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19 steps to be a great Photographic Assistant … and beyond.

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Many people dream of a career as a photographer and there are certainly a myriad of ways to get into the photographic industry.  My own path started by studying at college for 3 years, but the learning really only properly began when I became a Photographic Assistant in a large commercial studio assisting 10 different photographers.  I worked hard and learned a great deal.

I have now worked as a photographer for well over a decade and I have gleaned a fair bit of insight on the question of “What Makes a Great Assistant?”.  So, using my own experiences, reading around and from listening to the many folk I have met along the way I have attempted a potted guide which I hope may prove helpful to others .

Of course, it is all subjective (and by no means definitive- I certainly don’t know it all!)  so take or leave whichever bits you like.

  1. Find out and learn as much as you can about the key bits of equipment used by professional photographers in your area (and I’d include software in that too).  A good place to look would be the main source for hiring professional gear, ask them what gets hired out the most … what manufacturers people tend to use.  This increases your value as an Assistant if you can show a range of knowledge and familiarity with all the latest kit.  Hire it out yourself or strike a deal testing it for the hire company.  If you are at college use every piece of equipment regularly and know it backwards.
  2. Learn the going rate for an Assistant, never try and undercut others … usually not a clever or productive route to go especially if you are just starting out without a decent reputation.  Different commissions will have different budgets, often Digital Assistants get more than Studio Assistants.  Be prepared to work long hours on some shoots and get no lunch break.  On another day you may find you finish early and go to the beach.  To get the best answers ask other experienced Assistants, if you ring up a photographer, most will give you an honest answer.
  3. Shoot as much as you can yourself, develop your own style, practice using all available equipment and cultivate how you like to do things and slowly build up a folio and a nice set of reliable photo gear.  Once you start thinking like a photographer you should become a better Assistant; able to anticipate and be a real asset.
  4. Be reliable, discreet, loyal, unobtrusive but helpful and decisive when necessary.  Being adaptable, easy-going and good company helps.  Don’t underestimate how important good social skills are in being a good Assistant.  Each photographer is different, some will prefer you to be gregarious and take the pressure off them with models and Clients etc. However, be aware that others may hate that!  You need to read people and their needs pretty well.
  5. Ask if you don’t know how to do something. Never just muddle along and then end up breaking a piece of equipment.  Though not too many questions, or you will make the photographer nervous!  If you can, ask someone else who might know an answer (other Assistants or people who work at the studio if it is a Hire place?).
  6. Learn skills from everyone else connected to the shoot.  Watch how they work as part of a team, how do they conduct themselves and use their skills?  Be helpful to everyone;  yes it is a nice way to be and it can lead to other contacts and work.  Network and cultivate useful contacts yourself and make recommendations should someone come looking.  What goes around comes around.
  7. Keep good notes and contacts of anything you learn.   You think you will remember it all but you won’t.
  8. Create an ideas and influences book. Read, visit and study other photographers.  Come up with a shortlist of your favourites from the emerging to the worshipped.  Analyse why you like them.
  9. Never forget your main role is to support … you are all part of a team, don’t try and take over but a useful suggestion at the right time can be invaluable.  Cultivate showing the right amount of initiative, don’t always be waiting to be told what to do.
  10. Always be a little early, NEVER be late.  If, for some reason, you will be late then phone ahead and let the photographer know.  Don’t turn up with a hangover.
  11. Be available should the photographer need you, “busily hovering” is a very useful skill.  If you go off to do a task then let the photographer know.
  12. Dress to blend in, you’re a creative; you can be stylish but practical.
  13. Be keen and able to drive a car and a van, try and have a clean licence.
  14. Don’t moan on a job, if a photographer is a nightmare then do your best on the job and don’t work for them again.
  15. Keep your private life out of work, put your phone on silent&vibrate. Yes, you are running a business, but when you are on a job, don’t take other work calls unless absolutely necessary.  Try and make your calls back at a suitable moment if there is such a thing.
  16. Don’t approach or show your own work to a Client on a job.  If you fancy collaborating with a Model, Make-Up artist or Stylist then agree to meet up some other time.  It might be nice to let the photographer know of your plans as they did put the two of you together in the first place and it could be better than them finding out from someone else.
  17. Do a business course, understand the market you are in, look at other Photographers and how they have positioned themselves within their sector.  Do you want to specialise, do you want to be your own boss?  Read lots about marketing a creative service.
  18. Understand copyright and Intellectual Property, protect your work. In the UK Own It is a good place to start and often run free workshops and Copyright Action has some excellent advice and links.
  19. Get feedback on your work, listen to advice, enter competitions & awards but always read the small print, make sure they are not Right’s Grabs:- a great place for advice is Pro-Imaging: Competions the Good & the Bad.  Keep shooting, but follow your own instincts too.  Love what you do and never lose sight of enjoying taking photographs.

