Meet the Judges: Colin Finlay

Colin is highly respected within photography circles with huge and varied experience collecting prints, stock and competitions. Here his really insightful views on photography make a fascinating and informative read

You may not know the name but Colin Finlay is highly respected within photography circles. His career in photography has seen him highly involved in collecting prints, stock photography and photo competitions. His views are both interesting and insightful.

Please can you tell us a little bit about your career to date? How did you get into the world of photography and what roles have you taken?

For many years I worked in publishing on various arts related titles, including Design magazine, The Stage Newspaper and Opera Now. So I became familiar with the ways imagery is used in both editorial and advertising. I have had many other mini- careers, including cricket coach, opera reviewer and freelance chef and wine consultant! 

I then joined Getty Images in the mid 1990’s as Global Sales Director for Archival Images. In 2004 I left to work at Photoshot, which is now part of Avalon Media of which I am a director. 

Are you a photographer yourself? What does this add to your judging?

No. But I am also not a professional cricketer, opera singer or a restaurateur! It is easier to be objective if you are outside the day to day pressure of taking photographs as a living. It also enables you to have a far wider view of the subject and how this art form relates to the world in the past, present and future. 

You were a judge at Wildlife Photographer of the Year for many years, how does that compare with TPOTY in terms of the approach to photo taking, the framing of subjects, artistry, processing etc.? How does winning affect a winner’s career? Is the judging process different or similar?

Only two years in fact. WPY is very different in many respects, but at the end of the day, as a judge, you are looking for the same things. The images are judged blind, as with TPOTY, but the biggest difference is that, in normal times, the TPOTY final round is judged from prints submitted by the photographer, whereas WPY finals were judged in a projected, cinema-style environment. 

What sorts of changes have you seen in the world of photography and travel publishing during your time in the industry? 

There is comparatively little travel publishing these days and hence the opportunities for travel photographers to become full time pros are limited. Before the majority of people booked their holidays, flights and hotels online, there was a huge need for great travel photography. As well as the traditional travel brochures, which were the main tool for travel companies to sell their holidays, there was also the emergence of airlines such as Ryanair. Whenever they announced a new destination, there was an immediate need for publishers to obtain pictures of these places. 

There has also been a major shift from destination led travel to activity led travel. For example, in the last century, it was quite difficult and very expensive to go and visit much of the world, but long haul travel has become much more available and more affordable so it has become possible for more people to indulge in their travel fantasies. For example, it used to be that skiing holidays, for example, were synonymous with going to The Alps. But now there are many destinations around the world where a skiing holiday is possible and affordable. Although there are still a lot of people who want to lie on a beach in Spain for a fortnight in August, there are many more that want to enjoy various forms of tourism, such as eco-tourism, sports, cultural, medical, culinary and so on. This has given rise to many small scale tour operators but this has not resulted in work for more photographers as often these operators take the images themselves or ask for freebies from their clients. The current situation where everyone has a camera on their phone and everyone thinks that they are a photographer has decimated the ranks of professional photographers. Of course, some may argue that this is a good thing! 

“I still love this image by Sergei Anisimov. He actually lives in the Arctic Circle and this particular image shows so well daily life in the real Siberia. It is not romanticised. The world around them has changed, but the people just get on with their daily lives in impossible conditions as they always have done.”

 What sorts of changes have you seen in the stock photography business?

First of all, it is important to understand what stock photography means. Generally it is images, still and video, that are taken with the purpose of licensing to the media, either directly or via an advertising or marketing/PR agency. It does not include wedding photographers, commissioned photography (where a photographer or agent is paid directly by a client for a shoot) or images that are shot in a broadcast environment (such as the BBC or Sky), or images that are shot for one’s own, non-commercial, enjoyment. 

The easiest way to understand the seismic change in the stock photography business is that in around 2000, in the UK alone, there were over 700 picture libraries providing images to the media. Most libraries would have a roster of between 100 – 1,000 professional and semi-professional photographers, with the largest libraries probably having up to about 30,000 on their books. So a lot of people were earning a living from photography.  Now, there are only about 100 picture libraries in the UK and this includes many museums and institutions that license images but do not necessarily have living, contributing photographers.  

The difference now is that the largest stock businesses, such as Getty Images or Shutterstock, would have hundreds of thousands of contributors, the vast majority of whom are private individuals who earn cents, if anything, from their contributions. Clients gravitate towards the mega sites which have 100 million plus images as they think they will find everything they want cheaply in a hassle-free environment.  This is compounded by the fact that the publishing industry has been in decline for many years and the growth of online has not in any way compensated for the loss of titles being published. 

Having said all of this, there are still some photographers that earn a good living from stock photography. The key is not necessarily in having a special skill or ability, but rather in having exclusive access to a certain area of photography. For example, famous fashion photographers still command very large sums for high profile shoots as do certain paparazzi. Also, staff photographers in large organisations still do well, although there are many less opportunities than previously. 

