-nav, hands free mobile kit and in-car chargers for the various batteries that I use - the whole idea being that I can survive a few days in succession without having to get "back to base".


A neat example of this was late last summer, when I had to drive to Scotland (flying was not advisable at the time, due to the grave danger of bottles of Coke blowing you out of the sky!) to shoot a reportage story on Colin Montgomerie, then shoot 2 portraits just north of London the day after, then spend the next day shooting fitness equipment in the midlands in a portable studio. The demands of these jobs meant that I was carrying almost my full kit, and using different combinations day after day - the reportage story had quite different demands to the portable studio!

It shouldn't need to be said, but running a car, and using it as part of the business only adds another piece of equipment that will need looking after, taxing, MOT'ing and suchlike. Make sure all the basic maintenance things are up to date, particularly before a long-distance job.

Laptop/Mobile Phone.

Like everything else, make sure your laptop is fully charged, and purchase and carry a spare or long life battery if possible. Likewise, ensure that everything is up to date, that all the software you use is patched up to the current standard, that the virus checking and other routine maintenance has been done. At a slightly deeper level, make sure that all your regular software is set up correctly, so that you don't have to spend extra time doing such mundane tasks as embedding colour profiles or changing resolution. Things like FTP settings, passwords, profiles and all the rest should be setup as required, and ideally find some way of being able to access them if you're unable to go online. I suspect that like me, many people have got a bit complacent in recent years with regards to online passwords, and the ability of software to store them - this is all very well until you can't connect for whatever reason and/or you suffer a catastrophic crash. Then suddenly you can't access any of your normal info online, or send files to clients and so on.

I'd also suggest that you carry a basic modem/phone cable, even if your laptop is wireless enabled - wireless coverage is by no means universal, and can be very expensive, and if you only need to send a small file or check an email, dial-up is sufficient.

Your mobile (hate the things, but don't really have any choice) will be fully charged, and if you're travelling for more than a day or so, a spare battery and/or the charger would be a wise thing to carry. Program any essential numbers for the job into the memory as well, in case you lose your job sheet. I'm well aware that these days there are devices that are fully multifunctional, with phone, diary, email, toothbrush and prophylactics all in one, but I've never really got on with them whenever I've tried to use them, so I'm not qualified to comment on their use. I'm sure they're very handy if you can get used to using them. One word of caution though - anything like this is dependent on battery power, and to a greater or lesser extent, connectivity. Don't take it for granted that you can just bring up google and find what you want anytime and anywhere - you're bound to get caught out sooner or later. Just recently I was working with a client who was the proud owner of a new iphone, and the first time we met he was very keen to show off all the features. Very impressive it was too. The next time we met, he didn't have it on him, as it had suffered a complete crash in it's OS. This is not meant as a criticism of iphones per se, merely to point out that sometimes an old mobile and a paper diary is more use.....

Related Posts: Production for Photographers - An Intro, Pre-Production 1 - Production Begins at Home, 2 - Organisation, 3 - Equipment, Useful sites, Production on the Job, Post Production.


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Pre-Production 3 - Equipment

Right Tool for the Job

As far as production goes, equipment can simply be thought of as "the right tool for the job". This works on 2 levels, the choice of and purchasing of the equipment in the first place, and then the choice, transport, care, and use of the equipment on the job.

At the purchasing/selection stage I'd recommend you bear a few things in mind. The old adage of "you get what you pay for" holds true for a great deal of camera gear, so beware of making a false economy with some cheap gear. Off the top of my head I can think of the example of tripods, where I must have owned a great many in my 15 years of shooting, the vast majority of which broke within a few months of heavy use due to being cheap and crap. My 11-year-old manfrotto, however, at a seemingly expensive £200, is still going strong. I'm trying to make a point about reliability here; as it should be obvious to anyone that equipment that frequently breaks down is not worth carrying around with you and will eventually end up costing more than the expensive one did in the first place. No piece of equipment is immune from failure, but there are certainly brands (usually the professional ones) that are far more reliable than others.

In a straight choice between 2 reliable professional brands, always bear in mind the versatility of each tool - a flash head that can be adjusted through from 1/32 power to full is more versatile than one which only goes down as far as ¼ power. Likewise, if you're on a budget, a constant aperture zoom is arguably more versatile then 3 or 4 primes, though it will obviously not be quite the same quality. Size and weight should also be borne in mind; and if something is too big or cumbersome to carry around it will tend to stay in the boot of the car or the office. Other seemingly unimportant factors like power consumption ought not to be overlooked, and don't forget compatibility with existing gear in your armoury.

You may notice I haven't exactly been very explicit about particular brands. That's because I have no desire whatsoever to get into a "discussion" with anyone who'e evangelical about their equipment. It's just gear - as long as it works how and when it's supposed to, who cares what's on the label?

Maintenance.

This next bit should be blatantly obvious, but I'll say it anyway since even I've come a cropper now and again (yes, it does happen, though thankfully not very often!) Before you set out on a job make sure that:

  1. Everything is charged, including all spare batteries (you are carrying spare batteries aren't you?)
  2. Everything is cleaned, particularly lenses and chips (by which I mean the filters in front of the chips for all the pedants out there.)
  3. Everything works - test fire where necessary. This won't guarantee it will work on the shoot, but at least it may give you fair warning of any upcoming problems.
  4. You've got ample supplies of formatted memory cards and blank CD/DVD's
  5. All the settings on equipment are back to what they normally are, for example if you've just been shooting something for "straight to web" and usually shoot RAW.
Transporting the Gear.

Selecting which gear to take on the job will hopefully be very straightforward, as you'll have answers to all the questions you asked up front, so it should be a simple matter to decide whether this is a job that calls for 1 body and a standard zoom lens, with batteries and cards stuffed into your pockets, or every case you own and 4 mains lighting heads. Obviously at this stage your choice of camera bag becomes important. I've clearly developed some sort of fetish for camera bags over the years as I've owned a vast number. In regular use at the moment I have:

2 shoulder bags, a camera rucsac, 1 rolling case, 2 hard cases, 4 clear sided plastic cases, 1 tripod bag, 1 lighting stand/reflector bag, and a set of "webbing" style pouches and belts.

Now, I don't use all of these on every shoot - I'm not that mush of a fetishist! What I will say is that having this selection enables me to get the gear I want exactly where I want it with the minimum of hassle, and allows me to shoot the job as effortlessly as possible. As an example of picking and choosing my gear for the job in hand, I can't think of a better instance than some of the golf jobs I shoot. When I'm shooting instruction pieces I'll take the full camera rucsac, a rolling case with lights/stands, spare flashes, tripod, the vagabond power pack, the reflector bag, and probably 1 of the clear sided cases with lots of extra bits in. I can do this because I know that not only will I have time to set things up and light them properly (and I'll be expected to, as they demand high-quality shots), but that we'll be moving around from location to location in golf buggies, so weight and transportation is not a major concern. At the other end of the scale, I often have to follow people round as they're playing, and this obviously offers no chance to set things up, so I opt for just the basic camera essentials which I carry in the webbing gear as it allows me a great deal of freedom of movement. Tomorrow I'm doing the lot, as I'm shooting a feature which requires me to shoot studio portraits, some reportage (probably in the rain), and will also require me to put my whistle on for a sit-down dinner afterwards.