I have listed some links for obtaining critique on your photography below.  I am not endorsing any of these and the standards of photography submitted varies but you may find it is useful for looking at other work and getting feedback.  Please let me know any others which you have found worthwhile and I can add them to the list.

Photoassist … good UK Assistants website and forum, features a showcase gallery for current test work.
Photo-net
J M Colberg website … US-based, you have to pay a fee for this one ($75) see further comment on this offer at the “A Photo Editor” site.
Photosig
Photozo.com Forum
Photopoints.com
PBase Forum
Flickr photography critique group.
Modelmayhem.com.  You can have a profile and if offers critiques but you have to join, mostly fashion.

For actual one-to-one reviews

Format Festival. Photography Festival in Derby, UK.
Redeye. Photography Support Group in Manchester, UK.
Rhubarb Rhubarb. West Midlands, UK based photo-development Agency.

To finish off, here is a link to some respected and experienced photographers on the Magnum blog, featuring brilliant work and some insightful advice on being a photographer ….  “Wear Good Shoes – Advice to young photographers”

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Winners Manchester Blog Awards: what is a Blog anyway?

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Last month I was surprised (but very delighted) to announce on my blog that I had been shortlisted for the Manchester Blog Awards 2008 in the category of Arts and Culture. The winners were announced recently at a fun shindig hosted in the Northern Quarter, Manchester at Matt and Phreds Jazz Club.

Sadly (for me anyway) I didn’t win but see later in the post for who did !!. It was a really well organised evening (thanks Kate over @ The Manchizzle and the MLF folk), highly sociable and glued together with a musical soundtrack and some brilliant readings from many of Manchester’s top bloggers. I particularly enjoyed the night’s final two guest readers; Maria Roberts (Single Mother on the Verge) and Chris Killen (Day of Moustaches). There is good coverage and critique over at The Mancunian Way.

Both are very talented writers and have used their wonderful blogs to gain book deals. Maria’s debut book will be on Penguin and is due sometime June 09 and Chris’s “The Bird Room” will be published by Canongate Books in January 2009.

Here are a few grainy pictures I snatched from the evening …

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jenn

kate

bar

… some more photos are over on samscam. Sam was all over the place during the night and managed to get some great shots, he came over and said hello and seems like a very nice chap. There is also a podcast put together by one of the winners, he actually had two blogs nominated that night Manchester Buses (which won) and 14 sandwiches; how does he find the time !!??

After perusing all the nominated blogs I was delighted to see my favourite won best overall blog … and I don’t even have a baby! Check out travelswithmy baby, I loved the cutting dissection of Susie’s visit to Trof near Oxford Road :-)

Here are the winners ….

Best New Blog: Winner: Follow the Yellow Brick Road, Katherine Woodfine
Best Writing on a Blog: Winner: Every Day I Lie a Little, Jenn Ashworth
Best Arts and Culture Blog: Winner: Northernights, Danny McFadden.
Best Personal Blog: Winner: Travels with my baby, Susie Stubbs
Best City or Neighbourhood blog: Winner: Manchester Buses, Martin SFP
Citylife Manchester Blog of the Year: Travels with my Baby, Susie Stubbs

There are lots of people out there who don’t read blogs, in fact they don’t really know what one is and I am sure events like the Manchester Blog Awards can only help to raise interest and standards. I have trouble explaining what a Blog is when I am asked.

Just look at the list of winners above, you have:-

  • meticulous and specialist musings of a slightly eccentric topic,
  • a funny and honest fly and the wall account of life with a little’un in tow,
  • superb up-to-the minute info and analysis for followers of the clubbing scene,
  • personal flowings from a gifted and funny writer with a commissioned novel on the way.

I think the key is once you find a blog you enjoy, it is like finding a friend, something you will dip back into regularly, it’s a new kind of reading. This year I discovered a fab new band The National via a blog I read … for that I a shall be eternally grateful to the “girl on a train“, aswell as having great taste in music, she is a talented observational writer with a dry wit.

