Monday, July 20, 2009

So you want to be a Photographer?

About three or four times a week I am called upon to either dispense advice to an amateur photographer on how they can become a professional, or called on by a graduate to give them a job assisting or shadowing, or by an ‘A’ level student wanting work experience. This then is generally what I tell them.

A career as a professional photographer frequently polls among the top three most desirable careers, ranking alongside pilots and footballers. However, this is mostly likely because the public's perception of photographers is as glamorous jet-setting, party going, rich individuals. But this rarely matches the reality, and it may come as a surprise that these days many photographers would not recommend it as a career.

The world of professional photography is becoming very crowded, especially with fresh new "dedicated" talent seeking to "make it big" as a pro. However, the work that there is, is frenetically paced, fraught with legal issues and is suffering from a general decline in the value of images. Over recent years, photographer's income streams have continued to decline, while at the same time, standards and client's expectations of image quality and delivery of service, have grown significantly. One can also add to that the fact that the costs of running a photographic business have risen. Due in part to the cost of equipment being much higher (when compared to equivalent film equipment), the time taken to produce an image much longer, and the marketing costs being much higher as well. This is frequently misunderstood by clients, who generally believe that since the introduction of digital technology, costs and delivery times should have fallen.

The past six years has probably seen the most significant changes in photography since its invention, not only technologically but in the way images are used. There has not only been significant progress in professional cameras but also in digital compact cameras and mobile phone cameras, where many who own one, believe they are only one step away from being a professional. Of course while we have seen digital cameras come of age, we have also seen the birth and spread of the internet and the digital images on it. Both of these factors have served to fundamentally changing the public's use and perception of the photographic image, and crucially of its value. It is hardly surpring then that it is a constant source of frustration to professional photographers that while the issues surrounding film and music theft feature heavily in the media, and it is becoming a moral issue, the same cannot be said of still images.

There is no doubt that since the introduction of digital, the standard of images taken by burgeoning, and experienced photographers alike, has risen enormously. But this has also meant that it has opened up the profession to those who would not have considered it previously, creating an over supply in the market place. This is especially true in the stock image market. Four or five years ago a commercial photographer may have expect to cover the running costs of a studio from the income generated by images sold through the likes of Getty and Alamy. The explosion of images produced by amateurs that is now submitted, held and sold by these libraries, means that this no longer true. Some established photographers have seen their income from stock images fall by more than 75% in six months. This decline was further helped by the growth in Royalty Free images and Flicker and price cutting by libraries across the board. I was once told by the Creative Director of reasonably sized design agency that they would first mine Flicker to see what they could steal, then go to iStock to see what they could buy for £5, then get RF, then go to Getty, and then they might consider commissioning a photographer. His justification for stealing from someone on Flicker was that individuals do not have the resources to search for stolen images, and if they did, and they were caught, it is unlikely that the photographer would be able to afford the legal muscle to gain more than the initial purchase costs of the image.

Digital technology has also created a boom in DIY imaging for start up and some more established companies. It is true that with the growth of ecommerce, there has never been a greater requirement for images. However, most of that imagery will not have been commissioned from a professional, but preformed in house, on low budget equipment. What's more, many design agencies have now invested in their own mid market cameras. Some have even purchased studio lighting and set aside studio space to create their own imagery. These agencies will often now only commission a professional when they require imagery, either more creative than they can achieve, or when they require high resolution shots.

So are there any careers to be made in photography? Yes there are, but I would say beware, it is a tough market. Photography must be in your blood and second nature to you. You will need to be at a stage where you will never be left wondering how to achieve a shot with your camera. It is a tool that you will need to know everything about and how it will record an image. Consequently if you're a student, you shouldn't need to study photography at university. If you do, I would say that you'll most likely struggle as a pro. These days success as a professional photographer is as much about marketing as photographic skills. There are some well known photographers, with great marketing campaigns, earning small fortunes, while much more skilled photographers struggle. You can be the best photographer in the world, but no one's going to commission you if they don't know you exist. What's more, there is huge competition in the market place, so more than ever, marketing is the overriding key to a successful career.

As a student going on to university, I would say study Marketing, look for a career working in a design agency and study photography in your spare time. That way after a few years, you'll have gained experience commissioning shoots, you'll know what is expected and what and how to deliver. You'll also have the marketing skills to market yourself, and a list of contacts you already know to turn into clients. What's more, if the photography career doesn't work out, you always have a fall back position in Marketing.

Finally, there are two things to bear in mind. Firstly, there are very few salaried jobs in photography and secondly, you will most likely require significant funds to stand out from the crowd and succeed. Photographers in general, set up their own businesses, rather than work for another photographer. And, although you can start working as a professional on a fairly reasonable budget, there is significant competition at that level, and many charge nothing or well below the market rate. To progress to dizzier heights, the funding required is disproportionately large when compared to the financial rewards.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Touch If You Dare!

