With 26 years experience as a professional photographer, I thought it about time I start sharing some of my advice based on that experience.
Who is Paul Tansley?
I started my photography career aged 23 (read about my earlier years below). I never knew what I wanted to do in life, but when I started taking photos seriously, I felt so connected. It finally made me able to show the world around me through my eyes. I’ve always loved beautiful things and wanted to make my images show that beauty. While in Rome hanging out with some Italian friends, I started flicking through a brochure for an Italian college, the Instituto Europeo di Design. When I got to the page “Fashion Photographer Course” everything connected. So, aged 23 I left the UK to life in Rome for 2 years. It was a 3 year course, I’ll explain later.
The course was all in Italian, but the teachers also spoke good English and my Italian was constantly improving. I’m a pretty fluent speaker nowadays, though I don’t get much chance to practice.
When I arrived in Rome, I was staying with the mother of a friend. We did a house swap. Her daughter went to the UK to stay with my parents for a year, I stayed with her mother. The most amazing cook on the planet. By pure coincidence, it turned out that her son was a photographer, in Rome. He was considered one of the top Roman photographers of the time and had a beautiful studio in the heart of the city. His assistant had decided to leave and pursue his own work, so he needed an assistant. His old assistant was also selling his Vespa. Sometimes in life, things just fall into your lap. I bought the Vespa and within a week of being in Rome, I had an assisting job. My duties included processing BW film, doing prints etc. and helping out on shoots. Learning how to read a light meter on a pro shoot, how to set up studio lights, backdrops etc. It was a great way to learn the ropes.
During my time with Claudio, I also got to do some modelling. He was trying to move his career towards shooting fashion. So started doing shoots for the newspapers, like Corrriere Della Serra in Milan. On a couple of shoots he was short of models, so asked if I’d step in. It was a really good experience to be on the other side of the lens and feel what it’s like to be a model. Even though my modelling career was short lived, I learned a lot.
After two years of college, I had a conversation with one of my main tutors, another top Roman photographer Giovanni Canitano. We were talking about returning for the third and final year. It told me straight up “Paul, you don’t need to return. The third year is just about making a portfolio of work. You already have a great portfolio. What you need is to assist some of the best fashion photographers in the world and learn from them”. I can’t thank him enough for this advice. I left Rome and returned to London. Even though I love Rome with all my heart, it was not the centre of fashion photography, Milan was. But I really didn’t want to live in Milan and I’d already spent enough of my parents money being at college for two years in Rome.
Back in London I got my first assisting job at Holborn Studios. I worked there for a couple of years. Finally I got a few breaks doing some freelance assisting work for London’s best photographers of the time. That enabled me to pursue my freelance assisting career, which I did for 5 years.
How I got Started as a Photographer
I started taking pictures at a very early age. My father was very into his photography and both my mother and father enjoyed taking pictures while we were growing up. However, I didn’t really take up photography seriously until I was 18 years old. At that point, I was attending Abingdon College of Further Education to re-take my A’Levels. I noticed that the college had an evening course O’Level Photography (I think it was another O’Level – this was 36 years ago, so my memory might not be accurate, so it might have just been an evening course. I really cannot remember and really don’t need an O’Level to prove myself as a photographer).
The one year course, which taught me to process Black & White film – something my father had shown me, but I’d never done it myself before this point. It also taught us to print in B&W.
After this course, I saw a workshop advertised in Oxford, my local city. It was a three month Exhibition course. Designed to increase your knowledge of Black & White film and printing and afterwards to produce a images for a gallery exhibition. Mike Skipper was the tutor. He totally opened my eyes to a whole new world. One that would take me on my journey through life. The life of a photographer. He was the one that first showed me pictures by great photographers like Irving Penn, Richard Avedon, George Hoyningen-Huene and the like. From the very first lessons of the course – it was one evening a week for 3 months – I was hooked. Plus, I realised very early on that I had a talent for this photography lark. One of my earliest images was taken after the first or second lesson. Mike was telling the class that anything could make a great photograph IF (if being very important) it the subject had good light on it. He then said “except maybe a milk bottle!”
Challenge accepted. I’ve always loved a challenge. I’m extremely competitive and don’t like being wrong if I have an opinion about something. Because those opinions are based on a high IQ and lots of logical thought. So, off I went that week – and took a picture of a milk bottle…..