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Ask ten photographers: What do you wish you'd known when you started out ?

8 November 2007 - Nick McGowan-Lowe

Ask ten photographers a question and get ten different answers. We asked a selection of EPUK members what they’d wish they’d known when they entered the industry.

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I wish I had known that agencies were the future.

Whilst at college I’d have regular discussions over a glass or two
with my housemate, Ben Curtis. I believed that the future lay with the broadsheet photographer, in particular those of the Guardian and the Independent (and even argued for the usage of black and white over colour.)

Curtis, on the other hand, thought that the wire agencies would come through on top, and so we both went along our separate paths, him to the Press Association, me to the Independent.

Ten years later, I’m freelancing and Ben is running the Middle East desk for Associated Press; there are hardly any staff photographers left on the national papers and wire agency pictures run throughout all of the papers, where before they only got used on international stories or where the paper had no coverage.

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I still think the future is in black and white though!

After graduating from Sheffield College with an NCTJ in Photojournalism in 1997, Jason Bye worked shifts for AFP, PA and Reuters in London before moving back to Norwich to work for a range of editorial and commercial clients. At night, he dreams of Tri-X.


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What do I wish I’d known when I started out? Well the decent rates of pay in Sainsbury’s would have been interesting, or perhaps the holiday benefits at M&S.

But seriously? That our business is tough. You go to college and come out with some concept of composition but that’s about it. There are no jobs, there is no formal career structure, and nothing to help you along after you leave. You construct your own career ladder, without instructions.

And if that isn’t hard enough, you also have to manage your own business: invoices, chasing money, tax returns, company identity, marketing, it’s all part of everyday life for photographers. They don’t teach that at college.

I soon got my act together and enrolled myself on a business course. There are loads of free government ones available, and mine was fantastic. After ten weeks I emerged with a business plan strong enough to borrow £5000 from the bank and there my business started.

I’ve been going for 16 years now and doing quite well. I love what I do as every day is new. The learning curve is continuous. My recent swap to digital for instance has been interesting and such great fun.

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So what do I wish I’d have known when I started out? Well, that you never know everything, but that trying to learn is half the fun.

Helen Stone has been a freelance for the last sixteen years, excepting a short time off for maternity leave. She doesn’t think she would have fitted in at Sainsbury’s anyway.


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That keeping the can of compressed air, the can of WD-40 and the can of spray mount on the same shelf wasn’t such a great idea.

Nick McGowan-Lowe has been making Chief Executives and factories look more interesting than they are in real life for over a decade. In that time, he’s learnt that cleaning glue off a sensor is trickier than you’d think. His clippings book is surprisingly oily.


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As a young photographer my market knowledge was appalling. I knew that newspapers and magazines existed but I was convinced that the best way to get noticed was to work cheap. It didn’t work. Several magazines were happy enough to pay me bugger all for a few jobs and then, when I put up my prices, they dropped me. I learned quickly. I was only that naïve for a month or two and then I realised that there was a better way…charge the right amount from day one!

At the same time I was given a brilliant piece of advice: “Cut your teeth on less well known publications that use the kind of pictures that you want to shoot and then move onto the papers and magazines that you really want to work for once you are a bit more experienced”.

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The amazing fact that I discovered this way was that some of the less well known publications pay more, use your pictures well and don’t treat you like s**t.

As well as being a staff photographer for the Times Educational Supplement, Neil Turner is also the owner and publisher of photography education website www.dg28.com, Deputy Chairman of the British Press Photographers’ Association, Father of Chapel of the NUJ’s TSL Education Chapel, and an EPUK moderator. He has more hours in the day than the rest of us, apparently


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I wish I had realised the physical ravages imposed by sports photography, and done more to protect myself. The end of my career has seen me head towards the physio on a regular basis and I’ve also had two surgical procedures for bone and joint damage. I spent a lot of time with event organisers trying to get them to arrange good facilities and working conditions for photographers. I usually gave them my normal load of equipment and asked them to walk from the press buses to the press room to the working area etc. It had an effect!

I wish I had realised that I didn’t have to be superwoman to impress. I foolishly thought that unless I was seen here, there and everywhere, I wouldn’t be accepted or considered a genuine sports photographer. I should have concentrated on quality rather than quantity and on marketing images as much as shooting them.

I wish I had understood the importance of keeping pace with the technical developments in the job and should have seen that the digital revolution would take over so many aspects of the work. Miss out on the bandwagon and you are for ever playing catch up.

I wish I had kept a diary. When I look back on all the travelling, events, people I’ve met and experiences I have had, it would be great to have something to look at and remember more clearly what I was living through. Who knows? I might even have published a memoir and made some serious money (yeah right).

