Becoming a Confident Photographer

Despite improving as a photographer over time, an image from my days as a trainee still remains one of my all-time favourites

Nerve-wracking. That’s the best way to describe the first three months working as a trainee photographer for a newspaper. Don’t get me wrong – exciting, fascinating and illuminating are all great words, too, but nerve-wracking is the emotion I remember the most.

My first day was a Bank Holiday Monday, which was ideal, really. A lot of staff members were off, including the other photographers, so it gave me a chance to warm up a little. My editor welcomed me and dumped a bag full of equipment on my desk, along with an inventory of items. I stared at the contents and just felt baffled. There was a ginormous flash called a Metz (that was new to me), and a dozen or so cables and battery packs.

‘Primitive’ Equipment

The Nikon D2H was in there, and I’d never used a camera so ‘primitive’. With my Nikon D700 providing amazing pictures in ambient light situations, I had no need for all these flash units, and certainly no use for a camera that couldn’t handle ISO greater than 1000 at a push.

The jobs I had to attend that day were simple but challenging. There was a classic car rally in the countryside, followed by a mayor ringing a bell somewhere. But taking pictures was just one of the daily trials I had to get used to over that day. Editing, captioning and sending five of the best images from each job, via FTP (also new to me), were all part of the experience and I soon found out the true meaning of the word ‘deadline.’

So every day I walked in to the office I thought, ‘What does today have in store for me? What jobs will I be sent to, how hard is it going to be, how long have I got, what ideas can I come up with, etc etc.’

The butterflies in my stomach continued to flutter day after day throughout June, July and well in to August, but my confidence and skills were growing with each day that went by.

A Photographer’s Wet Dream

And then came one beautiful evening in early September, when I was sent out to photograph Derby Festé. The annual festival brought visually stunning performances to the streets each year and was therefore a photographer’s wet dream.

I arrived at Cathedral Green just before sunset and a crowd was already gathering for what was going to be the main event of the evening. I had no idea what to expect, so I made sure both cameras were setup with a long lens and a wide, and that my Metz and Nikon flashes were primed and ready to fire.

As the clouds gathered and the skies darkened, five individuals emerged on stilts wearing long, white gowns. Haunting music accompanied them as they slowly drifted through the crowds, neither speaking or making eye contact with anyone. All around me, cameras were flashing and teenagers were chatting excitedly as the performers carefully made their way over to the Green itself.

Whilst the group lined themselves up and folded their arms, a man standing behind them suddenly sparked a flare and their costumes took on a whole new life. I realised instantly that this was going to be THE shot, so I reached for my D2H, wide lens and Metz combo. I took a series of shots before stepping back to admire my handiwork on the back of the screen. Bingo!

 

Derby Festé

 

The Wrath of the Editor

I rushed back to the office, which was thankfully just around the corner, and got to work editing the images. The Editor, Neil, wanted the pictures yesterday and, as always, time was of the essence. The news desk were writing frantically away to get the story online and ready for the morning press, and all they were waiting for now was me.

Neil upped the pressure and I could certainly feel it. As was always the case, he made it quite clear that I should’ve captioned and filed everything at least an hour ago and I could feel myself getting a little hot under the collar. “It’s coming, it’s coming,” I reassured him, impatiently.

Fifteen minutes later I was finished and my images were sitting on the newspaper’s server for all to see. Neil reappeared out of his office to check the damage report and his expression changed my professional confidence forever. Turning towards me with a smile on his face, he simply said, ‘Absolutely fantastic picture.’

With my ego now soothed I left the building feeling a different class of photographer. Just three months in to the job I had produced an image that, to me, was original: striking, engaging and entrancing all at the same time. My peers seemed to agree, too. When my photojournalism tutor, Paul Delmar, saw the shot he commented very enthusiastically, which was a rare thing for him. When he saw a similar-looking image on Facebook a few years later he shared it with me, along with the words, ‘Not as good as yours!’

Popular on Facebook

All these years later it’s still being appreciated. Currently I’m running three separate Facebook ads for my photography business, and this picture is the most popular of the three. Well, it’s getting more clicks to my website, at least.

The question is, what makes the image so interesting? For me it’s technically and visually exciting. Even though I’d taken plenty of good pictures before this one, it was perhaps the first really great low-light image I’d taken, and with a camera I wasn’t particularly confident with. The sky looks moody, and the cathedral looming in the background is just light enough to see some detail in it. The spires are gothic-looking, and the tower itself is perfectly inline with the five ghostly figures standing on the grass.

The colours are beautiful, too. The deep blue sky, lush green grass and creamy yellow legs all work well together, creating a radiant sandwich of creative and natural light.

After six-and-a-half years I still return to this one image, which sits proudly in my portfolio. Since that day I’ve produced hundreds of great images that I’m fond of and so are my clients, but this one means so much to me that I can’t just let it go. As photographers, we’re always being told to revisit our images and tidy up our portfolios to keep things fresh.

But with this one, taken on a warm evening back in September 2009… you’ll just have to pry it from my cold, dead hands.

This shot is a part of Light’s #VantagePoint project. If you’ve never heard of the company called Light, they created a small camera that has the quality of a DSLR, while having the convenience and size of a smartphone that fits in your pocket. This camera allows shooting in low-light conditions that bring out the best in Light’s imaging engine.

This blog post first appeared over at photographybymatthewjames.com

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