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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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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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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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.


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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"It's Great Being a Photographer!"

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

Ray Lowe, ex president of the BIPP, used to write a column in their monthly magazine which would describe a recent shoot he’d been on, or discuss the state of the industry generally. He would always end the piece with the same line: “It’s great being a photographer!” Whilst I didn’t always agree with Ray’s opinions, or those of the BIPP in general, I rather liked how he concluded with such a positive tone. This piece is perhaps a reflection of that, and an effort to balance what is perhaps either downbeat or very serious work that will be appearing elsewhere on the blog. I’ve presented it as a list, as that’s the way it fell out of my head – a subtitle would be: "8 great things about being a photographer". They’re not in order of precedence, as it would be almost impossible to prioritise.


I’m a bit of an odd one here, as I’m not overly enamoured by foreign travel, and would rather head into the north of England than jet off to somewhere hot (well, usually.) All the same photography has enabled me to travel to parts of the world I would never have seen otherwise, and actually paid me to do so. Currently the “exotic” list stands at Borneo, Brazil, Egypt, Dubai, and Jamaica, with most of Europe thrown in for good measure. As an added bonus I often get to see these places from an angle that the average tourist can’t, as I’m permitted access to other places, people and things which may be out of their reach. Plus I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that photographing bikini clad models on a beach in Brazil isn’t quite a cool way to spend the day.

Off the top of my head one of my favourites has to be a trip to Scotland a couple of years ago – a great little portrait shoot of a blind extreme sportsman, and with lots of time to spare before catching my flight back I stopped for lunch alongside the river Tay. Sitting there, in a beautiful beech wood, with Buzzards wheeling above me, I was struck by the thought that I was actually getting paid to do this! I started laughing rather uncontrollably, so if you were driving along the A93 and you saw an idiot giggling away one lunchtime on his own, don’t be alarmed.

Dean Dunbar - Blind Extreme Sportsman

Variety of Work

I used to meet up with mates on Friday or Saturday night, most of whom have “normal” jobs, and we’d chat about the usual stuff. My favourite bit was when politely asked “what have you been up to this week?” Their response was usually relatively mundane, a couple of meetings, down the pub a bit, went to the cinema etc. My response would be something like; well, Monday was lingerie models in the studio, Tuesday I was in Oxford shooting Sir Roger Bannister on the track where he broke the four-minute mile, Wednesday was a corporate shoot in the city, Thursday I was “off” and Friday was the annual homeless football league finals. My mates would usually come back with something along the lines of “and they’re paying you for all that – you bastard?”

The fact that one day can be vastly different from the next more than makes up for the fact that the money can sometimes be crap, the work can come and go dramatically, and it can take months to get paid. Balance this against the fact that in a “normal” job you get a regular salary, some paid holiday, and possibly a pension and/or healthcare. As always, nothing in life is perfect and easy to achieve, else we’d all be doing it.

Pete Astles turning somersaults in his canoe. Nutter.

Interesting People.

The range of colourful characters I’ve encountered doing this job is simply vast. I can happily say that I encounter far more inspiring people than I do arseholes, and more people who leave me feeling enthused about life than those who leave me feeling depressed. I’ve met and photographed everyone from A-List celebrities, to strange bald men on council estates in Manchester, visually impaired artists, champion athletes, authors, broadcasters, business magnates, actors, directors, chefs, soldiers, gymnasts, lavatory cleaners(!), politicians, gamblers, beautiful models, surgeons, musicians, the list goes on. Not only does this further augment the “variety” element of the job, but it leads to some very interesting situations (see above).

Some of the time it’s great to try and catch people candidly and unawares, in an attempt to get a “natural” shot of them, and sometimes it’s great to make the whole thing a big performance, and hire a studio, assistants, hair and make-up, styling etc. I’ve encountered very few people who really don’t want to be photographed, though I wish I’d had a pound every time I’d heard the line “oh, I’m not really very good in front of the camera, you should find someone more attractive” or variation thereof. Most people seem to enjoy it, and of course I find that that enjoyment further helps the shoot as they tend to be more relaxed.

