From sperm to commercial photographer. An incredible journey!

Many a photographer will tell you they knew their calling right from the age they could hold a camera. Some will boast that they were checking out the possibilities of light and shade even from inside their mother’s womb. Well I can beat that; I was getting ready for the press photographer’s scrum even as I approached my mother’s egg.

Ok, I exaggerate a little there. The truth is, and to cut a soul-crushingly long story short, I’d known since leaving school that I wanted to take pictures for a living, but had no idea how to proceed until someone introduced me to the picture editor at The Bath Chronicle.

school boy feeling sad at school party.

I may have been happiest at “The Chron”. Not all my subjects felt the same way.

From work experience at The Chron to trusted freelance happened pretty quickly, and hitting the FFW button again brings us to where I wanted to be – working for national titles, specifically and almost exclusively for the News of the World, where I spent the best part of two years shooting celebrity nonsense.

However, a fairly terminal disagreement with “The Screws” meant a very sudden exit from the stable of photographers there. Something to do with them owing me about £3,000 in unpaid expenses and them not wanting to pay, as I recall. Nothing important…

So there I was, having dedicated a couple of years of my career almost exclusively to them, to the exclusion of my previously regular clients, and not a lot on the diary. So I picked up my book and tear sheets and started to call in at the other news and magazine picture desks. Strangely enough though, a fistful of cuttings from The Screws doesn’t exactly open doors at The Sunday Times or The Guardian. And after the constant stress and under-payment of one national, my heart wasn’t really in it any more. I could see the industry was going down the pan, and decided to turn the break into an opportunity.

Which brings us neatly to where I am today. I’ve taken my press training and experience, adapted to commercial photography, and combined the two disciplines to give my clients something a bit unique. This isn’t a sales pitch though, so moving swiftly on…

Of course I’ve also had to work on my business skills and adjust to the fact that I won’t get a bollocking for doing everything right. I’ve had to break the instinct to shoot all my pictures from behind a bush in the car park (I’ve found that tends to unnerve some people). But I do enjoy being given some creative freedom, being asked for picture ideas and not having to pee into a bottle in the back of a surveillance van.

I do miss press work sometimes though. When I see a big story break, I might wish I was there to cover it, but apart from the occasional magazine commission, I don’t work directly for newspapers any more. Taking into account all the costs of being equipped to do the job and running a professional service, the fees offered by the press mean they’ll be drawing on an ever dwindling number of professionals who can still afford the cost of working for them. I’ve grown up and moved on to where I can be of most use, and still make a living.

This article is soon to be a film starring Jim Broadbent and Matt Damon. If Matt can fit into the sperm suit.

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  • Ken October 6, 2010  

    I will now have this unnerving vision of Matt Damon in white in my head for the next week, thanks for that Tim.

    Great article as usual. We all have that unpaid invoice pinned up in the back of the cupboard that we keep just to remind us not to get burned again. Funny enough I was cunning enough not to get burned by a client, I got burned by a colleague working on a mulitmedia project together, it has the same net result, the MF still owes me, but we move on.

    The moral of the story is: Be sure to book actors before working with dodgy clients

    Did I get the moral right or missed it somehow, its wednesdays, I was never good at moral finding on wednesdays

    • Glass Eye October 6, 2010  

      My unpaid bill had built up over a few months. I just couldn’t afford to work for them any more. However, I did get the money in the end 😉

  • pogomcl October 6, 2010  

    “Taking into account all the costs of being equipped to do the job and running a professional service, the fees offered by the press mean they’ll be drawing on an ever dwindling number of professionals who can still afford the cost of working for them.”

    always a good read…

    • Glass Eye October 6, 2010  

      pogomcl, whoever you are, you’re too kind. Thank you 🙂

  • Pete Jenkins October 6, 2010  

    Totally with you on this one Tim. I sacked the UK national Press almost ten years ago, after working for every single one of them for over twenty years.

    When newspapers today are paying less for commissions than they did in 1994, it doesn’t take a genius to work out that there is no future in supplying them.

    I have recently had the Guardian wanting me to cover an event, but refusing to commission me, just in case they don’t need it after all. And they wonder why we have such a low opinion of them…

    Pete J

    • Glass Eye October 7, 2010  

      Hi Pete, and thanks for your thoughts too.

