Professional Photographer – Are you Thinking About It?

Thinking about becoming a professional photographer? Some tips for you.

A few weeks ago I posted an article about engaging a professional photographer. Aimed at members of the public, I didn’t anticipate the emails and private messages on Facebook from amateurs who wanted to earn money from their images.

This post isn’t here to put you off becoming a professional photographer. Working as a professional photographer is rewarding and fun. You get to meet lots of great people in happy situations who really appreciate the work you do. Furthermore, professional photographers are important (the reason why will be another article). I have written this to help you think about some on the hurdles  to leap and make you question whether you are truly ready. Turning professional is something you need to be realistic about, or your business will fail.

This is not a step-by-step guide of how to set up a business. It is  advice to help you through the fog of planning to set up a photography business and to help you think whether you have the resources to do that.

Finding our way through the fof of starting a business

Business Acumen

Before you even consider whether your photography is good enough to sell, you need to know whether you can run a business – not everybody can. Do you have the drive and determination to keep on task. Will you be able to put in twice or three times as many hours than would be legal as an employee. It’s not unusual for me to start work at six in the morning and finish at nine at night, work at weekends and on bank holidays.

Have you got the finances behind you to build your business? Most businesses don’t make a profit in their first year or two. Many professionals hold down another job to pay the bills, although not all employment contracts will permit you having a second job.

Don’t expect to get rich quick

Eddie Cantor (a popular American  comic actor from the 1920s)  said, “It takes twenty years to make an overnight success.” In photography it takes years of hard work, years of learning and years of investment in quality equipment to become a successful professional.

Professional photography isn’t as lucrative a  business as many imagine it to be. It is appealing earning money at what you love doing, but not everyone wants to employ a photographer, and there are already a lot of people fighting over a limited market. Is there room for you? Can you offer something above and beyond your competitors and make a living out of it?

Remember that income doesn’t equal profits. Lots of people say to me that wedding photography seems a way to earn lots of money in a short time, but a whole day’s photography will take at least a week to develop properly. Then there’s  the cost of the equipment, insurances, album, prints, travel and all the incidental costs to be deducted from the nett income.

Slow shutter, low ISO
It’s easy to get lost in the fog when setting up in business.

Business skills and resources

Besides being able to hand a camera well, you’ll need non-photographic skills and resources too. You’ll also need to meet many statutory and desirable requirements when going into business. You may need to be able to:

  • keep accurate accounts
  • write a business plan
  • budget
  • work out pricing
  • write effective advertisements
  • build and promote websites
  • form business networks
  • manage social media presence
  • risk assess your activities
  • keep personal data secure
  • acquire business insurances you must have and those that are highly advisable
  • carry critical illness insurance in case you cannot work
  • find out the level of insurance venues often insist on
  •  statutory registrations  (e.g. HMRC, ICO etc.)
  • know whether your mortgage lender will renew your mortgage if you become self-employed…

That list is not exhaustive. Some of those things may be beyond you and you may have to contract them out. I build websites, but that’s not a skill everyone has.

Most of all, do you have a product that people want to buy? Do your market research before setting up. It’s no use crossing the bridge from amateur to professional if it is empty of customers on the other side.

Crossing over to becoming professional

Are you good enough?

Just as they would write a Shakespeare play if given sufficient typewriters, an infinite number of monkeys with cameras would produce images worthy of Eve Arnold or Ansel Adams. The 1.2 trillion images taken last year resulted in many great photographs taken by chance. How much luck goes into creating your photos?

Before turning pro, do seek the honest opinion of your work from someone already doing it. Your friends may tell you how great your photos are, but do they have the knowledge to critique your images properly? They are nice people and won’t want to hurt your feelings even if an image is below par; they’ll say your pictures are great no matter what. An unsatisfied customer will not be so polite.

A judge at your local camera club isn’t the best person to ask either. Matching the likes and dislikes of  a skilled photo-enthusiast isn’t necessarily the same as asking customers, or someone who knows the market. Show your photos to a professional and ask their opinion; you may have to buy that service. Don’t just share your best images with them, let them see an entire photoshoot that they set for you. Share with them the images that went well along with those that failed. Can you explain why they failed? Are most of the shots good enough to sell?

Have you got the knowledge?

It takes a lot of knowledge to be able to use a camera well. The many years spent progressively learning  both technical and artistic skills is why so many love the art.

Do you know your photographic speciality? You may be a fantastic landscape photographer, but not so great at portraits. Do you need training in a particular field where there is a market?

Workman on scaffold
Just as a brick layer might not be a joiner, being highly skilled in one field does not equate to having the skills in all areas of photography

A photography test

Here’s a little test for you that should let you know whether you have the level of knowledge that would be expected of a professional photographer.

Imagine a bright sunny day at the beach. Your subject is a woman, with dark brown skin, wearing a white dress, standing in front of the sunlit sea. How would you expose that picture?

ISO 200, 1/500 second at f/5.6. If the light did not change, what shutter value value would you have at f/16 and ISO 400?

What is the complementary colour of orange?

A child is running obliquely past a waterfall and towards you. You want to stop the movement of a child running, keep her in focus and show the movement of the water in the fountain behind. What technique and shutter value would you use?

What is the slowest shutter value at which you can hand-hold your longest lens?

At what aperture do your lenses give the sharpest resolution?

How much can you crop your photos and be able to produce a top quality A3 print?

A flash with a guide number of 52 at full power, how far away would the subject be at f/4?

Take five photographs that demonstrate the golden section in their composition.

What is the primary adjustment in your raw development programme to affect mid-tone contrast?

What is the hyperfocal distance of your prime portrait lens?

