Lee Howell

Published 14/6/2017


What’s your background? Did you study photography?

I used to change tyres for a living (just very quickly). I started out as a BMW apprentice in the U.K which lead to me getting a job in Formula One. I travelled the world as an F1 mechanic with Arrows F1 team for 4 years before the team folded in 2003. This was a good thing in the end as it gave me the kick up the arse to pack my bags (and bike) and head to NZ for a 12 month cycle tour around the South Island. 

It was during this time I discovered photography and upon returning to the U.K I brought myself a Canon 10D and really started to discover a love for photography. This was over 13 years ago and I’m still learning.


Your work comprises of a range of things from portraits, landscapes to advertising work – how did you get started, and is there a genre you prefer working in most?

After arriving in Christchurch in 2006 where I was chief mechanic for a race team, I realised (and so did the team owner) that I was definitely more interested in photography than being on the spanners so he allowed me to do both during the races. One thing led to another and before I knew it I was a motorsport photographer.

My time shooting motorsport was definitely a defining moment in my career. Not only in the work I produced but also in the way I ran my business. As I’m self taught I had no pre conceived rules of what I should be doing. Racing cars are all about speed, I was not interested in freezing the action with fast shutter speeds and motionless wheels just so the sponsors could see their logos. I loved capturing images that showed the speed, with long shutter speeds, wide atmospheric shots with blurry logos. I also spent a lot of time capturing the mechanics and the people that made the racing happen. My blurry racing images and track portraits were definitely something different to what everyone else was doing.

As we all know there many many photographers out there, professionals trying to make living, weekend warriors with full time jobs (with all the gear) who are happy to give their images away just for a credit. There also seemed to be a standard business model, be cheap and sell more, which wasn’t for me. At the end of  2008 I went and shot (at my own expense) the last few rounds of the Porsche GT3 championship. I then put a package together showcasing what I could produce but more importantly that I just wanted to produce work for the Porsche series. So instead of having hundreds of cheaper customers spread over the whole paddock I had one that was willing to pay me properly. I now had more time to really tell the story of the series, I hired an great second shooter / assistant who also looked after the file management so I could spend more time making camera rigs, using off camera flash on the starting grids and producing unique images for my one client.

This way of thinking has stuck with me ever since, I will never be the cheapest photographer but I make sure I over deliver in every other aspect.

Since my motorsport days I have definitely concentrated on commercial work. Three years ago I made the move to Auckland as this is where the work is. I’m shooting less & less sports but I still like to shoot automotive work, its just a shame that there are not many big car accounts in NZ.

Its taken many years to work out what it is I really want to shoot, I love adventure but at the end of the day I’m drawn to real people with good stories. I like working together to create images that the sitter and I are both proud of.


Do you find that you approach a project differently if it’s shot on location rather than in a studio environment?

If you saw the amount of gear I take on location the only thing thats different from my studio shoots is there is no heat pump or coffee machine. Most of my work is out on location so I have to think about logistics a bit more, time of day, where the sun is and also the weather.

What was your first camera, and what equipment do you shoot with these days?

My first camera was a compact 35mm Nikon which was superseded by a Canon EOS 300 SLR that brought in 1998. Since then I have stuck with Canon and now shoot a 1DX mk2 as my main body. I also use the Phase One medium format kit a lot. Even though the focus system bugs the hell out of me, the files it produces are simply the stunning.

Having started my career in Christchurch where gear hire isn’t as accessible as here in Auckland I invested a lot in my lighting kit. My Elinchrom kits have been great, I needed portable lighting and this stuff has lasted years, since then I have changed to Broncolor and use portable kits like the Move kit and and Siros L heads which are awesome.

I also have (what I think is) the best digital capture set up in NZ, I won’t go into it now but it’s an awesome bit of kit (it is also available for rent at digiop.co.nz).


How would you describe your photography to someone who has never seen it?

I would like to think I produce images that are real moments but with production value.

Your first commissioned photography job? 

Other than the motorsport that I described earlier I distinctly remember the sleepless night I had before my first proper agency shoot. The job was through Strategy in Christchurch and I was shooting for Environmental Canterbury. I had done lots of smaller jobs before this but this was proper money, call sheets, talent, shot lists, suits from the agency and Ecan. I was nervous as.   


