Being professional, preparation and planning

Counter demonstration, EDL March - PH060112

I accept I had become too casual about my photography, and it was brought home to me covering recent news events. Carefree was fine when it was an occasional exercise, although it was a business it was part of my relaxation from a demanding and stressful career. Now, with my writing, it is my principal way of life. I have to be much more professional if it is going to pay its way.

 I have been refreshing my thinking by rereading the books I have on professional photography as well as undertaking more academic research into the history and theory of photography, especially photojournalism.

Bill Jay and David Hurn's book On Being a Photographer was a useful starting point. Some reviewers have felt it is just two old fogies reminiscing about photography "in their day". There is certainly a tendency for David Hurn, a Magnum photographer, to be rather dogmatic, there is a sense he takes the view that there is his way, and the wrong way. Fortunately, Bill Jay does moderate that to some extent and even gets David Hurn to acknowledge there might be other ways. However some of the advice about planning a documentary photo story is sound and stresses that much of a professional photographer's work takes place without cameras. David Hurn makes an important point about interest, knowledge and planning for shooting a story so that the photography sessions have a purpose, a sense of direction and nothing essential is missed. That is what has been lacking in my photography, I have just gone out to look for photographs, as my family call it: "taking my camera for a walk", rather than shooting with a clear purpose.

Although Hurn and Jay's discussion is primarily about documentary photography much of the advice about having a purpose and plan, being prepared, will apply to any genre of photography. As I look critically at photographs as part of my researches I can see what they say is true; few of the best photo stories would have come  from casual photography. Individual photographs may be serendipitous but it was planning that got the photographer in the right place. It is very clear that the best photojournalists get "lucky" rather more often than the casual photographer. The full version of Louis Pasteur's well known quote is particularly apposite: “In the fields of observation chance favours only the prepared mind". It also means that prepared photographers will get workmanlike sets of photographs that tell the story even if nothing visually special happens, but when it does they are there and ready.

The more I think about the more I can see that it applies to any professional photography. Even as a stock photographer I recognise that adopting a planned approach would be more productive and I would still be able to take the opportunistic image when the chance occurs. In fact, by being focussed on a photographic purpose I am more likely to see and get the chance shot; working with a purpose means my awareness will be raised, my camera ready and therefore my response more instinctive (see In the zone, or not. Train the mind). I want to shoot photo stories with a narrative, a more journalistic approach, rather than individual illustrations that are needed for stock. I am planning exactly that along with a better preparation for shooting stock and local news images. My expectation is that will result in greater personal satisfaction and a better chance of making a worthwhile financial return.

One of the common complaints of stock photographers working through libraries is the trend of tourist attractions, museums and other "pseudo-public "spaces to claim rights to the commercial use of images of their properties. Arguably this is an opportunity for the professional stock and documentary photographer to assert their position in what has become a crowd-sourced market. The professional through their planning and understanding intellectual property and other rights should be aware of when they need and how to get permission to access their subject, and have a plan to exploit that access quickly and efficiently. As rights owners insist on their rights the libraries will increasingly remove or not accept pictures taken without authorisation, which of course the true professional should have obtained as part of their preparation.

At the time of writing a new challenge has arisen in the UK with the repeal of section 52  of Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988; that means designers and manufacturers of pretty well any three-dimensional object (re)gain the rights to images that exploit their designs for their lifetime and 70 years after (Repeal of section 52, Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988 Guidance).Studio and stock photographs of such subjects, as opposed to images that included them incidentally, was a quick and easy way of building a stock portfolio. No more, that once easy stock approach is going to require a property release from the designer; the casual stock photographer might just start to get squeezed out and recreate an opportunity for those taking a professional approach who plan and get permission or releases.

Hopefully this means that stock and documentary photography may be coming back to the professional. Professional in this sense is about approach rather than whether the photographer is full-time.  A planned and knowledgeable approach to photojournalism, and even stock, will support another potential opportunity, that of being an interpreter rather than simply a reporter. That will be a future blog article here on M-dash.


Bill Jay, David Hurn, On Being a Photographer 3rd Edition,1997,  Lenswork – Kindle Edition

Intellectual Property Office, Repeal of section 52, Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988 Guidance (accessed 2 August 2016)

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