So you want to be a snapper?!

I think that this was written in 2001 for the old website, but as it is still relevent I have included it here.

OK, So you think you want to do my job? So you want to be a press photographer, why?  Many people see the job as glamorous; traveling to exotic countries, meeting interesting people and shooting them, ermm, actually that is probably the army, but sometimes it can apply to what we do also.  

On this page I have highlighted some of the upsides to what we do, as well as the lows, along with some of the skills required to make a half decent fist of things.  I have received numerous emails over the years from people wishing to get into press photography and obviously this page (and the other pages on this site) don’t give enough clues, so here goes. I am sorry if I seem to ramble on and on but it really isn’t very easy to get into this line of work without an awful lot of hard work and good fortune.

Now please do not phone me, because you have the latest phone-camera, and think you can make it as a snapper. Whilst I won’t tell you where to go, I shall be thinking it. I have had three of such calls this week. If there is something that this page, or website lacks email me, and I’ll consider writing something for the site.

If you want a critique of your work, tough. First and foremost what area of press photography do you want to get into. It doesn’t matter which, News, Sports, Features, Paparazzi you will be universally hated by the very people that gorge themselves on the celebrity shite that largely fills the Tabloid Press. (in Tabloid I include all the nationals except the broadsheets, whereas others seem to feel that the Express and the Daily Mail are real newspapers).

Right! if we look at the dictionary definition of a Press Photographer, there isn’t one (OK there is but it is crap it says photographer who works for a newspaper) However looking up paparazzo is an awful lot more fun.

I suppose how you get into press photography really depends upon were you are starting from so judging by many of the emails that I receive, most have already carved a career (or at least started to) in another field, some appear to be having a mid life crisis and wish to abandon what they have for a far more difficult life, and some are just starting out in the adult world and haven’t yet made up there mind what they want to do.

One of the most important things to bear in mind is that as a junior or trainee wages/salary is low, I would suggest that 12-14k is at the higher end of what you may receive.

I will try to be fair and recommend what I believe to be the best route, some of you visiting here may recognise some of the text as advice that I gave in response to your emails.

Getting Started

Try and get some work experience with a press agency, of which there are a few spread throughout the UK, however there are limited spaces, agencies work their staff very hard for little reward, however the experience (if it doesn’t drive you to a different sphere of employment) will put you in good standing for working on the Nationals.

With a couple of years under your belt you will be able to approach the national newspapers picture desks with some confidence, however don’t expect to get a contract or become a staffer, you will probably be able to freelance but without a guarantee of work. 

To quote JJ Jameson from Spiderman the movie: “No Jobs, Freelance, best thing in the world for a kid your age! Bring me some more shots of that newspaper selling clown, and I’ll take them off your hands, but I never said you had a job! MEAT, I’ll send you a nice box of Christmas Meat. That’s the best that I can do, get outa here. Bring me more photos!”

If you don’t already have photographic experience you will need it, you will need to at least be a competent operator, able to deal with numerous challenges, you will also need to have a strong portfolio, and it needs to relevant to the nature of the job,

If you turn up with a portfolio consisting of sharp and colour landscapes and portraits of your family, and someone else turns up with not a technically perfect but good pictures of news worthy events; who stands the better chance of a job? Turn up to an agency without a portfolio and you’ll leave without a job.

In some respects the older that you are the easier it can be to get a job, however you may have difficulty in persuading the agency you can live on the pittance they will pay you.

Photography Qualifications

My personal pet hate, don’t worry about photographic qualifications, qualifications in this industry are largely irrelevant, experience is everything. Generic photography courses are actually worse than no photography training at all, as they pre-programme you with rules and facts that you will have to relearn from day one in the real world.

Trust me, I know, I wasted 3 years at Richmond upon Thames College studying for a BTEC HND in Professional Photography and have never used anything that I learnt at college. One example is:

At college we were taught how to copy images (be it a painting, drawing or photograph) 2 lights minimum, placed at between 30° and 45° to the subject, all on lighting stands with a nice solid tripod.

In the field we regularly have to photograph a glossy 6×4 or 5×3 inch photo, do we have time to set up lights and tripods, do we b*ll*cks, hotshoe mounted flash 28-70 or 70-200 with an extension tube and Bob’s your Aunty’s live-in-lover.