What kinds of things do you look for in a portfolio?

It is always about creativity and consistency. Many photographers can take one good image, but putting together a portfolio is another skill. Generally speaking, photographers make poor editors, because they are too close to the images they have shot. Every image they take has a personal connotation, which may be important to them, but often meaningless to someone else. Unfortunately, travel photographers are particularly prone to this. Just because a photographer had a wonderful time on a particular shoot, it does not mean that they took wonderful images! 

“Another old favourite is the Martin Hartley low light portrait. Really touching, and very genuine. They must have felt very comfortable with the photographer to show those expressions on their faces. “

So it is all about the elusiveness of creativity, not so much to do with skill, technique or equipment. There are many great images taken on camera phones, and many poor ones taken on top of the range cameras with fancy lenses, filters and editing software. Expensive equipment and a scientific understanding of how cameras work are no substitute for a considered thought process and a creative idea. 

What advice can you share with our readers that will help them finesse their travel portfolios?

One of the simple tips is to think of captions for your pictures before you actually shoot anything. In the old days when rolls of film and processing were expensive, photographers took far less images but thought much more before they clicked the shutter. Digital photography is cheap so many photographers snap away merrily with the view that the more shots they take, there must be a good one somewhere. Ask any successful professional photographer and they will tell you that snapping without thinking is a big mistake. Time is money to these guys so they want to get the good shot quickly so they do lots of pre-planning so that when they actually arrive in a location, they already know exactly what they are going to shoot. They exclude as much of the randomness as possible from the process. 

Another good tip is to always travel with the minimum of equipment rather than take every camera body and lens you have. If you take stuff, you will be tempted to use it! In the pre-digital days, most photographers had very little equipment and travelled with just enough to do the job.

Going back to editing a portfolio, it is a good idea to show your work to someone who is not a photographer and did not go on the shoot with you. Their opinions about your best shots will be much more objective than your own. Often portfolios do not work in a judging environment because the photographer submits what are, in his or her view, the best 4 to 8 images they have ever taken, rather than look at a portfolio from the point of the viewer who is usually looking for a theme or story in the images. Portfolios have to hang together in a logical way, rather than be great single images. 

Finally, get up early! Set yourself an objective each day, take advantage of  the best light, and stop when you are getting tired or feel the shots you are taking are not as good as the ones you did half an hour earlier. Unfortunately, family holidays and good shoots rarely go together. There are some very good photographic couples where each compliments and helps the other, but generally speaking, the best photographers tend to work alone. 

“So many good wildlife images over the years, but the Walrus and Penguin image by Andrew James stands out. I like the simplicity of the subject matter, but the scale and looks on their faces are so poignant.”

Are there some common mistakes you see photographers making that you could tell us about? How can they overcome these?

The most common mistake is lack of planning. Shooting randomly hoping that you will end up with a good shot is never a good idea. Another common mistake is not thinking of a story. Photography is about telling a story in pictures rather than words. So a viewer should be able to see the story in a photographer’s portfolio of images. It does not have to be a complicated story, but experienced magazine photographers usually work to a bit of a formula. For example, you need a scene setter, you need to see people as well as landscape/cityscape, you need to see something that sets one location apart from another, you need to see something cultural or artistic specific to that location and so on. Portfolios which include very similar images tend to be of little interest unless there is an obvious story, such as photographing the same place in different seasons or weather conditions, for example. 

Which photographers’ styles and approach do you find most fascinating and why? 

It may sound a bit obtuse, but from a collecting point of view, I am always drawn to photographs that do not look like photographs. I know certain purists have a problem with manipulation and post-production, but if it is both creative and technically well done then it can enhance an image and our understanding of the subject of the shoot. Put simplistically for comparison purposes, before photography, the role of a portrait painter was to produce a technically correct and realistic image of the sitter. After photography was invented, portrait painters had the freedom to try and unlock the soul of the sitter through abstraction. The same is true for landscapes. The Impressionists were generally unsuccessful in their day, because audiences were not used to looking at “impressions” of a place, but only factually accurate depictions. Nowadays, landscape photography does not necessarily have to be a straightforward, realistic shot.  It can lend itself to a greater degree of creativity and a different way of seeing. 

Who are your photographic heroes or key sources of inspiration? Can you pick one or two, and tell us a little more about them?

Man Ray: The argument as to whether photography is a true art form has fortunately more or less died away in recent years. But if you want proof that photography is most certainly “art” and not just a scientific process, look no further than Man Ray. Although he considered himself primarily a painter, inspired by the avant-garde movements happening in Europe at the time, he is now most well-known as a pioneer of photography, producing photographic work that was, and still is, truly original. His most innovative period was between the wars when he moved to Paris, mixing with the main protagonists of the Dada and Surrealist movements. He is also one of the very few photographers to sell a single image for over $3 million at auction. 

