A couple of weeks ago I gave my first ever talk at a camera club. I was asked to reflect on how I started up and to talk about my involvement in the UK music scene alongside the development of my style. As it stands I ended up writing everything down to aid in the memory process and to collate my thoughts, and seeing as it’s something I’m regularly asked about, here it is for you now in glorious blog format avec photos! I’ve even included some of my very early work for you to giggle at / be horrified by. I shall warn you now, some of it’s a teensy bit dark. You have my express permission to scroll past it rapidly should you so wish. Yep. Anyway, I hope you find it vaguely interesting and that it answers any questions you may have! If it does quite the opposite and you end up with additional questions, please feel free to ask away in the comments section or via Tumblr: http://ellylucas.tumblr.com/ask
Right, here we go!
A few years ago, I fell out of love with the standard route of education. Despite doing very well in my exams, I just couldn’t quite help feeling that the usual path wasn’t going to be particularly conducive to anything I really wanted to do. This possibly wasn’t helped by the fact that I wasn’t actually sure WHAT I wanted to do at the time, but I knew that it needed to be creative and that a piece of paper wasn’t going to, in the long run, actually be that helpful -particularly at a time when tuition fees for universities were all over the shop and the economic situation was looking somewhat dubious. I knew plenty of people who’d studied their creative craft of choice at an institution and likewise various others who’d just worked and worked until they’d got a portfolio to be proud of. Thing is, I couldn’t help noticing that the guys with the portfolios tended to get more of the jobs. They had, by and large, entered the world of work earlier, got a headstart on their portfolios and learned to battle harder. Obviously this isn’t the case everywhere, but that’s the thing about art – it’s so subjective that a qualification over a portfolio doesn’t really mean anything. If your creative employer looks at your certificates before your portfolio, you should probably think twice about accepting the position.
At secondary school I’d studied GCSE art and as part of that had been encouraged to take my own source photographs to work from. I’d always enjoyed taking photos, but the nudge to start thinking about how to more creatively set up my images turned a previously slightly passé pastime into something of a more solid interest. As it stands, towards the end of the course there may have been one or two more photographs than actual physical artwork. Whoops. Whilst developing this love for setting up images, one of my friends was asked to put together a modelling portfolio and asked if I’d potentially be interested in trying out some portraiture. I absolutely was, and shortly afterwards would happily confess that I’d been well and truly bitten with the portrait bug.
Once I’d got a few images in my early portfolio and had finished my GCSEs, out of curiosity I decided to set up a MySpace account specifically for my photographic adventures. This was my first experience of the power of social media for marketing and it happened quite by accident! More and more people were paying attention to my images and I began photographing people left, right and centre – anything from party jobs to models to my first ever wedding job. Looking back now, the prospect of doing a wedding with a fixed lens Fuji (albeit a good one) and a Panasonic bridge camera as my back-up fills me with terror, but at the time I didn’t know otherwise and was as relaxed as anything! Thankfully all went well and my lovely first clients were delighted with the photos. Phew.
Time went by and I began to become more and more interested in editing my images more creatively. I was very fortunate to have a family contact in the gaming industry who introduced me to one of their phenomenal concept artists, a guy called Kev Crossley. Kev introduced me to the incredible world of editing software and the advantages of graphics tablets for precise creative control. The prospect of drawing onto photos and otherwise tinkering with them using the computer appealed enormously to my arts background, and a short while later I’d got my hands on a tablet and was pouring through every photography magazine and editing feature I could get my hands on. My images began to get more and more otherworldly and develop stranger concepts as more creative freedom became available to me, right up until the point that I finally decided I’d outgrown my faithful Fuji Finepix S9600. With the help of my previous teenage job delivering papers, a few photo jobs for friends and the spoils of a month playing music with a band down in St Ives, myself and £450 in an envelope made the trip to Jessops to purchase my first DSLR, a Canon 450D. Scary business.
I was very fortunate at the time to have a group of friends who were also interested in photography and the gear involved – it was endlessly helpful to have peer reviews of equipment before purchasing (and to, y’know, have people who didn’t mind you talking about f stops and othersuch things which would make other teens edge away as politely as possible). I remember when a couple of them first got their hands on the Canon 50mm f/1.8. The EXCITEMENT. I remember seeing some of the portraits they were producing and resolutely saving up until I finally got my hands on one, and there started my love affair with prime lenses.