Did you get 10 out of 10 without having to think too hard or Google the answers? Even if you looked up the answers, would you be able to answer another ten different questions without difficulty? That’s the degree of knowledge and skill I would recommend you should have before embarking on a career in photography. You should be able to spot that girl running by the waterfall, set the exposure then quickly and accurately focus and know you have the shot.

Is your equipment good enough?

An entry level camera with standard quality lenses are great for day-to-day shooting. But, to capture low light images, or be able to focus fast enough to capture action, or have your images published in some magazines you do need professional-quality gear. You also need two sets. If one fails, you have back-up. Imagine being commissioned to photograph a party, the shutter or the lens aperture mechanism fails and you have no reserve. Not only is the customer really unhappy, but your reputation is ruined too.

Puffin showing wing movement
Making the artistic decision whether to stop, show or give a hint of movement is something a photographer needs to control.

Some examples I know where the professionals got it wrong

Julia sought the services of a baby photographer. She didn’t accept the prints and demanded her money back, because the quality was awful.

Steve commissioned a photographer to take images for his business website. He rejected all of them because of the colour cast and he didn’t pay. They looked wrong because photographer’s screen was not calibrated.

The worst offenders seem to take up wedding photography. One I know of failed to get a photo of the bride’s mother. Another left stray hair running across the brides face in her main portrait and a road cone on its side in the background. A third shot at a public venue and someone photo-bombed most of them by deliberately walking into the background of all the shots.

During a chat with another reputable photographer a few weeks ago, they told me that they had been approached so many times to try to get corrected wedding photographs taken by poor quality photographers . It’s a familiar story; I’ve been asked to do the same. Photographing a once-in-a-lifetime event is a huge responsibility and getting it wrong can have massive repercussions for the photographer and the customer. I can end up in court. Could that happen to you?

Being an amateur photographer doesn’t usually risk ruining someone’s wedding, although a retired minister told me that inexperienced wedding photographers were a nightmare. Once, he was in the middle of a ceremony with the couple kneeling before him when a shadow fell across his shoulder. A family member who was asked to take the photos had climbed on the altar to get the shot!

Do I really want to become a professional?

There are amateur photographers good enough to become professional but don’t want to turn their hobby into work. Amateurs can shoot what and when they want. They can take dozens of frames to get one good shot. Professionals don’t have that luxury. You need to deliver sufficient photographs that you have been employed to shoot that are really good.

And finally…

I hope that does not put you off. Doing what you love for a living is fantastic and rewarding. There’s nothing better than having your customers phoning or writing to say thank-you and how pleased they are with the art you created.

It’s hard work, but it’s worth every penny you don’t earn!

Good luck.

 

 

 

 

Is your camera strap properly secured?

Make your camera strap safe

Is your camera strap safe? I see so many that are threaded so that they could easily come loose. I have heard of cameras falling to the ground because the strap had slipped through the buckle. One of the first thing I teach on my courses is this simple little trick and just spending a few moments rethreading your strap may save you from loosing or breaking your camera.

If your strap has a loose tail flapping about it’s at risk and here’s how to thread it much more securely.

Securing your camera strap

  1. Take the strap off the camera. This image shows strap end, the band keeper and the top side of the buckle.

    Remove the camera strap from your camera
  2. Thread the strap through the whole from the bottom, recessed side of the buckle, over the bar and back down  through the second hole,Thread the strao through the buckle
  3. Thread the band-keeper onto the strapThread through the band keeper
  4. Make sure there are no twists in the strap. Thread the end through the eye or bracket on the camera and then back through the band keeper.
    Thread through the strap bracket on the camera
  5. Now loosen the strap on the buckle and feed the tail of the strap back through the buckle in the same direction as when first threaded, i.e. towards the camera body.
    Thread towards the camera's body
    Threading through both sides of the buckle
  6. The tail of the strap should now be enveloped in the loop and not loose. Make sure there is plenty of tail and then tighten the straps on the buckle. Finally, slide the band-keeper towards the buckle and over the tail. It should be quite hard to do this. The tightly sandwiched the tail should stop the strap from slipping through the buckle.Completed buckle
  7. Do check that the strap has not slipped once every few weeks.It was so much easier when we had 35mm SLRs. I had one of these on my old Olympus OM2m camera when I was 18, so my eyes lit up with nostalgia when I bought an OM10 for shutter demonstrations on my courses. I am contemplating swapping it onto my retro-looking Olympus OM-D E-M5 mark ii.OM2 Camera strap

Hopefully, you found this useful. If you did, then please comment below. Do also share the post with your friends either on Facebook, Twitter or other social media. Please let me know that you’ve read it and rethreaded your strap as a result. It will be great to hear from you.

General Data Protection Regulations (and Bill) – what we think we know so far!

GDPR – Something restrictive this way comes

While the Beast from the East batters our land, it’s a different storm worrying photographers : the new General Data Protection Regulations, or GDPR.

GDPR
“The Beast from the East” is not the only storm affecting businesses.

There are a lot of loops that self-employed photographers, like me, have to jump through. One of those loops, the Data Protection Act, is changing shape and name. The General Data Protection Regulations, or GDPR, come into effect on the 25th May. However, the General Data Protection Bill (which turns it into British law) does not get it’s second reading until 5th March 2018, so it is not sure it will be implemented at the same time.

How will GDPR affect photographers?

I should start by saying that I am not a legal expert and this is how I am interpreting the state of play at the moment after lots of reading and contacting the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO). There is plenty of other information for small businesses out there about the changes in the law, but not much clear information about photography. So this post is purely about that.

Is my work purely art?

