How to become a photographer

Renowned animal photographer Tim Flach on starting out and never losing your sense of play

There are many paths that people take in the photography world and everyone’s story is different, so you need to make sure you find your own. I trained as a fine artist in the 1980s with a focus on painting. I couldn’t have anticipated how this original training would be so useful to what I do today. I learned how to light in a studio, which was useful when I had to light on location. Experiencing different forms of art helped me learn how to be flexible and confident and influenced how I approach the craft today. My first introduction to professional photography was through a press photographer whom I used to help out, while I was still studying painting. I got a chance to take some retirement pictures at a corporation, and help with the odd chairman’s portrait. 

Soon after, I started doing more editorial photography, while still working evenings and weekends at a hotel to make ends meet. I approached the hotel management to see if they had any need for professional photographs, and that was the start of my commercial career. I eventually turned to photography full time and found my way through corporate, architectural, studio, and design work.

Care about delivering

Both my academic training in painting and my early experiences assisting were helpful. Whether you choose theoretical or practical training, or both, it’s important that you shoot a lot. Use the institution where you are studying, or the studio where you are assisting to experiment with your own work. Inevitably, as you make photography your job, you will become an entrepreneur. I set up as a sole trader in 1983 when I was 25, and have now been running a full time photography business for over thirty years. However passionate you are about the creative side of your work, you have to make sure you return your books on time, and develop a good framework for your business. No matter if you’re working in fine art, commercial or editorial photography, you still have to deliver orders and work within a range of partnerships, like any other business. You have to care about delivering.

Never forget, that both as a photographer and an entrepreneur, you have to invest. And as a photographer, you mainly have to invest in yourself. You have to give yourself room to try out new things and experiment."

Working for Getty

Image @ Shannah WillsIt’s always important to balance commercial and creative work that will further your development as a photographer. It can be difficult to be very frank and ask yourself “where is this work leading”, but if you have a realistic perspective on whether a particular job is paying the rent or allowing you to grow creatively, you can continue to develop and retain your passion for images throughout your career. When I began working for Getty, creating stock images of animals. Working with Getty provided me with a steady stream of income, while also giving me an opportunity to bring animals into the studio and try new things. You know those images of red-eyed tree frogs? That was me, in the 1990s. This commercial work provided me with security, and meant that when I had downtime, I could focus on more creative work without worrying about running out of funds. The tools are not as important as the idea in photography. I like to joke that my most important piece of equipment is the coffee machine. I use both Hasselbad and Broncolour, and if I didn’t, I would be happy using another tool.

Things are very different to how they were when I started out

In the early 1980s, you had to get a studio, and you had to be near the film processing laboratories. A professional camera was a huge expense, the equivalent of a down payment on a house in those days, and your biggest regular expense was on film and processing. Today, you don’t need a studio and you don’t need to process film. Your biggest expense should be a decent digital camera, and you can be a lot more mobile. This has democratised the industry, although that comes with its own challenges. It is now easier and cheaper to enter the industry, but harder to advance and stand out.

One thing I didn’t know when I was starting out was how important it is to be able to express what you do in words."

Ironically, I take pictures, but if I couldn’t verbalise my intentions I might not be able to realise my images in quite the same way. Even if you have an agent to represent you, you need be able to express yourself. And if you have a client that’s less visual and more verbal, you need to cross that bridge. You’re working as a team, so you have to lay out the process. Photography is all about communication.

The most important thing about photography is that you don’t lose that sense of playfulness and inquiry on the journey. No matter how much you’re working, you have to give yourself space to play and throw yourself into unfamiliar territory once in a while. You have to keep enjoying it. Otherwise, why would you do it?

Click here and register now to access free online resources from the Creative Skillset and University of Norwich University of the Arts Photography course.  

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