How I became a photographer

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It all started in the days before Bits and Bytes, when I made things, with actual real atoms (things like paintings & prints).

Introduction.

This brain-dump / rambling-blog records the thought process that was prompted by recently finding some old paintings in the garage (whilst looking for a portrait i'd drawn of my friend Lance Buckely).

It's a process that started out with me lamenting being a lapsed artist, but has grown to become a sort of self examination of me being a photographer now, and how I got to here in the first place. I'm really talking to myself in writing this, as well as finally really answering that question I've been asked quite a few times in interviews and by people who follow my work but never really got to the bottom off before (how did you become a photographer?).

Pen and Ink drawing of Lance Buckley from 1993, photographed and given 10 minutes in photoshop in 2014.

Modesty disclaimer.

Despite the fact that I reluctantly admit that being an artist and / or photographer essentially consists of showing off (hey look at me and this cool pic I just drew/shot/whatever) I'm not usually that comfortable with this sort of thing. It's a tired cliche but i really do prefer to let my pictures do the talking. However I do recognise that it can sometimes help with people who may be considering hiring me professionally.

Clients like to know that when they are talking to a photographer and he's asking them to pay the going commercial photography rates, that he's the real thing, and it's not something he just does now and then or 'on the side' because he can use a DSLR. So this piece is to say that its what I do, and it's also who I am.

And also, with my SEO hat on, its good to create new and original content for my website, It's about time I had something new for the 'ABOUT' page and I also know that search engines love that sort of thing too!

So if you've got this far and plan to read on, I'll have to assume your genuinely interested in the question ( How I became a photographer? ), I'll drop the false modesty and just get on and see if I can give a reasonable answer.

How it started.

Most people who've followed me online over the years will know me as a photographer, perhaps through my Isle of Wight landscapes or surfing photos / soulsurfing blog which I've been sharing via all the social media platforms out there, flickr, facebook, twitter etc.

Many of the people I've met whilst working on the numerous weddings and parties and sporting occasions I've covered on the Isle of Wight will know me only as an event photographer and enjoy my candid images of people at these gatherings.

And that's ok, seeing as it's my full time job, its what i do now, I've even got a lovely wife who only really knows me as a photographer because its been my passion through the time she's known me. But I've been around a while, and I existed in the days before the internet, and before digital cameras, and the only photos I took back then were to be used a reference, to gather ideas and colours and compositions for what was my real passion as an artist, or a 'painter' (labels that now feel a bit old fashioned or pretentious).

I drew with pencils or charcoal or 'pen and ink' and painted with brushes using all and any of the mediums, oil, acrylic, watercolour, chalk, pastels whatever seemed right for the subject, all without 'undo' or 'cut & paste' or 'layer blends' or applying digital textures.

I had a camera with me all the time, mostly a really cheap ($10 value) plastic 35mm film camera that I wasn't using in a retro or ironic way but as a cheap and easy and hassle-free way of gathering my thoughts (I'm conveniently forgetting the delays and cost in getting film developed). I shot anything and everything and without guidance or tuition (or much skill) using it simply as a tool to collect information with my mind on the end result as paintings, not the photos themselves.

I knew nothing about 'real' photography, it was an expensive dark art practised by middle-aged men with leather elbow patches on their jumpers and I didn't have the time to learn it. I wanted to paint, and if my 35mm lens wasn't wide enough to get what i wanted, I'd shoot overlaying frames that I would these days call 'vertoramas' and stick the prints together with masking tape. As well as shooting random verto / panos in a style I later learned that was similar to a technique used by Hockney.

1980's vertorama of the River Thames at Hammersmith Boats by the River Thames

Travels in South America.

It wasn't until traveling in South America and specifically Peru that I first realised I had begun to enjoy photography in its own right, and begun to take photos that had some artistic merit of their own. Albeit it started with more than a hint of luck as I had accidentally brought the wrong film (my spanish was scratchy at best and I'd purchased slide film for my plastic camera by mistake) and had stumbled upon something which i later learned is called 'cross-processing' for a batch of shots I took on the journey to Machu Pichu.

The eerie / surreal colourisation of the resulting photos being perfectly apt for images of the home of a lost civilisation, which was also conveniently empty of any other visiting tourists due to a Cholera outbreak in Peru at that time.

Accidental cross-process image of Machu Pichu from 1991

Real Jobs.

How this continued to evolve and develop into being a photographer now is sketchy at best, there is no clear path (or 'shining path' even, getting another reference to Peru in). I eventually came home from the Americas (with nothing but a bag of x-pro photos and an illustrated diary that I'd kept on my travels) and returned to London with no real plan on what I wanted to do or how i was going to pay the bills, but all the time I hung onto the idea of being an artist of some sort, that was the only certainty, this was me, it's what I had to do.