Under the current Data Protection Act exemptions exist for photographers for images taken as art and for journalism.

Speaking with the Information Commissioner’s Office they said, “The GDPR allows member states to introduce exemptions/derogations. These will be set out in the Data Protection Bill – it’s likely there will be a similar exemption for personal data processed for the purposes of “journalism, literature and art” but as the Bill has not yet been approved and adopted by Parliament, we can’t yet confirm what those exemptions will be. ”

Out with the Old

Under the old Data Protection Act 1998, there was definite provision for art and journalism.

32. Journalism, literature and art.

(1)Personal data which are processed only for the special purposes are exempt from any provision to which this subsection relates if—

(a)the processing is undertaken with a view to the publication by any person of any journalistic, literary or artistic material,

(b)the data controller reasonably believes that, having regard in particular to the special importance of the public interest in freedom of expression, publication would be in the public interest, and

(c)the data controller reasonably believes that, in all the circumstances, compliance with that provision is incompatible with the special purposes.”

In with the new

The proposed GDP Bill is worded differently.

“Journalistic, academic, artistic and literary purposes

24 (1) In this paragraph, “the special purposes” means one or more of the
following—
(a) the purposes of journalism;
(b) academic purposes;
(c) artistic purposes;
(d) literary purposes.

Schedule 2 — Exemptions etc from the GDPR
Part 5 — Exemptions etc based on Article 85(2) for reasons of freedom of expression and information

150
(2) Sub-paragraph (3) applies to the processing of personal data carried out for
the special purposes if—
(a) the processing is being carried out with a view to the publication by
a person of journalistic, academic, artistic or literary material, and
(b) the controller reasonably believes that the publication of the material would be in the public interest.
(3) The listed GDPR provisions do not apply to the extent that the controller reasonably believes that the application of those provisions would be incompatible with the special purposes.”

Am I exempt?

That’s a lot of legalese, but I interpret that as, if produced for purely artistic purposes, photography will continue to be exempt from data protection laws.

So, an amateur street photographer taking candid shots in the street will be exempt from the the Regulations. The arts are free of constraint, according to the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights.

(I should point out that the current government are making noises about removing us from the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. So things may change in the future. Our current freedoms of expression may change or disappear altogether.)

If I am reading the law correctly, and I reiterate I am not a lawyer, photographs would only be able to be used without the law applying if used for journalistic/academic/artistic or literary purposes.

So, if I took a photograph of you on the street and published it as art, then it would be exempt. I would be carrying out my freedom of expression. But, I do need to limit the use of that photograph to just that purpose. If I were to use your image for advertising, or I sold you copies in return for you letting me use your image, then that becomes data and the GDPR rules come into force.

Carrying out the ICO’s online test, I have to be registered for my work. I would be hard pushed to see any circumstances where a professional photographer would be exempt.

Incoming Tide - The GDPR
The GDPR is going to be bringing a tide of changes to how we handle customer data. Perhaps if we just photograph landscapes and don’t keep any customer data, then maybe we would be exempt. But could we run a successful business with those restrictions?

Commercial Shoots

The exemption is unlikely to hold if you enter into a contract with the subject. Therefore, wedding photographers should ask the couples to make their guests aware of who the photographer is and individuals should have the option of not being photographed. That makes life really difficult for documentary photographers. Permission should certainly be sought before wedding shoots are used for publicity.

A contract does not necessarily mean the exchange of money. Just promising to send a copy of a photograph to someone in return for letting you take their photograph is a contract. Then the photographer should get a model release form signed.

Be extra aware of photographing children. Always seek written parental permission before using a picture, sharing it on Facebook or Instagram, even in private groups.  If you attend a youth event and promis photographs of the children for a club or organisation, then that is entering into a contract. The new regulations are –quite rightly– very strict regarding children’s data.

Are street photographs of people biometric data?

This is a regularly debated topic and the answer from the ICO is no.
“In relation to street portraits of individuals; these will not be ‘biometric’ data.” Even so, I would be cautious about uploading to public sites photographs that contain people’s names or other information that may be sensitive.

Occasional Professionals Beware!

Most professional photographers will be prepared for GDPR. Some won’t.

Those who should worry are all the ‘semi-professional’ or ‘semi-amateur’ photographers who just shoot the occasional event, or sell the odd print. These are often not even registered as self-employed and are not insured. They are unlikely to comply with the current Data Protection Act. The new fine for failing to comply, which includes registration, is jumping up from a few thousand pounds to €10 million.

The ICO have been quite good at giving guidance instead of fines to date, but the new laws are stricter. One complaint from a parent whose child’s photo was shared without permission, or you sending an unsolicited email to a former client without their permission, could start an avalanche of penalties. Will HMRC or DWP look at people investigated by the ICO? Will they jump on those who try making an untaxed income from selling photographs? Will they also be studying the lists of people who are registered with the ICO to see if they are registered as self employed?

Now is a good time to either legitimise your business or step away from it altogether.

For those businesses and individuals who use photographers, searching the ICO database  is a good guide to whether the photographer is a legitimate and trustworthy business.

Finding a professional photographer

If you walk down the street and see a shop window that is an untidy mess, would you go in? Or, would you visit the shop selling the same products a few doors along that has a stunning window display? Photographs of your business are like that shop window, and there are very good reasons for using a professional photographer to create those images.

I  recently looked at websites of local businesses I considered using. Poorly written with photographs both composed and exposed badly, I wasn’t inspired. They sold services costing between £600 and £3000, a similar price range to cameras. So, I compared them with a well designed Olympus web page. Then, I looked at a cheap high-street retailer’s website. Like the camera manufacturer, they too had a crisp, tidy web presence with great product photos.

