What does it take to maintain a long and successful photography career? We spoke to accomplished British photographer Michael Sewell, Elinchrom Ambassador, and Olympus Mentor, to find out how he’s stayed at the top of his game in a number of specialisms for over 35 years.
For anyone unfamiliar with your work please explain your style and what is it you shoot?
Hmmmmmm, this is my least, all time favorite question. Probably because as far as each client is concerned I’m always expected to be a specialist in their particular market. It doesn’t matter if they later come to realize you shoot everything to the same high standard, that’s fine. But if you go into initial negotiations and tell them “Yeah, I shoot everything!”, then the first thing they’ll think is “Jack of all trades, and master of none.” So, over the years, I’ve targeted several specific areas, and once I developed a strong client base and reputation, I then targeted another. My first specialism was motorsport, followed by property, then automotive etc. The only good thing about being an old photographer is the wide experience you acquire. The bad thing is the painkillers for the joints.
When did you first pick up a camera, and what was your journey to becoming a professional?
I was given my first camera for Christmas in 1968. Two days after my seventh birthday. It was a Kodak Instamatic 25, which used a 126 cartridge system. Woohoo! The first cartridge was filled with inane images of carpet, curtains, a book, and the settee. My father replaced it once he felt I had progressed enough to warrant a 35mm SLR, it turned out to be a Zenith E. This was a superb camera that allowed me to whirl it around my head to clear a path in a crowd, and would still function when we got to the other side. It was followed by a Fujica ST605 in 1977, and 12 months later, I had my first paid photography job. I was 16 and still at school for another year. All my professional career since 1978 has basically been self-employed, with a smattering of casual in-house/freelance for long-term clients.
What kind of clients do you tend to work with, and what are they looking for in an image?
Well, my clients are as varied as my work. I work with a number of hotel groups to provide their PR and marketing imagery, which includes property and food photography, along with the images for their wedding brochures. The hotels, in particular, are looking for shots that can be tied specifically to them. For example, a lot of hotels have nice images of brides and grooms, but nothing that is unique to the hotel within the image. I try and incorporate features that are specific to the hotel, so if a potential bride decides she would like a similar image in her album, she can’t really go anywhere else. Food is similar, I often see just the food on many hotel sites. I try and incorporate something of the ambiance that is unique to that restaurant. Sometimes that may include branded cutlery, but it could also be down to the ambient lighting or color. Automotive clients tend to like the clean look of my imagery, and the challenges of lighting very large vehicles such as lorries or coaches is something they appreciate.
How do you differentiate your images in a competitive marketplace?
I would say it was down to my lighting. But just delivering what’s asked for makes a difference too. No matter if the requested image sounds like it isn’t going to do the product justice, just do it, and then give the client an additional image that you believe may work better. If you only supply your idea, they assume you can’t follow a brief. Other than that, I guess it’s down to personal interpretation of the client’s needs and doing the very best I can for them.
Tell us about your proudest achievement as a photographer…
Not going bust? Okay, that was a joke. In all seriousness, I don’t really know if I can pick out a specific achievement. I was asked to shoot James Hunt at Olympia in 1982. That was pretty cool. I’ve won various awards (I hate competitions and awards!). I suppose I’m really proud of the photographers I’ve mentored over the years, and what they’ve gone on to achieve. I’m grateful I’ve been able to help them on their journey, all of them.
Do you have a dream photo shoot?
Yeah, one that isn’t for a client! Honestly, I can’t remember the last time I shot something for me. Something I really, really fancied shooting. I remember getting up to all sorts of antics as a teenager. Wandering around old buildings, trekking through woods at midnight, walking the streets at two in the morning (Hello officer!). And that’s something I really miss. Everything I do is client driven, or part of mentoring students. I get badgered about it often enough by my wife and my photographers, and I should try and make time to do something. And that’s the crux of the issue. Time. I have yet to figure out the 32 hour day.
What do you think is the most important factor in producing a successful image?
The age-old factors that were important fifty years ago, still hold true today. It needs to be properly composed, properly exposed, properly lit and properly executed. More important than all those factors, it has to meet not only the requirements of the client but also fire the imagination of their target customers.
What MIOPS products do you own, and why did you choose them?
ALL of them!!!! I initially got the Miops Smart. I’d done a great deal of high-speed stuff for client product images in the past, and I was fully aware of the time I had to invest in getting them. There were also the staff costs and other things, such as several boxes of strawberries, needed for every one particular shoot. My original image of a strawberry creating a splash of cream in a spoon took a full day, a shedload of strawberries and two assistants to get. I got the MIOPS Smart out of morbid curiosity, basically to see if it was as good as they claimed. I reshot that strawberry splash image using the laser trigger feature and managed it in less than an hour on my own. The trigger wasn’t expensive, and it paid for itself in that one hour shoot. I then used the MIOPS Smart for several client shots, including diver watches on a wave of water and more. It saved an awful lot of time and therefore increased my profit. I think that’s the only real criteria a piece of equipment should be measured against.