The blog is an organic form, as a creator and shaper it can be exactly what you want it to be; conversely it can have a tendency to wander off depending how tight the reins are clamped !! But hey, there’s nothing wrong with that. Scatterdrum is more like an influences scrapbook for myself and I really enjoy sharing links to great talent and topics, I am no gifted writer but hopefully, my blog allows people to glimpse a little of my personality. Hopefully this works in tandem with my website which showcases my photography work. It has provided me with a new creative outlet and pushes me to constrain my thoughts and share. Just for the sheer process of writing it is good for my brain and my discipline.

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Were the “Best of Manchester Awards” any good? … in fact do Awards mean anything?

There seems to be awards being presented everywhere you look nowadays, so many in fact that it is impossible to keep up with everything.

I am all for being judged by your audience, critics and peers but one has to ask the question how impartial is impartial? Nowadays, I have no time for Awards with heavy sponsorship … step forward the Brits which is owned by the BPI (British Phonographic Industry aka the British Record Industry). It claims it’s aim is to be “supporting young people in music and education” aahhmm … surely it is about keeping British Music in the headlines and rewarding those that have mastered playing the game and who sell lots of records. I am not saying all Brit winners are talentless but it is just that, as far as I can see, the BPI are just handing out awards to those already successful.

More meaningful are those Awards which generate word-of-mouth and are trying to give a helping hand to those talented (often innovative) souls who have not yet cracked it. Here you may find artistic types who possess a huge belief, a love for their chosen field crikey some folk who might even be doing it for fun and not money.

The cynical amongst you will shout that all Awards by their very nature are never unbiased, yes, true I agree but I guess I’m just saying that some have their hearts closer to the right place than others and this is often down to the Judges sitting on the panel and whether there is any kind of hidden agenda to the Awards.

A check on the Judges for the 2nd “Best of Manchester Awards” held at Urbis recently were Peter Saville Graphic Designer and all-round Manchester Design Guru, Miranda Sawyer (writer, broadcaster), Luke Bainbridge (Music Journalist, Editor Observer Music Monthly), there was the head of A&R at Universal Music, with nods to respected bods @ Castlefield Gallery (Manchester) and Blueprint Music Studios and Elvis Jesus head honcho covering the fashion angle. So a pretty eclectic, informed and opinionated group. Things are lookin’ good.

300 entries fought to prove their work illustrated the best creative thinking and innovation in Manchester, things were wittled down to a shortlist of nine covering Art, Fashion and Music. There is an exhibition to accompany the Awards on the 4th Floor at Urbis until the 28th of September. From the work on show I had a couple of personal favourites … none of which turned out to be the eventual winner so there we go – what do I know !! Still I’d like the share them with you anyway :-)

I loved the graphics and ethos of the Red Deer Club “a small label with big ideas” and brainchild of nu-folk fan Duncan Sime.

On the 4th of May last year, UHC a socially-conscious Design Studio and Artists Collective who deal in “the finest blend of art, design and action” took to the streets. Helped by volunteers and “As part of a protest campaign against consumerism and climate change, 88 hoardings were covered with cream coloured ‘hoods’ emblazoned with the message, ‘trees breathe ads suck’.” (Manchester Evening News). UHC will always annoy some, but their work often seems to harness talent, invention and maybe a measure of eccentricity. Surely it’s not only me who applauds their aim to “present those traveling to work with a special gift – a few precious moments of peace and beauty in place of the incessant noise of advertising”. Wonderful illustrations too …

Finally I was rooting (pun not intended) for Paul Hartfleet to win in the Art Category with his Pansy Project. “Paul revisits locations where homophobia has been experienced and plants pansies. These self seeding pansies act as a living memorial to this abuse and operate as an antidote to it; some pansies wither whilst others thrive in car park borders and windswept road verges. Each Pansy’s location is named after the abuse received and the project is now worldwide with its very own website www.thepansyproject.com.

I know it appears I am blinkered, as his project heavily features photography and Paul’s current project features benches! but trust me, take a trip over to his own site and blog and see more of his fantastic work and ideas.

The actual winners were :

ART: Naomi Kashiwagi

MUSIC: Richard Cheetham, High Voltage

FASHION: Simon Buckley, Rags to Bitches

One final little footnote, I discovered a fab little Manchester band playing to the crowds at the Awards called Keith, a little bit Doors/Radiohead/Talking Heads all delivered with the customary Manc twang and swagger.

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New Designers exhibition, London … winners Kate Laskey & Abigail Borg

I was hoping to get to the New Designers exhibition at the Business Design Cente, London, when I was visiting the capital a few weekends ago. Sadly, the time slot was just too tight and I had to give up on that idea, however on their website is a full list of the winners. It was a two-part show which celebrated the work of over 4000 graduates from around the UK who also competed to win one of the New Designer Awards. It is one of two major platforms for new graduates, the other being the Free Range exhibition over at Brick Lane.

