I’m a very lucky man. Since I was about 12 years old - at least 250 years ago - I’ve been in love with photography, and for the last 36 years I’ve been a professional photographer.   Along the way I’ve met lots of people who’d like to give up the day job and become a pro, but most are too sensible to actually do it. Many of those that do try, find that the job is not quite the glamorous “travel the world and take a few snaps” that they imagined it to be. I wish. Most seem totally shocked to find that there’s actual, real work involved. Amazing. So if you’ve ever wondered what being a working professional photographer is really like - This is for you.

Working For a Living

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Over the last few months David Gold Photography, otherwise known as “the day job” has never been busier. This is a good thing in that a regular income is one of the few things usually missing from my life, but a bad thing in that recently lots of foggy weather and the resulting chaos in offshore helicopter flights have conspired to change my nicely organised diary into double jobs, jobs with an extra wee bit or two added in, or even customers “lending” me to each other - “You’re in the area with a camera, anyway.........”

It’s nice to be in demand, but it has been getting out of control. Even in the departure lounge wearing earplugs and feigning deafness, I’ve been getting last minute requests to go photograph X, Y and Z on the way from A to G with just a few extra shots of Q on the way.  Now all of this might seem like a poor attitude to being offered extra business, but there is a good reason for my reluctance to do lots of little “extras”.

Doing more business is only great when you’re going to get paid. Unfortunately most people wanting extras think that their work will be free or someone else - usually the original customer - will pay.  If it really is just a couple of shots I’ll often do the work for nothing classing it as good PR, but in most cases the “extras” customer is much more demanding than the one who’s paying for my time. They’re always first on the phone when you get back. Now over my 30  years in business I must have played out most of the scenarios of :

 1/   Trying to get the original customer to pay -  “I didn’t ask for this - why should it go on my budget?”     Fair enough, but he said it would be OK ........    

 2/    Getting  the “extras” customer to pay. However, even getting hold of them will now be quite difficult, or impossible, and when you do speak to them they will usually try to suggest someone else who “might pay” or “maybe you can stick in on our next invoice”  which never happens, or gets rejected if you do.

I’m sorry if this all sounds really negative, but if you want to make your living from photography, this really is page 1 line 1 in the manual, well before the photography chapters : YOU MUST GET PAID, or your business will be short lived.  Professional photography has many great benefits - but the biggest single downside to the job by far is getting paid. In my first few years in business I believed all the promises and made very little money, to the extent that I barely survived. Beware the person who phones you just before the off with a few last minute requests and hasn’t got time to raise a purchase order, or contact your original customer. They’ll say it’ll be OK, and It probably will be - for them. 

It all reached a new height one weekend last month, when, due to poor weather, after four failed attempts at one aerial photography job, I ended up with 6 helicopter aerial photography shoots for 4 separate customers all added together on one 8 hour flight visiting 5 North Sea oil platforms. People fly across the Atlantic in less time than that, and these aircraft have pretty air hostesses, toilets and a bar. Offshore helicopter travel has none of these important facilities, but to compensate we do get to wear a large rubber survival suit, a lifejacket and rebreather, plus, for photography, a full body safety harness. My bladder would never make it, never mind my memory cards or batteries -  but they insisted ”You have to try to do them all or we’ll be here every ....... Sunday morning at 07.00 for ever”.

Fair enough, it was turning into Groundhog Day.  So we all boarded the bright red Super Puma G-REDK, callsign Bond 88 Papa, and headed out over the gray North Sea one more time. The first platform had reported the weather as overcast with a 1000ft cloudbase and 10 miles visibility, which was exactly what they’d said each of the last three weekends, so nobody took it too seriously, but this time they were right, and it didn’t drop to 300ft in fog just as we got there.  Suddenly it started to look like like I might actually get to take some photographs.  Oh no.  When jobs drag on like this one, it’s a bit of a shock when it does actually happen - What?  You mean we’re not just going to have lunch on the platform and fly home again?   Damn - I was quite looking forward to lunch.....  