If  businesses don’t put as much effort into promoting their own products as that low-end shop,  are they saying that they don’t value their own goods as highly  as Primark does a £3 T-shirt? It’s probably not their intention, but from a customer’s point of view, it does look that way.

The customer will walk on.

Red Shoes Walking past a scruffy building
A scruffy shop front will make many potential customers walk by.

Isn’t professional photography expensive?

Go to Google and type in “Why are professional photographers” and look at the suggested predictions. At the top of the list is “… so expensive.”

Google Search results Why are professional photographers

I would argue that photographers are not expensive. You are paying for a high quality service, an outstanding product and a lot more time than the couple of hours spent shooting the photos. A professionally shot photograph is a valuable product.

What are you paying for?

A photoshoot takes much more time than the ¹⁄250 second click. Hours, or even days, can be spent developing and editing the pictures.

You buy into some of the photographer’s running costs too. They pay for various registration fees, advertising, web space, National Insurance and pension contributions, income tax, travel, plus endless other running expenses. Like any business, they have to earn those costs back, building them into their fees.

Also, you access the fortune invested in at least two sets of professional-grade equipment. Two sets? Imagine the photographer’s camera failing at an event. A friend’s DSLR stopped working halfway through a wedding service recently and they had no back-up.

How would you feel receiving blurry, grainy images because the lens was too slow and the camera’s low-light performance not good enough. Professionals own good quality equipment.

You are also contributing to their insurance costs.

If you only read one section of this post, read this one!

Some amateur photographers rush at the opportunity to photograph an event without considering whether or not they are insured. This is a big risk.

Business Insurance is costly. My private home insurance doesn’t cover me for developing commercially shot images in my house. If my business computer caught fire and burnt the house down, it would be my business insurance that pays. Nor will the private insurance cover the cost of replacing my camera equipment if it were lost or stolen while I was working.

Social, Domestic and Pleasure car insurance won’t cover driving to and from a commercial shoot. I need business cover for that too.

There is another insurance that is even more important that so many people don’t even consider, and it’s one that you should check if you are employing anyone to do work for you. That is Public Liability Insurance.

Photographer’s household policies won’t cover accidents when they are  working. There is no legal obligation for a business to have this insurance, but it is foolish in the extreme for them not to. It is something you should check before engaging a photographer.

Accidents can and do happen. Studio lights fall over, battery packs catch fire, valuable items get smashed, cameras break or get stolen, memory cards lose all their data and people get hurt. You might end up with no photographs and want compensation for that.

It could be worse!

While researching for this article, an insurance broker told me a horror story.  A couple of years ago, a  photographer raised his camera to his eye, stepped backwards to take the shot and knocked into someone who fell, banged their head and suffered brain damage. Although insured for £1 million public liability, it was not enough to cover the £1.5 million claim made against them. They were left £500,000 shortfall.

Don’t be afraid to ask to see an insurance certificate. If a photographer has £5 million public liability insurance, you can be certain that they take their profession seriously.

How to choose a professional photographer

Perhaps not since the dawn of time, but certainly over the last 100 years, businesses employed professional photographers to promote their services.

Photograph circa 1900 of a building contractor with a horse and cart.
My great grandfather used a professional photographer to promote his business over 100 years ago.

There are excellent professional photographers in this world. Most are friendly and well versed in the artistic and technical aspects of photography. As with every trade, there are some whose work doesn’t meet up to the exacting standards you expect. Choosing the right photographer is a minefield.

What should I expect from a photographer?

As I pointed out above, if you are advertising your wares, you need high quality photographs to reflect their worth. If you are getting married you will want a photographer who will produce an album of photographs that you will look at with joy and not disappointment.

Professional photographers need to deliver exactly what their customers expect every time. They need to guarantee great images that illustrate their customer’s identity. A folk singer’s promotional photos will be very different from those for an accountant, which, in turn, will be different from wedding portraits.

Folk singer Karl Robins
Publicity photographs for folk music legend Karl Robins are very different from the head and shoulder portraits for an accountancy firm.

It’s not just the photography that counts. Photographers must get along with everyone, yet also become invisible and blend in with the crowd.

Is the photographer reputable?

There are hundreds of fantastic professional photographers. There are some that are not so fantastic. Six people in as many weeks told me how disappointed they were with photos they had commissioned from what they discovered were rogue wedding photographers; they had all of the equipment but lacked the skills.

Were these charlatans trying to make a quick buck? If so, they picked the wrong trade; it’s hard work being a professional photographer and the outgoings are enormous. Or, maybe they were misled into thinking their photography was good enough when it wasn’t. That happens a lot.

Digitally fixing another photographer’s failed images is something many professionals, including me, have been asked to do. I’ve seen wedding photos with a host of rudimentary mistakes, including a bridal portrait with a road cone lying on its side in the background. I’ve been shown children’s pictures with blown-out highlights on sweaty faces, pets with crusty eyes and important family members missing from wedding albums. This is sad both for the clients and for the photographers whose reputations are forever tarnished.

Going through the trauma of getting a photographer’s fees refunded at a small claims court does not bring back a wedding day. Choosing the right photographer for you will guarantee great results.

How do I find the best photographer for me?

If you are commissioning a photographer you want them to provide photographs that tell your story or reflect your feelings. A photographer should know what you are looking for and choose the correct lighting and camera settings to achieve that.

Moody black and white phoot
A photographer should choose the right lighting and settings to reflect the mood their client wants.

Websites and portfolios can be a good guide to the quality of the work, but they only display a small selection of of the photographer’s work, images they choose to showcase. They are not a true record of the overall standard. Furthermore, can you be sure that the photos were taken by that photographer? Plagiarism is commonplace.