Related Posts: Production for Photographers - An Intro, Pre-Production 1 - Production Begins at Home, 2 - Organisation, 4 - Car and Mobile/Laptop, Useful sites, Production on the Job, Post Production.

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Pre-Production 2 - Organisation


Shooting golf on a mountainside in Crete. Very early in the morning, and very cold too.

Moving on to more tangible aspects of production now, and something that everyone can do, and that's get organised. There's no excuse for this, anyone is capable of being organised, and if you run your own business there's no excuse not to be. I'll be making references to it throughout all these production posts and there are heaps more resources you can dig out online (expect a list of links fairly soon) or in self help books if you find organisation itself challenging. One of the simplest things you can do, and which I do for even the smallest scale shoots, is compile and print out a job sheet, which contains all the information you could need to know about the shoot. On it I put all the relevant phone numbers, times, locations and addresses, names, emails, as well as the brief from the client, my own notes, some sketches of ideas, as well as maps/directions if necessary.

I also always carry in my camera bag a "phone list" which is basically just the phone number portion of my address book printed out from the computer. The amount of times I've had to call somebody in the middle of a job for advice/help is too many to mention, and it's usually someone specific to the job, who is not always to be found in the memory of my mobile phone. I also always have my old-fashioned paper diary with me, which I keep up to date with the one on the computer every day. I've never got on with PDA's personally, but if you can work with them I'm sure they're a great aid to organisation.

Disks

Next I make sure I've got a good supply of pre-printed blank CD/DVD's, (I've nearly finished a short article on Workflow which will go into more detail here), and likewise a CD case with the job written on it, or more than one if I know that several copies will be required. There's not much point looking very professional by burning a copy of the finished job for your client at the end of the shoot, only to have to scribble on it in biro and hand it to them in an improvised paper envelope. Last but not least, make sure that whilst you're out of the office business can continue as normal - check your answer machine message is up to date, and that your "out-of-office" email response is on.

Related Posts: Production for Photographers - An Intro, Pre-Production 1 - Production Begins at Home, 3 - Equipment, 4 - Car and Mobile/Laptop, Useful sites, Production on the Job, Post Production.

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Production for Photographers - Useful sites

I'll try and add to this as time passes - it's a fairly basic list at the moment. One of the problems I've always found with websites is that it's so easy to visit one and get the vital info for a specific job, then never return!

Links:

(mostly UK based, due to my working experience)

Wikipedia - For background research
Google/Google image search - background research and to see what's gone before
Metcheck - weather forecasts
Multimap, Googlemap, Streetmap, Google Earth - mapping, both at a basic level, and may also point out stuff you might not have noticed that will add to the shot.
AA, RAC, TFL, National Rail, BAA, - useful travel info.
Trainline, Expedia - Travel booking details
Airlines - BA, EasyJet, - Luggage weight restrictions/guidelines, bookings, timetables. Avoid Ryanair, I've had nothing but bad experiences with them. Of far more use is this piece by the Telegraph, which lists current luggage guidelines. Also of interest is my piece on flying with camera gear.

Time and Date.com - Local times around the world, daylight saving, plus sunrise and sunset.
Film london, GLA - locations permissions
Kemps film and TV - essential production info
Car Rental - Addison Lee - for Taxis within London, Alamo, Hertz, Nova - for normal car hire.
Calumet, Direct Lighting, Pro centre - Equipment hire
Lonely Planet, Foreign and Commonwealth office - useful travel info about destinations, safety, voltages, currency etc.
Model agencies - Girl Management, Ugly + Rage, Sugarbabes, Samantha Bond, OneModelPlace, Nevs, MOT Models, Models Plus, Model Plan, I.M.M., BMA.
Hire Studios (London only, and only ones that I've used and can vouch for!)- The Lemonade Factory, The Roost/Perch, Holborn Studios, Blank Space.

Related Posts: Production for Photographers - An Intro, Pre-Production 1 - Production Begins at Home, 2 - Organisation, 3 - Equipment, 4 - Car and Mobile/Laptop, Production on the Job, Post Production.

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Pre-Production 1 - Production Begins at Home


Shooting a test in my old house

Basic Interrogation Skills.

Production work begins the second you get the phone call (or email) asking you to shoot the job. If such information isn't mentioned then the first thing you need to do is ask the obvious "who, what, where, when" questions. You'd think this would be automatic when someone briefs you, but I can think of at least one of my regular clients with whom I have to play a kind of CIA style interrogation game to get information out of them. You should also be asking questions of a more esoteric nature, along the lines of "what sort of shot are you after?" "How many images are you looking to use?" as well as more practical ones such as "what usage will the images be put to?" and "what's the budget?" It's from these few basic questions that you're going to have to build the whole job, so it's very important to get as much information as possible, as soon as possible.

Thinking back over my career there have been times when this one phone call has led to a simple half hour shoot that's 20 minutes travel away, and involves just one disk of images to one client for one usage, and times when a similar phone call leads to a week long foreign location job, thousands of shots, and about 6 months worth of content for a magazine. The fact that the repurcussions of that initial phone call can be be so broad is one reason why you need to get things as clearly defined early on. Asking the right questions up front can save you enormous trouble and embarrassment further down the line.

Initial Research.

Unless the person/place/thing you've been asked to photograph is something you've either shot before or are very familiar with, the next thing you should do is get on the Internet and do a bit of research. There are 3 main reasons for doing this:

1. Basic politeness - if you turn up to shoot some one's portrait with no idea of who they are you could not only embarrass yourself, but you risk pissing them off as well, and thereby jeopardising the shoot. Research can help to clarify why you're photographing them, and might point up areas which could even cause conflict - not that you'd be stupid enough to get into an argument with them of course, but knowing, for example, which team they support can give you something to talk about (or something to avoid talking about!) At a very basic level the facts about your subject will have a major impact on what sort of image you start working towards. To pick a random example, you may reject several of your initial ideas if you found out that the subject of a portrait was only 5'2" tall.

2. By broadening your search to include images you can find out how your subject has already been photographed, and this can be vital. In keeping with my general notions of influences by familiarising yourself with what's gone before you may well be able to build a picture that goes way beyond what's already been shot.

3. Following on from the image search, the flip side is that it can help you avoid repetition. There's nothing worse than going to great lengths to organise something elaborate, only to find that you're essentially copying something that was shot last year. As with no. 1 this might also suggest new ways to approach the subject .

Initial Ideas.

After initial research I tend to then move on to my initial ideas, and will work some of them up to fairly elaborate plans wherever possible, whilst keeping some in my proverbial back pocket for emergency/contingency use. Already as I prepare these ideas, other production issues will start to spring up from them - indoors or outdoors, mains lighting or ambient, how much time will I have to set-up etc. Before you set out you should have answered as many of these questions as you are able, as you're not really being paid to discover them on the job. Once again the internet can be a very quick and effective way of answering many of these questions, and coupled with phone calls/emails to the person who commissioned you or the people who'll be on the shoot you should be able to get all but a definitive set of answers.

Some Important Questions To Ask.

What will the weather be like? (If on location), and following on from that, what will we do if it doesn't do what we want it to?

What time does the sun set/rise?

Do we need permits? What are the security/safety arrangements on site?

How am I (and everyone else) getting there? How will we find the place? If necessary, how are we being transported around once on site?

What are the opening hours? Where can I park?

