Following Your Passion in Photography: Interview with Christopher Scholey

17th July 2019

Following Your Passion in Photography: Interview with Christopher Scholey

Turning a personal passion like photography into a profitable career is something many of us dream about doing, but taking the first step can be daunting.

A recent study from Duke University found that people who work in careers they love, such as photography, are more often exploited and asked to work for little or no money. Why? Apparently people feel it’s more acceptable to exploit workers who are passionate about what they do because they see the work as its own reward.

Of course, there are plenty of photographers who are well paid, but it does highlight the potential challenges of turning a passion for photography into a job that pays the bills.

As a professional photographer and partner in creative agency Nifty50, Christopher Scholey is familiar with these challenges. He was able to turn his passion for photography into a career after losing his pub business and being made bankrupt.

We chatted to him about how he got started professionally and what he believes it takes to succeed as a photographer in an increasingly challenging industry and digital landscape.

Can you tell us a bit about how you got started professionally in photography?

I’ve always been deeply passionate about photography. My uncle was an American fashion photographer and my father was also passionate about photography. We had a dark room in the basement of our family home, and my father and I would spend hours developing the images I had taken on my first camera; a Pentax k1000.

I come from a very creative family. My sister is a trained concert pianist, my mother is a wonderful painter and pianist, and my father, although a banker by profession, played trumpet with Dusty Springfield. So I grew up surrounded by creativity and developed by osmosis more than training.

I’ve had a very eclectic background of occupations; I worked in a biscuit factory in Glasgow, as a stock broker, in mines in Australia, trained in hotels in London, from the Draycott to Savoy Management, and managed a multi level indoor go-kart circuit. Following working as an operations manager for a developing leading pub group, I sold my flat and bought my first pub in Balham, The Bedford. I then bought two more and created the Pocket Pub Company.

The Bedford in particular became known the world over as a 16,000 sq ft music and arts venue, where everything was live. I created a lasting music venue that is still one of the most remarkable public houses. I am very proud of this and it would not have been possible without an incredible team around me.

In 2001 I was diagnosed with bi-polar and battled with this condition whilst owning and running my pub company. In January 2005 I had a manic episode and my business partner took this as an advantage to steal my business. I was sectioned, he said that our partnership was a figment of my imagination and I lost everything overnight; my business, my home, my dogs, my car, and my sanity to a great degree. It was a total wipe-out, making me bankrupt.

However, not a day goes by that I do not thank him and those that enabled him as they helped me become who I am today. Following a few months of living on the streets, living day to day, a moment of luck appeared. Through the kindness of a great friend, and a remarkable man named Captain Mark Stevens, I got a job working on a super yacht as, at that time, the only designated barman in yachting.

Having never thought I would write another CV in my life, I bumbled the pages, typing through tears, and under hobbies I put “photography.” When I walked on board the Captain said “I see you’re interested in photography. Here is the boss’s camera, would love to have you record our trip over the year.”

We were embarking on a 23,000 mile sail covering 25 countries, and while making cocktails I started snapping, documenting the entire journey. 

We started in Palma, went to Malta to fuel up, then down the Suez Canal to the Red Sea. A three-week delivery, avoiding the Somalian pirates, we headed to the Seychelles, then on to the Maldives. Following many months in the southern hemisphere we returned north via Lebanon, and then on to Dubrovnik, Montenegro, and into the Mediterranean, and a season from Italy to France to Spain to Greece.

It was the most transforming year of my life; working, sailing, a fabulous crew that became lifelong friendships, long hours, and taking photographs. I walked on board a broken man weighing 120 kilos. A year later I walked off at 89 kilos with a returned vitality for life. The sea, Captain and crew, and life through the lens had been revitalising and grounding.

I had always loved photography, however it wasn’t until I lost everything and gained so much more on this global journey that I realised my hobby may have become something greater.

What was your next step after you realised you wanted to pursue photography professionally?

