Leon Neal is an award-winning news photographer for global news agency AFP. During his career, Leon has covered a number of major domestic & global stories including the Royal wedding of Kate and Will in 2011.
In 2003, whilst studying for the NCTJ photojournalism course in Sheffield, Leon won The Times newspaper's 'Young Photographer of the Year' scholarship - leading to a two year tenure with the world renowned publication.
I'd like to be pretty relaxed about it, but I can't be. It's a huge honour, and one that means a lot to me. Having an iconic camera manufacturer whose products I love give me a position on its Ambassador team-sheet is mind-blowing, and it's a role I'm taking very seriously. So far, it's included a whole heap of interviews and magazine features, which has been a little unusual but I'm just beginning to get the hang of it. I've also had the pleasure of being able to provide feedback on new equipment and will be speaking at various trade shows throughout the year, too.
My first digital camera was a Nikon D1 while at college. Due to my employment at Agence France-Presse (AFP), I have previously used other systems, but I've been a strong advocate of Nikon cameras since the D3. The kit goes from strength to strength and its ergonomic design is unbeatable in the DSLR world. It's always felt as though Nikon is the only company that actually knows what a human hand looks like.
A huge benefit of having a staff position at a large agency is access to equipment. My current kit includes – deep breath – two D4s bodies and the D3s, a COOLPIX A, plus the 14-24mm f/2.8, 24-70mm f/2.8, 70-200mm f/2.8, 300mm f/2.8, 400mm f/2.8, 20mm f/2.8, 24mm f/1.4, 50mm f/1.4 and 85mm f/1.4. As an ambassador, I'm also extremely lucky to receive help with any equipment requests from the NPS team at Nikon HQ .
Nikon equipment just improves generation after generation. The current flagship D4s is a truly exceptional camera with noiseless ISO, even at previously unheard of levels. The focus is fast and locks on to a subject really well. I first had a chance to try a pre-production model at the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014 and was immediately blown away by the colour reproduction and focus capabilities even over the D4, which was a very strong camera in its own right. The build quality is also of a really high standard, which is vital, knowing how much of a clattering my gear can get; just yesterday, I was working in torrential rain and the cameras continued to work flawlessly.
When I was 13, my dad bought me an old Zenit SLR from a guy he worked with, and I took great pleasure in pretending I was a real photographer (nothing changes). Then I discovered drums and spent a decade playing in bands, even managing to get on the bill at the Glastonbury Festival with Sheffield-based group Elfin. Well, when I say on the bill, you'd need the extra-special big version of the poster that listed every act playing on every stage, plus a magnifying glass…
When my time as a musician came to its natural conclusion, I decided to combine my love of current affairs with my ongoing passion for photography, and took the NCTJ course in Sheffield. We were encouraged to enter the Times/Tabasco Young Photographer of the Year scholarship, and I was lucky enough to win it – hence my twitter handle and blog title, The Tabasco Kid.
Having been able to leap straight to The Times from college, I skipped a vast chunk of time that, while it was great to be able to skip, resulted in me missing out on all that experience that helps to develop a photographer's abilities. Honing those skills while working with and against the best photographers in London, with the results being put in an internationally famous newspaper, is a hell of a way to learn fast.
After enjoying my prize of six months at The Times under the nurturing wonders of the then picture editor Paul Sanders, I managed to stay on for nearly two years before deciding to look for work with one of the news agencies – and I decided I really wanted to work for AFP. Not only is it the oldest news agency in the world, and one of the largest, AFP has a reputation for providing a different view on a story, be it through approaching the subject from a different viewpoint or by literally trying to shoot it in an individual manner. That massively appeals to me, so I've always loved working there. After freelancing with them for a few months, I managed to get another lucky break, when AFP photographer and good friend John d McHugh left to pursue his own projects, leaving a staff position at the London bureau. I grabbed it with both hands.
The eclectic range of jobs that I'm faced with is probably why I love the job so much. If I knew exactly what I'd be doing day in, day out, I'd have lost all interest years ago. As it is, I find out what I'll be shooting only hours before, either late on the previous day or sometimes first thing in the morning. Currently, I'm covering mainly UK-based stories but this still includes a wide variety of subjects, ranging in the last month from features on rediscovered World War 2 tunnels in Dover, the Wimbledon Tennis Championships and Sikh protests in Westminster right through to court arrival pictures. Thankfully, AFP doesn't separate photographers into news, sport or entertainment categories, so I can find myself covering jobs on pretty much any subject.