Amongst this year’s award-winning array of talent I really liked the work of Kate Laskey. Her project entered for the ND exhibition was titled ‘Ten stops from home’ and featured a collection of wallpapers, furnishing and upholstery fabrics and cushions that all incorporate images noted from her journey to and from college. Covering the past three years, her sketchbook featured drawings from towns such as Shoreham, Brighton and Eastbourne which were developed to create the finished designs.

Kate is a recent graduate in Surface and Textile Design from Northbrook College and won the Harlequin Award at the exhibition. The judges described her work as “inspirational and highly individual with a very specific style and unique handwriting. Extremely refreshing and versatile”. Together with the prestige and media buzz of winning an award at this exhibition, it also means Kate will spend some time working at Harlequin a highly respected brand known through the world of interiors, they design and sell a select range of classy fabrics and wallpapers.

Also an honourable mention for a student from ‘Oop Norf’ …. hurrah, no I’m not biased at all !! Well done Abigail Borg from Leeds College of Arts, proclaimed the Business Design Centre: New Designer of the Year. I think her drawing skills and colour palette match up quite beautifully and her work could fit comfortably within a number of media from textile design right through to book covers and many in-between.

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New Designers exhibition, London … winners Kate Laskey & Abigail Borg

I was hoping to get to the New Designers exhibition at the Business Design Cente, London, when I was visiting the capital a few weekends ago. Sadly, the time slot was just too tight and I had to give up on that idea, however on their website is a full list of the winners. It was a two-part show which celebrated the work of over 4000 graduates from around the UK who also competed to win one of the New Designer Awards. It is one of two major platforms for new graduates, the other being the Free Range exhibition over at Brick Lane.

Amongst this year’s award-winning array of talent I really liked the work of Kate Laskey. Her project entered for the ND exhibition was titled ‘Ten stops from home’ and featured a collection of wallpapers, furnishing and upholstery fabrics and cushions that all incorporate images noted from her journey to and from college. Covering the past three years, her sketchbook featured drawings from towns such as Shoreham, Brighton and Eastbourne which were developed to create the finished designs.

Kate is a recent graduate in Surface and Textile Design from Northbrook College and won the Harlequin Award at the exhibition. The judges described her work as “inspirational and highly individual with a very specific style and unique handwriting. Extremely refreshing and versatile”. Together with the prestige and media buzz of winning an award at this exhibition, it also means Kate will spend some time working at Harlequin a highly respected brand known through the world of interiors, they design and sell a select range of classy fabrics and wallpapers.

Also an honourable mention for a student from ‘Oop Norf’ …. hurrah, no I’m not biased at all !! Well done Abigail Borg from Leeds College of Arts, proclaimed the Business Design Centre: New Designer of the Year. I think her drawing skills and colour palette match up quite beautifully and her work could fit comfortably within a number of media from textile design right through to book covers and many in-between.

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Creative Studio sharing … a Danish example but it needs a green roof!

Maybe one day I will dabble in a bit of studio sharing. I often think it sounds like a stimulating and fun environment to work within, different creative skillsets all housed in one building with the possibility of collaboration plus the practical benefits of sharing facilities. Whilst savouring the wonderful design work on the bloesem site, I discovered a successful creative workspace enterprise called ‘Lynfabrikken’ (the lightning factory) based in Denmark.
I suppose the closest thing we have here in Manchester would be The Craft and Design Centre but it rents out only small units and does not have the space to attract photographers/musicians/film-makers. Maybe Islington Mill has the potential to grow into something bigger, though the Danish example seems to have a more central location and therefore the ability to morph itself into trendy cafe, place to be seen plus a gallery and performance venue. Lynfabrikken is open to the public with opportunities to buy and view unique work and provides a meeting spot for all the creative tenants and their clients.
I shall carry on with my idealised daydream for the Perfect Studio ….
Of course it would have to utilise all roof space, maybe a green living roof similar to the Unicorn Grocery roof project in Chorlton, their site has a live web-cam (you can actually control the camera movements!).
The Unicorn scheme provides a green escape for their employees and was designed specifically to attract the rare black redstart, a bird happy in the urban environment but rapidly disappearing from the UK. There have been reports of at least one breeding pair of these birds this summer in the centre of Manchester (near the CIS building) so maybe they will wing their way over to Unicorn one day soon.

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