Playing The Long Game: Outdoor Photography With Telezooms

Confessions of a freelance photographer

How it all began...










The path to freelance success isn't always a smooth one. Lee Frost takes a tongue-in-cheek look back at some of his earlier exploits.
The idea of earning a living doing something you love is perhaps the ultimate in job satisfaction, and there can be few enthusiast photographers who haven't dreamt at some point of turning their hobby into a profession.
I certainly did. As a spotty-faced teenager with a Zenith and an attitude, I'd look at pictures in books and magazines and pour scorn on the pros who had taken them. Crap. Trash. Rubbish. Could have done that with my eyes closed, I'd innocently tell myself, even though I barely knew one end of a camera from another.
Fifteen years later I have, to the credit of no one but myself, reached the lofty heights of professional photographydum.

A dream come true, you might think. Well, yes and no.

Don't get me wrong, I'd be the first person to admit that being a professional photographer is probably the most interesting and rewarding profession known to man. But glamorous? Not on your nelly.

The main thing I failed to realise as I dreamed of fame and fortune is that when you're a hobbyist photographer you can photograph what you want, when you want. If you take a naff picture, no one has to see it. If the weather's fit for nothing but ducks, you can put you feet up and flick on the box.

Not so when you're a professional. You have to photograph what you're told to photograph, when you're told to photograph it. And not all of us are destined to be the next John Claridge. Tins of cat food. Sacks of fertiliser. Dustbins. Imagine the most uninteresting object in the whole universe, and I'll bet you ten rolls of Velvia I've been asked to shoot it.

Okay, if you don't fancy a job you can always say you're recovering from triple heart-bypass surgery, but there are few freelances in operation who make so much money that they can be so picky - especially in the first few years of their career.

To make matters worse, throughout my own career I've noticed a strange pattern emerging. Namely, there can be six weeks of near-drought conditions, but come the day I've got to go on location for a client, the heavens open and it rains non-stop. Equally, when I'm taking pictures for love rather than money I rarely put a foot wrong, yet the minute I embark on a commissioned job for someone else, I have an amazing habit of making every Goddamned mistake known to man, no matter how eliminatory.

TAKE MY FIRST 'proper' commissioned job. One day, completely out of the blue, I got a phone call from a gardening magazine asking me if I could nip up to the late celebrity-gardener Geoff Hamilton's pad and take some pictures for his regular column in the mag. Not exactly National Geographic, but we all have to start somewhere.

Unfortunately, the day got off to a bad start when I forgot my road atlas and arrived an hour late after scouring half of Leicestershire before finding his rural pile. And then when I finally did get there, I managed to lock my car keys in the boot. That in itself was a major catastrophe, given that my spares were 100 miles away, but far, far worse was the fact that my tripod was still inside.

'Don't panic,' I told myself nervously, 'It's not that bad - you've handheld a Mamiya RB67 before'. Trouble is, it's pretty bloody difficult to do this and get sharp results when you're shooting on ISO50 film in weather that's as dim as ditchwater, knowing full well that anything other than minimum aperture won't give sufficient depth-of-field and shutter speeds are unlikely to be less than a half a second.

Thankfully, realising my predicament, Geoff did the honourable thing and lent me his own tripod (which was better than mine anyway), and I was able to make a start. Which is when I also discovered that no matter how glamorous being a freelance editorial photographer sounds, the reality is often a wholly different story.

Don't get me wrong - I'm not saying that interesting jobs don't come along from time to time - I've had at least three in the last decade - but you've got to be damned imaginative to make a row of 2-year old conifers look good, especially when you're told, categorically, not to include the chain-link fence that's literally inches away and the surrounding area is as flat as a fart. Or maybe that was just Geoff seeing if I really did have what it takes to hack it in the cut and thrust world of horticultural photography.

Confessions of a freelance photographer: Confessions of a freelance photographer
The results of my first-ever commissioned job for a magazine. Exciting eh. I wasn't sure if my subject was smiling or grimacing. Needless to say I was never invited back!
Still, I must have done alright because the very same magazine requested my services on several occasions after that (although I did wonder why it was always when their regular freelances were recovering from triple heart-bypass surgery).