The MIOPS Mobile was then bought out of curiosity too. It wasn’t expensive, it was tiny, and offered a few interesting features I thought I might like. I hadn’t actually thought of using it in the studio, but that’s where it gets used frequently. If I’m shooting a range of products, such as cushions, and they simply need swapping out on the product table, the MIOPS Mobile means I don’t have to walk back to the camera between shots. I can place a product, trigger it, and repeat. It can actually save several hours over the course of a day.
With the MIOPS Splash, I just wanted to see what it could do. Now, I have to confess; water droplet stuff isn’t my thing, and the first time I set it up, it frustrated the hell out of me. The second time, I had an epiphany and it worked like a charm. I showed one of the images to a fellow photographer and he immediately said “Cool!, are you going to use it with your food photography. You know, coffee and stuff?”. I said “Of course!”, and it’s remained unpacked ever since.
Describe how you set up your equipment for one of the images featured?
I’d just like to say, this shoot was possibly the most fun I have had in a very, very long time. To torture one’s colleagues, assistants and friends in the name of research, I’d buy the MIOPS just for this! The guy in the waterwig image is Martin “the beard” Wilson, a photographer friend I conned into sitting in a children’s paddling pool in the pursuit of research.
For this kind of image, MIOPS suggests using a dark room and having the camera make a longish exposure, say a couple of seconds. The sound event of a balloon bursting then triggers a flash, rather than the camera. The short duration of the flash of light “freezes” the motion. It works extremely well, as proven by countless other photographers, and for some client shoots, it’s the route I would take. However, for the purpose of this shoot, and also to allow me to humiliate my victims further, I wanted to be able to capture a full sequence of images. This meant the MIOPS was used to fire the camera, rather than the flash. I chose to use the Nikon D4, as it has a fast frame capture rate of 11fps. The MIOPS sends a single signal per trigger event, and in my selected mode, this was per sound. The popping of the balloon and subsequent spatter of water causes the MIOPS to pretty much continually fire, allowing me to capture my set of shots. The hardest part was stopping the sequence once done, as the dripping water and gasps from the subject could continue the triggering!
An advantage to using this camera firing method, as opposed to the flash firing method, is that images can then be captured in a fully lit studio. This means we could see exactly what was happening at the point of capture, allowing me to revel in the discomfort of others.
The paddling pool was blown up and placed centrally in the largest studio, along with a suitable seat in the middle. The camera was placed on a tripod as close as possible to one end of the pool, and a set of step ladders placed alongside. Two rim lights were then set up at the far corners of the pool, and set to fire through gridded 40cm beauty dishes. The left light was gel’d blue, and the right light was gel’d straw and cerise making a kinda red. The backdrop light was placed on a floor stand at about two feet off the ground. It was firing through a standard reflector with a grid fitted. The main light was above the camera and angled down towards our model. It was firing through a gridded 70cm beauty dish.
The lights are fired by a transmitter on the camera, not the MIOPS. The MIOPS was fitted to a plastic cold shoe, which was mounted on a clamp, placed fairly near the subject. I set the sound level fairly high and with a delay of 0.
I had a fairly thin Alice Hair Band which was duly modified to take a tack on top, and this was worn by the model to aid the bursting of the balloon. It took several attempts to get what I would term the perfect “pop”, but it was an awful lot of fun, and I wouldn’t mind doing it again. But, I wouldn’t attempt this without the Miops, as the chances of obtaining a usable image would actually be down to luck.
Incidentally, remember I mentioned I wanted to capture the full sequence of images? The following is a byproduct, allowing us all to revel in their discomfort. Again and again!
What do you feel your MIOPS products have helped you to achieve?
For a start, the productivity and efficiency of shoots have rocketed. Each product has more than paid for itself on its first outing. I can’t recall any other photographic equipment that has done that for me. But, even ignoring those factors, you cannot ignore the creativity they enable. MIOPS products allow me to recreate scenarios for a client image, that used to take hours and sometimes fail to be replicable. With MIOPS, things are consistent, I can basically a step by step procedure to create the finished image. They are always in my bag, and always ready to go.
What’s the one piece of advice that you would give to an aspiring photographer?
If you shoot something often enough, with a drive to create imagery that is to the very best of your ability, then you cannot fail to become a specialist in that subject. Take that same drive and passion to every shoot and every subject, and you will succeed in any of the arenas you wish to.
And the subjects that don’t float your boat? You come to realize you are judged on whatever image you create. Potential clients make the assumption the way you shoot anything, is the way you shoot everything. If you release an image that isn’t quite as good as the rest of your portfolio, which one do you think will make an impact with a new client? It’s sod’s law. Hence the rule, only show your best work.
You can take a look at more of Michael’s work at https://www.sewellshouse.co.uk