Tuesday, 27 May 2008

Getting started

People often get in touch with me asking how to get started in travel photography. So here is some of the advice I usually give people.

Are you good enough?

The first thing is to gauge whether you are good enough to start making money from photography full time. Almost anyone can get a picture published these days, because there are a large number of publications that accept mediocre photography. But they are also the ones that pay the least. If you want to know if you are actually going to be able to make a sustainable living from travel photography you need to browse the high end magazines such as Conde Nast Traveller, National Geographic Traveller, Islands, and Travel + Leisure. Look at the features they use to illustrate the articles, especially when they feature a place you have photographed yourself. Then look at the adverts, especially those promoting hotels and resorts. Then be brutally honest with yourself - if you genuinely think you could shoot photos of the same quality and subject matter you’re you are ready. If not, it’s time to get practising.

OK, I think I’m good enough – what now?

If you’re convinced you are ready to take the plunge, then you need to get ready to show your work as a professional.

Firstly, get a decent website. Unless you are showing your work on a slick, well-designed site, no art buyer will give it a second look. Remember that you are a photographer, not a designer, so don’t think you can build a good site yourself. The easiest way to get a slick looking online presence is to use one of the packages designed specifically for photographers. Livebooks is very popular, and has packages starting from $800 going up to $3200. There is also Fluid Galleries which at $400 is more affordable when starting out. Both allow you to customize the look and feel of your site while allowing you to easily change the content as your portfolio grows, and have a slick professional look.

Secondly, get a proper portfolio. When I started out I had my photographs in an A4 plastic binder that looked simply terrible. Now I use A3 leather portfolios by Plastic Sandwich. They’re not cheap, but they look fantastic and are very durable. You should aim to have about 25-30 prints, showing only your very best work and only the kind of photography that you want to shoot. If you have your own high quality inkjet printer then by all means print your own – I do on an HP Designjet 90. This has the advantage of allowing you to reprint an image until you get is exactly the way you want. Be sure to get a custom printer profile made up if you are using off-brand paper. Alternatively, take your files to a high-end lab and get them to print them for you.

Getting your work out there

Once you’ve got your website and printed portfolio together you need to start getting your work in front of people who commission photography. Start out with all the publications you would like to work for. Look at the masthead to find out who the Art Director or Photo Editor is. Add them to your list. Next, find out who are the Art Buyers at the advertising agencies. Add them to your list. If you need help, subscribe to one of the list services such as Bikini Lists (UK) or Agency Access (US).

Every couple of months send out an email with an image and a link to your site. Pick a few of your target clients and follow them up with a phone call. Those that have seen your site and like what they see will call you in to see your book. Here is when your printed portfolio will pay off. A lot of stuff can look good at 500 pixels on a website, but an A3 print will quickly show up any flaws in an image. And almost any image looks better when printed larger. Once they’ve seen you then continue to keep in touch, sending emails when you have new work on your site.

As you work through your list, eventually the phone calls will start to come in. It all takes a lot of time, but eventually your hard work and patience will begin to show rewards.

Wednesday, 14 May 2008

The PDN Photo Annual is here...

If you want to see what the state of the art in American photography is at the moment, take half an hour out of your day and browse through the 2008 PDN Photo Annual. It should be required viewing for any emerging photographer.

PDN (or Photo District News to give it its full name) is the leading magazine and website for commercial and editorial photographers in the US. It is widely read by photographers and photo buyers and their awards give significant exposure in the industry. I was lucky enough to be one of the winners for their "World in Focus" award back in February. Wahoo!

Tuesday, 13 May 2008

Sports shooter

I've been shooting a lot of sports recently. If you didn't know that then it means you haven't been to the website and checked out my new 'Active' portfolio. So get over there now.

OK, welcome back. So - what are some of the things you need to think about when shooting high speed subjects like runners and skiers? I'll talk about this photo to illustrate what I mean.

The first thing to realise is that you are going to need to explain what you want to your model. Believe it or not, getting a skier passing through the sun with a giant spray of powder doesn't just happen by accident. Explain exactly the path you want your model to take, including which way they are going to turn, where you want the powder spray to go, what body position you want - everything you need in the final picture.

This is especially important for ski photography for two reasons: firstly you only get one try before you get tracks through that beautiful patch of powder you were counting on and secondly its hard (sometimes impossible) to hike back up the hill to take the shot a second time.

To communicate effectively make sure you pack 2-way radios, or at a pinch mobile phones. Sometimes your model will have to start their run from far uphill, or even out of sight, and shouting just won't cut it. Trust me.