Personal Recommendations

Personal recommendation is often sited as being the best way to choose a photographer. A lot of work comes my way through word of mouth and I get a lot of return custom. I am grateful for that, but not everyone who gives a recommendation is necessarily qualified to do so. A friend was raving over her wedding photos. In truth, they were not that good. In several of the pictures she had stray hairs running across her face, a rudimentary mistake that should have been fixed before the shoot and, if not then, certainly afterwards during editing. Horizons were wonky and unwanted distractions were in many of the shots. She paid £3000 for that album.

Membership of a trade body may be a measure of quality, but some fantastic photographers shun these establishments.

It’s not all doom and gloom. Most professional photographers are good and, even if you choose one at random, you are most likely to get a skilled artist.

The best way…

The best way of deciding whether to employ a photographer is getting a first-hand experience of them at work. Any photographer worth their salt will take you on a pre-event photoshoot.

Apart from seeing if their images are any good, you will discover if this is someone you want at your event, or associated with your business. You’ll also get to know whether their photographic style is to your taste.

On a pre-event shoot, the photographer can also decide if they want to work for you too. I am lucky, all my clients have been great. I do know photographers who have turned commissions away because the clients’ expectations were unrealistic, or simply because they could not get on.

Good luck finding the right photographer for you.

Be Prepared

Be Prepared for the worst the weather can throw at you

Be Prepared for whatever the weather throws at you
Suffering for art is not something I believe in; I like being comfortable. Most of my favourite images happened in atypical weather. The first sign of fog or snow and I’m out with my camera. Even rain can bring interesting light and unusual sights. Fortunately, being comfortable usually equates to being safe. If heading into the Cheviots or a remote stretch of the Northumberland coastline, preparing for bad conditions can save your life. Without proper equipment and knowledge, mishaps become disasters. As the Scouts say: Be Prepared. Even benign landscapes on sunny days can jump up and bite you.

The day I got blown off the hill and ended up in hospital!

Hillwalking in Scotland one winter, the weather changed abruptly. A violent squall accompanied by a deluge of freezing rain and snow knocked me off my feet. Furthermore, visibility completely vanished and the ridge turned white. I grabbed the bothy shelter from my rucksack. Huddled beneath it, I opened my flask of hot chocolate and waited, cosy and dry, until the elements improved. Without proper preparation, the outcome of that trek could have been very different.

When I got back, I told a friend what had happened. That evening I went to the village pub and someone came over to ask if I was okay. They had heard I was in hospital after being blown off the mountain. Chinese whispers!

Proper Prior Preparation Prevents…

Accidents can happen on a deserted beach, in the open countryside and especially up hills. If you are heading out, especially on your own and even in summer, give someone a copy of your route and you planned return time. Also, write it down. Don’t rely on them remembering the details for the Coastguard or Mountain Rescue teams.

Good quality, layered clothing is essential. Avoid cotton, it absorbs moisture and feels cold against the skin. Prepare for heat as well as cold; heat stroke is just as dangerous as hypothermia. Wear a hat and good walking boots too. Carry water and high-energy snacks. Pack a basic first aid kit and learn how to use it. Check the weather and, if photographing the coast, the tides and sea state too.

A call for help

Mobile apps can use GPS to log your location so your family can see where you are. Make sure your phone is charged, but don’t rely on it to get you out of trouble. I have problems getting a signal in my kitchen and service cannot be guaranteed in the shadow of Helvellyn. Much of our coastline is without a phone signal too. Take a whistle to call for help. Six blasts repeated every minute is the recognised distress signal.

Can you read a map and navigate? Would you be able to find your way off a hill in poor visibility? Walking to the top is easy; it’s upwards all the way. Coming downhill, a multiple of possible routes lead in different directions to the bottom. The quickest descent – plummeting several hundred feet in a few seconds – isn’t what you want. People fall off the north face of Ben Nevis because they cannot navigate in thick cloud.

Enjoy the snow, but Be Prepared for it

Enjoy it!

Of course, we are never prepared for every eventuality. However, we can reduce the risk of coming to harm. But, remember why you went there. Alone or with a friend, there’s no beating the tranquillity of the great outdoors. Not able to see or hear any sign of human life is an experience like no other. Cresting a ridge and coming face-to-face with a stag is amazing – not getting your camera out in time is frustrating. Not Prepared! For that reason, I missed the photo of a stag, so here’s a tree sparrow instead!

I was prepared for this tree sparrow
Tree Sparrow

A long time ago in a cinema far, far away…

Do you need a formal photographic education?

Have you heard of the late Gilbert Taylor?

A long time ago in a cinema far, far away… well, 40-years ago this summer at an Odeon in Norwich, my big sister started my photographic education when she took me to see Star Wars. Spellbound by every aspect of the film, the young me was captivated especially by its visual style. That was the work of self-taught cinematographer Gilbert Taylor. He was also Director of Photography for Ice Cold in Alex, A Hard Day’s Night, Flash Gordon and Doctor Strangelove. Watch one of Taylor’s films and you’ll see the magic he put into lighting and composition.

I can’t watch television or go to the cinema without noticing, and then learning from, the cinematographer’s work. As well as taking photos for a living, I deliver training to my clients, which I love, so I am always learning; keeping up to date. Besides analysing films, I read books, magazines, photographers’ blogs and tutorials. I watch documentaries and academic lectures. Plus, I am always trying new techniques and pushing my boundaries.

Star Wars droid R2D2 was part of my photographic education

Formal Photographic Courses – Are They Right for me?