I always make a point of talking to people a lot, as not only do I find that by listening to people you can often coerce them into situations they would otherwise avoid, thereby making a better shot, but also for the wealth of information they can impart. It’s my experience that interesting people are wherever you find them, and I’ve learnt as much from a bank clerk as I have from an ex-pilot and so on. I well remember a few years back, I seemed to be going through a phase of photographing ex-servicemen, including 1 particularly famous veteran of the SAS. What all these old soldiers had in common was that they all loved a war story, and would tell you lots of gory details, only to stop 2/3 of the way through and say something along the lines of “sorry I can’t tell you how that one ends – I’m still bound by the official secrets act!” How very frustrating! I often find that subjects are more candid with photographers than they are with journalists, and since in quite a lot of situations the journalists are back in the office it can lead to me noticing some interesting discrepancies when the story is published!

Money Making Potential

Definitely not my main motivation in the job, but there’s no denying that even for an editorial photographer (let alone a corporate/advertising one) the potential for making a good living is definitely there. At a couple of hundred quid per job things can get quite lucrative if you manage to have a busy week – half day shoots don’t take that long, and I’ve squeezed as many as 3 into a day before. On the rare occasions I’ve shot advertising work or similar, the fees are frankly absurd, and I know from my assisting days of photographers who have netted 5 figure sums for a days work. You have to balance all this against the fact that you may only shoot once on a particular week, or even month, and that your income will be very up and down. Granted if you want to be earning over 30 grand by the time you’re 25 you should head towards the city and get into banking (and you’ll be on about 50K by the time you’re 30), but as I’ve already mentioned, that’s not me.

From time to time I also get the pleasant surprise of stock work being sold, or an existing image/article being reproduced, and consequently end up getting sent a cheque for what feels like nothing. This isn’t strictly true of course, as in the case of stock work, not only did I take the stuff in the first place, but I will have spent ages retouching/keywording and sorting it out, but it still feels a bit like a gift. Similarly it’s very uplifting to be in the pub/out for a walk/on holiday etc to receive a call from the licensing department of a magazine company to be told that they’ve just sold your work on to another company, and is £500 OK?

Amusing Situations.

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

Time and again I have had to hide my face from my client/subject as I’ve been giggling uncontrollably, usually brought on by the simple thought “what the hell am I doing?”. Such thoughts usually occur when I’m hanging out of a tree on a golf course, sitting in the bow of an inflatable tearing across the Solent at 30 Knots, or when I’ve just persuaded a journalist to pose waist deep in a puddle because it will make the story that much more believable. In a way this is an extension of "variety", but I think deep down it’s an expression of what you want out of life, and I certainly like to have a story to tell at the end of the day. Just this week for example I've been following a journalist around on the South Bank, fully painted Silver in an attempt to scare passers-by and tourists, and the next day I had to shoot a "commuter race" between a cyclist, taxi, runner, skateboarder and inline skater from Waterloo to the West End. The former involved a lot of candid, voyeuristic shots, as well as some amusing set-ups, and the latter involved leaning out of a fast moving black cab with a long lens "riding shotgun". Beats a day in front of the computer anytime.

For me I think this trend started when I was very young, as mentioned in my intro, a portrait shoot is more enjoyable in my experience if it can be a little bit different, and it’s almost a guarantee of producing more striking results. Put it this way, would you like to be remembered as the photographer who turned up, produced a good result, and went away quietly, or as the bloke who turned up, produced a really memorable shot, which you achieved by turning off all the lights in the building and shooting from the branches of an outside tree? OK, maybe that’s just me.

I’d also be lying if I didn’t admit that I find photographing attractive women, particularly ones who aren’t wearing many clothes, very pleasant indeed. Does that make me a dirty old man – or simply in touch with my heterosexuality?

Bailey in the Kitchen

Using My Imagination/Creativity.

This is something that personally has only really come to the fore in the past 4 years, as I spent far too long tarring myself with the brush of “commercial whore” and felt like I was concentrating solely on getting the job done and making money. This is not to say that these days I turn up to a shoot with no preparation, dressed in oversize paratrooper trousers, ripped T-shirts and sporting a Hoxton fin, but that I have come to view “creativity” as a very good thing rather than a flouncy, namby-pamby obstacle to getting the job done.

