Questioning Creatives

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This article was written on 03 Apr 2013, and is filled under photographers.

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Doug Chinnery

I am 48, based in North Nottinghamshire and have been earning a living from photography for about seven years, five of those semi-profesiionally and for the last two years as a full time professional.

I came into photography as a career by accident. I had been a keen photographer since I was young – the usual thing, given a Kodak Brownie as a kid and so on, and had always taken photos. However, a few years ago I had a phone call from a friend in a panic as he had been let down by his wedding photographer with three weeks to go. I stood in (terrified) and when people saw the images I started being asked to do more weddings and portrait shoots.

Now I hate doing weddings and portraits, its not my thing at all, but it started off as a way to raise some money to buy kit. However, my passion was always for landscape and art photography. I had a few requests from people asking me to teach them how to use their camera skills and this led to me running my own workshops. From this came writing commissions for magazines and I began selling my images as stock and licensing them to greetings card companies, art poster companies and galleries. Thankfully, I was able to leave the weddings and portraits behind.

So over this peiod I gradually reduced the amount of time I spent in my day job (I had a good boss who was happy for me to have that sort of flexibility) and grew my photography business until it was time to make the jump into it being my full time work. Things have gone so well since then that my wife, Liz, has now left her job in the NHS to join me as a partner in the business and she handles the administration side of the business, freeing me to do the creative work.

We work really well together and because I am a landscape and outdoor photographer, spending much of my time away in the beautiful parts of the country in our camper van, she is now able to come with me. It is work, but I have to confess, when I am standing by a lake or on some beach at sunrise photographing it is hard to see it as work. It does feel much more like being on holiday.

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Would you recommend studying at art school?
This is a tricky one for me. I have mixed feelings about this. I can see real benefits if you are an artist, to learn techniques and immerse yourself in art, but I have taught students at degree level in Photography for a while and was shocked, frankly, at how badly it prepared them for life as a working photographer. You can learn the skills involved in operating a camera in just a few days, it really isn’t hard (come on one of my workshops and I can show you) The more difficult part is running a business. Most photographers who try working for themselves fail within 18 months, not because they are not good photographers (many are much better than me) but they are terrible business people. They don’t understand business and they can’t sell themselves. Business skills are the most valuable things you can learn if you wish to work for yourself.

If you are creative and do have business skills I would skip education at a higher level and get out shooting and selling yourself. Take a few workshops with photographers you really admire interspersed with your work to help you develop and grow but personally, I would avoid college and university courses unless you want to go into commercial work or photo-journalism perhaps. Even then, I would think long and hard about it.

Most of the students I taught were just drifting. In a class of thirty, over a whole year I only ever saw half of them. The other half never turned up for a single lecture. Over half that did, didn’t know what type of work they wanted to do and so this was reflected in how much they put into the course. Most of their time in lectures was spent on Twitter and Facebook. In amongst them was about five students who really had a true passion for photography. They were like sponges and drank in everything I could teach them and they had real talent but they were held back by the time wasters. I am sure not every course or college is the same, but if you are considering a course be very, very sure before you dive into it, that it is the right thing for you.

On the plus side, the college was equipped with the most amazing gear and software. they wanted for nothing. If you wanted to do any kind of photography, they had the kit for it and you could learn techniques, no doubt about it. But whether it prepared you for the real world as a photographer, I very much doubt it.

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How long was it before photography became your primary form of income?
It took me five years to move from nothing to full time.

Could you describe your typical day? 
I have two types of day. The type of day everyone imagines I have when they find out I am a landscape photographer and the type they don’t realise I have.

The day they image happens when I am out in the field, and I guess I get about 70 to 100 of these a year (and this includes part days where I might shoot sunrise and then return to the office for the rest of the day). Days in the field start the night before getting my kit prepared – batteries charged, lenses cleaned, bags packed and so on. I check the weather forecast meticulously and get to bed early. I am up, often several hours before sunrise depending on how far I am from my location as I need to be in position at least an hour before sunrise. In winter this might be 6 or 7 in the morning, but in summer it can mean being on a beach or up a mountain by 3am. I shoot the sunrise and work through until the best light fades – usually an hour or so after sunrise (I rarely shoot at sunset, I’m a morning person and prefer sunrise as I have the world to myself. At sunset there are always people about).

If I am away on location the middle of the day when the light is harsh I will scout new locations or work in my camper van in Lightroom and Photoshop and handle business admin, then i might be back out for the evening light. These are the great days as a landscape photographer.

The other days that people don’t think about which make up the other 250 or so of the year are spent running the business. I have images to process, emails to answer, quotes to prepare, accounts to do, meetings to attend, help to give to students, workshops to prepare, a website to maintain, printing and framing to do, exhibitions to prepare for, articles to write, locations to research etc etc. The running of the business takes up far more time than the actual photography.

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What do you wish you’d know when you first started out?
I wish I had realised how important it was to have a clear, written business plan. For the first three years or so we just drifted and the business sort of grew more by chance than anything else. If I had put together a focused plan with targets and actions to achieve we could have got to the point of going full time much quicker – two or three years quicker.

What’s the best thing about being an photography? 
I love working from home, being my own boss and working with my wife. We choose what we want to do and when we want to do it. I don’t have to commute and I will never have to sit in another management meeting ever again. You just cannot beat being on a Scottish beach at sunrise and then going back to the Camper for breakfast and thinking that this is ‘another day at the office’

What’s the worst thing about being an photography?
Paperwork

If you weren’t an photographer, what would you be?
I was a sales and marketing manager but was learning to hate it. I am so glad I made the jump into a creative career. I would hate to look back at 60 and say “I wish…”

Any other tips you could share?
Get some business training. It will be more valuable than camera training! If you are business savvy and can handle selling yourself, and can make good images, don’t work for someone else, work for yourself. Its hard, very hard, but if you get stuck in and work hard you will reap the rewards and soon enjoy the creative freedom it brings as well as earning the money for yourself, not for an employer.

Don’t take shortcuts. Do it all properly. Don’t use illegal software. Don’t fiddle your tax. Be a professional and charge professional rates. Get an accountant, get insurance. Do the best job you can on every job, on every image and only ever show your very very best images. Don’t dilute your portfolio with pretty good images. Its better to go before a gallery owner or a potential client with six images that will make their mouths open than show then 12, including the first six but diluted with another six which are not quite as good. Get known for being the best at something. Find what you are good at and be the best. Learn from others – so study photographers you really admire but don’t copy them. If you can afford to, do a workshop with them to learn – lifelong learning is essential.

Most important, do what you are doing because you love it. Make images you love. If you are passionate about your images others will love them too but don’t shoot to try and impress others – shoot for yourself and then you will do well.

 

www.dougchinnery.com

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