An Interview with TPOTY Founder & Photographer Chris Coe

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Founder Chris Coe tells the story behind the prestigious Travel Photographer of the Year Competion and gives his tips for success.

Photo of Rio de Janeiro by Chris Coe

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil Copyright © Chris Coe

Chris Coe is a professional photographer, teacher, writer and lecturer. He teaches photography with Nick Meers for their company Photo Iconic and is also the founder of the Travel Photographer of the Year Competition (closing date 9th September 2008 – so hurry up if you’re planning to submit an entry). I asked him some questions:

How did you get started as a professional photographer?

I got interested in photography while at university studying Physiology. One summer I travelled around the States with a compact camera and got hooked on taking photographs. I then became ill and had to take a year out.

While recovering I started playing around with a camera and when I went back to university, ran the photographic society for 2 years. I promised myself on leaving university that I’d do something with my photography within 10 years and this I did, to the day!

What obstacles and difficulties did you face when you started your photography business? How did you overcome them and how did you market yourself?

Photography has always been really competitive. In those days getting your portfolio seen meant trudging around to appointments with picture editors, which inevitably lasted only a couple of minutes (they are busy people) with not even a cupper on offer. It was sole destroying but persistence pays off and many of them later came back to me for stock shots or the occasional commission.

The real breaks came when I was offered a couple of guide books to illustrate and then later authorship of a book on landscape photography. Once something is in print your credibility rises then, when you have a book on photography, your technical ability isn’t questioned so it becomes about photographic style.

Tell us a little about your working life as a photographer now. How are you earning a living and how has that changed over the years?

Because of my involvement with Travel Photographer of the Year (TPOTY) my working life as a photographer is far from typical. I spend a lot of my time working on the awards, exhibition and books. The rest is split between photography, teaching and writing and illustrating books.

As a photographer I spend much of my time working on specific commissions and these are split between editorial and advertising shoots. My work is not exclusively travel based and I also do landscape, lifestyle, people and architectural shoots. The rest of my photography is stock based.

Until recently this has been for a picture libraries but I’m current working on some images for sale as fine art prints. For this I’ve just invested in a 5 x 4 camera and a 617 panoramic camera, and a drum scanner (Ebay bargain!). Yes film! I use a digital camera, of course, but for me the joy of photography lies with the sheer pleasure, versatility and quality offered by film and a large format camera.

What changes have you seen in the stock and travel photo industry since you have been working as a photographer? Where do you think the industry will be in five or ten year’s time?

I could write a book on this one! Quite simply it isn’t the same industry. I remember, not so long ago, picture editors refusing to see images on CD or a web page. They wanted to look at the trannies on a light box.

There is no doubting that digital cameras have revolutionised both stock and travel photography. The benefits are that the medium has made photography much more accessible to everyone and consequently it’s much easier to set yourself up as a photographer. The drawback is that everyone now thinks they’re a photographer, regardless of their photographic experience or technical ability. That apprenticeship stage has effectively disappeared.

The sheer volume of images available, many of them pure dross which wouldn’t make it passed my waste bin or delete button, is now starting to become a problem and getting your pictures seen is more about keywording than the images themselves. As a working photographer this creates all sorts of problems getting visibility for your images. It also means that more photographers are earning a little bit but fewer and fewer are earning enough to sustain a full time career.

There is also no doubt that digital photography and the internet, together with this vast pool of imagery, have contributed to reduced the value of each individual sale and downgraded the quality of images now considered acceptable for publication. I’m far too frequently horrified by the quality of images published in national paper and magazines.

Many good photographers are leaving the industry because it is less and less sustainable as a career but there is an upside to all this too. Quite simply there are too many photographers. There needs to be a shake down and for those of us who hang in there I believe there will be an upturn again, probably triggered but image buyers who realise that low quality imagery doesn’t serve the needs of their business or product and is more important than price.

What advice would you give a photographer who would like to earn a living in the fields of travel, editorial and stock photography today? What are the keys to success?