Once you've got everything lined up you need to get the shot. There are a couple of ways you can go about capturing high speed subjects. OK, actually there are 3, but I'm saving one of them for another post. Which you use depends on the type of shot you need to capture. There's the 'static' method and the 'panning' method. I'll start with panning.

The Panning Method:
1) Switch your camera to 'tracking' autofocus. On Canon cameras this is called AI Servo.
2) Start your model off on their run
3) Find the model in your viewfinder and allow the autofocus to lock on
4) As the model reaches peak action, hold down the shutter button with the motor drive screaming
5) Hope you got the shot

The advantage of this method is that it is relatively easy. The tracking autofocus on high end Canon and Nikon bodies is now exceptionally good, and once it has picked up your subject, 90% of the subsequent frames will be in sharp focus. Secondly, you can follow your subject through the viewfinder and shoot when the action is at it's peak - at the centre of the turn or in the middle of a stride.

However you pay a price for it being easy. Firstly, the autofocus sensors, even on top-end cameras, are clustered around the centre of the frame, making it impossible to have your subject far off center. Secondly, because you are tracking the subject not the background, it can be hard to get the background framed the way you want.

So if you're finding these limiting you can try another way: the Static Method. This allows you to have off centre subjects and frame your background accurately, but requires you - and your model - to have very good timing. It works best when shooting very close to your subject with a wide-angle lens.

The Static Method:
1) Frame the background you want in the viewfinder.
2) Focus on the point where you want the model to be in the picture
3) Switch to manual focus - either disengage autofocus from the shutter button (CFn 4-1 on Canon) or switch the lens to manual
4) Keep the camera framed on your background and have your model start his run. It can be helpful to have your assistant count down their approach so you are ready
5) As the model passes into the correct point of the frame, shoot

As you can see, this requires you to have very good timing on the shutter, and for your model to hit his mark precisely. To maximise your chances it helps to shoot with a high resolution camera and frame the shot a little loose, giving you room and resolution to crop in post. Also, to ensure critical focus, close your aperture down to give you more leeway with the depth of field.

It's hard, but when you get it right it gives you results that can't be had any other way.

Saturday, 10 May 2008


I've just returned from an assignment in Venice for Photo Plus magazine. We were shooting for one of their Apprentice features, where they team up a reader with a professional photographer. Tony was a great guy and it was a pleasure to pass on the tips and tricks I've picked up over the years.

The strange part for me, however, was that I wasn't the one taking the pictures. We were accompanied by Rob and Chris, the photographer and writer from the magazine, and the photos they publish will be Tony's and Rob's - not mine. So for once I had the luxury of experiencing a place with my own eyes rather than through the viewfinder of my camera.

I wouldn't be a photographer if I couldn't resist taking a few shots though - so here is one of the Grand Canal, taken from the Rialto bridge at dusk. Look out for the full feature in issue 11 of Photo Plus, on sale in early July.

New work online

Over the last couple of months I've been using the time in between jobs to shoot for a new portfolio - focusing on outdoor sports and lifestyle imagery. There's now a new 'Active' gallery on the website - let me know what you think.

Tuesday, 6 May 2008

Looking natural

Lifestyle photos are all the rage these days. Pick up a magazine and I bet half the adverts feature casual 'slice of life' photography. But any photographer who has worked with models will know that one of the hardest things is to get them to look natural in front of the camera.

It's not hard to understand why. Most advertising shots have very high production values. Along with the photographer there will most likely be an assistant or two helping set up lights and reflectors, a producer making sure their is access to the location and getting everyone co-ordinated to turn up on time, a stylist looking after the wardrobe, a make up artist, and finally the art director to make sure the shoot matches their original idea.

With all that going on around them while they try to follow direction from the photographer, its not hard to understand why the models, unless they are very experienced, tend to look a little wooden in front of the camera. Here are a few tips that can help:

1) Give them a story
Be sure to communicate with your models and give them a scenario to work with. What have they just been doing? What are they feeling? What should they be doing next? How about they've just come to the end of their afternoon run in the summer heat and need to cool off in the fountain?

2) Put down the camera
One way to guarantee static photos is to accurately place the models in position and then shoot. Instead, put the camera down and try getting them to act through the moment. Look for the little things that make the scene natural - a facial expression, or a body position. Often it is the 'in between' moments that look most casual. Here the models just started kicking water at each other - it wasn't anything either of us had planned.

3) Shoot, shoot and then shoot some more
Now that you know what it is you want to capture, get the models to work through their vignette over and over again until you capture exactly the moment you want.  Turn on the motor drive and just hold down that shutter button. You'll have 500 frames to edit, but one of them will have that spark and capture the snapshot feel you're looking for.

So there it is: the more natural you want the scene to look, the harder you have to work for it.