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And I wish I had not assumed that my picture archive would one day raise enough capital to bring my career to a decent end. How wrong I was!

Eileen Langsley became the UK’s first full time female sports photographer in 1980, and has since covered 11 Olympic games. At night she dreams of a ducky sized 400 f 2.8 weighing just a couple of ounces, which can fit into a pocket.


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I had no intention of being a travel photographer but the first work I got was for a holiday company and everything followed from there. I wish I’d known how big a part of my life computers were to play – I’d have done more training instead of muddling through inefficiently.

I had no idea when I started out that I would spend most of my days at home alone in front of a computer. I’ve been doing this for 6 years and there were times when I really struggled with loneliness. A smart friend of mine who just finished a photography degree set up with a group of friends in a shared office/studio and that seems very wise. Another emotional aspect is dealing with constant rejection: pitching ideas and being knocked back again and again takes its toll.

Having working in book publishing for 10 years, I had no illusions about producing work that was uncommercial. I do arty shots sometimes but only for my own pleasure: some students seem to think that a fine-art book of personal work is a realistic and financially rewarding prospect. On a practical note, on my HND course a picture researcher come to talk to us about how things worked from her perspective. I was the only one to speak to her afterwards, get her details and stay in touch. Don’t let contacts slip away from you.

The last practical thing I wish I’d known is the extent you can get things paid for. When I went on my first press trip for a commissioned job the light went on! Since then I’ve started doing travel writing as it’s easier to secure a commission for that and then you scrounge your trip and offer the pix as well. The images then go to stock for extra cash.

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Plenty of writers submit their (sometimes not bad) pix with articles so I didn’t see why photographers shouldn’t move the boundary in the other direction, although I do find the writing hard to do well.

After leaving the world of book publishing for that of photography six years ago, Anna Watson has shot extensively for books, magazines and travel companies. She thanks her lucky stars that her first commission didn’t come from a sewage company


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Everyone comes to a specialism differently. I did it having become interested in interiors photography; I analysed the elements making up a typical interiors feature and decided I had the skills, or could acquire them.

The first mistake I made was in not having the courage to aim right at the middle of the market, but offering a potential feature to one of the third-rank title which depend on the too-humble newcomer ripe for exploitation.

I wish I’d known early on it was unwise to accept lower fees from inferior titles on the basis that one is “learning” and will “move on to better things” soon. Either your work is good enough to command a proper fee, or it’s not worth publishing.

Magazine publishing is more flexible than ever, but that makes it more volatile too: titles come & go. I submitted a finished feature to one of IPC’s well-known titles a few years ago, but before it could appear IPC pulled the plug on Homes & Ideas! I was of course paid – but would one of the lesser publishers have been willing or able to pay up? And if I’d known another magazine led a hand-to-mouth financial existence, aggravated by the shysters in charge, I wouldn’t have contributed in the first place.

If there’s one thing I’ve never learned, and wish I’d been able to, it’s the ability to assess with confidence whether a given feature idea will stand up or not. I’ve had some truly stunning homes declined by a string of editors; I’ve had proposals accepted that truly surprised me, one of which provided a short trip to the Costa del Sol recently to cover an architect-designed villa. Even with detailed guidance from mags, some of which have very well specified requirements, I find it impossible to predict a “sure thing”.

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But I do wish I’d been more adventurous in shooting stuff on spec – oh, and I should have got property-releases from the start, too…

Anthony Harrison wants your house. Literally. He’s always looking for potential feature homes: contact him at info@houseshoot.com


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I wish I had known how to run a business.

I don’t think I was ever going to square editorial photography with earning a good living, but a better understanding of income and expenditure would have made a considerable difference throughout my life as a photographer.

I had an incredibly lucky start to my career. In 1975 The Telegraph Magazine began giving me freelance assignments whilst I was still a student at the London College of Printing. It was in the days when students got grants and The Telegraph supplied film and advance expenses for commissions.

One day Tom Hawkyard, the magazine’s Picture Editor asked me if I had submitted any invoices for the work I had done. I said no.

Tom then asked if I knew what an invoice was. When I said I didn’t he replied “let me show you” and on the top of a blank piece of paper wrote the word “Invoice”. Below that he wrote the Telegraph’s address and my address, a date and then “For photography of …”.

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That was over 32 years ago and I still use the same style for my invoices today. The only problem was my first lesson in running a business was my only lesson in running a business.

Graham Harrison worked as a freelance photographer for the Telegraph Magazine for over ten years shooting portraits, travel stories, royal weddings and documentary projects. Although he also worked for Vogue, The World of Interiors and Car magazine and has had two books published by the British Museum he still hopes that earning a respectable income from editorial photography will be possible, one day.


