The Go-To Guy

“Become the guy that makes good stuff, knows I people, and makes things happen, and you’re the one they’re going to hire», says Northampton shire-based Adam Duckworth, whose client list ranges from Las-toilet to Suzuki and the Royal Horticultural Society. «Then, once they’ve hired you, you need to over deliver.

«There’s no point looking back to how the industry used to be: it’s about working out what the new normal is, and how you can add value to the things that you do.

«For me, it’s about knowing how editors think, and what the issues are in their market, and offering them something they thought they couldn’t get, or an idea they haven’t had yet.»

It was in 2007 that he took voluntary redundancy and set himself up as a freelance photographer, although his origins weren’t in photography, but mechanical engineering. «I’d enjoyed photography as a hobby since I was 12 or 13», he says, «but my parents didn’t agree with my studying it. They wanted me to do a ‘proper’ degree.»

It was while studying for his degree in engineering that Duckworth got his photographic training, working during the evenings, weekends and holidays, for soap and toothpaste manufacturer Colgate

Palmolive in Manchester.

«Colgate Palmolive was a big employer in the area, and would support local events», he says, «so I got to photograph lots of small sporting events. I had a few more technical jobs, too, like photographing toothpaste, and I did a lot of cooler and black & white processing.»

Aside from photography, Duckworth’s other hobby was motorcycle racing, and he had always taken pictures of races.

Then, while he was holidaying in America during a summer break from university, he had a chance encounter in a motorbike shop with the Editor of US magazine, Motocross Action.

«I knew who he was, because I used to read the magazine», he says, «so I introduced myself. I ended up hanging out with him and the magazine crew for the whole summer, shooting motorbikes and going to races. It was at this point that I thought, ‘This beats doing a proper job for a living!’.»

A few images from his summer in the US were published in Motocross Action. Then, in around 1986, he started shooting for an English motorbike magazine and, by his final year at university, was working for it five days a week. «I’d dodge out of college, and do weekends and three days in the week», he laughs.

«I shot for a rally car magazine, a skateboard magazine, and a lot of county magazines — the free ones you get in hotel rooms», he says.

«I was employed as a photographer, but then I went on courses to become a writer», he says. «I’d photograph events and write about them. It was quite unusual then, because there was big union-imposed demarcation: you were either a writer or a photographer.

«The good thing about photographing a motorbike is that, once it’s leaning over, your brain quickly identifies that it must be moving, whereas with an action shot of a car, you’re always trying to find a way to make it look like it’s moving. Many action shots of cars look like they’re parked.»

At the time, most motorcycle photography was of the traditional long lenses and panning sort, but Duckworth set out to do something different.

Investing in a 645 medium format Bronica ETRS, he photographed the riders close up, using wide angle lenses and fill in flash, taking advantage of the Bronica’s leaf shutter lenses, which meant he could sync flash at 1/500 sec.

«It seemed radical at the time», he says «I’d be going around a motor sport track with mud and dirt everywhere, with a medium format camera. I’ve always liked to apply techniques from outside my area, and the editors hadn’t seen work like it before because they were into their particular subject matter, rather than photography per se.

«The Bronica was the cheapest medium format camera you could get. It was all I could afford. The basic kit cost about £450, and then I needed a prism and a couple of lenses to go with it … quite a bit of money at the time. I ended up getting a loan out for it.»

Editor of Motorcycle News, responsible for a team of 35 editorial staff, including two full time photographers.

«As a Director, I was a bit more senior by this point», he says, «and I’d often find that I’d end up being the bloke in the suit, rather than the photographer.»

It was at this stage that Duckworth took the opportunity of redundancy to set up as a freelance. With a mortgage and a family to keep, he says, «I had to stand on my own two feet and say, ‘If this doesn’t work, I will lose my house.'»

His emergence as a freelance coinciding with the start of the economic crash meant that his business was slower to take off than expected.

«Having worked for magazines for years, I went round my contacts when I knew I was leaving, and left with high hopes that I’d be massively busy, but it didn’t happen», he says.

«It was a time when all of the magazines were tightening their belts and bringing work in-house, and wrestling with the whole free content on websites versus paying for it dilemma.

«A lot of people didn’t see me as a photographer: they saw me as a Director. And because I’d been quite senior, they thought I’d want thousands of pounds just to get out of bed!»

Investing his redundancy money in Nikon and Phase One gear, and setting up a studio in his back garden, Duckworth spent the first six months building his portfolio.

«I perfected my technique, shooting everything I could — cars, motorbikes and people», he says. I was learning photography all over again.»

As a result of networking and contacts, the work eventually came.

Other brands he is associated with include JP Distribution and its Pocket Wizard range, and Elinchrom, for which he made the promotional Quadra video featured on its website.

He says, «There are two ways to take a good picture. Firstly, stand in front of something you’re interested in; and secondly, control and modify the light. The second route is the essence of my photography, and Elinchrom Quadras and Rangers have transformed my work.»

Duckworth utilizes both a paper portfolio and an iPad, but finds that the majority of his clients are more interested in his website.

«I worked with web professionals all the time while I was at EMAP», he says, «and I learnt that all that matters to photo buyers is the ability to see your pictures big, and navigate through them easily.

«I built my first website in around 2005. When I wanted a new one, I had a look for something big screen that wasn’t Flash, as I wanted it to work on iPads. I have a really nice template-based website from Creative Motion Design. A blog is a useful addition as well.»

Duckworth also uses social media. «A lot of photographers get sucked into having a presence on social media without thinking about who their audience is and how they need to reach them», he says.

«I prefer to take a more targeted approach to my clients. Everyone would like to be everything, but there comes a point when you need to say, ‘No. I’m going to choose to do this, because it works for my business.»

While still predominantly a stills photographer, Duckworth bills himself on his website as a photographer and videographer, and says that the number of commissions he receives for video is growing.

«It’s usually an add-on», he says. «But I did my first job where I was booked solely for video a couple of weeks ago. It was for a magazine’s iPad edition.

«Photographers who’ve been around a while might stick their head in the sand and think, ‘The world’s falling apart, and no one’s got any money. These kids with a Canon 7D are taking all my work by shooting videos!’, but you can do it better than them by taking your skills and knowledge, building some narrative into your pictures, and transferring that into video.

«If you can offer stills and video at a pretty decent level, you have an advantage. It’s difficult to do both, and of course it means compromise, but it’s about working around the problem and finding a solution.

«I’m an image maker. People I sell to want stills, and nowadays they want video, too.»

Despite the increase in video, Duckworth is confident that there will always remain a place for the still image, however.

He says, «Magazines which value their brand will always want good photographs. There’s something very special about looking at a still photograph. You’ll print out an amazing photograph, and stick it on your wall for years. There’s no way that I’d have a TV screen on the wall for the same purpose.»

Duckworth shoots video with Canon EOS5D MkII’s and 7D’s, as well as a Sony EX1 dedicated video camera, and a Nikon D800, recording the sound separately on a Zoom H4N. although sitting up editing at 3 o’clock in the morning, it can feel like it sometimes!»

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