Career Insight - David Cantwell - Commercial Photographer and Filmmaker

david cantwell portrait Introduction
Like so many commercial photographers and filmmakers, David's interest in the photographic medium began in childhood, owing his first camera to a petrol company promotion. David's commercial education began on the job after he took an opportunity to become a local photographer's assistant. His move to the big city of Dublin was in the pursuit of love and needing employment, found work at a camera shop. In our interview David tells us how this formed the beginnings of his commercial photography career, how he built up his business and what it takes to run a successful visual-media company.

When did your interest in photography begin?
When I was 10 years old an Irish petrol station were doing a promotion where you collect stamps when purchasing petrol. I could then collect different gifts depending on the amount of stamps collected. I convinced my mother to let me get a Disc camera what was one of the gifts to offer.

I photographed different landmarks around my home town of Navan Co Meath . I remember enjoying collecting the 6X4 prints from the chemist 6 days after leaving in for processing. Yes, It was a 4-6 day wait to see the results of your photography. I had no idea then that photography would become my profession . 6 years later I would save up and by my first “real” camera. A Praktica MTL 50.

I remember having a 70-210 lens and getting into local football matches for free and sitting pitch-side taking photographs. I joined the Navan Camera club and entered the monthly competitions. A local photographer, James Carney was regularly asked to judge some of the competitions . He was looking for an assistant and I was lucky enough to get the job. That’s where it all started, I was hooked.

an example of David's commercial photography Do you have a formal photography education?
I never went to college. The training I got from James was invaluable. James was a GP photographer at the time. I got amazing training in 35mm, medium format, large format, B/W, colour developing and printing. I also got first-hand experience in wedding photography, commercial and portrait photography.

Why did you decide to move to Dublin to shoot commercial photography?
My girlfriend at the time, now my wife, moved to Dublin and as any love-struck teenager, I followed. We moved in together in a dingy little flat in the centre of Dublin. I was 19 years old at the time. We had very little money but it was such an adventure. I got a job in a Camera shop that sold all kinds of camera equipment, film developing, printing and framing. The owner opened a small studio and I would be the photographer.

The longer I worked there the more I was asked to do developing and printing because of the experience I got from James. I didn't like this as my real love was taking pictures. So I approached a commercial studio in Dublin and got a job as a commercial photographer. This was a great experience as I was now dealing with ad agencies, designers and art directors. This I had never experienced before. It was tough.

I remember seeing Dean Collins, an amazing photographer, at a conference in Dublin. He said “Photographers create a two-dimensional representation of a three-dimensional object for a one-dimensional art director“ That doesn’t go down well with some of my art director clients but it is funny.

david's portrait of bill clinton. When did you decide to go it alone?
After 5 years at the commercial studio I got a call from an ad agency one evening telling me that If I opened my own studio they would give me one of their accounts. This was an opportunity I couldn't turn down. At that time a design company that I worked with was moving premises and the owner said he would give me a room, rent free if I took the odd photograph for him every now and again. I couldn't turn this down and in 1998 David Cantwell Photography was born. I was very lucky that my wife had a career in Accounts so she did up a kick-ass business plan and we got a loan of a company called First Step. These guys gave companies, that couldn't get finance off the banks , 50% off the cost of start-up loan, interest free for 3 years. Naomi, my wife went to all my future suppliers and negotiated 6 months credit because we were a start-up.

I got myself a Bowens Lighting Kit, a Fuji 6X8 Camera with 3 lenses to cover any scenario and a few studio backdrops. I remember the first job I got. This was for the agency that approached me. I hadn't received my lighting equipment yet but I still had to deliver. It was of a lamp on a plain green background. I had to light it with 2 bare bulb bedside lamps pointing through two empty bottle crates and use open wardrobe doors as reflectors. I didn't matter what my circumstances, I had to produce the shot.

How did you get your business off the ground?
I put together a portfolio and went door to door looking for meetings with designers, account directors and art directors. This was way before magazines, email marketing campaigns and mail chimp. You had to put in the foot work and look the people in the eye. Pitch yourself to them and hope they trust you with an upcoming job. It’s the fast pace world of advertising. It would take a lot for an art director or designer to entrust a live job with a new supplier . All they are interested in the delivering the best job for their client to the best standard and on time.

How important is social media to your marketing strategy?
I look on Social media is a platform to tell a story and involve people in the day to day workings of one’s business. I’m not into “look how great my work is” type of social media posts . I also don’t like blatant direct pitching for business “affordablecCommercial photography in Dublin area” type of thing. Or “images for sale”. If you’re having a difficult shoot or a bad day and it justifies a post in order to get it of your chest then post. I use Twitter more than anything else. I don't know if it brings me business but I have had people telling me they have seen posts or ask me about things I know I haven't had conversations with them about .

What skills are important for a commercial photographer?
Creativity, seeing thing differently, your clients have an ever-expanding pool of photographers to choose from so you MUST give them a reason to keep coming back and it can never be only on price. You must stand out from your competition no matter what field of photography you specialise in.

In commercial and advertising photography I get a brief or a storyboard . The client wants the shots to have a certain look and feel. It’s my job to deliver this and more. Put my spin on it. I would hope that I have a look to my work and this is the reason I get repeat business. The basics still apply, professionalism, efficiency and exceeding expectations for your clients .

With commercial photography you need to know the end use for the photographs you’re taking for the client. Is it for Trade only or for consumer? If you’re photographing a piece of furniture for use within the trade you would need to shot it in a way that shows size, dimensions and quality where as if the same piece was for the consumer, it could be shot in a room setting with styling to show how good this will look in a home, it’s the “sizzle of the sausage”.

"You must stand out from your competition no matter what field of photography you specialise in. " Lifestyle imagery is a big part of David's work. When did you decide to include filmmaking in your skillset?
In the days of film, photographers usually shot on medium format cameras, Fuji 6X8, Hasselblad's, Bronica’s so on. This separated, if only visually, the amateurs from the professionals. If you were at a wedding you could spot the professional . When digital photography became so accessible to everyone and suddenly amateurs were shooting on the same gear as the professionals. Some companies were now shooting some things themselves because the gear was accessible, You could see very bad images appearing on leaflets and websites, shot by people that had gear and no training.

This is a long way to get to my point but just because you have access to equipment doesn’t suddenly mean you can now start using it. I didn't want to suddenly start offering video service to my clients with no training. I did a directors’ course in a film school in Dublin . This was invaluable. The video industry is close in some ways but very very different in others. The simplest things like continuity and crossing the line in filmmaking can make all the difference. I shot a TV commercial for a client and where on a photoshoot I would have myself an assistant and a stylist on the TV commercial I had a crew of 8.

Do you think filmmaking will ever become more popular than photography for business promotion?
I think right now, platforms that are now being used for promoting businesses such as blogs and social media sites are demanding video content and moving images like gifs to promote businesses but I still think a stunning photograph will stand the test of time .

What was the best business advice you were ever given?
Exceed expectations. If a customer gets what they asked for then they’re happy. If they get what they asked for and more then you as a supplier will stand out. It doesn’t have to be much.

Do you have any advice for anyone looking to start a career in commercial photography?
Develop your own style. Stand out from the crowd with a look and style to your work. Always learn, I’m 20 years in business next year and I'm learning new things every day. Suck information like a sponge and apply it to your photography.

All images © David Cantwell and used with permission.

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