Do you have a preferred setup that you use for most of your work in terms of camera and lighting?

My lighting setups have definitely changed over the years, when I started out I was just lighting everything, I now know its all about control and what not to light. I use a lot of grids to control the spread of my lights as well as flags and cutters for negative fill. Feathering lights can give them a different quality so I play with that a lot. As far camera set up goes, I like to shoot with the Phase One because of the awesome image quality it produces. The faster sync speeds are also very useful.


Are there enough opportunities within New Zealand to make a living out of Photography purely or do you need to travel around a fair bit? 

I think there are still lots of opportunities here but it depends what you're aiming for. Yes, you can make a living here but you’ll have to work hard for it and diversify. The photography industry is changing a lot so I’m adapting as well, I regularly work with a good mate of mine Simon Waterhouse. Simon has a video production company down South but we have a joint venture together creating VR 360 videos. So far we jumped out of planes for a skydiving company, produced work in Nepal for Save the Children and created VR projects for some of NZ’s largest companies. Photography is my core business but it all helps to have few other things on the go.

Photographers usually struggle directing their subject - what are your methods/secrets in achieving the warm, natural smiles? 

I’m not sure they are secrets but I always try and meet my subjects prior to a shoot. If you can have a good chat or even better sit down and have a brew before you throw them in front of a large set up that always helps. I also find that shooting tethered (images are transferred directly to a laptop or iPad) and showing the subject what is working and what isn’t helps. At the end of the day you need to get their trust whilst having a good laugh about it all.


You are represented by Proof Agency in NZ. How important is it to have the backing of an established firm?

For me having Proof showcase my work and help produce my shoots is awesome. Being a photographer sounds great, you get to travel, meet people and hopefully get paid for it along the way. Unfortunately the reality is very different. Taking photos is the easy part (sort of) and running a business is the hard part, producing shoots, going to see agencies, updating portfolios, feeding the social media beast, shooting personal work, having exhibitions, accounting, paying your tax bill etc. I have done all of that by myself for many years so it’s great to have the backing of Proof now. The majority of my marketing and ‘go sees’, follow ups and production are all handled by Proof. I now have more time for creating the best images I can and working bigger and better personal projects.


What has been the best moment in your career thus far?

Thats a tricky one as there have been many moments of “I can’t believe this is happening”. Lots of adventure in expensive cars, jumping out of planes which is all great fun. Shooting the Singapore F1 race for Top Gear magazine was great as I got to see my old mates in the pit lane again but I’d say the month I had in Nepal last year was a highlight. Simon and myself were commissioned to do a number of jobs whilst out there.  The first one was for Save the Children, we produced VR360 video, standard video and stills for a project they are doing in a very remote part of Nepal. The whole experience was very humbling and quite an adventure. The second part of the trip was to document a Kathmandu Summit Club trek. After this Simon headed home whilst I continued on a personal trek up the Langtang valley, I hired a guide and a porter and took my Broncolor Siros lighting kit. As I wasn’t on a real agenda I got to meet a lot more people and had a great laugh with my newly appointed producer (guide) and 1st assistant (porter), I produced some of my favourite images to date form that trip.


Your dream project?

I’d like to do some more NGO work. Commercial work is great and I’m grateful for it but it’s not as though I’m saving lives. 


What advice do you have for an aspiring photographer looking to follow in your footsteps?

I’m going to do this in list form as there is lots.

-  If you want to be a commercial photographer don’t got to University or college. Move to major city and become the best assistant there is.
-  Shoot what you love and are passionate about, if you have a passion for something you have a better chance of producing something unique because you understand it better than the next person.
-  There is so much info out there nowadays. Invest in some Creative Live tutorials, they are great.
-  Define your style, you want to be hired for your vision and what you can bring to the table not because you have nice camera and can press the button.
-  Don’t try and win a job on price alone, there is always someone willing to do it cheaper than you. 
-  If you don’t know what to charge for a job ask someone that does know.
-  Join a professional organisation like the AIPA, there are people that you can reach out to and ask for help.
-  Get a part time job so you have some money but more importantly you have time to shoot personal work for your portfolio, you get hired for what you show so make it count.
-  Don’t be a dick. No-one will want you on set if you’re a dick.  

Web: leehowell.com

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