How many people are likely to be there? Will I be fighting through crowds, or do we have exclusive access? Who are those people likely to be? (Clients, agency people, general public, PR people etc)

Will I be allowed to use flash? If so, mains or battery powered? What is access to power points like?

How soon does the client require the images? In what format?

Is there the budget/space for an assistant?

Do we need to arrange specific premises (hire studios/apartments, swimming pools etc)?

Do we need any specialised personnel? (Make-Up Artists, Stylists, Animal handlers, models, armourers, model makers etc)

What paperwork will we need? (Tickets, visas, passports, permits, carnets etc)

This list of questions can go on almost indefinitely (feel free to add any extra ones in the comments), and the larger scale the shoot, the longer it will take. There are also a host of questions that you'll need to ask yourself regarding equipment, and they're briefly dealt with in another post.

Related Posts: Production for Photographers - An Intro, 2 - Organisation, 3 - Equipment, 4 - Car and Mobile/Laptop, Useful sites, Production on the Job, Post Production.


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Production for Photographers - An Intro


Golf Monthly, March 2007 Cover, shot in Southern Spain December 2006

OK, as with several other things on this blog, I'm describing something that to some people will be second nature, but will be a little hazy and ill defined for others. What do I mean by production with reference to professional photography? The easiest equivalent I can draw is from film and TV. In these areas a producer is someone who is responsible, in a very universal way, for bringing the piece (film, show, documentary) to the screen. This means that they have ultimate responsibility for budget, personnel, equipment, locations and arguably every aspect of the "production" right down to the paint used to paint the sets and the type of coffee served at lunchtime.

Although it's the director whose creative vision and interaction with the actors will be what people take away from having seen the piece, it's the producer who enables all this to happen, or in some cases doesn't when, for example they overrule a directors desire to create a particularly expensive sequence. The parallels to photography should be obvious; as a "director" you employ your creative talents, your people skills and all your technical ability to realise an interesting and successful image, but as a "producer" you have to get everything together to enable the picture to be taken, ranging from the more obvious things such as hire studios, through to more mundane bits like spare batteries and the right bulbs for the studio lights.

These pieces could never be exhaustive, as professional photography covers such an enormous range that I couldn't hope to ever encompass all the possible aspects of production on my own. What I've tried to do is illuminate areas that people may not have thought of. These pieces are a little bit more list-like and practical in its nature than some of the others, but perhaps that's necessary to balance out some of the airy-fairy stuff that I'll soon be writing (be afraid!). There are several other pieces on this blog which touch upon production, as it's such a fundamental topic. The portion of this piece which deals with production whilst shooting will be discussed in more depth in a future piece (hopefully not too far in the future) as it's such a large area in it's own right.

Related Posts: Pre-Production 1 - Production begins at Home, 2 - Organisation, 3 - Equipment, 4 - Car and Laptop/Mobile, Useful Sites, Production on the Job, Post Production.

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11/11/07

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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27/10/07

Portfolios - A Summary

Spread for Men's Fitness Magazine.


Not a very lengthy summary this, as I've made most of my arguments within the main posts. Instead here's a quick list of what I think are the main points about portfolios you should bear in mind:
  1. Presentation is very important - if your work looks shit it will reflect very badly on you and make you look cheap, this is the one area where it really does pay to get the best quality.
  2. Editing is even more important - don't be afraid to show only a few images, and if you're not certain that something is the best you can do, or it's been getting mixed reactions, sack it off.
  3. The personal aspect of a portfolio viewing is at least as important as the pictures themselves, never pass up on the chance to meet people face to face and let them discover what a truly wonderful human being you are (man).
  4. Developing a coherent "body" or book of work as opposed to a range of subjects is largely a matter of preference. My personal feelings on this are quite well documented, but all the same I'd be the first to admit that because Art Directors can't easily categorise me I may have missed out on some high-profile jobs. Do what seems right for you and the market you are targeting.
  5. Always have a portfolio ready - you never know when the opportunity to stick it under someones nose may arise.
Other Posts: What and Why?, What to Include/What to Leave Out, A Book or Body of Work, Presentation, Making Appointments, Portfolio Meetings.

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Presenting The Portfolio - The Actual Meeting

Format.

As with so many things in life, there's no such thing as an average portfolio meeting. I've shown my portfolio in the waiting room, reception, the corridor, the boardroom, in the local café, at the editor's desk and many places in between. Likewise there's no set pattern for who will be looking at your book. Some places (particularly those who commission tons of stuff) will have just one person who looks through your stuff, and you'll be kept fairly separate from the rest of the office. In others it's almost like the ice cream man's arrived - "there's a photographer in the building, does anyone want to have a look?" and you can find several people (from various places) looking through your work. It's quite common to be shared around as well - many magazines work in offices where there's another title just around the corner, and after having a meeting with your initial contact, don't be surprised if you're ushered into the next office and thrust in front of another art director or similar bod.

Spread for Mixmag about the History of DJ's. Very difficult to shoot, as first we had to travel back in time to the victorian age.


Feedback.

As the art director (or whoever) is going through your work, offer comment where necessary, but don't bore them to death. Much of this should come under the remit of basic social skills, but standing there in stony silence isn't going to promote "you" as a photographer anymore than not letting them get a word in edgeways will. If they show particular interest in an image then flesh it out a bit for them - tell them what problems you had shooting it, or what a laugh you had. Beware of being bitchy, as the industry is much smaller than you think, and a rude comment about someone in the photograph, or someone who commissioned it, may blow up in your face when you find that the person you're showing your portfolio to is related to them. From their side don't expect any great insights or constructive feedback, particularly from those who commission work all the time. If they happen to offer some you should be very grateful indeed, and pay close attention, but usually people will stick to polite comments, and save any bitching (or compliments) for when you're out of earshot.

On the whole you can expect portfolio viewing appointments to be quite short. At one end of the scale you'll get those mentioned above who see a lot of work, will flick through your book with what seems like dismissive haste, and at the other end of the scale there will be people who'll take you round the office, go through some ideas with you, and even occasionally take you out for a coffee/food and commission you on the spot. Generally though you can expect a portfolio viewing to last about 15 minutes.

Bobby George, Darts Legend. I've just noticed that my shot is very similar indeed to the cover of his Autobiography. I shot mine in 2004 though, and the book came out in 2006, so at least I can't be accused of plagiarism!

Follow Up.

It may sound a little cheeky, but it's often worth asking, "Is there anyone you know who'd be interested in looking at my work?" Art directors do actually talk to each other, and this is an ideal way to generate "warm" contacts. Being able to call someone up for an appointment and say: "person x at magazine y said you might like to see my work" is far more likely to yield results than a random call out of the blue.

Staying In Touch.

I'm in the process of writing a whole piece (expect the usual delay) on the subject of keeping work ticking over and staying in touch with your clients, much of which goes beyond the basic remit of "portfolios", but there's still that immediate post-appointment period that needs to be mentioned. If you're lucky enough to get commissioned by the person you've been to see fairly quickly, then little of this need apply. Otherwise it's very sensible to try and stay in touch and keep your pictures at the front of the commissioner's mind. Of course, you'll come across as pleading and pathetic if your only phone calls after the event consist of saying, "got any work I can do?" It's here that your personal/social skills come into play, as if you've established a good rapport with someone during the portfolio viewing you may already have a good excuse to call them up again and discuss how Arsenal are getting on, when the band you both mentioned are touring again, and so on - all obvious stuff really. The easiest way to contact someone again after an appointment is with new work, particularly if it's along the line of something they remarked or commented upon when they saw your portfolio. These days this is very easy to achieve with an email attachment or two.