László Moholy-Nagy: My second choice is also from the same interwar period and is also a painter by training, but at the Bauhaus involved himself in many art forms of which photography was just one. He used the term “New Vision” for his belief that the camera could create a whole new way of seeing the outside world that the human eye could not and integrated technology and scientific equipment such as the telescope, microscope, and radiography in to the making of art.

Where do you look for new talent? Who have you discovered recently that we should keep an eye out for?

It is always good to support local artists. It is easier to see any new work they are producing but more importantly just keeping in touch. I prefer trying to build long term relationships with photographers whose work I like and have some longevity, rather than looking for new discoveries. The two photographers I have been collecting for a few years now are Clive Sawyer in Rye and Richard Taylor in Folkestone. Both very different in background and approach, but both are always interesting in their respective styles and can very intelligently articulate what they are doing without pomposity or self-aggrandisement. Above all, I look for creativity in any work. But creativity should not be confused with originality. Sawyer is a more obviously creative photographer and knows exactly what he is doing and how far to push the boundaries to remain commercially viable, whereas Taylor is a master craftsman and traditionalist who is still in love with analogue film, esoteric film stock, heavy cameras and chemical printing. Not “original”, but no less creative. 

” The isolated hilltop village by Matjaz Krivic has a very unusual perspective. It almost looks crooked, but the lights in the houses really draw you in to the image. An unusual but memorable image.” 

You’re a big collector of photography. Can you tell us about how you got into collecting art and photography and why it’s an important part of the photography world?

I started collecting photography in the 1990’s. There was no particular reason but the more I saw and learnt the more appealing it became. There were also some practical reasons. Living in small flats at the time there wasn’t enough room to hang paintings and also at that time I could obtain good photographic works at a price I could afford. Ironically, in the last few years and now living in a Victorian house with high ceilings, I seem to buy very large photographs!

There are very few serious photography collectors in the UK. If you exclude the celebrity collectors who might collect photography along with fine wine, classic cars, and anything else that may have an increasing value, it is probably no more than 200 – 300. But there are a lot of people who see a photograph and buy it on impulse without really knowing what it is, or understanding why a photograph may or may not go up, or down, in value. I always think it is amazing that there are far more people who would spend £10,000 on a painting than there are who would spend £1,000 on a photograph! A lot of this comes down to education. Fine Art has a much longer history of being collectible, with regular high profile exhibitions and auctions that make the national news and lots of well established university and other courses offering an insight in to art appreciation. There has been a large growth in photography courses in recent years, but very few of the graduates ever become professional photographers, because as with many art forms, it is very hard to make a living solely from taking photographs. A simple indication of this is how few commercial galleries there are which specialise solely in photography. 

It may not be scientific, but on the occasions when I have been asked to talk to photographers about photography, it is invariably the case that few if any, in the audience, would spend even £50 on a photograph!  So if photographers themselves do not want to spend money on the work of other photographers, it does not give me much faith in the potential of the market. Collecting is really important not just from an intrinsic point of view, but to create a market from which everyone benefits. If you talk to the auction houses, apart from the likes of Christies and Sotheby’s, auctioneers will tell you that it is very difficult to make specialist photography auctions commercially viable. In fact, in the UK, there are now less photography auctions than there were five years ago. In theory, this should make it a buyers’ market, but in reality, collectors with good works to sell, are less inclined to put them in to auctions as the risk of a low or no return is too high. 

“Tim Allen’s Mongolian wedding couple is fascinating. Innocence, simplicity and pride are all expressed in this one simple picture.”

How do you see the future of photography for photographers and do you see a role for photographic awards in their careers?

The fact that everyone is now a photographer as (almost) everyone owns a mobile phone is absolutely wonderful, but getting to the next stage is very difficult. Partly because people keep their images on their phones and rarely print them, partly because when people get a new phone they do not necessarily copy their images across, partly because people take many pictures but never bother to edit or caption them. From the point of view of a collector, so much of our social history will be lost. Modern history and the development of photography have run side by side, but now history will just depend on broadcast video and the work of a small number of professional photojournalists and documentary film makers. So well – organised, independent photography awards are very important, both as a way of photographers comparing their ideas and skills with other photographers, but also as a record of our times. Winning a recognised photography competition is a positive step in anyone’s career, even more so if you don’t just win but also tell everyone that you have won. It is not enough these days to be an award–winning photographer, you also need to have very strong people skills, a good knowledge of how the media works, not be afraid of self-promotion, and an abnormal level of enthusiasm! 


By Chris Coe

Chris is a professional photographer, and the founder of Travel Photographer of the Year. He has been working as a professional photographer since 1992, shooting both editorial and advertising photography, and has published over 50 books. He lectures on and teaches photography, mentors and is a competition judge.