One Great Idea – Meet Mick Buston

If you have a blog, you know the routine. Create a new post, approve and answer questions in your comments, add new features. A while back as I read through my comments, I came across one that really captured my attention to a post I had created, Are You An Artist Or Just Another Photographer? So being the Internet surfer I am, I clicked over to his site and started following the trail. And again, I was enthralled in what I saw. So…

I would like to introduce you to Mick Buston.

Even though Mick is fairly new to photography, its his journey that captured my attention. He didn’t want to become a traditional photographer, jumping at the portrait and wedding markets. He didn’t want to do what thousands of other photographers are doing – and struggling to some extent. So he set out on a new path. Rather than telling you about his journey, let me show you instead.

As you can see from his photographs, he’s a great storyteller. And his goal is to  “Create  photo story books based on my own creations, my visions, my interpretations. Kind of like a visual writer.” I love that concept – a visual writer.

Mick also recognizes the fact that “Digital photography has many pluses but one negative is that too many images remain on a hard drive somewhere, lost, buried, forgotten, essentially abandoned.” Yep, I couldn’t agree more. And with many photographers simply handing over CD/DVD’s of the images, and people storing them that way without every printing things, we’re producing a generation that will eventually have no memories from the most important events in their lives. So Mick’s idea of becoming a “visual writer” is right on, and I feel in the future one he is going to do very well with.

So I sent over a variety of questions, to dig deeper into his photography goals.

Mick provided such great responses to my questions, I want to provide his answers in their entirety. I enjoyed reading through his progression to where he is today, and I know you’ll get  caught up in the story too.

Interview

My name is Mick Buston and I am a UK-based photographer predominantly working on self-assigned music and editorial photography projects.

LORI: What was the process for finding what you are truly passionate about?
MICK: I left school with pretty much no qualifications and went straight to work in the construction industry as a plasterer.  My father was a plasterer and so it was a natural progression for me to do this.  In total I spent around 14 years in construction, including  18 months working in Germany, before finally deciding to try something else.

I applied for a job as a sales administrator in ’96, more for interview practice than anything else, and to my surprise I got it.  This started in place another 14 year period of work with various employers in a series of sales, marketing and management roles.

In between this I also set up my own business marketing a product I designed to help people to stop smoking.  The reality of launching a new product into such a competitive market meant that I did not have sufficient funds to carry on so after 18 months I made the difficult decision in February 2009 to close the company.

So I found a new job and threw myself into this but knew I needed something else to keep me occupied in my spare time.  I was given a new point and shoot for my 40th birthday and whilst it wasn’t the dSLR I wanted, I set out to take this little Canon with me wherever I went.  And I think it was this increased level of using the P & S that made me consider investing in my first ‘proper’ camera.  So after lots of research I bought a Canon 450d plus two kit lenses and that single purchase has changed the course of my life again.

My partner Sal and I went on holiday to Turkey shortly afterwards and I spent as much time as I could during that trip photographing anything and everything and playing with all the buttons and functions, with pretty much no idea of what I was doing.  ISO, aperture, shutter speeds and depth of field were just words to me, I had no idea what they were or how they were related.  But that didn’t matter.  I was having a blast.

What I didn’t want to do in photography, how did I find that out

I have an entrepreneurial mind and so after just a few weeks of pointing this black box at subjects, I was interested in looking at how to make money from it.  I was that guy with camera that the established photographers out there despises.  Somebody with no idea and an OK camera who thought it was easy pickings to make a living in this way.

So, how to make money.

I didn’t know where to start or which direction to head in.  But I did know what I didn’t want to do.  Architecture and landscapes are not really my thing so that was two options out.  I dabbled with a few portraits, hiring in a couple of models from Model Mayhem to experiment with, but soon realized that wasn’t going to be for me either.  Babies and kids didn’t appeal to me.  And certainly not weddings.

I knew fairly quickly that I didn’t want to do anything that involved me having to create images designed purely to flatter or appeal to the person paying for them in order to earn more money, which ruled out social photography of pretty much any kind.  I believed then, as I do now, that if I had taken the few paid jobs shooting weddings and portraits that I had been offered in that early period I would have probably fallen out of love with photography as well as providing a truly appalling experience for my ‘customers’.

