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Life as a professional portrait photographer

Life as a professional portrait photographer - Pencil pushing is very much a thing of the past for Rod Edwards whose career as a portrait photographer began over fifteen years ago now. Here he tells us why he chose portrait photography and why he finds people so fascinating.

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Portrait by Rod Edwards
By Rod Edwards.

Like many teenagers when Rod Edwards left school he wasn't sure what to do with his life. He was always quite creative but never explored many artistic avenues apart form taking a few photos, playing the guitar and maybe a bit of origami! But even then, before he was taking pictures full-time he got a buzz from taking photographs and he found himself reading all sorts of books and magazines about photography which deepened his interest in the art form.

"At the time, I was actually working in insurance but knew there must be more to life than paperwork. I read several photo magazine features about how people in similar situations had left their more traditional day jobs and started selling their photography which seemed like a great way to earn a living to me."

Initially Rod tried his hand at landscape photography and he sold several of his shots, great news for someone who turned his back on his 9-5 office job but as much as he enjoyed landscape photography it was a little too solitary for him so he turned his attentions to the characters he met on his travels.

"They were just ordinary people with stories to tell about their ordinary lives but I found them fascinating subject matter."

Portrait by Rod Edwards
 By Rod Edwards.

He's now been a professional photographer for around fifteen years and he certainly doesn't miss the office job! Even though he's only been in the industry for fifteen years Rod has witnessed some big changes with the transition from traditional film to digital being the most obvious. When he started out he was shooting 35mm film and developing it in his broom cupboard. His interest in digital photography began in 1999 where he soon realised that's where photography was heading. So to stay ahead of the game he bought himself an Apple Mac G3, a flatbed scanner and Adobe Photoshop 4 and started playing and learning. Rod was very much ahead of the times and was one of the first UK photographers to develop his own website back in 2000.

As well as teaching himself about technology Rod also largely taught himself about photography. He did assist for photographers who specialised in car, fashion and architectural photography but he learnt more about running a business from them rather than the practise of photography. He also had a place at University to study photography but he kept deferring the place as he didn't feel he'd gain a great deal from running up a huge overdraft and just getting a paper qualification.

"In all my time as a self employed professional photographer, I've never been asked to show any academic qualifications as you are judged on your portfolio, your experience and your previous client list. I also learnt a great deal from reading photography articles, magazines and books - they are such a wealth of knowledge and you can learn from people who really know what they are talking about - people who know so much about the subject that they've actually written a book about it!  It's this really useful information that I've tried to share with readers of my new book and I share trade secrets that have taken me years to learn myself."  

Portrait by Rod Edwards
 By Rod Edwards.

As mentioned Rod started out as a stock landscape photographer and he loved to shoot a location in a way that showed empathy and understanding of the places character and identity and he shoots portraits in a similar way. He thinks carefully about composition, light, detail and of course turning to portrait photography also means he has the added bonus of conversation! When it comes to inspiration Rod finds this everywhere.

"When I'm on location, I find my best images are taken when I'm inspired by the moment, the conditions, the light, the time, the place and obviously the subject matter. When all of these elements come together, they can help me to produce a really strong image. However, most of these elements cannot be predicted or controlled and it's often that unknown element that adds to the final image and produces that special 'magic moment' that we are all trying to capture." 

His inspiration also comes from other photographers. Work by Ansel Adams, Robert Mapplethorpe, Henri Cartier Bresson, Bill Brandt, Helmut Newton, Herb Ritts, Yousuf Karsh and Mario Testino have all influenced Rod with their timeless images that have become a part of photographic history. Glossy magazines and adverts are also glanced over by Rod and even though they aren't part of photography's long history just yet Rod feels these photographers should be admired and inspire us all.

"I admire any photographers who can earn a decent living from what they enjoy! The photographic business is hard and getting harder as this recession bites in. The cost of selling stock images has very much gone down over the last ten of years and although it used to be relatively easy money, it's no longer the case. Competition is intense, amateurs are undercutting professionals and many buyers just want the cheapest image - so convincing clients and customers to part with realistic money is a skill you also need to master! Being a successful, self employed photographer is not just about being able to take good photographs, it's also about being a good businessman."

Baby in a blue hat
 By Rod Edwards.

When he's not being a businessman Rod uses Canons to take his photographs. He's currently using the Canon 1Ds II, 1Ds III, 5D and he's just got the 5D mark II but originally he was a Nikon fan. When it comes to lenses he uses all sorts of lenses but he prefers fast primes to zooms such as the 85mm F1.2 Mark 2 and the 50mm F1.2. Post processing is also an integral part of his work flow which like many other photographers means he's spending more time in front of the screen, editing and adjusting rather than actually taking photographs. When he does get out Rod makes sure he takes plenty of pictures, so many in fact he finds it difficult to pick a favourite.

Farmer and his tractor
 By Rod Edwards.

"I put a great deal of myself into my work and I try to push my own creative barriers with each and every shot - to try and produce something new. If I had to say one image that was a personal favourite, it would probably be one of my first shots - Nib, the tractor breaker. To me, the shot is quite timeless and looks like it was taken a lot longer ago than it actually was. It's a snapshot in time and not only do I like it as a photograph, it also communicates with the viewer and says so much about his individuality and local character. He's just a simple local man who sells old tractor parts from his back yard deep in the Lincolnshire Fens. He was shy, diffident and at first he was quite against the whole idea of being photographed, but after a while, after a few minutes of conversation the social barriers started to break down and he opened up to me. I actually shot it on film (Mamiya 645 and Agra APX 25), but scanned it and tweaked it in Photoshop to produce the result I wanted. I'd tried printing this shot many times in my darkroom, but was just not able to get what I wanted. Digital imagery has really helped me to open up my creativity and really achieve what I want."

Successful portrait photography is not just about technical skills and it's not just about equipment, it's about good people skills, showing respect for your subject and being able to capture their true personality. A skill that Rod believes differentiates the amateur from a good professional.

Eva on a beach
 By Rod Edwards.

"The image should communicate with the viewer on several levels, not just in a visually appealing way, but it must also communicate a higher level of understanding of your sitter. Each and every person you photograph is different, even identical twins have different characters and this is what a good portrait photographer should be able to differentiate and capture in his or her images. Much like the landscape, the mood of each of your subjects changes with every hour of the day and these subtle changes can often be seen in your subject's demeanour and physiognomy. It's the portrait photographers responsibility to try and capture this feeling in their images. 

Another aspect of people photography that's also important (and so often overlooked) is the quality of light. Without an appreciation and understanding of this 'painting with light', all types of photography would not be possible. Converse to light, shadows also play a vital role in captivating the viewer - shadows are the silence between the sound in a musicians score, they are the words in a poem that are left unsaid and should also never be overlooked."

Visit Rod Edward's site for more information about his book - Photographing People Like a Pro: A Guide to Digital Portrait Photography and his work.

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