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Here’s the wisdom of hindsight, the things I wish I had known about.

1. Your ability to take photos is secondary to your ability to sell yourself. If you can’t persuade a potential client, you will never get the chance. Unfortunately this penalises honesty. ‘Can I show you some second-rate photos I did for a third-rate magazine?’ never seems to impress.

2. Most of us perfectionists see only the faults in our own work, whilst other peoples’ looks far better. That’s because there are many brilliant photographers in the world and you aren’t one. Learn to lie about that or get an agent to do it for you.

3. Don’t become dependent on too few clients. Their promotion, job change, pregnancy, or accounting squeeze will drop you in the cack just as you thought things were going OK.

4. Flavour of the month is about all photographers can hope for. Newness matters. Once you’re over 35 you’ve had it. You’re too expensive, too shrewd about copyright grabs, and hair dye and GAP clothes just aren’t cool even if you think so.

5. Practice staying awake for at least 48hrs straight doing the post-production clients don’t believe is necessary, or fixing computers so you can (also most weekends).

6. Never sleep with art editors, no matter how drunk you get. Verbal agreements about meaningless shags are worthless here.

7. Learn to enjoy doing book-keeping and accounts. Ignoring this produces similar results to 6. except they’re team handed and use rubber gloves.

8. Don’t use your credit cards to finance your work. You can get in big trouble very fast when you have a slack period. NB when, not if. Buy your own home, then remortgage, remortgage, remortgage. You owe this to EMAP shareholders, apparently.

9. Marry someone filthy rich. Preferably a trustee of National Geographic, who can’t stand the sight of you and wants you out of the house three months at a time.

10. If you have children, take photos and write down their names so you can recognise them when you next see them. If you don’t have children, so much the better, you can’t afford the maintenance anyway given what Adobe charge.

11. That decades of dedication and relentless learning would result in becoming enormously expert at a vast range of skills of almost no commercial value.

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12. Stay abreast of new technology at all costs. Without a thorough understanding of the internet you won’t have a clue why the phone has stopped ringing, and it is the best knowledge-sharing and work-avoidance mechanism known to man.

Tony Sleep describes himself as a professional epitaph writer and autonomous imaging device for when Nokias just aren’t good enough. With 25 years of commissioned work for magazines, charities and social housing photography to his credit, he is hoping to move up to a Big Issue franchise soon.


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When I was about 13 years old I went to the owner of a local camera shop, who was a friend of my father, showed him the snaps I’d taken on an old Voigtlander camera and told him I wanted to be a photographer. His reply was, “well you have an eye for a picture, but there are easier ways of killing yourself”.

After 18 years in this business I’m still killing myself.

So what do I wish I’d known when I started out? Well I wish I’d known that the first warning I was given wasn’t just someone trying to put me off in order to test how much I really wanted to pursue this career, but that it’s actually true.

I wish I’d known that there would come a time when clients and their accountants would forget to remember that good photography is not a cost, but a benefit and investment for their businesses and publications, that quality images would help them attract clients and revenue that would cancel out the cost of the photography.

I wish I’d known that not only does the World not owe you a living (which is something I’ve always believed anyway), but that no one owes you a living even if they commission you to work for them or they use your library images to help them make their own living.

I wish I’d known that digital would kill the professional image. In fact professionals are struggling to compete with amateurs because professionals can’t afford to work for free on account of this being their only source of income, while amateurs already have paid jobs that allow them to earn a living even when their photography doesn’t.

I wish I’d known that digital cameras and computers would flood image libraries with schmaltzy pictures of kittens and dandelions.

I wish I’d known that publishers weren’t interested in supporting and nurturing quality, dedicated professionals rather than using anything they could get away with using for free and that shareholders were more important in the short term than quality publications in the long term.

I wish I’d known that being an electrician has more professional kudos, stability and a higher standard of living.

More images are used in more ways now than at any time in the history of photography, but dumbing down and a general “it’ll do” attitude have left the profession in a mess. There may come a time when someone who wants genuine quality will struggle to find a photographer still in business to undertake their work. If they do, they really will have to pay through the nose for it.

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But finally, I wish I’d known how much fun this profession could be, because then I would have got into it much, much sooner.

Tim Gander started as a freelance at The Bath Chronicle (when it was a daily!) in 1989 before going to college to get his formal qualifications. He then spent 6 years at The News, Portsmouth (when it was a broadsheet) and left to go freelance again, working for national newspapers, magazines and now pretty much exclusively for corporate clients. He lives in Somerset with his wife, two children, cat, four mice and two rabbits.

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