Photo assignment of a lifetime
Earlier this year, I was browsing local websites and spotted that the nation’s favourite Steam Engine was set to be traveling down my end of the country. But unlike her usual limited Mid Summer booking from London Victoria return via the Surrey Hills (which coincidentally passes some beautiful land in Shere, one of my favourite local railway climbs), Sir Nigel Gressley’s globally iconic Flying Scotsman was finally coming to the Mid Hants Railway.
Immediately my photographic mind started turning. How could I gain access to shoot on-site and could I perhaps capture something that would not just live long in my memory? Could I captivate some larger audiences and the people in charge of that stage.
My Dad has always been my link into the railways and in particular atmospheric steam engine photography. In September 2018, he retired from a stellar 50 years of service on the railway.
After some initial months of realignment, Dad decided he wanted to venture into carriage restoration on the Mid Hants Railway with his lifelong friend Sid. They had never done this before; Sid had taken a different career path; however railways had always been part of their hearts from childhood.
Dad could then help teach Sid some new skills and they could share each other’s love of engineering at Ropley Works, Hampshire.
A quick call to Dad confirmed that, yes, the Flying Scotsman would visit his work the following month, and no, there was no chance of obtaining a photo pass for the day.
I wasn’t going to allow a little setback like this stop me! I’ve overcome barriers and challenges my entire life, ignoring those who encouraged me to become more focused and less dreamy. The Flying Scotsman is a dream photoshoot, and I was going to persevere.
I hit the phones. After several calls, I found the marketing manager at Mid Hants Railway, who explained she had her own pool of photographers with railways specific experience. Using a technique from my old sales account management days, I added some silence to the call and waited for a suitable opening.
“Unless you’re telling me you can take better photos than our pool of specialists?” Well, yes, I know I can! I already had an email lined up with links to my relevant work, with examples of how I use photography to tell a story and document special moments. The first hurdle, overcome.
Two more weeks passed, and I was busy working on several other big projects, including a trip to County Sligo in Ireland for a magazine feature.
One morning, I arrived at the Bamford Media offices to find an email from Midhants Railway, including the words ‘wow’, ‘amazing’ and ‘love’ – precisely the kind of response I like to see to my photos!
With access to the shoot secured, my next challenge was finding distribution for the images. I got in touch with a photo news desk, to test their appetite. But this call resulted in another hurdle, with the Science and Society Museums (linked to Flying Scotsman owners the National Railway Museum) owning all images of the engine.
With only nine days to go before the shoot, I needed to overcome this hurdle. A few emails and calls later, and we reached an agreement around the use of the photos, which worked for all parties.
One condition of the shoot was the need to be accompanied on site. This condition was perfect, as it presented an opportunity to spend a day with my Dad.
With all of my bases covered, I needed to open up any lighting and character advantages for my images. So I requested a very early start for the photo pass, placing me 4 hours ahead of the other photographers.
I struggled to sleep the night before; I knew my alarm would need to be set for 4 am, but going to bed at eight or nine the previous night is just not realistic, so I went to bed around midnight, having already achieved a few hours extra per night in the four days leading up.
I was all packed and ready to go the night before but still wanted to have my morning routine of Shower, Weetabix and Double Espresso. I blasted out Talking Heads from the Stop Making Sense Tour in the car on the hour drive; I was beaming with confidence and focus.
My Dad met me there, and as I walked around into Ropley Works, the light among the Scotsman and the atmosphere was just magnificent.
It was a cold bright morning, but I was buzzing and boiling at this fabulous opportunity I had managed to once again create for myself. The sunrise which I had not counted on was just as stunning if not better than I could have imagined. I gained access to the famous footplate as a young Fireman had walked past with toothbrush and flannel in hand. “You can bob up if you like, just don’t touch anything as it’ll be hot.”
Three points of contact to climb onto a footplate, I was in there in no time taking photos. The day went almost perfectly, and although nothing major went wrong, I usually finish a shoot trying to think what could I have done even better. I always want to learn more about my shoots and the processes to get me there, could I have composed something more or had more knowledge of the timetable?
As I drove back to the office in the afternoon, I realised to myself just that there was nothing within my capabilities that I could have done better on the day or within the weeks beforehand. My Dad said he was proud of me and that I knew we had an unforgettable experience together.
Once back at the office, I edited my best key shots; these were then sent to all my contacts and received very positive responses to my pictures, with recommendations to the National and International Rail Magazines.
My crucial message is this; never give up and whoever tells you ‘no’. Use that as your ignition to persevere/progress/pursue/