The image (left) of Sarah Payne was copied using a 1.3 megapixel Kodak/Canon DCS3 with a 35-350mm lens and 540EZ flashgun.

It’s not perfect, if I wanted perfection I’d have shot 6×7 or 5″x4″ on a copy board. Press work isn’t about perfectionism it’s about compromise and speed.

Experts will tell you it can’t be done (specular highlights, blown out highlights) it can and is done daily, formal photography training doesn’t cover what we need to do in the field, and indeed if you have preconceived ideas of how we work; abandon them now.

A colleague, who shall remain nameless once said, “press work is about salvaging something usable from the pile of shite, that was your last roll of film”.

There is a sole exception to the above and that is the NCTJ course at Sheffield Polytechnic. To see the glamorised version of how to get into press photography see this link to the NCTJ. However most photographers will have to already have a job, and be sponsored by their employers to attend this course. I still maintain getting out there and actually doing the work is the best way. A college course can’t teach you how to sit still for 12 hours and still be alert, they can’t teach you how to get on with fellow snappers, they can’t teach you what to do, when the shit hits the fan, and you’re in the middle of nowhere. The list of skills required by a photographer is nearly endless, and vary depending upon the sort of work that you do. I shall deal with some of the more obvious skills individually.

Probably one of the most important skills is photographic, the ability to capture an image under challenging circumstances.  Images have to be captured in conditions from darkness, torrential rain (many amateurs hide their cameras at the first drop) my equipment has been out in downpours completely exposed for over 6 hours.

Defensive driving courses aren’t required, but the ability to drive competently and be able to follow a subject discretely (the longest follow that I know of was from North London to the south of France; around 600 miles). The longest that I have undertaken is around 140 miles.

You have to be physically fit, covering the Anti War marches; I covered over 12 miles in about 4 hours carrying some a Lowe Stealth Bag full of kit, two bodies, laptop, quantum, 16-35mm, 28-70mm,70-200mm, 100-400mm, two 550EX,EOS1D Batteries,3 Extenders plus much more, taking photographs and the wiring images on the move. After having worked more than 8 hours that day, in the sun, first pint of lager barely touched the sides.

Agility is another requirement, for a number of reasons, whether it is climbing from the front seats to the back of the van quickly and quietly, or getting into vantage spots on rooftops etc.

The ability to improvise, there are many times when you will go to a job with a particular image or story in mind, and when every thing goes tits-up you have to be able to react.

Sometimes equipment fails in the field, and the ability to either work-around or fix is desirable, there have been a number of occasions that I have had equipment die, and had to either bodge fit, or strip down and repair.  Knowing the system software for your laptop intimately is important.

One other thing that college won’t teach you, what to pack when posted abroad at the last minute, what to wear during a riot or civil un-rest, what to look for in a crowd that may necessitate forced withdrawal.

Many young college leavers don’t have the interpersonal skills required, most snappers are gregarious, outgoing, confident and competitive people, the ability to get on with other co-workers and people from other papers is essential.  There are a number of occasions that other snappers have to be able to trust you, either to do as you say, or to be able to do the job.  There are occasions when if a snapper needs to use a toilet, who ever is left will cover them, meaning that if something happens you will share the pictures (most importantly that you’ll get the pictures).  There are other occasions that you will be with snappers from all the other national papers, and they will want to do a deal, (agree to knock off, at a  certain time)  if you agree, that you all leave, you must all leave, anyone returning to the scene having agreed to leave and getting an exclusive, will never be trusted again.

As far as the picture desk is concerned the only important thing is the picture, everything else is secondary, your health, wealth and home life all pale in significance. If getting the picture to the desk in time means couriering the Film or Compact flash card to the newspaper, when your car breaks down, organise that first, before you call the AA or RAC.

Photographic Style

If this section gives you headaches or leaves you unsure, you don’t (yet) have the skills to be a professional news Photographer, assuming that you have mastered all or most of the skills required to be a competent photographer, and you got a reasonable selection of equipment, could you define your photographic style? Now we’ll keep it simple, most newspapers have both a journalistic and a photographic style. Some of the broadsheets use images very well (i.e. large and well cropped) other papers hack a head & shoulders out of a creatively captured environmental portrait. (if any of the expressions in the previous paragraph cause problems it’s back to the photography books for you).