Well I've finally made the cover of a magazine! OK so it's not Vanity Fair or Vogue, and I've already been on the cover of several national trade mags, but Area magazine normally only use images from campaigns by big brands like Dior, Gucci and Boss. It's quite a coup for an image from a local photographer featuring minor brand clothing to be chosen. The shot was taken in Cape Town, last September, as part of a portfolio series with local model Rouxmia. She subsequently used the image not only on her 'Zed' card, but as part of her “Girl of the Year” campaign for FHM in South Africa. Not surprisingly she's done very well, and made it into the top ten. I did another shoot with her in Jan this year, and Area have taken a couple from that series as well. So keep an eye out for more covers.

Interestingly, for this image, I had to touch up the swimwear to make it suitable for distribution. Of course I prefer the original, but I was pleased, not only by how well, technically, the rework turned out, but aesthetically how well the 'new' swimsuit looked.

Re-touching always seems to spark huge debate among photographers. Some view it with disdain and a cheat, some see it as a way of saving a bad shot. Personally I have always regarded it as integral part of the whole creative process. From shoot to final delivery, everything you contribute as a photographer is a creative step and PhotoShop has simply become an invaluable part of that process.

I started digital image processing in the late nineties and went exclusively digital as soon as I bought one of the first ever Canon 1Ds cameras sold in the UK in Feb 02. However, immediately I got it, I realised I could no longer just consider what I had in front of me to create the image i.e. model, make up, clothing, location, lighting and camera. I had to plan for and consider post production too. Now, I shoot knowing how I am going to be processing and retouching in post production. If I want to treat an image in a certain way in PhotoShop, then it had to be shot to allow that. Moreover, if I am looking at producing a series of images, then what I do during a shoot must be consistent to allow consistent post processing. Small variations in shooting conditions can cause unpredictable effects in post. While you can't always be in control of the light on your subject, when shooting multiple locations and outdoors, say, you have to know what effects these lighting changes are going to have, and be able to correct or work with them. Shooting blind aiming to correct everything in PhotoShop, has never, and will be an option for me.

PhotoShop for me is not there to rescue images, it is a significant part of the creative process, and sometimes, it is the stage with most artistic input. Some images have more input, some less, but I am always considering the post production, especially when I know I going to be doing a lot of it. As an example, this homage image of Giselle's waterdress was shot knowing exactly what needed to be done in PhotoShop. During the shoot I was considering the implications in post of the lighting, clothing (yes, Cass was clothed!), pose, shooting angle and depth of field. Nothing about this was accidental. The whole shoot was meticulously planned long in advance and because of that, it was shot in ten minutes or less! OK, post production took eight hours, but it wouldn't have worked at all, had I not meticulously planned how it needed to be shot in the first place.

Although attitudes are gradually changing, I do find it ironic that while photographers are often trying to class themselves as artists, and many traditional artists try to claim they are not, when a photographer produces an PhotoShopped image (which has a great deal more artistic input than the original photograph), they are accused by some of cheating. The image for them is somehow devalued or tainted by the post production. Thankfully, those attitudes are changing, and as a photographer who has never been able to divorce the process of image taking from the process of retouching, that is refreshing to see. What's more, I do enjoy pointing out that since the advent of digital photography, the whole industry has become much more artistic, not less.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Raw Talent and Dedication

Welcome to my blog, and thank you for taking the time to read this.
Well well well. Just watched the first in series 5 of Britain's Next Top Model and somehow Nell Nabarro got voted off. Incredible! I've had the joy of working with this girl and she is spectacular, in looks, attitude, dedication and abilities to take direction. How she got voted off I will never know.
I did a shoot with her last November (above), in freezing damp weather, in a ruined mansion, with no heating. Poor girl was so ill that she should have been in bed. Instead she chose to freeze her toes off to get these shots. That is rare dedication in an industry where models will fail to turn up if they have so much as spot on their nose. Nell, is a rarity. A dedicated model who can produce stunning results even when she's ill.
Lack of dedication is not just restricted to modelling of course, it pervades through many walks of life and professions, photography included. I have seen many dedicated "wannabe" assistants realise after days of hard work that it's not the life for them. Being able to make a living in this profession is far more about knowing how to be a business than your abilities as a photographer. Being able to take great shots, is a given, and without that ability you might as well pack up and go home. But, the same is also true if you can't run a business, and by that I mean be a "one man" corporation. You have to be your own accounts department, marketing department, PR department, admin department, web designer, IT department, HR department, and so on and so forth.
I occasionally get asked to lecture to sixth form photography students. Some study it just to collect the grade. Others are there because they enjoy it. These have ability, but again really, they just want the grade. There are also those few who actually want to be photographers and aim to study it at University. What I always say to them is that "if you're so bad at photography that you need to study it full time, don't do it." Of course none of them are bad. They're doing it because they enjoy it and they believe studying it will lead to a career in photography. It rarely does. (No one ever asks a professional photographer if they have a photographic degree.) The point is this. To succeed in photography, photography and business must come naturally to you. If you are a gifted photographer but lack good business acumen, you will be far better equipped to be a professional if you study marketing or business at university, and photography in your spare time. That way, you will have a way of earning a living in marketing, while at the same time seeing the industry from the inside and be in a position to develop your photographic skills and a client base. Why learn what you're good at? Rather train yourself up in those areas that you will need to succeed in, but don't come naturally to you.