One thing I did realise early in life is that I had an eye for photography. Encouraged by my mother and father, I loved the photos I was producing. From walking on Hampstead Heath in the snow to trips with family, I snapped away. I was developing images in the darkroom or popping down to Keith at Photo Craft in Hampstead Village to chat about all things photography.

I definitely knew that I had a lot to learn; we must never stop learning, this is fundamental. Just as you yourself are influenced by your experiences, your images and the way you see the world matures and is influenced by your life’s experiences. Every image is unique because every person is unique.

Once back on terra firma I worked at The White Company as Head of Trade. Captain Mark put me forward to photograph a yacht for another captain, so while selling homeware I would pop off and take my first professional paid pictures for a client. I then worked as Head of Sales and Marketing for a bread bakery, and then a woman’s health club. But I never stopped popping off to do photography jobs.

Following that, I returned to hospitality and became General Manager of The Tabernacle, off Portobello in Notting Hill. The Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, and Jimmy Hendricks had all played there back in the day, and it was now in the middle of a hugely diverse cultural community. So it was a return to my roots of sorts.

I continued to work as a photographer on the side, doing my day job and then heading off to do yacht photography. One day I would be running an iconic cultural music and arts venue and the next I would be photographing multi-million pound yachts in the most stunning locations. It could not have been more contrasting.

Although the super yacht world is high income and high value, it is also art, design, beauty and brilliance. It was a very different world, but I loved sharing it.

Of course, I still had so much to learn. After nearly four years at The Tabernacle, I headed back to school with the encouragement of my ex-wife, Laura, and my children.

I embarked on a condensed intensive course with the London School of Photography. It was a good opportunity to go back to the basics of the camera and also learn about things like food photography, portraiture lighting, post production, and workflow. It helped me take the next step to doing photography full time.

In this incredible evolving world and especially in this digital era, we have never been surrounded by so much imagination and incredible imagery. We can get inspiration not just from the famous photographers, but from the pictures that anyone takes, whether they’re our children, strangers or friends.

There is now such an abundance of incredibly talented photographers, both amateur and professional, and I love that. Look at the discovery of the work of Vivian Maier, a reclusive nanny in the US. Her work is quite incredible and only now is being truly celebrated. But she’s created breathtaking images that will last forever. There is so much more to be discovered; it’s a remarkable visual world and we all have the ability to create our own unique expression.

How did you go about finding jobs as a photographer?

As in any relationship and job, it’s very much about the personal and personable relationships that you build up. Start close to home, with friends, family and colleagues

Everyone has to start somewhere and luck also plays a big part. We cannot know what road we will take. We might know where we want to go, but things change and it’s good to be flexible. Rigidity is a restraint, so try and be as fluid as possible.

Word of mouth is by far the most powerful marketing tool and the foundation of all other channels. Other important things include not rushing, being constant, professional, personable, open minded, working with people as well as for people, and never being fixed, but sticking to the brief.

Every image has your signature and your unique take; that’s why you love what you do and what others see and feel in your photography. I have not specialised and don’t have an agent. Everyone must discover what’s best for them. I love the diversity of my photography, from portraits to cars, food to yachts, interiors to artistic. It’s a reflection of my life, my first nature.

When I first started out I knew I could take a photograph but I was green and lacked self-confidence. There is nothing more harrowing than being paid to be creative and being in the public domain.

I sought advice and was very fortunate to reconnect with Earl Smith, a very experienced car photographer who I got to know when I ran the go-kart track.

At the time I still needed to learn, and he was old school in the sense that he had a long learning curve, enormous experience, understood all elements from analogue to digital and wet work to adobe; the complete spectrum. He had worked with everyone, above and below the line, agencies and agents. He taught me an enormous amount and was invaluable in my growth.

Smith and Scholey partnered for a year and I learned an incredible amount. Not just about photography, business, and post production, but also about myself. Our journeys were going in different directions and we decided to part ways, but what I learned from him was vital and key in taking the bigger step to go out on my own.

