I’d only been sitting outside the church at Althorp House for about ten minutes when, out of nowhere, several big, serious men appeared, apparently talking to their lapels.
One took up station by the gate to the churchyard, peering intently into middle-distance. Another hung back looking towards where they had come from. And the last, biggest and most serious, made a beeline for me. What was going on?
I got out of my car and started to walk toward the big one, then, behind him, I caught sight of three other people, two of whom were women. This church had suddenly become very busy, I thought. Then it dawned on me—the men were police on royal protection duties. The three others were Earl Charles Spencer, Lady Sarah McCorquodale, and their sister, Princess Diana. They were walking up the hill, Diana carrying her father’s ashes to place in the family vault at the church.
This was inconvenient; my camera was in the boot of my car without film or a lens. I ran back to the car, opened the boot, and began to assemble my kit. The guards were now moving more quickly toward me. I don’t know if these particular guys carried guns, but they certainly wanted to give me that impression. Hands shaking, I got the film wound onto the spool, closed the back, and stepped out from behind the car.
As soon as the guards spotted my camera, I saw them relax. This is obviously what they were expecting, so much so that the gentleman who was about to jump on me had stepped back and cleared the way for me to take my pictures. I got about five frames off on a cheap and nasty Sigma lens on an ancient Canon A1 body. The pictures were in every UK national newspaper the next day, published around the world, and they still sell now, on occasion.
For that one hour of “work” I made £11,000. I should have made more! Sounds like fun, and it is, but it’s only a tiny part of being a news or paparazzi photographer.
Camera Equipment Considerations
As for equipment, it’s horses for courses, and any professional photographer will have a number of cameras, lenses, flashguns, and bits and bobs that will allow you to fulfill any likely brief.
A good quality compact camera is always useful as a “walking-around” camera and to use on those occasions when a full-on, pro SLR would draw to much attention or too many questions.
For the last few years I have been using an Olympus C7070 wide, although it’s probably time to buy something a little more modern now. I chose the Olympus because it has an excellent, fast lens, good low-light performance, and a good imaging chip. It’s a little slow to process the images, the zoom range is minimal and the flash isn’t great, but it’s done a good job over the years and it appears to be indestructible.
One crucial thing to look for is a good shutter response. A camera that takes the picture half a second after you push the release is utterly useless.
There is no compact with the capabilities of a good SLR so you will have to compromise. I was prepared to forgo a little responsiveness to get the lens; you may feel differently, so buy accordingly.
As for SLRs, pro shooters will have several, again for different occasions and also, crucially, as back-up cameras. Nikon and Canon undoubtedly make the best pro, small format SLR cameras, and no question. The top-end bodies from these manufacturers are fantastic; the quality is stunning, they are built like tanks, and they are a joy to use. They are also very, very expensive, weigh a ton, and in some situations, they can be a liability.
As for the pixel count, ask any photographer who sells his pictures and he will tell you that the megapixel count is not everything, indeed it’s not even the most important consideration.
It was less than 10 years ago, when digital first became a serious proposition for news photographers, that Nikon introduced their all-singing Nikon D1 pro-digital camera. This camera is still used today by some pros, and it has a measly 2 megapixel imaging chip, less than virtually all compact cameras today.
But this was good enough, as a paparazzo, your images are going to be used in newspapers and magazines, and a pixel count somewhere around the 12 million mark will be more than adequate. A higher pixel count will allow you to “pull” images further from within the frame, which can be useful but the low-light performance degrades as the pixel count rises, causing more problems, more often.
Full-frame cameras have an imaging sensor that is, for all intents and purposes, the same size as a 35mm film frame. This means your expensive lenses will be able to work as they were designed to. Wide-angle lenses will be wide-angle lenses. This is a very, very good thing and, if you can afford it you should do it.
Other considerations are build quality, frame rate, processing speeds and the like, although, to be honest, any higher-level, pro-sumer camera from Canon or Nikon will be more than a match for 95 percent of the situations you will encounter.
You are going to need at least two bodies; most work is done with a 28-70mm on one body and the 70-200mm on the other.
A quick word about face-recognition, anti-red eye, digital zoom, scene recognition and all the other “functions” that are actually gimmicks. You don’t need them or want them; no competent photographer would use them.
Lens Selection Considerations
Lenses: These is going to be expensive! Without question you need to be able to cover 28mm to 200mm with two fast zooms. By fast, I mean large aperture, f/2.8 lenses. They are called fast because they allow you to use a faster shutter speed.
A very fast prime-lens can be invaluable when the light goes or for portrait work, a macro lens is nice for close-up work or copying pictures and documents, and a 300mm lens and doubler are just what you need for “secret-squirrel” jobs, but they can all wait as long as you have the 28mm to 200mm covered.
Top-end lenses have very fast autofocus systems nowadays and are really indispensable. Others have Vibration Reduction or Image Stabilisation, and it works. I have taken tack-sharp pictures at 1/15 second on a hand-held 300mm lens. If you can afford VR or IS lenses, get them.
Third party lenses by manufacturers such as Sigma and Tamron are worth considering if your budget is tight. They are good, capable and usable lenses, but frankly nowhere near the quality of the pro lenses offered by the big two. It really is worth spending some money on your glass.
You may want to put good quality, coated UV filters on your lenses to protect the front element, but otherwise filters are not necessary for this kind of work.
Flash Lighting Considerations
You will need two, high-power flashguns: one for each body. Most snappers will use the flash units produced by their camera manufacturer although there are a few good, third-party manufacturers of flashguns. Nikon and Canon both make capable, powerful flash units that integrate easily with the camera system and offer many features you will never use. Metz is also a very highly regarded flash manufacturer. These German units are well made, high quality items that give Nikon and Canon a run for their money and are worth considering.
How often have you heard “hold-on, I’m just waiting for the flash to charge-up”? Of course, Angelina and Brad aren’t going to wait for your flash, so what do you do?
You use an external power pack. These are packs containing some electronics and a sealed battery. I use a Quantum Turbo because it will work with most flashguns, is very, very rugged and will keep my flash going for a whole, busy day. It will not keep up if you are shooting very fast, but for 99 percent of the time it will re-charge your flash virtually instantly. It will also pay for itself pretty quickly since you will have to buy far fewer expensive, alkaline batteries.
The power pack supplies power to the flash through a cable and you should get a spare one of these because they do break. You will also need to buy an adapter which will allow you to power two flashes from one battery pack.
You are going to need something to carry this lot around in, so a bag is essential. For news work, the most important aspect of a bag is how quickly you can get your gear in and out of it. Backpacks are a non-starter as are bags with thick, modular padding.
I use Domke bags, others prefer Billingham or Lowepro. A tripod and monopod are always usefully kept in the boot of your car and some lens cleaning fluid and wipes should be in your bag along with spare batteries and memory cards, notebook and pen.
All this shiny, expensive kit is very nice, but you have to know how to use it and what its idiosyncrasies are. You need to take the time to learn the equipment. A good way of doing this is to use it at a wedding or school sports day, any photography that requires you to think on your feet and adapt quickly to changes in light and composition will help you to understand your cameras with respect to news and paparazzi photography.
So that covers the kit, next is the information, how do you find out where the news is happening? I’ll cover that in my next article.
About the author
Gary worked as a press photographer for the UK national newspapers for many years as well as earning a crumb as a paparazzo. His photographs have graced the pages of newspapers, magazines and TV screens around the world.
He has now settled down to the less frantic life of a wedding photographer, spending his time equally between the UK and Spain.
Here is his wedding photography website.
And here is his blog for all things photography.