I adore the way that prime lenses draw your eye to select parts of the images and the ethereal, dreamlike effect that the wide apertures can produce. I also like the way that the fixed focal length forces you to think more carefully about the composition of your shot and would cite this as one of the physical ways that I learned about how to set-up my images. Working regularly with wide apertures caused me to start seeing the world in a different light, I started thinking more in terms of colours and textures and small, isolated details – where would the interesting focus point be in this image? This affected my portraiture work too. The focus point would always be the eyes, but what would the styling or location look like with a wide aperture? What colours or patterns could I throw into the mix to make the image pop? I now mainly use a Canon 50mm f/1.4 and Canon 85mm f/1.8 for most of my creative portraiture work. However, when it comes to bands, the Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 suddenly comes to the forefront.
I’ve loved and played music for as long as I can remember. From embarrassing recordings of me singing ‘twinkle twinkle little bat’ aged tiny right up until now, it’s been a key feature in my life. A year after leaving education and having come back from my month of living off music in St Ives, I joined a touring band with whom, over the three years we were together, I played on two albums, several singles & EPs, did six UK tours, played up to ten festivals a year and got taken around the major labels in London. Wherever we went, my camera almost certainly followed, as did my business cards. When the band finished, myself and our guitarist / singer started playing as a duo and got through to the finals of the BBC Radio 2 Young Folk Awards in 2011 which gained us the startings of a nice following and some Radio 2 airplay. Rather conveniently, this provided a whole new level of exposure for myself – I always did our photography and artwork, and other musicians within the folk scene started to pick up on it. I began to do more and more photoshoots for my friends playing on the scene and developed more and more of a name for my promotional work, right up until the point that I had the absolute delight of being asked to photograph a selection of my musical heroes. Simultaneously playing on and photographing in the folk scene provided me with a very useful position. It meant that people generally already knew who I was through one path or another and – thanks to the lovely chatty nature of the scene – they probably already knew someone who’d worked with me previously. Playing support gigs was infinitely helpful too, wherever I went on the scene I could make contacts for both the music and the photography. For the last year or so I’ve also been designing album artwork for clients as well as taking their photos and doing the styling on the shoots, thus providing me with an additional way to provide a niche service.
In today’s hugely competitive photographic market, I think finding your niche has become progressively more important. I’m hugely fortunate that mine sort of fell into my lap. Admittedly through a huge amount of hard work and persistence, but the combination of factors and my love for my work caused it to come around quite naturally, rather than a forced transition.
Along with finding your niche, a strong internet presence has become absolutely essential for developing new businesses. I would say that approximately 70% of my work comes in through the use of social media such as Facebook and Twitter. More than ever these days as competition increases, you have to learn to sell yourself as well as your work. This notion runs particularly true when it comes to wedding clients: they want to know that the person who will be present on their big day is going to be right for them, which is where the way you behave online comes into play. I currently have two profiles on Facebook. One of them is very definitely my business page and is where I upload all of my commercial and portfolio work, and where the statuses are all in some way connected to my business activities. The other is my personal profile. This is where it gets a little more complicated and where Facebook has clearly begun to understand their users’ new found interest in people they may be aware of but not necessarily acquainted with in real life. Consequently, Facebook users can now choose to “subscribe” to my personal updates and photos if they so wish and I don’t have to accept them as a friend if I don’t know or at least have mutual friends with them in the real world. This means that I can tweak my privacy settings accordingly to decide what I’m happy for them to see or not see. Generally speaking, almost everything on my personal profile is public. I never really feel the need to post anything particularly personal or controversial up there, so I’m perfectly happy for that profile to be viewed and used an additional marketing tool. This way, interested parties can get more of an idea of what kind of person I am as well as seeing my business side and the work I produce. By letting your potential clients see what you’re really like, you’re allowing them to gauge some kind of idea about how they might react around you whilst they’re in a photoshoot situation. I’ve had a few clients now who were quite nervous about having their photos done who said how much it helped to almost know me before coming along to the shoot – that it helped them to relax and feel more comfortable in the situation.
The other useful thing about social media is that it allows you to engage with your audience and vice versa. It’s basically made the world a whole lot smaller! Through Facebook and Twitter your ‘fans’ and followers can easily interact with you and you with them – it makes the whole affair a lot more personal. So, as long as you’re sensible and act like a decent human being, this is a great tool for maintaining both fan and potential client relationships. It also opens up your work to an international audience. I was delighted to check my blog stats the other day and discover that it was currently being read in a list comprising of about 20 different countries! This Christmas just past I ran a Christmas card giveaway through my business page. This involved fans sharing one of my images on their profile (extra exposure for my work) to be in with the chance of having a card sent to them (a thank you from me). As it stands, I ended up posting these cards, featuring one of my photos, to places as far flung as Australia, Cyprus, Malaysia, Luxembourg and more! Consequently I received more ‘likes’ on my Facebook page and had the opportunity to thank the people who cared about what I was doing. I think showing people how much you appreciate their support and making them feel included in your journey is endlessly important – I doubt I’d be doing what I’m doing now if I hadn’t been encouraged by a plethora of wonderful people along the way.