There are formal qualifications in photography. A-level art has a photographic route. In the UK, National Vocational Qualifications (NVQs) are delivered by a host of providers, NCFE being the awarding body. City and Guilds provide similar courses but they are not renewing their photography accreditation and their courses will soon cease to exist.

The NVQ Level 3 Certificate is an accredited course that takes upwards of 260 hours to complete. Promoted as a step towards getting employment in commercial photography, the Level 3 Diploma is more demanding, requiring at least 730 hours of study. A degree is most likely to get you employed in that highly competitive career and the NVQ can be a stepping stone into that field. However, they don’t offer a great gateway into employment.

The NVQ route may suit some who like a formal, rigid structure even if they are not looking for work. There are some excellent academic providers of both tutored courses and distance learning.

Beware of Sharks!

Beware! Do your research. Quality of provision on courses varies enormously. There are also providers that mislead, calling their completion certificates ‘levels’ and ‘diplomas’. These are not qualifications. Others offer the NVQ Level 2 and 3 Certificate and call them a Diploma; they aren’t. I challenged one provider about this and it transpired that their ‘NCFE accredited diploma’ was not even an NVQ. I would not touch any of these with a tripod!

Do think whether on-line or correspondence training is for you. It doesn’t suit everyone and it can be difficult to keep enthused if you haven’t got peers around you to help push you along. Seeing a good tutor face-to-face can also be very motivating.

Sunrise over the Sea

Might Alternative Training Suit Me Better

Choose the learning style that suits you best. If you are not concerned about having a qualification for employment, then do contemplate private training from a professional photographer. It is often better value, more flexible, targeted to your needs and hands-on. I have to declare an interest here; I am a professional photographer that offers training.

What photographic education great names get?

Many employed in the industry today got there by following the academic route, but not everyone.

One young woman I know has just secured a place working in one of the biggest studios in Europe. She learnt some techniques on one of my courses and she has no formal photographic qualification, she just has buckets of talent and enthusiasm for photography.

It’s a different story too for most of the great names in photography. Bernice Abbott, Annie Leibovitz, Robert Capa, Richard Avedon, Diane Arbus, David Bailey, Linda McCartney, Ansel Adams and a host of others did not study for a photography qualification. Like Gilbert Taylor, they learnt their skills by taking pictures, usually supported by other professional photographers. They developed their own styles away from the education establishment.

Get Out!

Get out and take photographs; it's the best way you learn

Of course, there are a host of other ways to learn photography. I have over 50 books acquired over the years, some new and some bought second hand. I always search charity shops for new books to read. General photography books are all pretty similar, covering the same topics. I have a great fondness for the books of Michael Freeman ever since I bought a copy of his 35mm Handbook about 30 years ago. His later works have lost none of their accessibility or interest.

Specialist books can also help if you are interested in a specific style or genre of photography. My library includes excellent books on weddings, wildlife, landscapes, portraits, studio lighting and so on. I also have collections of works by different photographers from Linda McCartney to Koo Stark. My bookshelves are weighed down with huge volumes of collected works and photographic history books. I am forever dipping into them, learning and getting inspiration.

The internet is brimming over with sites eager to share photographic knowledge. Sites like Petapixel, My Modern Metropolis, DPNow and a multitude of blogs have huge amounts of useful information. I like searching the BBC site for the keyword ‘photography’ or Photographer and reading, watching or listening to the articles on there.

Looking at other people’s work also is a great way to learn. Look at what you do and don’t like. Discover photographers that inspire you and whose work you find challenging.

If you want to learn photography, get training but, most of all, get out with your camera and take photos. It is, after all, what we enjoy doing the most.

 

 

A truncated version of this article first appeared in The Northumberland Gazette.

What Sort of Camera Should You Buy?

 

Four people in the last week have asked me about buying a camera. With Christmas not that far in the future this is probably a good time for me to write about this.

I usually reply with a question: What sort of photography do you want to shoot? The needs of a wildlife enthusiast are very different from those of someone who just wants to take holiday snaps. Cameras are expensive pieces of precision equipment and you’ll want the system, design and model that will best suits your needs and budget.

Don’t Fall for Reviews or Personal Recommendations

Publishers don’t win advertising revenue by featuring unfavourable reports of their sponsor’s latest shiny new kit, so I’m sceptical of professional camera reviews. I read separate reviews of the same camera in two popular photography magazines. One reckoned the camera was a technological wonderment, the second gave it a mediocre rating. The first review was adjacent to an advert for that manufacturer – a manufacturer that didn’t advertise in the second magazine.

Reviewers also fuss over tiny performance differences. It makes good reading, but the small variances within similar price brackets make little difference to the majority of photographers.

There are some cameras that are game changers, but in the most part, similar priced cameras are similar in both design and features.

When looking for a camera a few months ago, I asked other photographers for their advice and was met with vigorous promotions of the brands they invested in. You’ll never hear a photographer saying, ‘I bought X but made a terrible mistake and wish I had got Y instead.’ They endorse the brand they use with an enthusiasm to put sales staff to shame. They’ll also decry rival brands with equal gusto.

I’m not going to recommend the brand that I use to you (I use Olympus). For me it is the perfect system to meet my needs. But that does not mean it is necessarily the perfect brand or model for you. That is a decision only you can make.

My Recent Decision

My main DSLR still takes fantastic quality pictures, but it’s six years old now and technology has moved on. I need performance beyond its capabilities for my work. Researching the market, I found a bewildering array of models.

Every reputable manufacturer produces fantastic cameras throughout their price ranges and I needed to find one that worked for me.