Other Posts: What and Why?, What to Include/What to Leave Out, A Book or Body of Work, Presentation, Making Appointments, Summary

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Making Appointments with the Portfolio

Making Contact.

Golf Supplement.


OK, so you've got a beautifully printed portfolio full of your very best quality work, now you actually need to go out and get work with it. Firstly you'll need to make an appointment with someone who commissions photographers, and these people fall very simply into 2 categories: warm and cold. These terms are fairly familiar, but in brief, a warm contact is someone who you already have some established relationship with. It could be someone who you met off the back of a job you were shooting, or someone recommended by an existing client. A cold contact is someone with whom you've no prior relationship with - the same as calling someone straight out of the phonebook.

Warm.

A warm contact is always better than a cold contact. If you've met someone socially, or off the back of another job, and they've expressed an interest in seeing your work, then strike while the iron is hot. I've made reference to how many opportunities I wasted as an assistant by not having a portfolio and following up on chances when they were offered, and it should be obvious that making an appointment soon after meeting someone is going to keep you in their mind better than calling months after the event.

Cold.

If you're approaching a client cold, call first to find out whom you should be seeing. Some magazines, for example have both an art desk and a pictures desk, whilst some even leave the commissioning up to the editorial (writing) staff. A quick call to the editorial assistant of a magazine is usually enough to find out who to make an appointment with. You can find all this information in the masthead, usually a few pages in from the front, and I'd strongly advise buying the current issue of the magazine you're targeting before you call, as personnel can change surprisingly rapidly.

Polar Explorer - Taken in an Outdoors shop!


Tepid. (sorry, couldn't resist).

Once you've made the appointment here's a few basics:
  • 1. Know where you're going, precisely who you're going to see and get there early. I don't need to give reasons for this, it's blatantly obvious.
  • 2. Personal appearance - don't overdo it, but likewise don't turn up looking like you've been dragged through a hedge backwards. In the editorial world at least, people tend to dress pretty casually - if you turn up in a suit you'll look a bit of a tosser to be honest. This rule may not apply if you're going to meet the CEO of some large banking firm mind you. Use your common sense.

So, on to the actual appointment itself....

Other Posts: What and Why?, What to Include/What to Leave Out, A Book or Body of Work, Presentation, Portfolio Meetings, Summary

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The Presentation of the Portfolio

Spread from my Portrait Portfolio

Image Format.

So now we get on to the easy bit, the actual physical, tangible aspects that make up the portfolio itself. I'm a bit of a traditionalist in this respect, as I believe that a bound book of prints is still the best way to present your work. Transparencies are OK, with the exception that they can only be viewed over a lightbox, and not every office has one (surprising, I know, but there you go) Also, people have to crowd round a lightbox, but a portfolio of prints can be handed round easily, and viewed in almost any light. The other major disadvantage of transparencies is that they'll need to be of medium format size or larger, and may need to be dupes (duplicates) of existing prints or other trannies. This is an expensive process, both in getting the dupes made and then in mounting and presenting them. The basic photographic rule should always be borne in mind that every optical stage an image has to pass through is going to degrade it slightly, so making prints that will then be shot and presented as slides is a somewhat circular and expensive exercise in my opinion. In the digital age of course, transparencies are getting rarer and rarer, and there's absolutely no point whatsoever in getting dupes made of digital files - get it printed and stop being stupid.

Image Quality.

Needless to say, the final image quality of the shots that end up in your portfolio should be of the very highest order. Note I don't say, "the highest order you are capable", as this is one of those occasions where trying hard just isn't as good as actually being the best. The point is that if you're trying to compete with established commercial photographers you'll need to play at their level. It's far better to have 10 very polished, professionally presented and mounted/bound prints, than 20 loose, dirty, tarnished in a folder. I know this may sound as if I'm more concerned with presentation than the content of the images themselves, and truthfully at this precise moment I am. You're trying to create as good an impression as you can in a short space of time, and you want your work to shine. If your images are of a low quality, or badly presented they simply won't sell themselves enough, plus you'll give out the general impression of not being very professional. I can hear people in the wings whinging that they haven't got the money to spend on expensive portfolios and finished prints, to which my answer is that the portfolio is one place where you can't cheat with money. When shooting tests you can borrow cameras, get studios at knockdown rates and get models/hair and make up etc to work for free, but besides being lucky enough to have a mate who works in a lab who'll print your stuff cheap, you're going to have to pay the proper price for a decent portfolio. When you consider that it's through this portfolio that you'll get most of your work it should be apparent that scrimping and saving at this stage would cost you much more later on.

One final thing to bear in mind (and this relates in some way to editing your portfolio) is the circumstances under which your images will be viewed. If you can guarantee that your perfectly duped 5x4" transparencies will always be looked at on a top of the range lightbox, then you need not worry about pictures that rely on lots of shadow detail for their impact. On the other hand, if there's a fair chance that the pictures will simply be held up to the window for light to shine through, or your glossy prints may be flicked through in a dark room, then the tonal range of the final images should be a serious consideration. Obviously this applies most to images with lots of shadow detail printed on gloss paper, they may look great under window light or a well-calibrated monitor, but will lose much of their beauty in worse conditions and may end up just looking murky.

A DPS tearsheet.

Size Matters.

Ideally you want the portfolio to be between A4 and A3 size, mine's A3 for the record. Any smaller than A4 and your images not only will lack impact, but clients will wonder if they have sufficient quality to stand up to being reproduced on a magazine page or similar. Larger than A3 and the portfolio itself will start to become physically rather unwieldy, and since at least in the Editorial world the largest most images are going to end up is as a DPS, A3 is sufficient to illustrate the quality of your shots. The number of pictures to show is a bit hard to nail down, too few and you'll look like you're very inexperienced, too many and the client will be bored before they finish looking at the book, and will be unlikely to remember anything about the stuff they've seen. In my experience 20-30 is about right, though I've seen portfolios with as few as 12 and as many as 70 odd before. Don't forget of course to tailor the images to the client. The golden rule to remember, which I've made reference to in several places on the site, is that you'll be remembered for the crap ones as much as the good ones, so if you've only got 12 images you're totally happy with, only show 12!

Novelties.

Around the late 90's and early 2000's there was a great rash of people knocking out portfolios on CD's, making beermats out of their images, and doing a host of other novelties to make themselves stand out from the crowd. Alongside the main portfolio tricks like this an be very effective at keeping your images in the Art Director's mind for longer, but they should never take the place of a conventional, physical set of images.

Tearsheets.

DPS Tearsheet.

Tearsheets, or examples of your work in it's finished, printed/published form are almost an essential. I've known Art Directors who insist that even if shown a stunning portfolio of work they won't actually commission someone until they've seen a few tearsheets. The main reason for this is that tearsheets offer proof that you can work to a brief, with all the professional behaviour that that implies. I suspect an exception would be made if you were already a successful, well-known photographer, but then in that case you probably don't need to be reading this piece!

In a similar vein to the actual portfolio images it's worth tailoring/editing the tearsheets if you have the ability and the range of work, for the same reasons given previously for portfolios Presentation-wise I find a simple but smart folder is usually best - clients aren't expecting polished prints, but are looking for genuine pages from magazines etc, so there's no major problem if some pages don't quite fill the sleeves, or a DPS doesn't quite fit.