This is closely tied in with interesting situations and variety of work in a sense, though at it’s root is the fact that working as a photographer permits you to use your creativity on a daily basis and allows you to live by the maxim of “you get out what you put in”. I can say with hand on heart that in the past few years since I started being more creative in my work, and approaching each job with an open rather than a closed mind, I’ve enjoyed myself a great deal more and found work that much more satisfying.

By creativity I don’t just mean in the artistic sense, but also the practical, problem solving aspect of the job. Realising some of the ideas I have, alongside the available personnel/equipment/location etc often calls for a great deal of ingenuity. Whether this manifests itself as rigging a light in a particularly difficult, hard to reach spot, or setting up an elaborate dolly system so that I can be moved alongside a running subject, it always adds an aspect of physical challenge and interest to a shoot. I know this sounds snobbish, but I suspect you don’t encounter quite the same problems working in an office.

The Feeling of Having Produced Something.

Celebrations after winning the Street League Cup Finals.

A little bit esoteric I know, but how many people in the modern world can honestly say they create something on a regular basis? I don’t for a minute compare the job of a photographer with something actually worthwhile like teaching, nursing or policing the streets, but at least I can hold something (or look at something) at the end of my day and honestly say “I made that”. Even though the novelty has worn off a little, I still get a thrill when I see my work in print, even if it’s to find out how the art director has ended up using it. This thrill was renewed 3 years ago when I scored my first magazine cover (and if you’d told me 9 years ago that the first cover I shot would be for a Golf magazine I would have laughed my arse off!) I’ve also had the pleasure of seeing my work on billboards and buses around London, and that can be very weird – to have people sitting in front of one of your shots that measures about 15 by 6 feet. Beats having a couple of prints in an exhibition in my experience.

On very rare occasions I’ve also witnessed my work actually affect people, which, given that I would hardly class myself a social documentary photographer, was quite something. Whenever this has happened it’s been a very personal matter, and is usually brought about because the subject of the photograph has since passed on, or that the moment captured in the photograph sums up the relationship between a couple. It certainly adds an extra dimension to my work if it has any emotional appeal, and it’s definitely not something I’m ashamed of.

Cool Toys.

Come on, we can be honest here, we like expensive black boxes that whirr and click, and go really fast. I can shamefully admit that I get a little glimmer of pride when I’m covering an event for a magazine and an amateur with a cheaper camera comes sidling up to me, glances at the badge on my camera, as well as the huge great bit of glass on the front, and goes “ooh, you’re a professional then”. Besides the cameras themselves there are all the surrounding bits, particularly studio equipment. On the last fashion shoot I shot, I was using Strobe lighting, which is antique British designed gear that gives out quite an unprecedented kick from a huge bank of oil capacitors. In total, although I’d turned the power right down there was still about 5kw of power coming out every time I pressed the shutter. Not only does it make a very satisfying explosion when it’s fired, but when I first encountered it 6 years ago, the cocky little idiot who showed me how it worked was demonstrating how NOT to use it and blew himself across the studio. He was intact, though with slightly injured pride, and I laughed so hard that milk came out of my nose.

I don’t get to have letters after my name, I don’t drive a fast car or have corner office, neither do I own any designer clothes, but I get to play with great big powerful lights, huge studios, and fun things like radio triggers. Plus, my camera will shoot at 8 frames a second, and frankly, that’s really cool. Girls love it – honest.

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

So there you go, a nice positive list, which hopefully I'll be adding to as time passes. One to dig up when I haven't been paid in months, clients are demanding more and more from me for less money and all my camera gear is in for repair.

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A Photographer's Reading List - Self-Help/Finance/Business.

Self-Help/Personal Growth.

I dislike the term "self help" as it implies we're a bit pathetic, and need an american style motivation tape to get us out of bed in the mornings. "Personal growth", I feel is much more appropriate, as we're all essentially OK, but a little direction here and there can make a world of difference. As my tutor from college used to put it, as we progress through life we can't hope to become completely different people, but we can hope to become better versions of ourselves. Maybe some of us need to spend time working on self-discipline, whilst others need to confront their fears about shooting creative work as opposed to just commercial. Either way, I feel that being embarrassed about reading such books is a little old-fashioned. Mind you, I still don't read them on the bus!