So the list of no’s was getting longer, but the list of possibilities still remained quite static.  What I did like was street photography.  I would spend hours on end in galleries on Flickr and elsewhere looking at some brilliant work and even contacted some people working in this field to see how they fared.  And it became clear that street photography in the UK is predominantly a non-commercial form for the majority of people.

In all of this, something has always led me to something else and I have had to trust this evolution and keep exploring new areas as they presented themselves to me.  I had heard of Alamy stock agency so signed up and uploaded a few images I had taken whilst out trying my hand at street photography.  And I waited for them to be approved, published online and for the money to start rolling in.  But that didn’t happen.  First problem was that my images were technically not good enough so Alamy sent them back.  As they did with the next upload and several more after that.  But this was brilliant experience and taught me so much about what to look for technically in an image.  I am not saying that a technically well executed image is a good image, but it can make a great image even better.

Once I overcame the technical issues, I uploaded more and more to Alamy. But still no sales.  More time spent in forums and exploring the world of stock helped me to understand that to make a living doing this, and it is possible, is not a case of simply walking around with a camera snapping anything ‘interesting’ you see.  As I have learned with all aspects of photography, it is definitely quality over quantity and to achieve that quality requires planning, foresight, initiative and creativity.

In September 2009 I made the decision to leave a well paid job and see what happened.  I had no idea what I wanted to do next but knew I needed to find something more stimulating and satisfying that the sales management role I was in.  I took on some freelance marketing work and spent more time with my camera.  But still the commercial photographic opportunity I was looking for eluded me.

As is the case for most of us, Christmas and New Year is a time to look forward to the coming 12 months with promises and ideas on how to progress.  So in Jan 2010 I decided to set myself a series of personal projects with the intention of building a portfolio of images and carving out a direction for myself.  The idea for the personal projects was to shoot the kind of jobs that I would like to get commissioned to do.

One area that really interested me was music photography  Music is a love of mine that I had lost touch with and so this made perfect sense, a lightbulb moment if you like.  So I put up a message online for local bands to contact me if they were interested in taking part in a photo essay project in return for some images for them to use.  My plan was that I could get experience and they would have fresh images and I could perhaps sell some via Alamy as stock. A real win-win situation.  The result was that two bands contacted me on the same day and I decided to work with both of them on what set out as a 6 month project but extended to a year each.

I now have just over one month left to work with both bands following a 12 month project and I would say on reflection that it has been a real blast and given me a great insight into the workings of the local music scene in general and allowed me to meet many really useful contacts in the industry.  But alas, whilst a lot of fun, the path to untold riches does not lie in music photography for the majority of people who dabble with it.  There are some really talented people at the top of their game out there in concert and music photography, such as Danny North in the UK and the Owyoung brothers in the US, but for the majority I think straight forward concert photography is for fun rather than profit due to an ever decreasing number of paying outlets for good work.

As the year progressed I also carried out other personal projects and they all tended to be reportage projects, documenting ‘days in the life’ of friends or subjects that interested me.  I spent a day in an old fashioned music store that sold everything from vinyl and gramophones through to high end string and wind instruments and a day with a professional horse rider and teacher.  This gave me the kind of images I liked and allowed me to experiment with editing to be able to tell a story.   For these projects, I just worked reflexively with no pre-meditated outcome and was pleased with the results.

So now I find myself looking into 2011 with fresh eyes, a load more experience and a more realistic expectation of how hard it is to be a professional photographer.  I am going to continue setting myself personal projects as the way to propel myself forward into areas outside my comfort zone so that I can improve and grow.  The lessons I have learned in 2010 and the avenues I have explored mean that I am going to continue to combine the realism of street and reportage photography with my own creativity in my projects.

How did I decide to become a visual writer?

I have always been a passionate reader and from this came an enjoyment of English and writing and for a long time I held an ambition to be a published novelist.  But I didn’t put the hours in on the keyboard or pad and so this never happened.  This just proved to me that I did not want it enough as I was not prepared to sacrifice everything to pursue it.  It was just a dream, one shared with many others I suspect.  But one thing I do remember above all was the lesson that you should always “show and not tell”  and this was one of the most difficult things for me to grasp with words but one that I find easier with a camera.