In the words of the  song and album title by the late, great George Harrison, All Things Must Pass. I was met with a barrier that Olympus had discontinued producing DSLR cameras, and so the lenses I had would not fit their mirrorless range without an adaptor.  That left me with a quandary. Should shift to a totally different brand and system and sell off my old equipment, or stick with the Olympus brand and adapt what I had to fit the Micro Four Thirds mount.

How I Made My Mind Up

I made a list of my priorities: exceptional low-light performance for photographing events without a flash; a fully articulating LCD screen to view when I use a low-set tripod and for macro work; lightweight, so not to suffer a neck injury from carrying it all day, and robust enough to take hiking or cycling in all weathers. If the camera could be made compatible with my existing equipment, that would also be a deciding factor.

I needed a camera of good enough quality so I could use it for shooting a wedding or party, but also slip in my pocket without damaging it. I wanted something discreet for candid street photography.

Because much of my work is built around training,  a large, clear articulated screen with a live preview of depth of field was a must. Finally, I set a budget.

Ergonomics is so important; some cameras are just too fiddly for my large hands. After numerous trips to shops trying different models, I rejected plenty. Even on some large cameras, I found my fingers inadvertently hitting other buttons when I pressed the shutter.  With some cameras, I could not hold them to my eye without them pressing uncomfortably onto my nose .

High pixel count is a marketing ploy.  16 megapixels – about the smallest pixel count on the market at the moment – is twice the size needed to produce high quality A3 prints. Wedding album photos are far smaller and many images I sell end up online, reduced in size to around 2 megapixels.  Larger image files also take more time to upload and use up valuable storage space. I neither needed nor wanted a 50 megapixel monster.

The Perfect Camera For Me

There are two brands I am really adverse to. I won’t mention their names but one I think makes really ugly cameras, and artists should use great-looking equipment. The second brand, and this is purely anecdotal from conversations with other photographers, seems to break down a lot.

I did find and buy camera perfect for my needs. I decided to stick with Olympus.  For me, it’s perfect. It fits my hands, it’s portable, it looks stunning, I can fit it in my pocket, it’s robust, it has a large, clear LCD display and viewfinder, the image quality is fantastic and it has game-changing image stabilisation.

If you are interested it’s an OM-D E-M5 mark ii mirrorless camera. At some point I will also buy an Olympus E-M1 mark ii.

As I said, this is not my recommendation to you. Like any other camera owner, I am pleased with my purchase, but I want you to find the right brand, system and model to suit your needs.

A 1.5 second exposure taken with my new camera, an Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark II

Which Camera System is the Best for You?

Like all aspects of photography, there are compromises to be made. There is always a trade-off to be made. Here is a quick run-down of the common camera systems with some of the advantages and disadvantages of each.

Digital Single Reflex Camera (DSLR)

The most expensive, but delivering (arguably) the best quality, DSLRs are large in size. They can be heavy to carry, but versatile for shooting many different types of photography. That versatility is brought about by buying a range of lenses. The quality of the lens has more to do with the quality of the final image than does the body of the camera.

Camera bodies usually come in three levels: entry, enthusiast and professional, with some overlap. The  build quality and performance increases with each, as does the complexity of use and the price bracket. Prices range from a little over £300 to over £13,000.

Sensor sizes can vary. Cameras with larger sensors are bigger and they cost more. They do have greater dynamic range than another contemporary camera with a smaller sensor. Saying that, the performance of modern DSLRs (and CSCs) with smaller ‘crop sensors’ – up to half the size of a 35mm ‘full frame’ sensor – is outstanding.

Modern digital cameras with the larger sensors found in mirrorless and DSLR cameras cope well in very low light situations, better than bridge or phone cameras. They can also take filters mounted to the lens that simulate low light conditions. This 40 second exposure was taken well after dusk and the island was barely visible to the naked eye.

Mirrorless (Compact System Camera, or CSC)

CSCs also can produce excellent quality images and come in the same three price brackets. The most expensive are around £5000, the cheapest nearer to £300. They too have interchangeable lenses. They are usually far smaller than DSLRs although share similar sensor sizes. Their small size is their big attraction. Saying that, some models are just as large as a DSLR, a marketing error realised by Sony whose sales of their over-sized mirrorless camera, the A7Rii, were disappointing.

Instead of viewing the world through a prism and a mirror like the DSLR, the viewfinder is electronic. This has an advantage that you can see pretty much how your photograph will look when you press the shutter. Information like the histogram and blown highlight and shadow warnings can be seen.

Most mirrorless cameras have a ‘contrast detect’ focusing system.  It is slower to focus than the ‘phase detect’ system used when looking though the viewfinder in DSLRs, but is also more accurate in some circumstances.  Modern electronics have narrowed the margins between the two systems and many photographers won’t notice the difference.

In Live View (looking at the image on the back LCD screen)  a DSLR  will also usually uses contrast detect. Some mirrorless cameras, such as the Olympus OM-D E-M1, have both focussing systems available.

There are mirrorless cameras  without a viewfinder. They rely on you using the live view screen, like taking a photo on a phone. These are cheaper and often smaller, but can be difficult to use in bright light. Furthermore, holding a camera at arms length is unstable. Some have viewfinders you can purchase separately that are mounted on to the flash hot shoe.

50 second exposure taken with my Olympus OM-D E-M5 mark II just after dusk. Hand-held, but resting against a not entirely-stable fence, demonstrating the outstanding image stabilisation and low-light performance of this modern mirrorless camera.

Bridge Camera

The Bridge Camera are so called because they bridge the gap between compacts and DSLRs/CSCs. They are similar to CSCs in most respects apart from having a single, permanently attached zoom lens. They are often marketed on the range of this zoom, and are sometimes called super-zooms because of this.