      This article was inspired by @jadedsnapper who requested I blog about my transition from press to commercial photographer. While the rates weren’t strictly the reason for my departure from press work, it was once I started to look for work again that I realised the effort involved in getting any work was never going to be rewarded with assignment fees of any work I got.

      The press ship has been sinking for some time, and one day I’ll get my act together and write an entire blog on that subject alone. Maybe it would need to be a book though.



    • Robert Day October 8, 2010  

      Well, the Grauniad is reputed to be on its way down the tubes, so that may well explain something. But having spent five years working in a central Government press office and dealing with these people on an almost daily basis, I’d believe anything of them. Trouble is, it rubs off; the one time I got badly stung on work was when the Day Job asked me to do some photography for them and then refused to talk about money…

      • Glass Eye October 9, 2010  

        Robert, The Grudian is indeed in trouble and has been for years. There’s a very long blog article to be written just on that.

        I wonder if the Day Job was a salaried one, in which case they probably wouldn’t have thought they had grounds to discuss money with you. Except that if it wasn’t one of your contracted responsibilities, some concession probably should have been offered. Do tell more, if you feel you can.

        Thanks for your comments, and I hope you find my articles useful/entertaining/distracting.


  • S-J White October 7, 2010  

    Tim, I’m still in regular contact with Jim and Matt, do you want me to have a word?

    • Glass Eye October 7, 2010  

      Hi S-J, Well I think it’s high time we had that follow-up coffee! Call/email me soon.



  • Robert Day October 9, 2010  


    You have it exactly right. The Day Job was salaried, but I was not engaged as a photographer; and indeed, by the time the commission (as I continue to see it) was made, I had even stopped working in the press office.

    I was asked to cover a major off-site staff event; one of my photographs was even used in our Annual Report as a full-page chapter heading. I was asked because I had a reputation as a photographer; I’d been doing paid work in my spare time on and off for quite a while and I was positioning myself to make the move to full-time freelancing (i.e. I was building up contacts and pro-standard kit, learning how to use it, working out my likely markets and strategy, etc.)

    Relations started out quite cordial in the intial stages of discussing the brief; it was only when my jokes about ‘that’ll go on my invoice’ got an increasingly frosty reception that I began to wonder what was going on. The bottom line came when I asked about payment and was turned down; but by then, other people in the organisation were also asking me to cover other events that they’d organised. The final straw came when I covered an event for which photographs would be shared between us and some big-name commercial clients, and when I submitted same I did not even get a ‘thank you’.

    So I didn’t throw my toys out of the pram. I approached the appropriate Director and made him a proposal. I offered to work as the organisation’s in-house photographer for the same level of retainer as we pay other people who volunteer to take on extra duties – about £1250/year. I set out clearly what they would get for this. Their response was to say “We do not think we have a need for such a service”.

    At that point I did throw my toys out of the pram. I advised the whole organisation publicly that I was no longer doing to put up with their getting the benefit of over 30 years’ photographic experience, plus the £7000-odd of my own money that I’d sunk into kit, software and training for nothing; and if they wanted me to take photographs for them in future, it would be according to my rate card.

    In response, they then proceeded to buy a point-and-shoot compact and hand it out to anyone who wanted photographs of events they opganised. The results were what you’d expect – an industry briefing that we organised, attended by CEOs of FTSE100 companies, was illustrated in a publicly-issued newsletter by a poor photograph of the tea trolley and two minor atendees with coffee cups in their hands stood off to one side of the frame….

    That was two years ago. I leave there in eight weeks’ time, with one major and two ‘runner-up’ international awards to my credit, and a possible book deal in the pipeline. There are certain people’s faces I cannot wait to see at my leaving do…..

    • Glass Eye October 9, 2010  

      Robert, that is incredible. Had your employer supplied all the equipment, software and made photography part of your employment contract it might be understandable, but as you’ve described it, it was just another way of not paying for photography that was needed.

      Maybe, just maybe when they’ve lost quality clients (or the funding, if we’re talking Govt. department), when the pool camera has broken down for the umpteenth time or the battery is strangely reluctant to hold a charge because no one person is in control of it, and they’re getting desperate for library shots for annual reports, you never know… they might give you a call.

      Of course your rates will reflect the value of your work!

  • Darron Mark January 27, 2012  

    Great post, even enjoyed the comments. I think I’ve walked the same path, albeit in other streets.

    • Glass Eye January 27, 2012  

      Thank you Darron, and even though our journeys are different we all started from the same beginnings 😉