FAQ's - Me & My Photography
Your questions answered
Why are you a professional photographer?
Well, not because I expect to become a millionaire! Truthfully, I’ve always had a creative instinct and since my childhood holidays to the Dales and Lake District I’ve been captivated by the experience of a landscape and, now, a compelling need to find a way to distil this into a beautiful photograph.
Being an outdoors type I served for two amazing years in the Royal Marines but after a while I’d had enough of being deprived of sleep and suffering hypothermia on Dartmoor so I went back to Uni to study law. I felt I needed a career while I learnt my photography skills and invested the substantial sums of money it takes to acquire professional equipment. Predictably though, the law didn’t satisfy me either and I didn’t spend a single day wishing I wasn’t out running my own photography business. Finally, at the age of 31 I turned pro and I have never been happier with my job.
I need advice on what kit to buy; what do you use for your wedding, commercial and landscape work?
I'm quite happy to list my gear but it's a little useless without seeing what you can achieve with this kit so do also have a look at my blog for reviews of the kit I use (there's also a specific reader question answering what you can buy on a budget here) and do check out the Learning Lounge for details of how I use my kit to get particular shots. You’ll learn more from this than simply reading a simple list of gear.
What I will tell you first is the things I think you need to think about to get excellent photographs either at a wedding, on a commercial job or out in the landscape because the basics are the same across the board:
First you need a tripod. Don’t skimp on this or the head, it’s the most important investment you can make and the foundation of all good photography, especially outdoor work but often also studio work, from portraiture to fashion photography. My tripod and head combination cost over a grand and it’s the best grand I spent because it frees me to get on with taking the pictures I see. Using a tripod also instils a disciplined, methodical working process that means your creative output can be of the highest quality.
Next you need lenses. Note we haven’t even thought about a camera yet. Good lenses are the hallmark of good pictures. You can have the best body in the world (I don’t mean a six pack, I mean a camera body) but with a cheap kit lens your creativity will be severely limited and your pictures will lack sharpness and quality. Buy the best lenses on the market. This means money but it's money well spent as the lenses will last and last' they'll be made with robust materials and excellent glass with flare reducing qualities. If you’re buying primes, consider getting ones with perspective control facilities. If you’re buying telephotos, get ones with image stabilisation. Yes, they all cost a small fortune but it’s not an issue I will compromise on. My agrument is that good lenses will last years, perhaps forever, but camera bodies date, wear and need replacing every so often but with good glass, whatever new body you acquire your lens will snap satraight on and be fit for purpose.
Now we can think about camera bodies. Entry level slr’s have nearly all the same functionality of even the most expensive top end models so don’t be put off by them while you learn and if you’re on a budget. You're better off investing in the tripod and lenses than a top body at the outset; technology moves fast in the photography world and you’ll soon find an upgraded model is out for all the different price brackets. This means you can always pick up what used to be the bees knees in camera bodies fairly cheaply second hand. For the record, I use only new bodies and I always have two-one for back up. I can't afford a failure on a job I'm being paid for and I must minimise the chance of any kit letting me down. I use canon gear but I know Nikon cameras have some advantages that Canon’s don’t. It works both ways and you have to pick one and just accept there will always be some annoying limitations, even on the top models, that 'the other lot have'. For more discussion on which camera to buy read my blog post here.
If you want to do portraiture and use flash lighting, you’ll need extra lighting gear. A top end flash for your camera is a must and for real creative freedom some portable studio lighting kit that you can take into the field is essential. Don't be afraid to play with a good flash, a light stand, shoot through brolly and wireless trigger. You can achieve a lot with just this simple set up and Strobist.com is a marvellous blog from a pro photographer to help you create some amazing work with this simple set up. I also recommend The Hotshoe Diaries by Joe McNally. Very inspiring.
If you’ve got kit that reflects the above you’re pretty much decked out with all the gear you need. Some other stuff to think about would be:
a. a spirit level for your camera’s flash hot shoe-say goodbye to wonky horizons for ever.
b. A good bag to carry it all in.
c. Software (like Adobe Photoshop or Lightroom) and a Mac to process your images on. I'm sure a PC would also suffice but I find you need to hunt around for a spec rather than simply 'cliock n buy' as you can with a Mac.
d. Hard drives to store all your precious images on, plus more for back up, both at home and in the field.
e. Graduated Neutral Density filters and a polariser; a great filter for producing punchy, saturated colours in the sky. Impossible to mimick properly in post production without considerable time and effort.
f. Lens cleaning cloths, brushes and blowers.