That desire to communicate a story hasn’t left me and I did experiment through 2010 with some short photo essay personal projects to see if I could create a coherent set of images to convey a message and with some success. So I knew that this was something I wanted to do more of but to be honest I didn’t want to be a photojournalist and again this is a market already crowded with photographers far more experienced and talented than me.  What I wanted to do was to script my own stories and create them visually without words.

With this in mind, I carried on my wanderings around the internet and I began noticing more and more photographers, more so in the US than the UK, creating images with a more cinematic feel to them and even combining several images together in diptych, tripych, collages and storyboards to convey a narrative and I became fascinated by them.

So I kind of made a mental note that I would finish all outstanding projects by early 2011 and then start experimenting with storyboards and series’ during the course of 2011, starting small and then pushing towards larger projects if successful.

A sequence of events happened quite quickly to bring this experiment forwards in my timescale.  One of the bands I was working with, The Good Ship Band, had decided to launch their first single entitled Boomerang Girl.  Jez Harley, the lead singer of the band, had worked with a charity based in India that wanted to build a new secondary school but had lost a major backer and so the band thought they would try and raise some money from the single to donate to the cause.  Boomerang Girl was also one of the first songs I heard the band play during our first session and it was one of those songs that just resonate with you.  I knew when I first heard it that I wanted to do something with it, to bring it to life somehow.  I had in fact used Animoto after that first session to put a selection of around 30 rehearsal images together with Boomerang Girl overlaid in a video that we posted on YouTube.  The guys liked it, but looking back now it is rather crude in construction.

What they wanted this time was something more meaningful and I agreed to put something together as long as I had free rein to develop the ideas myself.  They agreed and a couple of weeks later we were sitting around a table with a sketched out plan for 30+ images of my interpretation of their song..  From start to finish the whole project took just 10 weeks and Boomerang Girl was launched as both a multimedia video for the band to promote the single and as a self published book for my own purposes.  I am incredibly proud of the result as we had absolutely no money for this and it was all created pretty much in lead guitarist Ed Binghams apartment with everybody involved pitching in and helping out for free.

In scripting the ideas for Boomerang Girl, I was keen to develop the story first and to look at the constraints we faced afterwards.  This was by far the most complex thing I have ever done and was well beyond my skillset but I think that by challenging myself, I was able to achieve so much more than I believed possible.  If I did it all again, I would do 100 things differently but that is to be expected.

With the whole story scripted, I edited each frame as I went and this made it so much easier when it came to bringing the story together at the end.  Each shot was processed initially through Aperture 2, then through the Nik Software suite of Dfine, Viveza & Silver Efex Pro.  Once processing was complete, I upgraded to Aperture 3 purely for it’s ability to create custom multimedia slideshows which my partner Sal worked on for me and we exported this then as a HD video for the band to use on YouTube.

To create the book, I chose Blurb as I had been impressed with their website and the number of people on Twitter who I noticed were using them as their first choice self-publisher.  The Blurb BookSmart book making programme is both free and a pleasure to use and quickly becomes intuitive.  I think in total it took less than 5 hours to put the book together and within 10 days I was holding my first copy.

LORI: Why Photography?
MICK: Essentially I am a very visual person but photography was something that I always wanted to try but the mistakes were too expensive.  I had nobody close to me with an interest in it to learn from and so I left it.  But then digital arrived and your mistakes are immediate and less expensive.  So I got into it from a point and shoot and progressed from there.  And now I have no choice.  Photography is a passion, something I never thought find.  I just wish I had found it years ago, but then perhaps it would not have meant so much to me.

I am predominantly digital but I have now have added an old Olympus OM-40 + 50mm lens to my kit and I love to run a roll of XP2 or HP5 through it.  Expense is still an issue so this is like a rare treat for me and I love it.  In time as I make money from my endeavours I will add a Leica film camera and a range of their lenses and really go have some fun.

Digital photography has many plusses but one negative is that too many images remain on a hard drive somewhere, lost, buried, forgotten, essentially abandoned.  Online portfolios has made this more so but so has the advent of photographers who are happy to hand over a disk of images to meet market demand for lower prices.  By doing this you not only lose control over how each of your images will look if ever printed out but you are also likely to resign your work to a hard drive somewhere.

Another concern is for those poor brides or parents who expect their images to still be on that disk in 5-10 years time.  I cross my fingers for them that they are still there.

