photographya



Making a living from photography isn't the same as being a keen photographer, that was what was always so difficult to get across to my students (I lectured in photography for fifteen years as well as making my living by taking pictures). I'd set them written homeworks every week and a one month practical project to do on their own time.

Sometimes, in fact often, they'd bring back lovely shots but it'd take them ages to complete one picture. Always the same questions from every intake of students: What's the best camera? What's the best film? What format should I use? What lighting? Remember here we are going back to the days of cameras with film and not the modern electronic jobs.

The difference when you're trying to make a living at it is that it doesn't matter what camera you use so long as it can produce a sharp image when you want it to. You need different formats for different jobs. Any professional will use the largest format that he can, commensurate with the job. If you can stick your camera on the heaviest tripod that you can drag around behind you then you should do so. Never mess around in the darkroom, that's what processing labs are for. You should be out taking pictures that bring in the money that you need.

Most of all, never let your client down. The first time you screw a job up is very likely the last job you will have. Word gets around.

Very likely your client will have only a vague idea of the picture(s) that he wants. It's up to you to produce something that fits his poorly imagined image and make him happy so that he'll pay your outrageous prices happily.

I did quite a lot of work for Cheshire Police (Road Traffic Division) over a period of about two years so I can give you a few examples.

'Dip Your Headlights'. They wanted a picture of lights reflected in a rear view mirror that looked dazzling. It sounds easy to Mr Plod, just take a snap. Ha. You can't get what's in front of the car and the rear view mirror and the reflected headlamps in focus at the same time. Only the mirror should be quite sharp but you should be able to recognise the rest.

So, you shoot the rear lights of one car at dusk. Shoot the rear view mirror in the same lighting conditions and then shoot a cars headlamps (with a nice star filter to make them look impressive). Then all three shots need to be matted together down at the processing lab before you copy the whole thing onto sheet film for the printers to make the blocks that the leaflets will be printed from. You'll also need to know all about blockmaking.

"We need a shot of a car running on sidelights on the motorway" There's another one that sounds so easy.

You can't shoot it at night because the sky's too boring, you shoot at sunset while driving east. You'll have about a thirty minute window to take the pictures. You'll need cars with their headlamps on as a contrast so you need at least three other cars as well as the shooting car.

That's why you find Bernie sitting in the open tail hatch of a police Range Rover with his feet on the tow bar and two sets of handcuffs fastening his belt to to a rail inside the truck so he doesn't fall out at forty miles an hour. Radio in one hand and camera in the other shouting to my assistant in the trail car to move closer or further away and trying to direct three other unmarked police cars (with headlamps on full) at the same time.

In those conditions using your camera needs to be instinctive.

So, one Monday afternoon John, my liason with the police rings up. They want a shot (just one shot) of some crashed cars on a motorway. They'll supply the cars but it'll need to be shot at night as they'll have to close the motorway to shoot them. I want double my usual exorbitant rate to work after midnight but he says that's alright.

It's June 7th which is my sons second birthday and he's having a party, I don't want to go. He offers double my double rate. Well, it's after midnight and Dominic will be in bed so I accept. If they'll send a car and driver for me. The bugger agrees to that too so I'm stuck. Have to do it.

On the night the car arrives and takes me to the job. We've closed one of the major north/south motorways in England for about fifteen miles, I'm met by the Assistant Chief Constable, he'll drive me in person. I'm impressed.

Now I'm seeing the problems too. He doesn't have a clue what he wants. "Just a picture of some crashed cars". He hasn't picked a site so we drive up and down looking for somewhere good. It's a motorway for Gods sake, every inch looks the same. I randomly pick somewhere with a bridge passing overhead so there'll be something to fill in space above the crashed cars. He gets on his radio and calls for the cars and all the other stuff we'll need.

After about five minutes the motorway lights up like a nuclear explosion. Five car transporters packed with wrecked cars, ambulances (lots of different ones so I have a choice), fire engines with motorway crash lights on fifty foot tall poles and what looked like every policeman from Cheshire Road Traffic. Since the motorway was closed they filled six lanes, all of them with their flashing lights on full blast.They pulled up next to us, around us, drove up the embankment. I'd never seen so many all in one place.

"So" says the Assistant Chief Constable "Which cars do you want?". I mooch along and pick two that look like they might fit together. Looking disappointed that I only want two he summons a couple of cranes (yes, they had those too) and has them lifted into place.

We put in an ambulance and grab John the liason to be a victim on a stretcher. I put some studio lights behind the ambulance and the car to give some backlighting. Yes, they'd brought generators as well.

It's not enough. "I need some lights on that bridge too" I said. Apparently 'that bridge' was another motorway. I was getting quite dizzy with this. We closed that one as well and stuck a few fire engines up there with crash lights.

John the liason is getting a bit nervous by this time. "You do realise that you've just closed the main east/west motorway across the Pennines? There's no communication between the coasts now." I gave him a cheesy grin. This was becoming so mad I couldn't believe it. He told me that they'd budgeted £80,000 for this and now there would be an 'overspend'. If I'd known that I'd have doubled my fee again.

Just for fun I had them move one of the bridge lights fifteen feet to the left. Then move it back again. Kafka would have loved this.

I arranged the shot. Took light meter readings, I always use a selenium meter and they're not very sensitive. I get no reading. So, I estimate. I know what the exposure should be for my studio lights, knock off a bit because there's no reflection from walls and add on a bit because of all the other lights.

It's not a problem, I always take polaroids on my fancy Mamiya RB67 to check exposure anyway. Shooting on transparencies you only have about a third of a stop latitude in exposure so it pays to check. I look at the polaroid............it's completely black.

"How does it look?" from the Assistant Chief Constable.

"Pretty good" I say while sweat springs from my brow. "I'll..... just take another to be sure."

Perhaps the weather was too cold for the chemicals to work? It was quite chilly and a slight ground mist was rolling in? This one I stick in my armpit to develop......still black. I shove it in my pocket quick before the Assistant Chief Constable sees it.

Maybe my camera shutter is buggered? A Mamiya RB67 has the shutter in the lens and not in the camera. No light readings and no polaroid exposure check. I look at the lights again, make a guess. Decide that taking a few back-up shots on the Nikons would be a good idea. Lots of exposure bracketing is looking really good by now.

A police helicopter chuttered overhead to make sure that my blockade of Yorkshire was effective.

I think I shot about a dozen rolls of rollfilm and four of 35mm, all bracketed exposures of the one scene.

They were perfect. The Assistant Chief Constable was really pleased, the police had lots of excitement. Yorkshire survived the blockade.

I wish I'd doubled my fee again.