Tom Mason reckons you’re never too young or too old to be a pro, you just need a thirst for learning and development
All photography by Tom Mason.
Age is a funny thing. You can’t help how old you are, no matter how hard you try, yet people love to judge you on it. I’ve always found it amusing when people write someone off because of their age. A person’s age – an arbitrary unit of time developed by man – really makes no difference to who they are or what they can do.
I think I had an amazingly lucky start in photography – at 15 it was suggested I go along to my local camera club. Now, if you’re a member of a camera club, I’m sure you can appreciate the novelty of a 15 year old coming to an evening. Most clubs – in the most respectful way – are full of older members and for me that was ideal.
I really enjoyed hanging out with my fellow members. It was like having a load of uncles and aunts, grandads and grandmothers, who were all interested in photography! Not only did I get to see them every week, but they challenged and pushed me to be better behind the camera.
Once I started to win competitions and place my images in exhibitions, they were proud to champion my work. When I gave my first lecture at the club, they provided a platform in which to develop my skills and pushed me forward to make it as a professional. They overlooked my age, and saw my passion and love for photography, something that I often see others miss.
Of course, first impressions can be misleading. I can count numerous times over the years when I’ve been spoken down to when out shooting. People have asked where my dad is, because they want to ask him about his camera. Some have even suggested that I’ll understand my camera better when I’m a little older and more experienced. Being a wildlife photographer, I’m fortunate enough to be patient, but there are times when that patience is really tested…
I think people regularly interchange age and experience, but they are two very different things. You can be young and experienced, or old and unexperienced. Of course, the older you are the longer you’ve had to gain experience, but remember, the intensity in which you work at something also plays a major role.
With time and effort, skill as a photographer, combined with a passion for your subject matter, and a willingness to learn and constantly push yourself could provide you with enough experience to go pro, regardless of your age. And yet, just because you’re an experienced photographer, doesn't mean you automatically take good images – there’s a lot more to it than that.
Being a pro requires knowledge of business, marketing and professionalism – that last bit is really important. It’s all well and good being great at shooting images, but if your social media accounts showcase antics that brands and clients don't want to be associated with, that’s a problem. It’s unprofessional and there is no age requirement for that.
There are some aspects of being a professional that you can’t experience beforehand. Travelling for a job or taking on a large client, for instance, may require things you've never encountered before. Working as a pro therefore requires faith and trust in your abilities. Sometimes, this can be a tricky one because you've got to put yourself under pressure, risking failure while trusting you can pull it off.
Managing risk is something pros have to contend with, and only you can understand if you’re ready for it. The first time I was asked to give a lecture at a big event was exciting, but I was also bricking it. It was a few years’ ago and I was asked to speak at the Scottish Nature Photography festival. I knew it was a fantastic opportunity to develop my career but on the flip side, messing up could mean disaster.
The event was hosted by well-known UK wildlife photographer Peter Cairns and the lineup scared the heck out of me. Laurent Geslin, Britta Jaschinski, David Maitland, all photographers who had won some of the highest awards in wildlife photography. They’d captured images I’d grown up on, and I had to speak alongside them.
Their presentations featured wonderful work from all around the world and showcased everything from lynx to the tiniest, microscopic details of life. My presentation was on UK wildlife in Hertfordshire, somewhere that I was sure could only be described as the dullest place on Earth... I don’t think I’ve ever been more nervous before giving a lecture, but a minute in and they were laughing with me, not at me!
After that, it was a pleasure to show my images of hares, owls and kingfishers. I even received a few ‘oohs’ from the crowd and a nod from my fellow speakers at the end, it was an epic feeling. I took a calculated risk, backed up by the experience I had gained from my smaller lectures and it resulted in success. That moment told me that being a professional doesn't have an age limit. It’s about stepping up to the plate, knowing when you've got to go all in and working your butt off to make something work.
Ever since I first picked up a camera I’ve been constantly trying to step up my game, learn new skills, and tackle new challenges and clients. At 24, I might be a pro, but I’m well aware I have a huge amount still to learn and that’s something I’m stoked for. One of the biggest aspects of being a pro is understanding how far you have to go to accomplish certain achievements and that you’ve never really made it. Complacency has no place when you’re earning your livelihood. Age then, doesn't come into it.
Being a professional is dependent on your mindset and focus, not just how long you've been taking photographs. I’m so glad that I started at my local camera club, and pushed myself outside of my comfort zone in order to learn and develop. If there is one thing I’ve learnt, it’s that in order to make it as a pro, you need to be prepared to reach outside your comfort zone, no matter how old you are.
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