Once on my own, I continued to develop diverse client relationships; developing my network, expanding and exploring further opportunities. I explored all avenues, from photographing classic cars to food photography, interiors, events, weddings and portraiture.

One of the most important things is your relationship with a client. One reason the client goes to a particular photographer is that they respect their work, but another reason is that they enjoy working with them and there is a mutual respect. Another important thing is the relationship with your team and anyone you work with. There’s no room for drama.

How do you divide your time between taking photos and editing?

It’s definitely not a 50/50 split. You could be on a two-day shoot, but then it may take a week or more to edit the photos. It is totally personal and it varies, as do the jobs. Digital means volume has increased, as has the requirement for quick turnaround.

While you don’t want to rush the process, you do need to be aware of the client’s expectations. It’s important to be realistic, and if they have a deadline and you agree to it, you have to be able to meet that deadline, even if it means doing days and nights around the clock.

Working for yourself is a luxury of time, because no conventional hours apply. You’re at work every day and every hour. If you suddenly get an inspirational moment at 2am, you can get up and work.

Be instinctive, intuitive, and trust your eye and gut. When you’re doing something you love, it doesn’t feel like a job. That’s not to say it is does not have its pressures. There are tears and frustrations, worries and fears; this is all part of any creative process and career. You’re taking responsibility as well as taking a photograph.

In general, I try to be as light as possible on post production, because an image is so visceral. Everyone has their personal preference and taste. You don’t just look at it with your eyes; it does resonate with you. I think every photographer and every image has its own resonance, and hopefully my images come across in a way that makes people feel that they’re part of the journey. Sharing in that moment in time, a gathering of all time, stopping for a moment in an ever evolving world. It’s exciting.

Do you have any advice for those who would love to pursue photography professionally?

The key is to do what you love, so find your first nature and what truly makes you tick. That’s the alchemy. You can’t go into it thinking “this is going to make me money” because if you follow the money, the money will always be a fingertip away.

Any vision starts with putting your foot on the first rung of the ladder. It’s certainly not a straight climb; it’s not linear, so when the tide goes out, enjoy a walk on the beach.

If you follow what you love and what genuinely makes your heart sing, then that will turn into something extraordinary. I believe if you do what you love, it’s reflected in your imagery and in your life. It’s not just limited to photography or film.

The first thing I always ask the client is “What’s the budget?” Because there’s no point going into a pitch and saying “This is who I am, and this is how much it’s going to cost,” if the budget isn’t there. Be flexible and affordable but do not undervalue yourself.

Remember that there is more to a job than just the financial aspect; there may be times when a job could lead to something else or a relationship could lead to something bigger. Try to see every relationship, client or job for its merits, because you never know where it may lead. Think long term relationship not short term gain. Also, listen to feedback; it’s not criticism, every comment adds some value.

Most importantly, though, never give up. Someone else may not like your idea of a good picture, but you can’t let yourself be affected by that. It’s important that you love it, so don’t compromise that. It doesn’t matter if you get 10 likes or 1000 likes, as long as the image you put out there is one that you love.

These days my photography is personal. I’m having my first exhibition “Written in the Wind” on February 20th in 2020 at The Tabernacle. It’s exciting and daunting, but I’m very proud of the images.

My professional life now is as a partner of a creative agency, nifty50. My position is Head of Development. There are four partners and they all bring a wealth of experience and knowledge, from creative strategies to visual content, film to photography, and animation to commercial.

Of course, if a client wants me to be the photographer, then I would happily be the photographer. However, I can now work with so many more brilliant creatives. It’s the best of all worlds. This would have never been possible without everything I have experienced and the people I have met, and I’m greatly looking forward to the journey ahead.

If you want to see more of Christopher Scholey’s work you can visit his website or connect with him on Instagram, Facebook or Twitter. His Creative Agency is Nifty50