The jobs got better too. I had to drive all the way down to Brighton one day to take pictures of a tree surgeon pruning someone's shrubs (riveting, that one). Then there was the trip to London in the worst weather of the year to do some 'before' shots of gardens that were about to undergo a face lift (delightful, honest). Pity no one bothered to inform me that the gardens were basically no bigger than a bath towel, and space was so tight that the only way I could get them into a shot was by using an 8mm circular fisheye lens.

But the straw that broke the camel's back came when I was dragged off to the Fens in the middle of winter and my brief was to shoot some plastic cloches on an old bloke's allotment. I wouldn't have minded, but so much snow fell the night before that you couldn't even see the sodding things when I arrived, and I had to spend the first hour scraping away the frozen mush while trying not to squash his prize sprouts with my size tens. Meanwhile, the journalist who accompanied me sat in the garden shed sipping hot coffee and swapping seeds with the owner.

WITH MY CAREER as a garden photographer over before it even began, I decided to explore a more exciting avenue. Anything but gardens, in other words. And as luck would have it, PP's editor, Martyn Moore, was then at the helm of Bike Magazine so I opted for motorsport photography. It's not what you know in this game, but who you know.

First job: to meet a crowd of bikers at a Little Chef in Wisbech, grab loads of candids of them tucking into Olympic Breakfasts, then follow the convoy to the BMF rally in Peterborough and take some tracking pictures of them from the back of a motorbike.

First mistake: I needed to uprate the first few films by two stops to cope with low light levels, but forgot to mark the cassettes for pushing. Result? By the end of the day I had 20 rolls of exposed Fuji RDP100, five of which had been rated at ISO400. The question was, which five? I tried to blame the processing lab for not pushing the films, which as a consequence were underexposed by two stops, but to this day I'm not sure if Martyn believed me.

Second mistake: not realising that to get tracking shots of bikers you need to sit the wrong way round on the back of another bike, hold the camera with both hands to keep it steady and try not to fall off, or mess your pants, while composing decent action pics. The rest is a blur.

Result? None ever made it into print, and MM's mumbled comment about impressionism not being quite right for his readership suggested my tracking technique needed a little practise.

In fact, the only picture that did get into print was of a couple of soaking wet leather-clad bikers pushing their leather-clad baby biker through the rain, trying to look as though they were having a good time.

Confessions of a freelance photographer: Confessions of a freelance photographer
As you can see, I got al the plum jobs during my early days as a freelance photographer. In this case my brief was simple: go to the bike rally and take loads of pictures showing people having a good time. If only it hadn't rained...

I did have a better shot - of a scary-looking bloke called Snake trying to re-build his bike's engine after it blew a gasket upon arrival at the showground. Or at least I would have had a better shot had I remembered to put a fresh roll of film in my SLR after coming off the Bungee-jumping tower. And maybe the flash shots I'd taken in the beer tent would have been worth publishing if I hadn't set the wrong sync speed so that half of every frame was blacked out by the shutter curtain.

Needless to say, despite the bond of friendship, our illustrious editor elected not to recruit my services as a photographer after that, and when any of his freelances were suffering from cardiac problems he did the job himself.

Me? I decided that I just wasn't cut out for commissioned photography after all and went back to doing what I do best - bricklaying.

Nah, only joking. I became assistant editor on Practical Photography. You need to know bugger-all about photography for that job!

MPB Start Shopping

Support this site by making a Donation, purchasing Plus Membership, or shopping with one of our affiliates: Amazon UK, Amazon US, Amazon CA, ebay UK, MPB. It doesn't cost you anything extra when you use these links, but it does support the site, helping keep ePHOTOzine free to use, thank you.


There are no comments here! Be the first!


You must be a member to leave a comment.

ePHOTOzine, the web's friendliest photography community.

Join for free

Upload photos, chat with photographers, win prizes and much more.