But as anybody who has tried can tell you, it's almost impossible to pay your way as an artist even if you are very good at it and have identified your niche and found a market for it, and at this time I had done none of those things. So I did the best I could and using the modest amounts of talent, business acumen and work ethic at my disposal, I worked 'day jobs' and continued to create (mostly still paintings) as and when i could in the evenings and weekends. I also knuckled down and studied technology and took a road that would one day lead to being a web-designer / IT director etc whilst still still managing to have the odd exhibition of paintings along the way.

These 'real jobs' that occupy large chunks of my personal / work history have all eventually been creative outlets in one form or other. Whatever I tried to do in terms of earning a living, I've constantly been drawn back to being a creative whether i liked it or not. Its an irresistible force that has to find an outlet. All that time spent designing and building websites, making animated shorts, or devising marketing and promotional campaigns has to count for something, but for the purposes of this ramble I'll try and stick to talking about art for arts sake, where my focus has been the 'art' and not business or commerce, and for this blog I'll quickly brush over those periods of my life and CV where the lines have crossed.

Whilst doing the 'day jobs' I told myself that if I was really any good as an artist, I would have had more success and made more of it. And then in the periods when I was working as a 'painter' full time and trying to do it professionally (i.e.; earn a living wage from it) I started to lose the love and spark that had made me do it in the first place. And so it was as the love affair with painting and using brushes got jaded in this way, that I started to get more interested in digital art and the immediacy of the digital medium. Eventually after a few years of playing with photoshop, painter and animator this led on to digital photography itself, and finally on to where I am today, with the camera as the tool of choice, preferably shooting SOOC (straight out of camera) and only the occasional bit of playing with photoshop for textured work or something like the 'Dictionary of Image' when the mood takes me.

texture creation

Going digital (first DSLR).

Having learned to use a lot of the required tools for my design and animation work, and just generally being a bit geeky with the whole parallel IT career path I'd also taken, I was able to embrace digital photography fairly easily, and having at some point been fortunate enough to move to the wonderful Isle of Wight, I was also in the perfect place to do it too. I grasped it firmly with both hands once i got hold of my first DSLR which I brought after first trying one out with a loan from Ben Haldenby who was and still is a very good friend, and a mostly positive influence in my life (he's been known to be a bad influence too but thats another story).

So this is the bit where somehow I became a full time professional photographer. It sort of snuck up on me, coming at me from several directions (see below), and before i knew it, I was shooting something new every day, working on client briefs and loving the challenges, both creatively and commercially. I say commercially because it is a business as much as its an art form, however much I keep the act itself focused on creativity, I also have to work hard at getting the opportunities to be paid for it in the first place, in a world where 'everyone's a photographer now' and there are plenty of businesses ready to exploit that fact and expect you to work for free (disguised as giving you 'exposure').

Landscape Photography.

Initially shooting dramatic Isle of Wight coastal landscapes with the Sigma 10-20mm lens and developing my own style for ultra-wide 'vertoramas' (vertical panoramas) that placed the emphasis on the sky and clouds dwarfing the world below, or finding some synchronicity between the two elements with leading lines tying them together. I found myself able to create images that finally satisfied me, and with the growth of social media and my flickr persona s0ulsurfing in particular, a platform to share them on and talk about photographic techniques in a community of like-minded individuals.

Almost 6 million views later and of course things have moved on and flickr isn't what it used to be (although I'm still a member and still connect with a lot of great photographers around the world) but it certainly really helped me develop as a photographer and encouraged me to explore and experiment and generally brought what was to me the 'dark art' out into the light. Lately I've been evolving these vertoramas by adding the dimension of time, and shooting long exposures. With this added element in addition to an ever-changing coastline and constantly changing weather, there's no lack of inspirational scenes to photograph.

Isle of Wight landscape photo

Surf Photography.

As well as allowing me to capture the landscapes that been the inspiration for many of my paintings, I was also fascinated to try and capture some of the energy and dynamism of one of my other great passions, surfing, and with the addition of a 300mm telephoto lens I began to document surfing on the Isle of Wight for my soul-surfing blog. Not just the waves themselves, but also the people that rode them and the beautiful locations where it took place.

Surfing in the UK is mostly a winter sport and that would often mean very challenging shooting conditions, but also occasionally amazing light as you were out in the elements when most sensible people were wrapped up safely indoors.

