Grumpy old photographers’ charter

I do a lot of seminar and teaching work these days and one of my most popular presentations is about professionalism. The talk is aimed at new entrants to the profession but it seems to go down well with photographers who have been around a while as well. I have even delivered the same talk to a group of lawyers because actually replacing the word ‘photographer’ with ‘lawyer’ brings a lot of the meaning around to the central idea that, in many ways, professionalism is the same no matter what you do for a living.

©Neil Turner. March 2009, Bournemouth Beach

The final part of the talk is a bit of a dig at myself and my peers. Those of us who have been in the job for a long time and who might just be getting a little complacent about things. I call this part of the talk “The five worst habits of those of us who should know better”:

1. Harking back to a golden age that may, or may not, have existed

It’s a simple idea really – we all look back with slightly misty eyes at the time a few years ago when things were good and before something new came along to spoil everything. Take your pick from the use of colour in newspapers, the whole move to digital, the adoption of multimedia by newspaper websites and several other developments in the industry. The truth is that when I was just starting out there were a few photographers who complained about the arrival of 35mm film and the loss of their beloved Rolleiflex cameras and even one or two who bemoaned the passing of half plate cameras and dark slides with sheet film. I reckon that every photographer has a ‘golden age’ that they look back at and that you can calculate when that was for each of us using a simple formula which compares how long the photographer has been working with when they got their first big front page and divide it all by the first major change in the industry that they went through. There never was a true golden age was there?

2. Forgetting why we came into the job in the first place

Easy to do this… most of us had a desire to tell stories, create arresting and beautiful pictures and to make the world a better place with our photography. Very few of us did it for the money, not many of us did it so that we could play with ever more expensive toys and only a tiny number came into it so that they could work unsocial hours and have to chase clients for money the whole time. If you take a step back and think about your original motivation and it isn’t there any more you really need to make your mind up about whether this is still the business that you want to be in. The older I get, the more I feel the need to shoot pictures that I want to shoot just to keep myself sane and sharp.

3. Failing to keep up with new business practices

“I’ve always done it that way, why should I change now?” is a common lament from photographers who are in trouble of getting it wrong. From the way you buy and use equipment to the way you store your archive and from the way you word your invoices to the way you put your portfolio together should be the subjects of constant review and possible change. Technology affects every single aspect of who we are and what we do and anyone who decides to stop keeping themselves up-to-date with what is happening is consigning themselves to a parallel dimension where they may get some work but where that might  be a temporary state on the road to going out of business.

4. Throwing money and effort into the latest thing

Exactly the opposite of the last problem really. Keeping abreast of developments and knowing where the market is a good idea whereas automatically jumping on every new idea, fad or fashion is not. So many new developments turn out to be ideas that don’t stand the test of time and too many of us have invested too much time and money chasing them. The worst way to do this is to assume that somebody younger and hipper than you automatically knows what to do – that, in my experience, is rarely the case. There’s always a middle-aged geek who you can ask…

5. Letting professionalism slip

Another thing that is far too easy to do. I know that I’ve done it – mainly through over-confidence. You have to remember the maxim that “professionalism is everything we do, everything we say and everything we produce” in our working lives. You can get too close to clients, you can cut corners in your workflow and you can rely too much on automated systems. This is far from a full list but it illustrates the potential pitfalls when it comes to losing our professional edge.

Being a professional photographer is a fulfilling and interesting way to make a living but we all need to remember that it is a profession and not a lucrative hobby. I’ve been wracking my brains to come up with a clever and punchy pay-off line for this blog post but I’ve struggled. I’ll just content myself with some advice: when things are feeling tough and not all all like the ‘old days’ just remember the five worst habits of those of us who should know better and if that doesn’t help… get some help!

Owning up to some bad habits

“It’s all about light”. That’s a message that I hope everyone who visited the technique pages on my web site will take away. When you are the one who controls that light, you have a large number of options open to you. This month I have been trying a new toy and I thought that I’d use that as an excuse to write about how and why I choose the quality of the light.

©Neil Turner/TSL | London | December 2004

The first thing I have to do is own up to some fairly bad habits:

The first is that I go through personal fashions in the way I light and in the kit that I carry with me. One month I’ll use softboxes and then the next month I’ll use umbrellas. One week I will keep the flash as only one element of the scene and the next the flash will overwhelm the ambient light.

My second bad habit is that I will light women in a different way to men. 99% of the time I will use a much softer set up for female subjects than I would for males.

Thirdly, I’m aware that I tend to use a harder light on older skin (especially men). Older people seem to have a lot less moisture in their skin and so their faces have a lot less shine.

I’m much more likely to direct a spectacles wearer about the angle of their head, simply to avoid getting bad reflections in their glasses. I also try to find out if people wear contact lenses and get them to look more squarely at me to avoid getting any strange shapes in their eyes.

So far I’m painting myself as a bit of a lazy photographer. I like to think that it’s not laziness – more a realistic attitude towards getting the shot right. When you are shooting people, you often end up shooting a very different picture than the one that you first envisaged so my bad habits are there to simply give me an easy starting point. Getting on with the shoot is part of my style. I rarely spend very much time wandering around formulating ideas, largely because I am regularly expected to set up, shoot and break down in a matter of minutes. Having the “safe shot” in the bag is something of a religion to me and I find that giving in to my “bad habits” makes my practice a lot easier.

Many photographers use the same technique day in and day out. I cannot claim to do everything differently every day, and sometimes I feel like a chef who has a limited range of ingredients that I can select, mix and adapt to create new and interesting combinations. Every once in a while a new ingredient becomes available, a new toy to play with. Does that make me gadget boy? Or does it simply help to keep my work fresh?