Extras.

Ignoring novelties, as briefly mentioned above, you should always have some nicely printed business cards with your portfolio, ideally both business card size as well as larger ones. The larger ones (postcard size and above) are very good for leaving behind, as people tend to leave them on their desks until they next tidy up (and this can take ages!) If, like me, you cover quite a wide range of subject matter, the best option is to take your "best" shot from each area and get it printed onto postcard or A5 size, then carry the appropriate ones depending on who you're going to see. At the risk of stating the absolutely bleedin' obvious, make sure the card's got your name, phone number, web address and email on. Just checking.

Other Posts: What and Why?, What to Include/What to Leave Out, A Book or Body of Work, Making Appointments, Portfolio Meetings, Summary

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The Portfolio as a "Book" or Body of Work.

Dean Robertson at Loch Lomond.


A Body of Work.

This is quite a vast subject in it's own right, many areas of which are beyond the scope of a relatively simple piece about portfolios, touching as it does upon many facets of creativity and commerce. For the purposes of this piece I'm simply concerned with the images that will end up in the final portfolio, rather than your photographic oeuvre as a whole. I just used the word oeuvre, how poncy is that?

I'm not perhaps the best person to talk about a "body" of work, as one of things I kicked against most whilst at college was the notion of producing a series of images which all seemed very similar, and given that my current work takes in such diverse elements as naked girls in the studio, golf tournaments, portraits, and extreme canoeists, I don't think I've made much progress in that area. However, conventional wisdom has it that your portfolio should be instantly recognisable as your work, should have a coherent thread to it, even if not a consistent subject matter

Conventional Wisdom.

Needless to say, much of this wisdom is not only true, but basic common sense if you're trying to get commercial work. Imagine you're trying to make it as a car advertising photographer, but you also like to take environmental portraits. When you take your portfolio to see the agency that represents Ford, you don't include the portrait work, just your dramatic, beautifully lit car shots. Essentially this is how I approach the problem of a coherent body of work - I relish the fact that my job allows me to shoot a wide variety of subjects, but I don't include the sexy naked lady pics when I go and see Pregnancy and Birth magazine, for reasons that should be all too obvious. I deal with this by having enough stuff printed at finished portfolio quality, plus interchangeable pages in my portfolio itself so that I can swap out whole sections depending on the audience.

Returning to the conventional approach as opposed to my slightly scatter gun method, the ease and advantage of this method is that a commissioner of work should be able to recognise a shot as yours almost straight away. The main reason that this has evolved is simply due to the sheer number of different photographers out there seeking work. A commissioner of photography in a major centre like London or New York is potentially capable of finding a photographer who specialises in almost anything - so why would they want a jack-of-all-trades when they can get the perfect tool for the job?

To this end, your book should have a very strong thread running through it, usually covering both subject matter and treatment. Certain sectors of the industry (let's pick fashion, for example) are extremely crowded, and having some generic fashion shots alongside a body of work that's largely commercial or portrait, will be unlikely to raise any interest from an experienced fashion editor. When up against lots of competition it's obvious that you need to stand out and demonstrate why your work is better than the next photographers, and this is often best achieved by knowing your subject well, and exploring it in sufficient depth. You want to leave the viewer with a very clear memory and impression of you work - this is not often achieved by throwing tonnes of different stuff at them and hoping some of it sticks, but by developing common threads, looks and approaches within your work.

Lucy Becker.

My Approach.

Now, you'll quickly see from glancing round this blog, and from several mentions I've made, that this is not the way I work, in fact I revel in the variety my work offers me. There are 2 main reasons why I don't present my portfolio in this conventional way. The first is that my work (and hopefully everybody else's) continually evolves. With a presentation such as mine it's relatively easy to insert new shots as they develop. If, on the other hand, your book is very harmonious, then a new image may stick out like a sore thumb and make the whole book look a little unbalanced. Often the only way to solve this is to shoot a whole new book in the new style, and this is a costly and lengthy process.

The second reason is that, as stated quite often, I enjoy a variety of work, and have always been surprised at where my work comes from. I never take all 5 of the sections of my book to see one client (portrait, feature/reportage, glamour/beauty, fashion, and lifestyle/stock/commercial), but I always take the 2 or 3 most appropriate. I'm continually surprised by the amount of times that, after selecting the most appropriate work to take to see a client, the one image that they comment on, and perhaps even offer me work from, will be one that doesn't fit the standard template of their stuff.

Horses for Courses, and other Cliches.

On balance, and taking photographers as a whole, it's simply a question of what suits the market best. In a crowded field like fashion or advertising your best bet is to have a very focused and distinct book that is clearly and uniquely yours - any images that detract from the central theme will cause a commissioner to be distracted. If, on the other hand you are based outside a major photographic centre and need to take in work from a broader range of clients, then having more scope to your book is often the only way to go. In fact in these situations a book that shows just one type of work is almost commercial suicide. The wide availability of cheap stock library images, the prevalence of high-quality digital cameras and shrinking budgets mean that trying to make a living outside of London (read New York, LA, Paris etc) by focusing on just, say, fashion will be almost impossible, and you'll need to broaden the base of your work. However, talking about the business like this crosses over into areas way beyond portfolios and would have to include a lengthy (me, lengthy?) discussion about the different working models of professional photography, so for now we'll stop.

Other Posts: What and Why?, What to Include/What to Leave Out, Presentation, Making Appointments, Portfolio Meetings, Summary

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Portfolios - What to leave in and What to Leave Out.

A nice big Double Page Spread (DPS) from my portfolio.


Editing.

The difficulty in putting together a portfolio of work lies in what constitutes your best work. The two main threads here are the images that you consider to be the best versus the images that are perhaps less important to you but may garner you more work. Often you're not the best person to judge this, as you've probably become very attached to the images in question, particularly ones that may have taken you a long time to produce and/or cost a lot of money. Wherever possible get at least one other opinion about the work you're putting in your book. Be careful about where these opinions come from, what you need is someone who knows the market, ideally knows you a little and isn't afraid of being honest. Having someone like this look over your work can be quite painful, but is far more worthwhile than having a few mates go through it, declare it "cool" and then wonder why you never seem to get any work from it.

I was very lucky 5 years ago, as I took my "end of assisting" portfolio to be looked over by a friend of mine who directed commercials and had been an art director in advertising for 20+ years. He verbally destroyed all but one or two of my images, which left me feeling a little fragile (small understatement). However, out of that fragility came the determination to shoot lots of new stuff at a much higher quality, and within 6 months I was starting to get much more regular commercial work from my portfolio.

Anecdotal Evidence.

My Portfolio, as it was in 1995. Can you tell it was printed in a toilet?


I suspect I've told this story before, but it's so important that I feel no shame in repeating it. When I was 17 and just about to go for an interview at Blackpool College I spent a day on work experience with a local commercial photographer. At that time in my career he was by far the most financially successful photographer I'd encountered - he had his own E6 line, a large converted barn that served as a studio and office, large format cameras and tons of lighting. He made most of his living doing product and pack shots, and whilst I knew this wasn't where I was heading, I felt the experience would still be worthwhile. I took along the portfolio I had just slaved over, and which I would be taking to Blackpool in a few days. By way of explanation this portfolio was all hand printed, in my parent's outside loo, all in 35mm black and white and blown up to 16x12". I'd only been able to afford 10 sheets of paper, so for the 8 final images I had to be very careful indeed, plus to get images that big from my cheap enlarger I had to reverse the column and print onto a home-made cardboard easel on the floor.