One important caveat I should add is that none of these books will change your life on their own. In many cases the problems/issues they are addressing are deep-seated personal habits, and in a similar way to giving up something like smoking, they won't change overnight. If you expect to simply read through each book like a novel, and then magically to be cured of your fear/lack of self-discipline/insert your problem here, you'll be disappointed. What these books will do is kind of guide your way for you, and provide you with tools and methods to lead a fuller life - it's up to you whether you use the tools or not.

"Art and Fear", by David Bayles and Ted Orland. A superb little tome (you'll finish it in a day or so.) Concerns itself with the inherent fears involved in producing work that is different, and how we deal with it. If you're trying to move your career on, or feel like your photography is stuck in a rut, start here.

"Feel the Fear and do it Anyway", by Susan Jeffers. Something of a classic this, and rightly so, as it deals with all the ares of your life where you may be held back by fear. We're not talking about the "swimming with sharks" kind of fear, but the ultimately irrational "can't pick up the phone and get new work" kind of fear. Highly recommended.

"The Artist's Way", by Julia Cameron. Similar to "Art and Fear" this is essential reading for those who feel they've strayed off the path a little bit. If, for example you were full of ideas and inspiration at college, and destined to be the next Nick Knight, and yet you currently find yourself shooting pack shots of shampoo bottles, then I'd recommend reading this book!

"The Luck Factor", by Richard Wiseman. OK, we're straying a bit into weirdo territory here - how on earth can anyone make themselves more lucky? All i can say is, read the book and find out - you won't know until you try.

"Think and Grow Rich" by Napoleon Hill. The original success manual, first written in 1937, and it probably inspired more people than all the rest put together. Essential reading really, if you can ignore the slightly materialistic approach it often takes, and his obsession with huge business magnates. If you read between the lines just a little a much better title would be "Think and become abundant" because essentially the methods he espouses can be applied to success/riches in the broadest sense, something that he only alludes to briefly. This link goes to the original text - apparently there's a whole heap of different versions out there, some of which differ enormously from this version.

Although not a book I feel I must mention a website at this point, Steve Pavlina.com. Steve is concerned with personal growth, and everything on his website is free, including about 6 hours of podcasts. The site covers a wide range, from quite basic stuff on how to get out bed earlier each morning, to stuff that most people will sniff at such as lucid dreaming and psychic experiences. However, given that you don't have to pay for any of it, what have you got to lose?

Business and Finance.

"The Elephant and the Flea" by Charles Handy. Some of this book may seem a little large scale for someone who runs a one-man business, but if you read it closely you'll find a superb analysis of how to make your way as a "Flea" in a world of "Elephants".

"My Mamiya made me a Million", by Keith Cogman. What can I say? This book, and this bloke's attitude towards photography and learning is one of the reasons this site exists. His approach is wonderfully accessible, he hides nothing from the reader about how a photographic business is run, and whilst some of the info may now be a little out of date, chapters such as "Meeting People and Caring" will never lose their relevance, and are applicable to every branch of professional photography.

"Beyond the Lens", By the Association of Photographers. Should be compulsory reading for any student of photography who is actually serious about making a living, and most photographers keep a copy by them for reference purposes. Includes information on copyright, licensing, codes of practice, contracts, working ethics, insurance, tax and financial matters, as well as an appendix with template forms for model releases, licences, invoices etc. It's also being continually updated. This link goes to the online version where you can buy one outright, or buy it chapter by chapter - how very clever.

"Financial Management for the Small Business", by Colin Barrow. Does exactly what it says on the tin, but in a very accessible and approachable way, given that most of us hide under the duvet when anyone mentions finance.

"Best Business Practices for Photographers", by John Harrington. John is a very successful commercial photographer over in America, and what this book does is detail all the nitty gritty bits that go into running a business as a photographer - something I'm having my own crack at with this blog. If you're working America this should be a compulsory purchase, and even if you're not all the sections about psychology, professional presentation, dealing with clients and so on are essential reading. For those of us outside the US the finance sections are a little irrelevant, but only because they are so specific and tax laws vary so much from country to country.

Intro, Monographs, Critical Theory, Technique.

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