This time the weather was even improving, and continued to do so all day as we worked our way round all 5 platforms and 88 Papa arrived at the last one with just about enough crew flying time left to finish the job.  The last shoot was by far the biggest - I had estimated well over an hour to complete both parts of the assignment - but it was a case of “We need to leave here at 15.20 to get back to Aberdeen before we run out of flying hours, so you’ve got until then.”   That meant less than an hour. I reckoned I could do it, but only just, and only if I dropped part of the plan.  Because of the no reshoots, ever, nature of my work I tend to be very cautious about introducing new equipment - I test everything, then test it again - hence this web site.-  all before I even take a new lens or camera on a job. Usually then I use the new kit for a part of a shoot before trusting it with anything really important. It helps me sleep at night. Over the weeks leading up to this job I had bought not only a new Canon camera body, but a Canon 300mm f4L IS lens - mainly for this very shoot.  In tests the L lens had focused slightly more accurately, and more consistently, than the Tokina 300mm f2.8 I’ve used for the last year, and it worked best with the new body. But I had never used an image stabilised lens from a helicopter before, and Canon’s instruction leaflet was no help, telling me that Image Stabilisation is NOT effective shooting from a “moving boat, car etc.” so should I turn it off?  I had to choose, and quickly. I opted to shoot everything with the new kit - with the stabilisation switched on. There simply wasn’t time for any backup  This may seem like a very small risk, but I like to have backup, always. One of the main reasons people hire a pro photographer is to be absolutely sure they’ll get a result. Failure could mean I was liable for the costs of the helicopter - roughly 4000 per hour! Although you can check out images for exposure on the camera’s screen it’s impossible to tell if they are really pin sharp. Hundreds of images shot with an untried combination scares the s...... out of me, but I was tired, cold and it had all worked great in my back garden, so muttering “I trust in Canon” off we went.

Bond 88 Papa eventually landed back in Aberdeen two minutes inside the deadline, after an 8 hours 20 minutes flight, including 18 landings, 3 fuel stops, and even a toilet stop - I wasn’t the only one with a short range bladder.  I shot about 3000 frames on 3 Canon bodies and 4 lenses with no problems from any of them. The new Canon 300mm L IS did a great job, but it was just as well I stuck to a really high shutter speed, as subsequent tests have shown that the stabilisation makes little or no difference shooting from a helicopter. Vibration levels are just too high. My thanks to the crew of 88P and everyone at Bond Offshore Helicopters and OILS offshore logistics for the early starts on Sunday mornings - and to the gods of memory cards for 22GB of RAW files. I even had paperwork from all the customers before we left, so hopefully.......

I might even get paid !

The original version of this story ended there, as do most tales of this sort, but really it shouldn’t.

If you’re thinking of becoming a pro you should know the rest of the story. There are two types of pro photographers around here. Those who shoot JPEGs and at this point write all the files to a DVD and hand them to the customer. I call them “rank amateurs getting proper professionals a bad name” - sorry it was quite hard to avoid being rude there. Then there are those who think, as I do, that they get hired to deliver a finished, ready to use product. This being the whole point of the exercise.

The latter approach does mean that for every day taking photographs, I spend about 3 in front of a computer processing RAW files, editing until the customer only ever sees the very best, and then making a proper product with the end results. Yes even individual printed DVDs etc. Amazing how many “pros” think a DVD with marker pen scrawled across it is a professional product.

After the trip above I worked 15 hours a day, 7 days a week for 3 weeks to get the results out. It then took roughly 2 to 3 months after that to get paid.  These bits of the story usually get left out as they’re very much like any other job. Work, stress - Worrying about finding that somewhere along the line a button accidentally got pressed and all your pictures were shot at 1/30 at f22. so none of them are sharp, and you only find out days later when you finally get to look at them full size. Perfect histograms though. Worrying about charging too much and never working again. Worrying about charging too little and staying in debt to the bank forever. Worrying about getting paid....... Sometimes you don’t.  Worrying about your wife worrying about you worrying too much......  OK, OK, enough with the worrying - I’m sure you get the picture.

These bits tend to spoil the glamour tag. Maybe I should leave them out too.


Next Page

Winter Light    I’ve just returned from the kind of super intense two day assignment that’s fairly typical of my working life.  Although sometimes a quiet life sounds like a great idea, I can’t think there are many occupations where, even after more than 30 years, I’d still get the same kind of buzz that photography gives me.                                                  >>>>>>>>>>  continued

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