This led on to collaborations with another local photographer and surfer, Paul Blackley, and the making of the Wight Surf History project, where we created a fascinating historical archive on the website, as well as enjoying a few good times at the movie nights, parties and surf photography exhibitions we hosted.

Surfing and the beauty of the Isle of Wights coastline were also the inspiration behind the 'Ocean Seen' Exhibition which took place at Dimbola Museum & Galleries over the summer of 2012, a joint show curated by Kimberley Piggott (Exhibitions Coordinator JMCT) featuring the diverse Oceanic Photography of photographers Jason Swain, Rick Tomlinson and Nigel Millard.

Portrait of a Psychedelic Surfer oceanic photography exhibition

Event Photography.

Shooting surfing and then extending that to include all of the other lifestyle activities that I either took part in, or witnessed living in the West Wight, provided the perfect schooling and platform to develop my photography business from one where I was supplying fine art or stock images of the beautiful Island landscape to actually covering some of the many events that took place here too as an event photographer. That really came of age when I won the contract to be the official photographer for the 2011 NatWest Island games (by then shooting the action with a new Sigma 50-500mm lens) and has since gone on to include a diverse collection of private, corporate and sporting events on and off the island.

Natwest Island Games

Commercial Photography.

Commercial Photography is another challenging and rewarding discipline and has grown to become a large part of my working output. A lot of this now involves shooting lifestyle images, either directly for the tourist industry (national and local clients) or via a stock agency like Getty for a diverse range of clients around the world. The one thing all these clients have in common is the desire for the photos to feel real and un-staged, and to capture 'real people enjoying real life' often involving location shoots on some of the Isle of Wights lovely beaches.

Lifestyle photography

Wedding Photography.

Wedding Photography came about as another natural progression (from events) and in many ways is the most challenging of the subjects I now shoot. I've found that I have an eye and a knack for catching those special candid moments that really make the big day special and I love the energy and excitement of being such a big part of what for many is the greatest day of their lives. There's pressure of course, you only get the one chance at each shot, and with hundreds of people taking part there can be a lot going on at once, but that's what makes it exciting, as well as a complete contrast to the mindset you might have shooting long-exposure landscapes alone on a wild coastline in winter.

Wedding Photography can also present real technical challenges too, you might find yourself shooting in a dimly lit 11th century church where use of flash would be completely inappropriate and the vicar has requested that you be invisible. But the tougher the challenge the more rewarding it is to get it right, and some of the wedding shots I've captured with my 50mm lens wide open at f/1.2 are amongst my all time favourite photographs.

Wedding photography

In the here and now.

So here I am today, I've been working full time as a professional photographer since 2006 and I've not picked up a paintbrush in anger for about ten years now. I still like to imagine myself as an artist, and I'm itching to paint again sometime soon. Over the years when asked about it, I've had all sorts of excuses for not painting anymore, and TIME would probably be the main one and maybe closest to the truth. It takes a lot of time and effort start with a blank canvas and an idea, a finished piece might take me a week or even a month to complete, and in the end I reached a point where all of my walls were covered with my work waiting for the infrequent exhibitions to come around. And despite having the occasionally successful show, ultimately for me it was a great way to spend a lot of time and hard work earning very little money, and I never really liked the whole starving artist thing, especially once i had a family to think off.

None of this is to say that I don't love what I do now, or that I consider photography as second best in any way. I've come to learn and love the different ways photography has let me capture and present the world around me and continue to create and be creative after I reached the WALL with my painting. It's given me the freedom to work for myself and support my family in a place where paying the bills isn't always easy and I definitely don't take it for granted, and there's a dignity in that which is important to me. The people photography I do, at weddings, events, lifestyle etc is incredibly rewarding in itself, and doubly so when you read the thank you letters and testimonials from happy clients.

What now and what next? Well I've self taught myself the craft so far (enough to know that I've still a lot to learn) and I'm constantly inspired and challenged by it. So I want to keep on learning and trying new things to grow as a photographer, I'm alway looking for new ways to express myself and get across my ideas with the camera, and I want to keep on making happy customers and growing the business so I can continue to enjoy life on the Isle of Wight and support my family.

Finding these old paintings and taking photos of a few (so i can share them online to my photography audience) has got thinking about it all again and got me interested in dabbling once more, maybe I'm coming full circle or maybe I'm ready to explore new directions combining traditional art with photography. Whatever is next, I want to retain my love and enthusiasm for it all, because it's too late now to tell me 'don't give up the day job'.

If you've read this far (thank you and congratulations, you must be very patient) and would like to consider hiring me for your photography project, please contact me via Email photo@jasonswain.co.uk and I will be happy to call you back, or arrange a meeting, so I can provide you with a competitive quotation.