Can you tell us a little bit about your work, Ben…
I shoot films and imagery across a wide range of fields: portraits, architecture, horses, yachts, food, property, interior design… whatever is needed, really. I’m a location photographer, so I don’t shoot in a studio. There are two sides to my work: commercial work for clients, where I’m paid for my time, and then my personal fine art prints, where I’m paid through sales of framed prints. The golden scenario is where those two aspects sometimes feed into each other.
Do you have an example of that?
I was approached by a client for some fine art photography of their horses in training. I met George Baker, the trainer, and began to understand that the photos and films we were taking for the private client would actually help him too. At the time, their website was out of date and they were struggling with their marketing. We ended up doing a set of stills for them, shooting a whole load of videos, and also designing a new website. Equine pursuits really lend themselves to being filmed – they always produce atmospheric images. Then I met Ed [founder of Runway Advisors], who was also working with George, and he helped to align the visual messaging with the business goals. So a fine art job led to a commercial job, and a really fulfilling project.
What might a typical week look like for you?
I shoot two or three days a week and then the rest of the time there’s admin, office stuff, as well as lots of location hunting, recces, meetings and travelling. Last week, for instance, I had a meeting in Lemington on Thursday, then a job in Somerset on Friday, then I spent the weekend on a shoot in Wales, now I’m back in the office for a few days. I’m in perpetual motion really.
Do you have a ‘usual’ type of project?
There’s no ‘usual’ project for me. It’s possible I do too many types of things – the most successful photographers specialise in one thing and become the best biscuit photographer in the country or world whisky bottle photographer, and charge accordingly! I’ve never been interested in that. For me the beauty of the job is the variety. I’m happy to compromise on financial success to keep that variety.
How did you get started in the job?
My grandfather was a photographer, and his father was a proper commercial photographer, with a portrait studio in Baker Street called Elliot & Fry, so it’s been in the family for generations. When I was 8, I found a Kodak Brownie camera in the cellar of our old house and it went from there. I didn’t take it seriously until I was at university; a year studying in America crystallised it for me and I knew it was what I wanted to do. I worked as an assistant for 5 years for lots of really great photographers including David Bailey and Don Freeman – I didn’t make much money, but I was in my 20s and I got so much experience. I set up on my own nearly 25 years ago. I was quite young to know what I wanted to do, but it meant that by the time I was 30, I was ready. I think it’s difficult to decide to get into photography later in life, when you have family and other responsibilities.
How have you noticed your industry changing over the years?
Obviously the big switch to digital was difficult after I’d spent ten years investing in film cameras and training. I literally had to bin them and start again. But on balance digital made our job faster, more efficient, more creative. I went to Wales last week for a personal project and shot 1600 pictures in 2 days. On film, that would have been a major financial commitment. Digital has allowed both myself and my clients to do really big ambitious projects with less financial risk or investment. The downside is people want work instantly, which is not a good thing. Even with digital, it takes time to do something properly.
Do you find people try to do the photos and videos themselves at first – then realise they need to call in a professional?
There’s space for both. You call in a professional for the permanent content you need, that has to look good. Then you can take photos and short films yourself for use on Instagram or blogs. Instagram is a really important part of marketing now and it’s designed to be done on your phone. With George Baker, for instance, I couldn’t be at every event, so we helped them get into Instagram to document everything they are doing. Combine your own Instagram pictures with professional photography on your site and the package really comes together.
Is videography a different matter?
Yes. Videography is much more complicated – you have to write the narration, do the interviews with the right people, do all the sound, lighting, editing – it’s a big performance. When I broadened my business out into videography, I realised how many of the skills were transferable.
What tips do you have for a small business thinking about getting some strong photography or filming done?
Give me a ring! They need to think about what message they are trying to get across – what their USP is. I always think it’s good to emphasise the people in the business – that’s who clients or customers will be dealing with. To go back to George Baker as an example, a potential owner of a racehorse would expect the yard to be in good nick, and the staff to be professional, so that isn’t the focus of the imagery. What makes the difference is the relationship they will have with the trainer and the team, so that’s what we emphasise – it’s more interesting than what hay you’re using or how well the stable is made.
Do you think strong imagery and filming plays a big role in marketing?
There are so many elements to a company’s marketing that it’s difficult to quantify what is and isn’t working – photos and videos aren’t a silver bullet, but they are certainly something you need within your portfolio of marketing. Google now prioritises high calibre content on well-designed sites, with diverse and well-made content that is regularly updated. Photos and films are a big part of that. Some sectors, like Law, obviously require high quality professional imagery. Others with a young target audience will need a strong Instagram, as much as a strong website. Look at what your competition are doing and take the best ideas. You don’t even need a huge budget these days… everyone was up in arms at one point about royalty-free photography, but it has allowed small companies to put websites together with decent imagery and do good marketing on a small budget.
What have your highlights been so far?
I’m lucky to have been given some outstanding jobs over the years. The biggest and most prestigious commission I ever got was Yacht Mariquita, built in 1911 in Scotland by William Fife, top classic designer of the day. I was involved with filming the boat for many years and was involved in her centenary. She was then taken on by new owners, who commissioned me to follow the boat for 3 years (2013-2015) all over Europe before she raced at Cowes. I was essentially the yacht’s in-house photographer and videographer. Shooting stills and video at the same time isn’t easy, especially with the added challenge of being on water, too. We did a documentary film for each year and ended up doing lots of editorial projects, magazine articles, built a website, and also put out two books – one for the 2013 season, and one monster book when the three years were over. That was a career highlight.
We have also just done a book on the Isle of Wight called The Wight Book. It was a two-year project and I acted as photography editor.
Do you have any cameras you particularly use or recommend?
There used to be three things to look for in a camera: megapixels, sensors and optics. All digital cameras now are brilliant on the first two, they’re not an issue. When it comes to optics and the quality of the glass, there’s a big range out there. The ability to shoot video is important, and was a breakthrough in camera development. I use a Canon 5 D for that. Nikon, Canon and Sony are all good right now. Sony in particular are spending a fortune on research and development of their cameras, so that’s quite exciting.