Tell us a bit about yourself. My name is Olin Brannigan and I’m a professional photographer and lighting technician based in Belfast, formally London. I work from my studio in Belfast shooting portraiture and still life as well as commercial commissions across Ireland. As a lighting technician I work primarily in motion picture key art, imagine the posters and marketing you see for movies, I work as part of a team that produces this artwork in conjunction with movie studios and creative agencies. Recent highlights include House fo the Dragon, The Witcher Season 3, Fast & Furious 10, Marvel’s The Eternals, The Gray Man and Harry Potter 20 Year Reunion. What made you choose this career? I chose to pursue a career in photography having previously studied business & languages in Edinburgh. I then went on to work in the United States in an economic development agency and then on a the Kerry Edwards US Presidential campaign 2004. On returning to Ireland I joined a graduate training programme and studied for a post grad in Business Development and worked as a sales & marketing consultant. In my mid twenties I decided that a desk job wasn’t for me and instead my desire to live a creative life led me to move to London and start again. I chose photography as I have always had a passion for making pictures and wanted to learn a whole new set of skills and take on the challenge of becoming self employed and building a career on my own merit. Be your own boss.
Did you go through formal education? If so, what did you study and where? If not please explain your journey. On arriving in London it became increasingly clear to me that there was a whole industry out there that I didn’t understand and was completely unknown to me, and to most people outside it. I hustled and hustled until at last I got my first break driving a van delivering lighting equipment for a Photography Studio in Kentish Town, Spring Studios. At the time Spring was the centre of fashion photography in London. However, I was far down the pecking order, but in time with hard work I was introduced to a producer who placed me with a young fashion photographer. This began my assisting career. Assisting photographers is, in my opinion, the best way to learn how the industry works, how a photo studio works, the equipment, vast array of technical skills required and most importantly to build your own network in the business. Many do not take this route, however when it comes to being a professional all photographers depend on their assistant and team of assistants to do the job properly. You cannot do it on your own. It is always a team effort. I became a freelance assistant, third, then second and eventually first assistant to fashion, advertising, portraiture photographers. I travelled the world and eventually became an in demand lighting technician. The pinnacle of this trajectory is working on motion picture sets. This environment is a very professional, technically proficient space. There is little room for error, time is always of the essence and the ability to work as part of a well oiled machine is critical. Assisting definitely taught me everything I needed to know about how to make photographs, how to work in and with a team of creative professionals and most importantly how to solve the myriad of problems you will always encounter on a photo set. In short, my job was and is creative problem solving at the highest level. Did this have a positive or negative impact on your chosen career?
Assisting most definitely had a positive impact on my career. I spent the first couple of years thinking I knew what I was doing, then as I began working on bigger more technical shoots I realised just how little I know and how every day I had to climb a mountain to keep up. I got to work with some of the biggest photographers in the world as well as several highly technical artists in varied disciplines. I realised that my strength lay in broadening my horizons from purely fashion into still life, automotive and motion picture. Photography is art, however, Picasso is attributed with saying “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.”. I firmly believe that being highly technically proficient in lighting, cameras and digital offers you the freedom to truly create your vision. The best thing about assisting was that I met so many amazing colleagues from whom I was able to learn every day. We became each other’s union, always passing each other jobs, getting each-other paid, introducing each other to photographers & directors in need of excellent teams. Being freelance is a hustle, it’s difficult, often frustrating. You have to build your own network from the beginning to survive. There are no safety nets. You are often only as good as your last job.
Who inspires you? I am inspired by self-starting hard working people from all walks of life. What’s the scariest thing about your job and how have you overcome it?
The scariest thing about any freelance career is definitely the uncertainty that comes hand in hand with it. It is a very daunting prospect to become fully independent and not have the safety net of a salary cheque at the end of every month. Benefits, pensions, holiday pay, sick pay are all things which you can pretty much forget about in the short term. It realistically takes 10 years to build a stable business in the creative arts. You must be prepared to have gaps in your income, make losses, constantly chase payments and learn the difference between good and bad clients. You will be underpaid, hustled and conned. It’s unfortunately a reality. You have to learn to balance the desire to work with knowing whether or not someone is worth working for. The most important thing in the medium to long term is to know your worth and stick to it. Your time should be non negotiable, people will always give you the excuse that “their budget won’t cover your fee” etc. Always hold your ground and if the job goes away, so be it. You can’t do all the jobs, there is always more work and sometimes you have to stick to your guns. On a positive side, there are excellent professionals who will grow to depend on you and you on them. They will become your team, your support. You will find trustworthy people with whom you can communicate openly and honestly and who will pay you fairly and on time. Being a freelance independent artist means you will build a particular set of skills which help you survive uncertainty and become a confident negotiator, you may not necessarily gain these skills with a salary. What do you want to change about your industry? Where to begin? There are so many things which I would like to change about the industry. Nepotism is rife in photography. Certainly there are a lot of talented people who have made their career off their own bat, however for every one of them there are plenty who have benefitted from a wealthy background or family contacts to get them ahead. Photography is expensive, the expectation to be an unpaid intern is around every corner. Be wary of the producer or stylist who reaches out and tells you they will credit you in an editorial and it will be “good for your exposure”. It won’t, trust me, they just don’t want to pay you. Know your worth. Don’t ever work for free, unless you’re helping a friend and they will reciprocate. Working for free means you are setting a precedent, it will be difficult for you to get paid properly from someone when you’ve already worked for nothing, it’s just not worth it. Photography, unlike the film industry is not properly regulated or unionised and photographic professionals and especially assistants are afforded very few rights. We are often expected to work very long hours without being properly compensated, you will be asked to cover your own expenses and sometimes do things that may well be unsafe. Remember you always have a choice, you can always say no. Getting paid on time can always be difficult, you will encounter every excuse under the sun. I always tell people to understand their statutory rights under government legislation. There are laws to protect your rights, especially in regards to prompt and fair payment. Unfortunately, if you take this route you will likely not work with the other party again, by that stage though you probably won’t want to.
What advice would you give someone who is starting out in your field? The first and most important word of advice to someone starting out is, NEVER SIT DOWN. It’s that simple, be busy. There is always something to do on set. Even if you haven’t yet got the skills to be directly involved in the image making process, you can always brush up, tidy up, make tea and coffees, keep cables safe and tidy. Someone is always watching, trust me. The people who will eventually offer you job are the ones you need to impress with your work ethic. No one expects you to know everything on your first day, what they want to see is that you are willing to work. Someone with a strong work ethic is gold. The rest you will learn. Forget about your ego, no one cares that you were on a shoot with a big celebrity, we all have. What they care about is that you will be a valuable member of their team, someone they can trust to work hard and make things happen. The second most important thing is not to say you understand or know how to do something you don’t. You are working with very experienced professionals but remember we all had a first day, we were all inexperienced. If you don’t understand something, ask a question at the appropriate time. If you say you understand something you don’t, you will quickly get found out and it will inevitably cause problems. This won’t help you in the long run. Be humble, work hard and be pleasant. You are going to have a long day!