Simply, the nature of the work we do, isn’t just about capturing the events as they happen, but also in different styles, depending upon who the paymaster is. If you are working for an agency, then you need to capture stories in lots of different styles. Picture styles are difficult to describe using text, what I would suggest is, if you are serious about becoming a press photographer, that you research thoroughly what your clients want, just turning up and snapping isn’t enough (even though that might look like what we do) every day for a couple of weeks buy all the papers (I mean all, the tabloids and the broadsheets,) and compare the images for the stories that appear in all of them even the way they use the football pictures is very different.

An news story for the Sun or Mirror will be a reasonably straightforward snap, the Guardian and Times etc, will be carefully composed, often shot on a very wide-angle with expanses of foreground and background, and for the Daily Sport it  doesn’t matter as long as some breasts are showing.

Equipment

If you are able to get a job with an agency they will provide you with the necessary equipment to do the job, however if yo are going it alone you will need to make some substantial investment in equipment for details on the equipment required see the equipment pages on this site. Minimum set up, if you are buying new is likely to cost £5,000 if you want the best available, and be able to cover almost any job that you are asked, it is likely to be more like £20-30,000.

You have to not only own the kit, you also have to keep it serviceable, sometimes the jeweller’s screwdrivers are required to effect running repairs.

Only recently I had to strip down and repair my 1.4x converter and re-solder several frayed wires.

Money

If you are coming from a background were you have had another career and are wishing to get into press work, expect that for at least a couple of years your income will be less than you thought, and your expenses higher than you can imagine. Mortgage companies will not touch newly self-employed people without either charging the earth or requiring huge deposits. Equipment needs to be serviced and maintained, and sometimes replaced and none of the equipment required is cheap.

Hours

If you are working for a Press Agency, you might be lucky and get paid overtime, many agencies do not they simply pay a salary. Press Photographers and Journalists have among the highest divorce rates of any trade, simply because the hours are long and antisocial (hell, so are most of the Blunts). Early starts and late finishes are the order of the day, I regularly leave the house before 0600hrs and seldom get in before 2200hrs generally 6 or 7 days a week.

Rewards

When you have made it to a reasonable level the rewards can be great, the money can be fantastic (£70-100,000 pa is easily achievable), the hours however will always be long, and if you work for yourself the boss can be a total jerk most of the time, however seeing my images in the papers with a byline still gives me a huge buzz.

If you are still interested then good luck, you will need it. If you make it, by following my advice, let me know when we meet on a celebrity doorstep. If you make it another way also let me know. If I have put you off I am sorry, it is a great job, but it is bloody hard work.

One of the things that irritates me is a lot of people who have a camera and have taken some nice holiday pictures, thinks (and unfortunately says) they could do my job, some of them may have the patience to sit for 16 hours (hell they do that at their desks on the internet) ,some could follow a speeding celebrity across London at 4 in the morning (having sat stationary outside their apartment for 20 hours, some can crawl through woodlands and hedges some can walk for ten miles but to then get a photograph at the end of it, is another matter. However doing it with 80lbs of equipment, or even just 2 camera bodies, a 400mmF2.8, 100-400 zoom and a monopod separates the can do’s from the can’t do’s.

There are very few press photographers that are overweight, strangely enough there are not many that are less than average height, although there are some noticeable exceptions. It is a game (that is how I view it, and a good one to play, but it’s game that you play to win) that demands a lot physically and mentally.  The pressure can be immense, with daily deadlines that have to be met. Play it successfully and it can be very rewarding both financially and in personal satisfaction.

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust your meter to do what is supposed to,
But make allowance auto focus too:

If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
lie in hedges without being caught,
speculate on who someone’s dating,
Or work from a van without getting fraught;

If you can make a mint from of all your pics
And not give a single f**k,
and upset the celebrity pricks,
Do it week in week out and not use up your luck:

If you can force your camera and lens
To serve your turn long after the light has gone,
And so deliver sharp, well exposed results
When all other snappers have run!

If you can hide in crowds and keep concealed,
Or walk with celebs – and not like them much,
If neither targets nor celebs can hide from you,
If all frames count with you, you have the touch:

If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With pictures, flash balanced with the sun,
Your job is a newspaper photographer,
And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son!

and apologies to Rudyard Kipling for the mangling of the poem “If”

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