As he was looking through my book I was making all sorts of excuses for the images, apologising for quality, grain, cleanliness and so on, mostly based on the reasons given above. By about the 5th shot he turned to me and simply said: "If this isn't the very best you're capable of doing, why are you showing me it? People are going to remember you for the shit images more than the good ones, and if that means only putting 3 pictures in, so be it."

I don't feel I need to add anything to his statement!

Other Posts: What and Why?, A Book or Body of Work, Presentation, Making Appointments, Portfolio Meetings, Summary

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Portfolios - What and Why


It's my portfolio - now there's an image to draw you into reading this post!


Even in this high-tech, information superhighway, digitised, sci-fi, skinny latte, post-modern, post-impressionist, post-everything world there's still a very important place within photography for the distinctly old-school portfolio. There's very little here that will be news to experienced photographers, as without making good use of their portfolio they're unlikely to have lasted long in the commercial world. However for people just starting out, or those whose only real experience of showing their work off is is via flickr and other websites, read on.

What is a Portfolio?

To many readers of this piece the above question is a bit daft - most graduates of colleges, or practising professionals will not only know what a portfolio is, but will almost certainly have one. However, there are a growing number of photographers who have been brought up in the digital age who probably don't see the need for a physical portfolio, and I'm going to try and both explain and promote it's use within commercial photography, as well as give some advice on how best to use it once you've got one. A portfolio in the context of these posts consists of a collection of your very best work in a physical form that can be viewed directly (i.e. not on disk or online) so it'll be either prints or transparencies, in a variety of forms, either as a loose-leaf folio, a bound book, or a set of interchangeable pages in an album format. I'll be discussing the use of other mediums, such as websites in a future series of posts - there's already enough to be going on with here!

Why?

The most important aspect of a physical portfolio lies not so much in the pictures themselves as in the fact that to view it an Art Director will pretty much always have to meet you in person, and this can have as much influence as the work itself. I will go into this aspect in greater depth in a later post, but for now it's sufficient to say that in many areas of commercial photography (advertising/editorial/fashion and so on) your personality can be as important as your work, and you should never miss an opportunity to meet clients face to face and have a good natter.

A website is still an essential marketing tool for photographers, and don't think I'm overlooking them. In my experience though, the website is rarely the first port of call for commercial clients, although it does happen from time to time. Where it functions best is as somewhere to refer people to when you can't meet them face to face, as well as being an "always on" way of displaying your work. Plus, due to the ease with which you can separate out types of work into galleries, it allows you to show your full range, rather than the narrower choice you'll usually show to a potential client in your physical portfolio.

A spread from my portfolio.

Always Ready.

One thing I learnt the hard way during my years as an assistant is that it's important to always have a portfolio, and have it available to show somebody at relatively short notice. In an informal industry like ours there are countless times when you'll encounter potential clients, many of whom will express an interest in seeing your work. For most of my 3 years assisting I didn't show anyone my portfolio, though I was often asked to, and must have missed out on a very large number of chances to get photographic work. For a large portion of this time, my best work was simply not assembled in a way that I could present to anyone, and due to my lack of confidence in the images, it never really got collated and presented properly either.

Partly this was because the tests I was shooting were not well planned or thought through, and as such the results were not up to the standards I wanted, partly it was because I wasn't very sure of where I wanted to go with my work, and partly it was because I spent very little money on the basic aspects of presentation (finished prints, actual portfolios and so on.) Suffice to say that I would advise anyone; most particularly assistants who are trying to make it as photographers, to always have some of their work ready to show a client, even if it be only a few pieces. As I'll detail later on, the actual meeting can be more important than the photos themselves.

A quick note on definitions, I will use the terms "portfolio" and "book" almost interchangeably within these posts. In practice there's really not much to separate them, though "book" tends to be a bit more of a fashion term, and has slightly more creative connotations. As far as I'm concerned the main difference is that the portfolio is the physical collection of work that you take out to show clients, and the book is a little more esoteric and represents your "body" of work. I'll go into much more detail about the "book" in a later section, but for now excuse me if I use the terms in place of each other. Like wise, rather than get confused between Art Director, Picture Editor, Art Editor, and Creative Director I may often refer to them universally as commissioners. Not because they answer a red phone in Batman, but because they all commission work. Clever that.

Other Posts: What to Include/What to Leave Out, A Book or Body of Work, Presentation, Making Appointments, Portfolio Meetings, Summary

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22/10/07

Definitions of/Introduction to Photographic Assisting

A very, very old polaroid of me in my assisting days. On a Sunday. With a hangover.

Unless you happen to be either phenomenally talented and/or well connected, working as an assistant photographer offers the best way into a career as a full-blown commercial photographer in your own right. The term "assistant" or "assistant photographer" can cover a multitude of sins, with the job description ranging from a glorified answer machine and dogsbody, to a highly specialised technical and sometimes creative consultant.

The job description of a photographer's assistant can actually be summed up in one sentence, which makes a change on this site! The job of a photographer's assistant is to allow the photographer to focus all their energies exclusively on taking the photograph. Within that simple phrase lurks all the complexities hinted at above!


Definitions:

There are three main types of photographic assistant, full-time, freelance and studio. A full-time assistant works for just one photographer, a freelance for any number, though they will usually have a steady client base of 5-6 on whom they can depend on for regular work, and a studio assistant works full-time for a hire studio. The most obvious differences are in terms of income and types of work. Both full-time and studio assistants can expect a regular salary, and are likely to be working almost every day of the working week, and often weekends and evenings. Different photographers and studios will obviously have wildly varying rates, some may go so far as to offer paid holiday, whilst many will pay a bare subsistence wage. By contrast a freelance assistant has no guaranteed income whatsoever, but usually commands a much higher day rate than the other two.

Full time assisting

A full-time assistant, as the name implies, will be involved continually in the process of running one photographers' business, and will almost certainly end up doing more than simply camera assisting, though this will be a very large portion of their job. They can sometimes be expected to run the office, take calls, book in hire equipment, studios, locations, models, liase with clients and agencies, maintain equipment, keep premises clean and tidy, and basically look after the business whilst the photographer concentrates on the job of taking photographs. The hours can be very long, and, since there is no photographic "union" the notion of overtime is something of a grey area.

The advantage to full-time work is that you get a much better idea than other assistants do as to how a photographic business is run, you can usually build up a good relationship with the photographer's own clients - which can occasionally lead to small commissions, you can rely on a certain amount of money every month, and it's not uncommon to get use of the photographers equipment and premises for your own use when business is quiet. On the downside the wages can often be low, the hours inhuman, and being tied to one photographer means that if you go on to become a freelance assistant, you may lack the breadth of experience necessary for dealing with other photographers.

Studio Assistants.

A studio assistant will be resident in one hire studio, some of which employ up to 6 or 7. Once again you can expect a regular wage, although it is not likely to be very high. The nature of the work in studios is often more mundane than the other two disciplines, as a great deal of your time will be taken up with basic studio maintenance such as cleaning and repainting. You will be expected to know how to operate and sometimes maintain the studios lighting and camera equipment, as well as usually clearing up after the photographers have left the studio. Long hours are also likely, though they are usually covered in an overtime scheme, since any extra use of the studio will incur a charge, a portion of which is usually the assistants wage. You may well be expected to open up first thing in the morning, and close up last thing at night.