I carry two EOS 5DMKIII cameras. My lenses are: a 16-35mm f4, 24-70mm f4, 70-200mm f2.8 IS, 2x teleconverter, Sigma 150mm f2.8 macro, Sigma 15mm Fisheye, 17mm TSE and a 2 x 580 EXII flashes and the Safari flash system from Lencarta. I also have various brollies, stands and light modifiers to suit the shot at hand. I fire my flashes wirelessly (I hate cables running everywhere) with the Elinchrom Skyport system and I have two sets in case one fails. One fell apart during a shoot and it scared the hell out of me, so glad for the back up. I also have enough batteries for my camera and flash guns to light Oxford Circus at Christmas. With a digital camera system many of my old Lee filters were sold for a song on Ebay. All that is left is the excellent Lee filter system to hold their graduated neutral densities, a polariser and a 10 stop ND filter.
Ultimately, apart from children, Formula 1 and super yachts, there’s few things more expensive in life than photography. You’ll always want/need more kit; from more megapixels to better computers to the latest version of Photoshop. Just don’t lose sight of the fact that none of this produces good photographs, only you and your creative mind does, and the kit is nothing more than the means to that end.
Where do you stand on digital manipulation or ‘Photoshopping’?
Generally, I don’t do anything on my computer, or ‘digital darkroom’, that wouldn’t have been done in the days of dark rooms and wet printing. Adding contrast, saturation, vibrance, enhancing greens in trees or skin tones, even Masking, has always been part of the photography 'processing' required from taking a slide or negative through to a final print. Without it we’d have a world full of pretty yucky pictures!
With film, we’d choose different types (remeber Agfa and Fuji Velvia?) to make skin tones look nicer or to add punchy colours to our landscapes. There would also be all sorts of clever stuff when the film was processed by the lab and then we’d do more clever stuff in the dark room to make things look good. Now I just do it in computer and exercise precise control over what is done to my photographs. Same end, different means, that's all.
I hate a lot of HDR images-so many photographs that appear now look fake, or photoshopped, because they are. They are not accurate representations of what was seen by the eye. This I avoid like the plague. I’ve no problem removing a blurry bird in my skies or ugly tin can from my foregrounds but I can’t see the point in creating something that simply wasn’t there or something that the eye couldn't 'see'.
Like a lot of pro’s, I do use the available technology to my advantage to produce my photographs and this is often negatively interpreted as meaning ‘manipulation’. It isn’t, no more than anything is manipulation when one person says you should photograph the Eiffel Tower like this and another says you should do it like that. We all see things differently and impose our view of things. When we produce a photograph it's because it’s your personal view, your 'manipulation' of what you have seen, where you’ve chosen to include certain things and exclude others from your photograph. That is all I am doing, providing my personal interpretation of the subjects I photograph, from composition choice through to colour corrections right down to the paper choice I print onto.
Ultimately, photography is an art form and licence should be allowed to a photographer in how a scene is represented to reflect the subjective nature of art. Those that kick every image as being 'not real' or 'photoshopped' are unhelpful in the debate because paintings are widely appreciated and accepted as subjctive, artisitc impresions of what the artist saw and how he/she interpreted it. Why do we treat photographs differently? Why should a photograph somehow be burdened with some higher responsibility for 'faithfulness' and 'truth'. Why should Photoshop be used as some general, all encompassing criticism that undermines the value and credibility of all digital photographs? I believe landscape photography done from a personal, crerative origin should be accepted and celebrated as an artistic impression of a scene and enjoyed on that basis. Not derided and discredited due to the means of it's production.
What’s your favourite ever photograph?
My photograph of the Second Severn Crossing was a rare combination of stunning light and weather conditions. It’s won me a number of prizes and I’m very proud of it. I also consider my shot of Peveril Castle at dawn a favourite because it’s such a rare display of perfect dawn light on a stunning subject. I also find the combination of viewpoint, light and that elusive, perfect and yet totaly random/unplanned position of a complete stranger in the timage in my shot of Santorini immensley satisfying and a sheer thrill to capture as the moment happened in such a brief moment as all the stars aligned for one perfect moment.
As for my favourite, well, like a lot of art, I think it depends on the moment you're in. Your mood, what you want to see for enjoyment which varies from day to day. In this sense I don't have any one favourite and I'm not sure if I picked one as I write this now it would be the sme if I answered the question tomorrow.
What is probably more relevant to me is the places I've been and the experiences I've had through my photography which makes so many of my shots a personal favourite, more than just the image itself.
Have you got any advice for anyone else looking to turn pro?