The image quality is good, though not as good as an interchangeable lens camera.  No lens can perform exceptionally well across a wide range of focal lengths because of optical limitations; images will be soft at the zoom’s extremes and colour fringing (chromatic aberration) may be noticeable along high contrast edges in the picture; you may see a purple or green fuzzy line around the edges of a person pictured against a bright background.

The sensor is also much smaller than in CSCs and DSLRs and this can bring a noticeable difference in image quality. The smaller sensor also makes it more of a challenge to get a blurred background.

If any one component of a bridge camera fails then the camera becomes unusable, if you scratch the lens, the whole camera is out of action.

This image shot with an older bridge camera, although acceptable, shows the limitations in quality. I have applied significant sharpening, noise reduction and tonal adjustments to improve the detail.

 

This image of a sisal plantation was taken in 2004 with the same bridge camera. Its small sensor gives poor results compared to a contemporary DSLR. Note the blown highlights in the sky. Limited dynamic range is still an issue with a camera that has a smaller sensor, although the performance of newer models is much better than they once were.

Compact and Phone Cameras

The compact camera market has collapsed since the advent of the camera phones. There are still some models available, but many are more like small bridge cameras than what we used to think of as compacts.

Compact cameras have tiny sensors but can still be useful. I would not have been able to carry my DSLR with me when I took this photo so I had to make do with what was available to me. The quality is not bad, but I had increase the details in the shadows and then apply significant noise reduction in post processing.

The ubiquitous camera phones are the backbone of services like Instagram, Twitter and Facebook where people can quickly and easily share images of what is happening in their life. They are familiar to almost everyone and so I won’t wax lyrical about them. The quality of the images has  come on enormously. They are not as versatile as the cameras listed above, but they serve a purpose and can produce great results.

Consider Buying A Pre-Owned Camera

Do you use Flickr? It’s a photography sharing site owned by Yahoo. Images are not heavily compressed as they are on Facebook, and photo metadata, which may include your copyright details, are preserved. Facebook strips images of their metadata.

One of the great things about Flickr is that one can search for images taken by a specific camera model. Choosing cameras that are now ten years old, I searched through images taken with the Olympus E-3 and E-510, Panasonic Lumix DMC-L10, Nikon D40X, Canon 40D, Sony A700 and Pentax K100D Super. There are still fantastic photos being taken with those cameras. Much newer models are available than these for a lot less cost than they were new.

There is an old saying that the most important component of any camera system is the one holding the camera and looking through the viewfinder. Flickr proves that point; you don’t need the latest model to capture great images, you need the photographic skills. (If you lack those, contact me for training!)

Newer models will produce better results in extreme lighting conditions and may achieve faster shutter values. But,  all the cameras listed above still produce excellent images and they are available second-hand for a song. If you have a restricted budget, then do think about buying second hand.

If you don’t like the camera then you can sell it on again and the resale value won’t change that much. A used camera also means a far lower carbon footprint. Older cameras are likely to have had firmware updates. Plus, the raw files will be compatible with software like Lightroom, On1, Photoshop or Elements. That’s not always the case with new cameras.

This picture of a great grey owl I took in 2010 with an entry level DSLR, an Olympus E-510, back in 2010. The image quality, although from an old and lowly specified camera by current standards, still stands up to scrutiny.

Check out user Reviews for Older Model Cameras

User reviews will also tell you if an older model has common flaws and how long they last. Check the shutter count against the life expectancy of the camera as the mechanics of a shutter will wear out. My pro-level DSLR should be good for between 250,000 and 350,000 shutter actuations, consumer end cameras have a lower life-expectancy of around 50,000 shots.

Where to Buy

Reputable dealers like Camera Jungle, Wex and MPB all sell used camera equipment. Their descriptions are accurate and cameras come with a guarantee. Some great deals can be found on online auction sites too, but there is an increased risk of buying a stolen camera. If buying privately, do ask the vendor for photos of the serial numbers of both the camera and the lens. If they refuse, don’t buy. There are internet-based services that help track stolen camera equipment using the serial number.

What if I Really Want a New Camera

The portability of a mirrorless CSC allows me to carry it almost everywhere. I was able to get lots of impromptu shots of these cranes operating here for a few weeks.

Low light and high ISO performance have improved enormously in recent years and I needed that facility for my work. If you do need very fast shutter values in low light, then a new, high-end camera might be what you require.

Look for discounts from retailers selling open box, returned and display models to save you a few tens of pounds. You may consider ‘grey’ goods, cameras built for overseas markets. Take care. You can get caught out by import duties and not all camera manufacturers offer a worldwide guarantee.

Don’t Forget the Lens

My personal need is for low-light performance. Using the combination of the fast f/1.8 45mm Olympus m.Zuiko lens on the E-M5 Mark II shows how  outstanding glass quality and the camera’s superb image stabilisation allow for shooting hand-held images that would have been unthinkable until recently. This was shot hand-held at 1/5th of a second.

High-end cameras don’t always come supplied with a lens because you are expected to choose lenses to meet your needs. Cheaper cameras are usually supplied  with one-or-two reasonable quality kit lenses.

Good quality lenses make far greater difference to the quality of your photos than a change of camera body. Buy the fastest lens you can afford, i.e. the one with the lowest  f-number.

Old cameras shot with my latest camera that 100 years newer than the one on the right.

If you are stuck choosing, please do contact me either on social media or by replying below and I’ll gladly help you choose the right model for you.

 

 

 

 

This article is an extended version of two of my columns first published in the Northumberland Gazette.