At first glance studio assisting may not seem like a very attractive option, particularly if you've just spent 3 years studying photography at degree level, but on closer inspection all sorts of opportunities appear. Firstly you have the ability to watch lots of different photographers at work, many of whom you'd probably never get the chance to see again. Now it may not be feasible to stand around at the back of the studio whilst they're shooting (although it can sometimes happen!) but you should still be able to glean enough information about working methods to be able to build up a store of useful approaches for yourself. Secondly, the studios will not always be in use, and most studios will let their staff use them for free at weekends for example, for testing or other purposes, and this can be a very good way to build up work for your portfolio.

Freelance Assistants.


Duncan Nicholls - freelance assistant, and in no way camp. Ohh no, matron.

A freelance assistant is obviously much more independent than the other two, and conversely has no regular income to fall back on. The job description of a freelance is by necessity very broad, and also varies immensely from photographer to photographer. In my time I worked for people for whom I was nothing more than a tea boy and answer machine, right up to elaborate studio set-ups where I did everything short of actually pressing the shutter, as well as many places in between. Perhaps the main similarity between the other two is that you can expect the hours to be long - you should also be prepared to work weekends, and don't be too alarmed if you have to get up very early some days (and I do mean early).

With most photographers you will simply be hired on a day by day basis, usually only on days when they're shooting, but occasionally your presence may be required on pre or post-production days. A knowledge of a wide range of equipment is essential, as you may be handed a "hot potato" and asked to load/fix/unjam or fit something to it. Not many photographers will be happy to take time out of their busy shooting schedule to show you how to operate their cameras or lighting. Likewise it is very important to have an underlying knowledge of lighting set-ups, or more particularly, how you can get away with using less or lower powered lighting to reproduce something that was shot with 3 times the budget! You will almost certainly be responsible for film, if it's still being used, in some cases from buying it through to collecting the processed images from the lab, with all the stages in between covered as well. Many photographers will expect you to be in charge of exposure, and ensuring that things remain consistent from shot to shot. Some photographers will also expect you to have a decent knowledge of workflow, so training on Lightroom or Capture One is a very good idea.

You may find yourself painting a set, or handling animals that have been brought in for a shoot, and you will make many, many cups of tea. You will be expected to know where all the labs, hire companies and suppliers are, and how to get to them in a hurry. A great number of these technical tasks are shared by a full-time assistant, the difference being that rather than simply learning how one photographer does things, you'll need to deal with a number of different approaches. Over time you will develop a regular client base of photographers whom you'll work for time and again, as well as some who you may only meet on one occasion, perhaps because their regular assistant is unavailable. As a guide, out of the roughly 30 photographers that I assisted over 3 1/2 years, approximately a third were for only a couple of days, another third were for a total of perhaps a couple of weeks across that time, and the last third were my regulars, who between them accounted for the lions' share of work, in some cases over the entire 3 1/2 year period.


Pierre Maelzer, Freelance assistant, behaving like a gent by not ogling the model.

Clearly freelancing offers the best breadth of experience, and many would argue that it provides the best base to moving on to becoming an independent photographer, not least of which because it accustoms you to the notion of an irregular supply of work. The downside is not only the lack of a regular dependable income, but also the fact that depending on circumstances, you may not get much of an insight into the business side of things, as this is often dealt with on days when the photographer is not shooting. On a more positive note, you will still get a very good insight into the actual mechanics of how shoots are run, on both a technical and personnel level, since you will often be working as part of a larger team incorporating stylists, hair and make-up, clients, art directors, set builders, models and so on. It is also possible to use a photographers equipment or premises for personal or test work, and you may find that relationships you have built with fashion stylists or hair and make-up artists bear fruit in a similar way.

One last point - full-time positions are actually very rare, as only a minority of photographers choose to/can afford to keep someone employed full time. Likewise, every time a studio assisting job is advertised it tends to be deluged with applications in a very short space of time. Generally speaking the majority of assistants are freelance, and these days it's not unheard of for them to keep up part time jobs as well as their main career, just to help pay the bills.

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12/10/07

Some thoughts on fees.

The other day I was having "debate" with a client of mine about my fee. He was moaning that a few hundred quid seemed like quite a lot of money for what was effectively a half day shoot. At the time I argued my case with all the old, well-rehearsed arguments, but not long afterwards it set me thinking about what my "fee" as opposed to any expenses I bill for, represents, and I came up with this shortlist:
  1. The time I spend taking the photographs, during which I am exclusively at their disposal, and obviously can't earn money from anyone else. Time taken can be a bit of a circular argument, as clients will often hit you with the line "it'll only take you half an hour". This may well be true, but on many occasions the ability to shoot something in half an hour is a considerable skill in itself, and should be reflected in the fee. I've had countless portrait shoots where I've had only 20 minutes with someone, but still managed to get everything the client wanted - cover, inside features shots, informal shots etc. If the client's got what they wanted, why should they care if it took me 20 minutes or 4 hours? This time factor also includes an unspecified amount of pre and post production work, not to mention digital workflow.
  2. All my years of experience - for me this is normally manifested as confidence in my abilities and the fact that I don't panic when things go tits up, but it spreads into a host of other areas.
  3. My technical expertise, the fact that I can solve a wide range of technical problems and thereby present a wide range of possible options and approaches to a shoot rather than being a one trick pony.
  4. All my professional camera/lighting and computer equipment. Currently I think this adds up to about 18 grand, and the money for it has got to come from somewhere. Plus there's the fact that if you charge professional fees you're expected to be using professional equipment. I also include in this section all the annual costs associated with this, such as Insurance and depreciation.
  5. My travelling time. It's very rare for me to bill for travelling time as an extension of my fee, and I've even been known to allow an overnight stay to be swallowed by my normal day rate.
  6. My creativity, imagination and all the ideas I can bring to a shoot - all that stuff that makes me "me" and not the same as the next photographer.
  7. The final usage the images are put to. The area of usage is a whole vast article in it's own right, but not enough people on the client side seem to understand that if they want to use an image for "all uses" it's going to cost them accordingly.
  8. My professionalism - by which I mean everything from taking the first phone call to delivering the final job. Business stationary, office equipment, internet services etc, all cost money and have to be paid for. Likewise my backup/archiving infrastructure needs to be paid for - clients take it for granted that if they lose their own disks I will have backups, but building such a system takes time and money.
  9. Running my car. I got into another "debate" recently about billing for "mileage" rather than just handing in receipts for petrol. I shouldn't even need to explain that cars don't just consume petrol, but need taxing, insuring, servicing, MOT-ing, and paying for in the first place. Plus I've got a set of very expensive furry dice.
Now, many of you will have spotted that at no point do I mention my fee being used to pay my mortgage, buy food, go out on the piss, pay for my mistress/drug habit/thai bride and so on. The list is by no means exhaustive, but next time a client is squeezing you, feel free to pull anyone of these from the list and throw it gently in their face. Gently, mind you.

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29/06/07

Some Thoughts on Flying with Camera Gear

I've been meaning to write this piece for some time, and it seems to be one of the things I get the most emails about - besides the catch-all question "how do I get to be a photographer?"