In no particular order I’ve picked up various gems of advice from others from all walks of life as well as learning my own lessons:
a) Always take photographs of what inspires you, not what you think others will be inspired by. Then think about how you will sell them. To do otherwise strips the heart and soul out of what is an inherently creative and artistic endeavour which will only show through in your work.
b) My wonderful wife, Sarah, is a stickler for using only the best kit. She’s a fantastic Doctor and never compromises on quality in the tools she uses because those tools help her to do her job to the best of her ability. So, from your camera gear to the editing of your work, only deal with and be associated with the best. Just bite the bullet; buy it, learn to use it and then get on with the serious but fun business of creating exciting photographs.
c) My good friend James taught me to play poker. One particular lesson that sticks in my mind is this: ‘Laddo (his nickname for me), never fall in love with your own cards.’ It’s brilliant advice and has saved me considerable sums at the table. It’s also saved me considerable disappointment before the various editors I sell my work to. I never look at my work and think ‘It’s perfect, it's an unbeatable hand.’ As soon as you think your own pictures are the best in the world you set yourself up for a hard fall and anyway it’s completely self indulgent and delusional and the preserve of moldy old types that are more interested in their kit than taking decent photographs (we've al met one...). Always strive to improve and better your own and work and that of your peers. Never settle for what you’ve done, always strive for self improvement. That's not to say you shouldn't apreciate what you've done well and when you have got a good shot, just don't rest on your laurels is all I'm saying.
d) Never obsess about camera kit, computers or photoshop techniques. Do obsess about producing excellent, flawless, photographs instead. The highly regarded Charlie Waite once told me he had about what he considered to be 5 perfect images and that’s from a life time spent at the top of the profession. I think I've got one or two. So there's plenty of work to do!
e) My final year as a lawyer was spent working in house for a businessman in South London. He was a gem of a man to work for; self made, flamboyant and an extraordinarily clever, successful and wealthy individual. I owe him a lot for sitting down with me and teaching me the basic principles of business; the ins and outs of producing something, marketing it, selling it and then looking at the bigger picture (pun not intended) and how it could be expanded. Taking great photographs is actually the easy bit compared with selling them and running a small business is actually no ‘small’ undertaking. Getting genuine business experience in the commercial world first pays dividends when you finally set up on your tod and if you can get it from someone like my old boss (who could sell ice to Eskimos) the more the better.
f) Find photographer’s whose work you are inspired by and learn to study and deconstruct it. I spent a lot of my early twenties literally tracing in the footsteps of the photographer’s whose work inspired me. I went to locations all over the globe and found their locations, even their compositions. However, I wasn’t there to simply copy what they did, I was there to learn the process that led to them creating their photographs. I wanted to learn their mindset, how they must have found their locations, planned their images and produced them so brilliantly. Sometimes I’d actually get better light than they did and produce a better photograph, but, crucially, not an original one. Ultimately, you need to stop doing this when that feeling that you’re not really creating anything new creeps in and starts to frustrate you. Then it’s time to take what you’ve learnt and cut off this comfort blanket of following in your peers’ footsteps and strike out on your own. Then, when you start producing your own, truly original work, you’ll feel real pride and a sense that you are a creator of fresh, new work, produced under your own steam which stands on it’s own merits. It’s a great feeling.
g) Wedding photography is a business that succeeds not just on producing consistently good photographs but also being good around people. You need a flow of work and referrals and you wont get this without first producing the goods and second being a nice person to have around all day. Always be nice to people. You never know who you might be talking to (it could be someone in a position to offer you a big break). It costs nothing and is excellent PR.
h) Learn from the pros. These days it seems everyone is running workshops but I don’t see that many who produce work that inspires me or which I’d pay to go on. When I was learning my trade I chose to go abroad for a week with an established pro that I felt produced the level of quality that I aspired to. He taught me more in that week than I’d learnt in the previous year of reading magazines and the like. If you go on a workshop with the right frame of mind and the right person your photography will take a quantum leap forward. Don’t be a know it all or think you’ve got certain areas perfected-everything is always up for review and improvement (see c) above). Instead, be like a sponge, listen to very tit bit, watch them like a hawk, ask every question you can think of, listen to the answers given to others’ questions and try things outside your comfort zone.
i) Until you’re very rich and in demand, never turn down work you know you can competently do, even if it’s a break even exercise. Build contacts and network, get your work ‘out there’ and build relationships to gather business momentum.
j) Never accept work you can’t do an excellent job on. It will take years to build your name, yet minutes to kill it at the outset by cocking up a job you’re not experienced to handle. For example, I wouldn’t even try and do a wildlife commission-it’s a whole new discipline and skill set from travel and landscape work, which I am well versed in and good at.
k) Use your friends. If you’ve followed the advice in g) and been nice to people you’ll have plenty of pals and if, like me, they are all rather good at their respective jobs you’ll have a fantastic array of business advisors to draw upon. From accountants to marketing and advertising managers, to HR, financial planning and branding and project managers. They will all give you free advice (because you’re nice, remember) which others may be paying thousands for. They’ll also network for you passing you leads here and there from within their terribly high powered corporate circles.
There’s probably more but these are the main things that spring to mind. Come on one of my workshops if you want to find out more!