The Loneliness of the Long Distance Photographer

British Military Fitness - Long distance photography
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.  There’s also a lot of mileage to be covered, hence the “Long Distance” bit!

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.

Golf

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.

Katie Dawkins
Katie Dawkins

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.

Jon Hamer - long distance photography
Jon Hamer

 

Kettlebells
Kettlebells

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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