The key for most photographers now is to have more than one string to your bow. If you think you can start in photography earning a living wage just from stock and commissions then you’re living in cloud cuckoo land, and this is certainly true in travel photography.

If you’re working in the editorial side of the travel industry then an ability to write well is a big plus because you can command a fee for both and solve a travel editors problems in one swoop.

For me, though, the long term success for any photographer is dependent on three things; determination to succeed, a really solid technical knowledge of photography and the courage to explore your own creativity coupled with an awareness of what is commercially interesting.

You’ve had a very diverse career – from photography to book production to lecturing and tutoring and so on. Do you just like to get involved in different projects or is diversification a key to success as a modern day photographer?

I find different challenges stimulating and, in the current economic and photographic climate, having different revenue streams is important, if not essential. Ultimately, though, I always want to come back to making pictures.

Any modern day photographer should be more versatile than was necessary a few years ago but you need to be doing at least a little of what you love best. I, for example, could earn a fortune shooting weddings but then the money isn’t enough reason for me to get out of bed each morning to do that!

Travel Photographer of the Year Competition

What’s the story behind the creation of the Travel Photographer of the Year competition? What gave you the idea and how did you make it a reality?

TPOTY started back in 2002 from my frustration with publishers, and in particular, the stock libraries’ limited view of what travel photography is. I decided to create a showcase for travel photography which established the diversity of the genre, from the obvious travel imagery but included documentary and reportage at one end, with the more “selling the dream” type advertising images at the other.

I wanted to bring together all aspects of travel from landscape to food, people to adventure, wildlife to architecture, the journey to the experience. In the process my objective was to create a showcase for all the great photography, and talented photographers, to be seen by a much broader audience.

Through the publicity we generate, our exhibitions, our website and our books, talented photographers are getting noticed, selling stock and getting commissions.

What are your three tips for success in the competition? What are the judges looking for?

Three tips!

1) Read the category brief thoroughly and make sure your images fulfil it. If you’re entering a portfolio then make sure your images fit together as a set to tell a different part of the same story. We see so many portfolios with three great images and one weak one.

2) Make sure your images are technically sound, creatively interesting and original.

3) Don’t underestimate the judges. They are all highly visually literate people who see thousands and thousand of images every year. They know a good image when they see one. Many, like me, remember images and recognise ones that they’ve seen before or have been plagiarised.

The judges look for images which have impact. They should be technically sound, well composed and creative, visually interesting. Often the simplest images are the most eye catching.

Tell us a little about some of the competition’s past winners. How has it helped their careers?

The awards are now in their 6th year so there have been a broad spectrum of winners; professionals, semi-professionals and amateur. Photographic status and profession have no bearing because the awards are about images not what you do for a living.

To date we’ve had photographers from around 30 countries and overall winners from Asia, Europe and North America. The considerable media interest, and interest from picture editors and buyers, make TPOTY a wonderful showcase for photographers so we try to give visibility to the best images regardless of whether they are winners or not.

The actual winning entrants, both overall and category winners, obviously get the most coverage though and as a result this has given their careers a considerable boost. Most have gained commissions, stock sales and exhibitions as a result. Remember, too, that these awards are international so the exposure is also international. Several have won interesting advertising commissions, others commissions from prestigious travel and lifestyle magazines and one has been commissioned by National Geographic.

Photo Iconic

How long has Photo Iconic been established?

We’ve been running courses for about 4 years now but these were linked to TPOTY. In April this year we relaunched them under the Photo Iconic name because our courses are about all aspects of photography, not just travel. We run creative photography courses and digital imaging course, but also courses on specifics like landscape, natural light, low light, shooting for stock and making a living in photography, as well as the very popular composition and image critique workshops.

What’s the story behind the start-up of the company? Why did you all get together and decide to start Photo Iconic? What obstacles and difficulties did you face along the way?