A facet of my work that I’m regularly asked about is my self-portraits. The most common question is something along the lines of “Why do you take them? Aren’t photographers supposed to be happiest on the OTHER side of the lens?” I recently answered this is great detail on a guest blog for the photographic workshop company ‘Going Digital’, but the crux of it is this:
1) If you’re only used to being on one side of the lens, how do you expect to truly empathise with your photo subjects? It’ll teach you how to move in front of the camera, how to pose yourself and what feels comfortable to do, so you in turn know what your models are going through.
2) You can be as wildly experimental as you like.
3) If you, like me, enjoy styling your shoots as well as photographing them, a quick self-portrait session is the perfect way to ensure you’ve worked out how to do the look you require before inflicting it on a model. Not only will you physically work out the make-up etc beforehand, you’ll be able to see how it looks on camera and adjust it accordingly to ensure as little post-production work as possible.
4) I know that I’ll put myself through a lot more than I’d ever put a model through, which totally opens the lid on creative freedom and becomes a very liberating, cathartic form of expression. If I’m ever feeling particularly strongly about something, positive or negative, you can almost guarantee it will be followed shortly afterwards by some form of portrait. In addition, because you don’t have to give instructions that you might not quite be able to articulate and consequently potentially compromise your idea, they’re the best way to exactly portray your emotions on a subject.
5) The challenge of it; finding clever ways of setting up in your chosen location, thinking constantly about your positioning, where the focus point’s aiming, the styling, how to make it interesting and – as has been previously suggested – how to move on the other side of the lens, means that you’re forced to think and plan in more than one dimension. I would cite this process as one of the key ways I taught myself how to take photos, particularly in terms of styling and composition.
6) It’s just plain old fashioned fun to dress up and pretend to be a rockstar every now and again. You know how it is. Plus you can mutter as many expletives as you like at the camera and that’s fine (assuming you’re not in a hugely public place, let’s be sensible about this.)
The styling issue is one that I particularly enjoy. As has been mentioned previously, I quite often like to do the make-up and hair etc at a shoot if I have time. This is partly down to being a bit of a control freak when it comes to my images, but mainly because it allows the paintbrush wielding/sculpture happy artist inside me to come back out of the cupboard every now and again. It also means one less person to worry about turning up at a shoot and less expense for clients if they’re only paying for one person’s time – which is another aspect I’ve worked into my particular business niche. Every now and again I’ll think of something that I will happily admit defeat on and call in one of my phenomenally talented stylist contacts (such as the time we turned one of my model friends into a human planet, which involved painting her entirely blue and covering the essentials with some stitched material “continents” that I’d created the previous night, for an “around the world in 80 days” themed shoot), but for the simple up to the moderately wild, I can offer the whole service. I’ve even done the bride’s make-up at a couple of my wedding photography jobs. Thankfully I had a lovely assistant to capture this section of the “bride getting ready” – that might’ve been just a teensy bit too much juggling for one person.
The weddings were another area of photography that I just kind of ‘fell’ into from an early point in my career. As I mentioned earlier, my first wedding was done entirely on my own – but from that and from happily chatting to guests, I managed to book three additional weddings further down the line. Almost all of my wedding jobs since have been from word of mouth which has been an absolute delight. I think one of the keys to being a successful wedding photographer is to enjoy being in the wedding situation – to enjoy the challenges it presents and be happy to interact with the company. There’s a hell of a lot of pressure on you in the wedding business and you can do some incredibly long hours, so if you don’t enjoy what you’re doing there it will almost undoubtedly show. As someone who tracks the bride and groom’s movements for the whole day and, consequently, as someone who’s almost constantly in their company, you have a responsibility to stay calm and focussed and friendly – and not to be a grey cloud on a day they’ll remember for the rest of their life. Generally speaking I’ve found that if you a) know what you’re doing technically b) enjoy the scenario and c) allow yourself to go with the flow of the day, you’ll be fine. I also always make a point of getting to know my clients a little before the event to ensure that we’re as comfortable in each other’s company as possible, and so I know exactly what sort of photos they’re after.
So, that – I think – brings us about up to date! The key things I’ve learned as I’ve gone along are to be personable, work out your niche, appreciate the people who support you en route and not be afraid to experiment and put yourself out there. Talk to people, be approachable, you never know who you might meet.
Until next time,