For me as I go forward, I want to create much more printed work be it in book form or prints as our images are created to be seen and treasured, not stored and archived.  And it also involves learning different skillsets as I have found out whilst producing my own first book and the art of preparing for digital print is something I have learnt a lot about in the last 4 weeks.

LORI: I see you are using a wide variety of social media – YouTube, Twitter, blogs. How do you think social media is impacting your business?
MICK: I absolutely love social media and see it as an amazing advancement. But I would seriously ask anybody about to set out in social media, or to expand it properly to include your total online presence,  to give it serious consideration before delving in. As with your photography, I think you need a proper workflow for your online presence, designed to give you the maximum impact for the minimum disruption – and I say this from experience.  You need to start off understanding what you want to achieve and who your audience is before setting up your free accounts.

With years of sales and marketing experience to draw on, I knew that I needed a strong online presence to drive customers to my door.  So almost as soon as I got that first camera, I registered a domain name and started building a blog.

And to drive traffic, I set up a Twitter acccount.  And a Facebook page.  Oh, and a MySpace page came along too once I started out in music photography.  Needed to stay in touch with models too so I had a presence on Model Mayhem.  Made a few changes to my old LinkedIn profile and set myself up as a photographer on there too.  Now to show off my images, I needed a Flickr acct as well.  Selling stock meant I needed to register with an agency, so I listed with Alamy.  My music images didn’t meet the strict Alamy guidelines and so I set up a Photoshelter acct and started uploading my images there for the world to buy. Tumblr caught my eye, so not one to miss an opportunity, I set up an account on there as well.  And for a few animated slideshows, I registered with YouTube too.

So my master plan was to create a spiders web from each shoot, with strands branching off across the internet linking and cross-linking all my work across several platforms, letting the world know where to find me.  And I did that very well. Perhaps a little too well.  A significant problem I encountered was that I was spending a serious amount of time editing and processing concert photography, posting it online, publicising it and then spending hours chasing bands who were helping themselves to my images for free by taking them off my blog or Flickr account.

And all of this online activity meant that I had no time left to do what I should have been doing.  Creating photographs.  And I was wasting money on hosting different things on different platforms with no return.  And so, 9 months after building my online empire, I deconstructed the majority of it in one afternoon.

All I retained was my Twitter, Model Mayhem, Flickr, Alamy and YouTube accounts.  Even my blog was taken down, and I just kept a front page active that linked to a very small selection of images on Flickr. Everything else went and nobody noticed apart from me.

Because I had no idea who I was talking too, who my audience was, I had adopted pretty much every tool in the drawer to communicate with everybody who was out there regardless of whether they were listening.

And my online presence remained dormant for months whilst I tried to figure out what to do.  I just carried on shooting concerts and band promo images and kept in touch with Twitter for the most part and uploading some work to Alamy.

Without knowing what kind of photography I wanted to do, what customer I wanted to attract or what message I was trying to put out, I didn’t know what my online presence should be.  So I had to figure out the what first.

Now, with time to reflect, I have a much cleaner online presence and it serves me well without being resource or cash intensive.  I knew I wanted a blog and so I spent a lot of time on a selection of blog platforms before choosing wordpress.com to host my blog and forthcoming portfolios at www.mixphotography.co.uk.  A big factor was  of course that is free to start with and is modular so you can build it as big as you want, pretty simply.  And many of the social media tools such as sharing are already part of the set up so that makes life a whole load easier for my content to be shared and has a pretty good function for showing images as a gallery or a slideshow.

As I said previously, I kept up my Twitter account which I use daily for my own purposes an aggregator of all the content online that I want to keep up-to-date with and now for sharing my own content.

My Model Mayhem is kept up to date along with my portfolios as and when appropriate but other than that is not worked too hard.  Likewise my Flickr account.  Right now, Flickr is probably the one I could drop but as I have a subscription running and it is not causing me any work, I will leave it as is.

After much deliberation I have just resumed a Facebook page but I have not done this lightly.  But I do appreciate that there are very different audiences on Twitter and Facebook and some will use both but the majority of end user customers are more likely to be on Facebook more of the time.

LORI: How about photography as a whole?
MICK: On the whole, talking as a photographer, I think social media has a big role to play.  But only if you do it for the right reasons.  I was one of the many that didn’t ‘get’ Twitter at first.  But I stuck with it and now I see it as a very powerful tool.  One of the first things I do if I am on a new website that interests me is look for their Twitter feed as it allows me to keep up to date with their activity with no work required on my part.