I started the courses with Nick Meers because we both get so many requests from people who are struggling with their photography and want to be better. Nick and I are both passionate about our photography, enjoy passing on our knowledge and enthusing people about our passion.

Our experience is that people coming to photography, especially through the digital route, have little guidance in the technical aspects of photography – may be because you can see the image on the screen there’s a perception that you don’t need to know the technical stuff – and they are getting so confused that this takes all their concentration away from being creative and having fun with photography.

No one seems to teach people about images these days or show them how and why some images have impact and other don’t. Once you’ve seen this it’s so obvious but until someone shows how can you incorporate this knowledge in your compositions?

The main difficulties are that photography is perceived as easy and everyone wants something for nothing so often choose the cheapest courses. As I’ve said before, our courses aren’t the cheapest but getting the message across about how different, and in our opinion how much better, they are can pose problems. We get lots of people on our courses who have already been on courses with other companies but get something more from a Photo Iconic course.

The other problem which we often encounter is that people seem to prefer shoot-based courses. We run some of these but often photographers actually need to spend a little time in a seminar setting learning about images, both theirs and great photographers.

This can move someone’s photography forward quicker than going out with a camera and making the same mistakes which made them want to come on the course in the first place. The feedback from our participants is good so we must be doing something right! Everyone who’s been on a Photo Iconic courses receives our newsletter and we’re always interested to here how they’re progressing after the course.

What’s unique about the courses you offer? What makes them special?

There are so many courses around so we wanted to create a different and memorable experience which really moves people forward with their photography, both practically and creatively, and gives them the confidence to carry on improving after the course finishes. Having two experienced tutors allows us to tutor on a group level, but also to help people on an individual basis with the things they particularly want to learn or overcome.

It’s like giving private tuition within a bigger course, so each participant gets the individual attention but also benefits, particularly with their self-confidence, from working within a group of people with similar questions and problems. Having this individual attention within a small group is cheaper than private tuition but having two tutors obviously put our courses at the higher end of the price spectrum for group courses.

However our tutors are really passionate about photography and enjoy passing on their considerable knowledge, and this is infectious and stimulating for our participants. We’ve had a lot of participants over the last few years who’ve since changed careers, some from high paid or high profile jobs, and are now working as photographers.

Where is your photography and your business going? What future photographic project or projects are you excited about?

I’d like to think it’s heading towards a more relaxed life but then I’d probably just be bored. I’d like to spend more time making a difference to people who really want to be photographers and have the potential to say something interesting creatively. This could be through the TPOTY awards or through teaching, I guess.

If I ever have the money I’d like to create a photography centre where photographers could come to learn, exhibit their work at low cost and just meet fellow photographers. I’d also like to do something to encourage young kids to get into photography. They can be wonderfully creative because they have not fear of getting it wrong. But as long as it includes creating images that inspire me and others then I’ll be happy.

Links

www.chriscoe.co.uk

www.tpoty.com

www.photoiconic.com

Photo Gallery

Photo by Cat Vinton

Photo taken in Norway by Cat Vinton – 2007 Winner © Cat Vinton

Photo by Martin Hartley

Photo by Martin Hartley – 2003 Portfolio Winner © Martin Hartley

Landscape photo of Grand Canyon, Arizona, USA by Chris Coe

Grand Canyon, Arizona, USA © Chris Coe

Photo of Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao, Spain by Chris Coe

Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao, Spain © Chris Coe

Wildlife photo of Lion cub, Okavango Delta, Botswana by Chris Coe

Lion cub, Okavango Delta, Botswana © Chris Coe

Travel photo of Woman and oranges, Guelemine, Morocco by Chris Coe

Woman and oranges, Guelemine, Morocco © Chris Coe

Photo of Wast Water, Cumbria, England by Chris Coe

Wast Water, Cumbria, England © Chris Coe

Book cover Journey One

Book Cover Journey Two

Journey One and Journey Two – featuring winners and best photos from the first years of the Travel Photographer of the Year Competition. More details at the TPOTY website.

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