These days I fly with my gear on average once every 6 weeks, and even though I've got quite practiced at it, it can still be a complicated and stressful operation. Generally I'm flying within Europe and the UK, so some of my advice might be irrelevant to the US or other places, and as with any other advice I give out, don't take it as gospel - check before you go - your mileage may vary.


Before the Flight:

1. Do some basic research on the place you're going to.

Will you need to get a carnet? (defined below) What voltage electricity supply do they have, and what sort of plug sockets? Will there be mobile phone coverage/internet access? Do you need to get any jabs? Is it even safe to visit? Are there going to be situations where camera gear will need special attention/preparation (such as; tropical forests, deserts, polar conditions, particularly dangerous cities)? Useful Links: Foreign and Commonwealth Office, US State Dept, The Association of Photographers, Lonely Planet.

2. Research your airline.

How much luggage (weight) do they allow, both in the hold and in the cabin? If traveling with others, is it possible to spread your gear amongst your companions (if you do choose to do this, don't do it in front of the check in desk or security personnel)? Check any restrictions regarding certain equipment (batteries in particular). Find out what size luggage they allow in the cabin - check this again just before you fly, just because you flew with something last week doesn't mean you can now, the rules can change very quickly. Watch out for small print, some airlines will allow you to pay for extra baggage, but not the extra weight, so when you turn up with 3 cases thinking everything will be fine, you get stung for quite a lot of excess baggage. In some cases it can be very worthwhile offering a credit in the magazine (if applicable) in return for a waiver of excess baggage charges - try and get hold of the press office and arrange this. Buy a set of bathroom scales and weigh your cases before you go - it won't be any use in an argument with the check-in staff, but at least you'll be forewarned if you're going to be several kilos overweight. For some other advice on this subject (though it was written in 2003) click here

3. Make sure all your documents are up to date.

Most obviously your passport, but also, do you require a specific visa? Do you need any other permits for the shoot such as carnets or letters from a representative in the country? A carnet is basically a document that customs use to ensure you're not importing a load of gear with the intention of selling it and not coughing up the tax, basically a very official equipment list. You can check the list of countries which require a carnet here (link goes to main page - in the top menue pick "going global", then "Export Documents - ATA Carnet"). Generally speaking (1 camera bag - not looking terribly conspicuous) you could get away without using a carnet, but as soon as you start to add any more gear it would be very wise indeed to get one sorted. If your stuff gets impounded at customs it's going to be very difficult to shoot. Even in a country that doesn't require a carnet it's still quite sensible to fly with a printed list of all your gear, firstly in case you do get stopped by customs it can help to reassure them that you didn't just pick the gear up, and also should anything catastrophic happen you've got a list to hand when you call your insurers. Of course, you've checked that your gear is still insured when it travels out of the country, and if required you've notified your insurance company.

Much the same goes for Visas as for carnets - some countries require them (the US for example), and if you look insignificant enough you may be able to pass unnoticed, but is it worth the risk?


Packing the Gear

4. Make sure you could shoot the job in a "worst case" scenario.

If your luggage in the hold goes missing, could you still shoot the job (at least on a basic level) with the gear in your hand-baggage? I always travel with my main body, standard zoom, laptop, flash, memory cards, power cables, spare batteries, adapters and so forth in my hand baggage, for obvious reasons. Out of the 2, your hold-luggage it far more likely to go wandering/get damaged, and whilst you'd rather shoot the job with everything you could want, you have a responsibility to your client to get the job done, and part of this means planning for contingencies.

5. Nothing breakable goes in a soft case in the hold.

The only thing to go in a soft case in the hold of the aircraft should be your clothes. If you watch baggage handlers work you'll see that they don't handle luggage gingerly, or with tender loving care. Anything sensitive/fragile/important should be correctly (i.e. well cushioned) packed in a hard case - one that's solid enough for you to stand on. I can highly recommend Peli and LowePro. Don't waste your time putting "Fragile" on the side of your cases - it doesn't make a blind bit of difference - just pack the stuff well enough that you could kick it about the place and everything will still be intact afterwards. It can be a trifle annoying having to pack things for flight, versus the convenience of packing them for easy access when you get to the shoot, but better that they arrive intact and take a little longer to prep when on location, than they don't arrive at all.

6. Certain items need special attention.

Starting with the obvious - take your leatherman/penknife/machete out of your pocket/camera bag and place it in your hold luggage. Now take care to either remove the batteries from or tape over the switches of, anything that can transmit a radio signal (walkie talkies, radio triggers etc). If you feel the need, remove the batteries from other things as well - particularly on long-haul flights where they may be able to drain right down if left on. Pack all the chargers you think you'll need, then some others as well, plus at least a couple of plug adapters - the new "multi" ones are genius, as you can pretty much guarantee they'll work anywhere.

As a rough guide to packing for gear, have a look at this:



At the Airport.

7. Check all necessary travel documents just before you leave, then check them again.

Passports, booking confirmation emails, parking details/directions or train timetables/tickets - all should be ready, and never very far from your person. Make sure you arrive at the airport early - for obvious reasons, besides, they're such lovely places to hang around in!
8. Be prepared for slightly more hassle from Airport personnel than when you fly off on holiday.

As you approach the check-in desk, do your very best to look as if the shoulder bag you're carrying on to the plane with all your cameras on doesn't actually weigh 15KG, unless you want them to ask you to put it all in the hold. The restrictions on size/weight of hand-luggage are not only different for every airline, and subject to frequent changes, but they seem to be open to individual interpretation. A couple of years ago I flew with exactly the same rucsac 2 weeks apart - the first time no-one batted an eyelid, but the second time I was forced to put the rucsac in the hold and carry my cameras round my neck and in my hands. I can recommend using the automated check-in desks wherever they area available to help avoid this. And remember to answer the stupid anodyne questions of "did you pack this yourself, and did you put any bombs in it?" with patience, and don't bother cracking any jokes.

Next you'll come to the joys of getting through security. It's impossible for me to offer concrete guidelines here, as the restrictions change almost daily - just remember to check right before you leave. I get my hand luggage properly searched (as in, emptied out, checked for explosives and so forth) about a third of the time I fly, and almost always at the UK end, rather than on the way back.

Once through security, don't be completely stunned if you hear your name called over the PA - I've had to go down to the baggage area more than once to reassure people that the batteries/lighting stands etc were harmless. This is where your AoP press pass, and your printed list of gear/carnet may be handy.



On the Return trip.

(obviously all the packing/before the airport/at the airport stuff applies again, but I won't bother repeating it)

9. Play the percentages.

It sounds utterly paranoid, but in the days when I used to fly off to foreign countries as an assistant and shoot catalogues, we would split the film on the return journey. Say we'd shot roughly 2 rolls of each "image" we'd split them up so that I was carrying all the "A" rolls and the photographer was holding all the "B" rolls. This way if one of us got abducted by aliens/arrested for being drunk and disorderly then the job would still get home OK. In the digital age this is very easy to do - for example you could give all your memory cards/burnt disks to a colleague/assistant whilst you carry the laptop (which still has all the images on), or any combination that suits you.

10. Never fly with Ryanair.

Needs no explaining, and it's only my opinion, but just take my word for it.

Update - 16/10/07

Just found an article on the Telegraph site that lists all the current hand luggage rules for various airlines. Although obviously these can change at the last minute, it's a very good place to start, plus it has links to each airline's website, so you'll be able to make last minute checks.

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