I use Twitter as an aggregator of all the things that I want to keep up to date with.  That may be a musician, a politician, other photographers, Photoshop teachers, fave restaurants or pretty much anything else.  For me it is a tool.  And I use it the same way. I share stuff that I find interesting or of use to me as I would with a friend.  I don’t do it to gain popularity or to grow to a highly targeted following.  I do it because that is the stuff that interests or excites me.  And I think that is how you build your followers, one at a time, of people who like what you do or are share your interests.  The biggest mistake I see new people to Twitter doing is following 10,000 people in the hope that some of them will courtesy follow them back.  This is not a long term strategy for this and if anybody follows me that has those stats then I am not interested.  It takes time, invest it, it’s worth it.

I listened to a Nik Software radio broadcast recently where the guest was David Milnor and he was asked how did he make money from his photo books. And his answer was “by building a database.”  That is what Twitter can do for you, and Facebook for that matter.  You create an audience that is constantly connected to you, alert to any new material you produce.  And they choose to hear your message.  This is classic Seth Godin permission marketing.

I think that we need to think beyond just Facebook and Twitter as our online social networks too.  With pretty much all Web presence now allowing bi-directional conversation, then everything becomes a social network.  So participate in forums that are relevant to you, comment on blogs and join in with discussion groups.  But just manage your time within in them.  It is so easy to get carried away from your focus online.

LORI: Have you received business through any of your social sites?
MICK: To date I have not received any direct business from my social media work, but in fairness I haven’t really had a product or service to sell.  But what is happening is that I am building a following slowly but surely to serve me well as I go forward and wider recognition of the work I am doing.

Now that I have produced my first book, I will use all the online tools at my disposal to create attention for it and the books that will follow, and to that end I do expect social media to be a useful business tool for me.

LORI: Where do you see yourself in five years?
MICK: Too damn close to 50!

Part of the problem for me is, and always has been, working for somebody else.  I am fine with it for a while and then I want to go and just do my own thing and steer my own course.  This goes for full time employment through to a photography shoot.  Having to please somebody else first always leads to a dissatisfaction in me which in turn leaves me looking for something else.  It is overcoming the things that create dissatisfaction that is helping me to form the basis of the photography I will end up shooting and this will no doubt remain an evolutionary process.  So I see myself still pleasing myself first and creating work of my own.  That is not to say that I won’t work with or for anybody else, but I do want to have more than my share of freedom.

What I would like to think is that I can continue to expand the idea of visual writing and producing cinematic images with a narrative.  In time the idea of shooting a project like Boomerang Girl purely on film on a Leica appeals.  As does a much bigger project, something akin to a feature length movie, in a photobook.

LORI: Where do you see the photography industry in five years?
MICK: From somebody who can’t look back 5 years in this industry it is hard for me to say.  But something that resonated with me was a blog post by Chase Jarvis recently where he said he hoped that the word digital would soon be dropped and that people would talk about photography again as a whole rather than separating digital and analogue as they are fundamentally the same.

I think our tools will continue to change, and the rate of change seems too fast for us to be able to predict 2 years from now let alone five, but the same rules will apply.  The machines won’t dictate what happens, it will be the photographers and artisans holding them.

LORI: Anything else you want to share?
MICK: Whatever type of photography, or any creative endeavor, you are involved in allocate time to work on personal projects.
Challenge yourself way beyond your limitations.
Print more of your work.
Help mentor somebody else who shares your interest.
Calibrate your monitor

Hyperlinks
Blog: www.mixphotography.co.uk
Twitter: www.twitter.com/mickbuston
Boomerang Girl video: http://bit.ly/BG-Watch
Boomerang Girl book: http://bit.ly/BG-Read

Thanks Mick!

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Comments

  1. Thoroughly enjoyed this article and the video. I can see the book being a huge success.

    I began as a writer and have morphed into a photographer as well, promoting myself with the tagline “creating visual and verbal images” so I can totally relate to Mick’s approach.

    Like him, I came to photography later in life (also after a life-long career in Marketing and PR) and, like him, I am struggling to find my niche.

    Thanks.

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