Notebook, Photography

Working with photographers

Notebook: 16 November 2015 | PHOTOGRAPHY

Photo shows the opening spread of a travel/car feature from Saab Magazine. The pictures were shot by the Melbourne based photographer, Jeff Busby

I stumbled across this interview that I gave for Professional Photographer magazine back in 2009. There’s some good advice in here for young photographers just starting out on their careers. I’ve tweaked it slightly to update it and make it relevant to 2015.

Throughout much of your career of nearly thirty years now you’ve specialised in art directing within the contract/customer magazine sector – how have you seen it change over that time? Magazine design and production has just got better and better over the years. But that’s not to say that there weren’t great magazines in the ’80s. I remember going for an interview at Redwood Publishing in about 83 or 84 for a job as art editor on Expressions, the American Express mag, and one of the first proper contract publishing titles – what attracted me was the strong typography and dynamic photography.

The biggest change in customer publishing in the last five or so years has been the transition of the old style contract magazine publisher into a ‘content marketing agency’ – it’s no longer just about the agency providing ‘content’ via a printed magazine; now agencies have to provide the content through all sorts of different channels – online, mobile, video, exhibitions and so on. How has this affected photography? Publishers may now need their photographer to shoot video as well as stills… photographers may need to become videographers.

How do you feel that photography and photographers and budgets have changed? Years ago in the late 1980s I worked on Campaign magazine, the advertising industry trade paper that had a reputation for using strong black and white portraits – typically photos that were shot on a fire escape with a wide angle lens pointing up someone’s nose. We used to pay about £100 a time and we’d commission maybe 5 or 10 of those pictures a week. I guess we must have had a decent picture budget. My, how times have changed!

And how do you feel about the publishing industry’s attitude to photography, particularly with reference to newspapers and magazines? In my time at Archant Dialogue, we always recognised the role that great photography can play within the pages of the magazines that we produced whether it was a commissioned portrait or a photo sourced from a picture library. I only wish that budgets would have allowed us to commission more. Over the years we seemed to spend less and less on commissions and more on picture library material as our picture budgets slowly shrank.

Which titles are you currently working on? I’m currently working on a sports magazine. When I was at Archant Dialogue I worked on magazines for a whole range of clients including Royal Ascot, Harley Davidson, Center Parcs, Olympus and Saab.

How do you choose which photographers you want to work with? Where do you find them? For Saab magazine, we found the car photographer Alex P by trawling through the car mags until we found pics that we liked and a style that we thought would fit with the Saab ethic. I like to use Alex because he works swiftly and efficiently, is always open to suggestions and always turns in a good job – even when it’s raining heavily half way up a Swiss mountain.

Many of the portrait photographers that I use, I’ve used for years and years – I guess I know that I’ll always get the job I need – but I’m always on the lookout for new people.

In the past on Saab magazine we needed the best reportage photographers we could lay our hands on and so we commissioned the Magnum photographers Alex Webb and Gideon Mendel. And when I was in need of a portrait photographer in Scotland, I tracked down and commissioned the brilliant Edinburgh based photographer Murdo MacLeod and he shot some terrific moody portraits of the Laing brothers, the owners of Whisky company Douglas Laing.

How did the arrival of digital photography change the way you worked with photographers and clients? The big change in the way I worked was not so much with photographers but with picture libraries. Now it’s so easy to quickly go online and download exactly the picture I need and this is probably why I use picture libraries more and more.

You’re based in Norfolk, which is not exactly a hot-bed for photography, do you find it difficult to find photographers or do they find you?
It’s never been a problem being based in Norfolk. We use photographers UK wide. If we need to, we source overseas photographers via the internet. In the past I’ve commissioned several jobs in the US and Sweden – I’ve used an excellent Swedish portrait photographer called Anna Hult. And when we needed a travel/car photographer to shoot a Saab road trip feature about the Great Ocean Road in Australia, the internet coughed up the name of Jeff Busby whose striking pictures are shown here.

Working on redesigns of Yorkshire Life and Cheshire Life magazines a few years ago, I came across a great young photographer called Andy Bulmer who shoots charming photos of country life. He’s now on my books as one of my ‘northern’ photographers.

What advice would you give a photographer when approaching you with the hope of being commissioned? Every day I get two or three emails from photographers or their agents. I try to look at as many of them as I can. Gone are the days when photographers would trawl their portfolios around. I think the best advice I can give is, to keep sending the emails but make sure that they are relevant and well crafted. Photographers should have simple, easy to navigate websites that load quickly and show their work off clearly.

Where do you stand on the importance of technical ability versus creativity? Pictures must be sharp (unless they are deliberately meant to be blurred) otherwise we just can’t use them. And they must be of a big enough file size for print (A4 300 dpi if we plan to use them at A4). Otherwise we’re not too bothered about whether they were shot on this camera or that camera – just as long as they are creative – however you define ‘creative’…

Do you or the clients go on the shoots with the photographer and do you set a tight written brief? For most portrait and the simpler interiors shoots there’s no need for myself or a client to accompany the photographer as long as they’ve been given a good brief. I used to go on the car shoots for Saab – it was very important to make sure that the photographer got all the pics that the client wanted, and that I needed to illustrate the feature. If the copy had been written before the pics were taken then it helped with planning the shoot and I would go on a car shoot armed with little sketches of every shot that I had in mind. With many of the magazines at Archant Dialogue it was all about presenting a ‘lifestyle’ to the reader and the photos had to capture the essence of that lifestyle, be it cool car shots for Saab or tasteful and modern interiors for AGA (rather than old). So the photographer always had to have an understanding of the client’s business and be well briefed on the lifestyle mood and feel that we were after. When we were producing a brochure for the Essex Tourist Board we needed to present the unseen, ‘quieter’ side of Essex – the beautiful coastline, pretty villages and history, and so together with the photographer, we spent a day beforehand trawling the county for suitable locations. Good planning is everything on these bigger shoots. Once on the shoot, I might have suddenly spotted an old sign, an architectural detail or maybe some children poking around in a rock pool – pictures that maybe the photographer would have missed but which I knew would all add to creating the lifestyle and mood of the feature – and this is a good example of why it can be important to accompany a photographer on a shoot. It’s all a question of weighing up how valuable the time out of the office will be. For the Saab shoot on The Great Ocean Road that I mentioned above, it was obviously impractical for me to be in attendance and so I had to provide Jeff Busby, the photographer, with a very tight written brief together with a mood board of ‘tear sheets’ so that he was absolutely clear about the style and content that we needed. If I’m using a new photographer then I will always give them a thorough brief whereas regular photographers know pretty much what I’m after.

What do you think the difference is between shooting for a contract/customer magazine title rather than a consumer title? There is very little difference. Budgets are very similar and pictures need to be just as good.

And finally what advice do you have for a photographer just starting out? Edit your folio carefully. Create a simple, easy to use website. Concentrate on the area of photography that most interests you rather than trying to be a master of all. If you’re good and you’re passionate about what you do then you’ll make it so keep banging on doors!

An older version of this article was first published on the Professional Photographer website in 2009.