The problem with this job is that you put so much time, effort and emotion into capturing a high-profile event that it becomes mentally exhausting. To an outsider, it may simply look as though I turn up, click the shutter and head home for tea, but there really is so much more to it than that. Probably the best example of this is Prince William and Kate Middleton's wedding – I'm sure it shaved a good few years off my life!I had to be in position at the Queen Victoria Memorial, opposite the balcony at Buckingham Palace, before 6am when the streets closed. AFP had arranged a fast network cable to my position so, combined with Nikon's WT-4, I could transmit my images straight from my camera as the kiss was actually happening. I'd managed to get a really strong spot – the central position – but the downside of drawing it was that I was trapped within a mass of tripods, bags, cables and sandwich boxes, leaving me unable to take many feature shots, so I had nothing to distract me for the seven hours of waiting other than my camera configuration. And the longer a photographer has to wait for an event to occur, the more they'll begin to doubt their kit choices, resulting in a near-constant swapping of converters, lenses, clamps, cables or camera bodies…
At last, William and Catherine walked out onto the balcony. With my final decision being to opt for the Nikon D3x, I had to watch my shooting speed as the buffer filled up quickly and took ages to clear. All around me, photographers who had gone for lower resolution but higher speed cameras rattled through their shots at nine frames per second. The urge to gun it was immense but I forced myself to shoot single frames at what I hoped would be the key moments. Then, there it was; the kiss. I hit the transmit button and returned to shooting. A second kiss came. Then the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge turned to walk back into the Palace and the doors to the balcony closed.
I scrolled through my frames, selected the second-kiss pictures and hit transmit again. I phoned the office to check they'd received my first lot of images, and it was then they told me they needed the second-kiss shots fast as the first-kiss ones were soft. My heart just crumpled. The next 15 minutes were possibly the longest of my life. I really thought I'd messed it up. It was a deeply unpleasant feeling. Then, as the other photographers around me filed, phones started to ring and suddenly they were all saying a very similar thing; a combination of heat, pollen and our distance from the balcony had caused trouble for everyone. Yet, even knowing we were all in the same boat, I can't begin to describe how low I was feeling.
It was well into the evening that I finally got to see the frames. In the end, a bit of considerate editing had produced a decent set. The image of 'frowning flower-girl' Grace Van Cutsem covering her ears as the couple kissed did very well, and other moments made front pages around the world. So I had got the shots after all. But it shows that this job really is not good for people who can't handle stress.
My image preferences change as fast as I can edit them, to be honest. This is one of the reasons I started writing my blog; it gave me the chance to take a snapshot in time of what I enjoyed, thought and experienced as I was covering a job. I haven't had a 'set' portfolio for years as I invariably struggle to choose a set that keeps me happy. But there have been some assignments that stand out for being brilliant experiences.
One was Beached in 2007 – the grounding of the MSC Napoli off the south Devon coast, and the resulting Whisky Galore free-for-all that put the tiny village of Branscombe on the international news map. It remains a favourite due to the experience of being the first photographer on the scene, which always has real advantages; showing courtesy and being open while the novelty of media attention is still fresh opens some very helpful doors.
Having heard about a cargo ship running aground, I'd left London in the early hours the following morning and arrived in Branscombe around 8am. Hiking up and down the cliff paths with a 400mm and a laptop was exhausting, but it was one of those jobs where you're aware that every bit of effort will pay off – there were so many angles and opportunities for pictures. By late afternoon, as media crews had finally started to arrive, the doors of the pub remained closed but I was sitting in the landlord's office, sending images and drinking tea. As the sun went down, rumours started of locals taking secret paths down onto the beach to see what they could find. Dressed in my finest Mission: Impossible gear, I headed into the dark.
As torches flickered along the beach, the scale of the ongoing spill became more apparent, with tons of Lancôme cosmetics, random BMW car parts, shoes and wine casks washing ashore. Within a few minutes, we hit the mother lode – a container of luxury BMW motorbikes, with keys, log books and petrol in the tanks. Within minutes, impromptu pit crews were attaching wheels and correcting steering before cardboard tracks were laid across the shale and the scramble towards the road on the 'salvaged' bikes began… The next morning is how every day should start: after coffee, I headed for the post office to check the papers, and for the first (and only ever) time, I'd pretty much managed a clean sweep, with nearly every paper leading with my shots of the BMW bikes. That was a great feeling.The same can be said for the Olympic Games in 2012, particularly the opening ceremony. Being closely involved throughout the rehearsal stages, right through to the night itself and being the only photographer in the centre of the stadium as they lit the cauldron will stay with me for life. Knowing that the whole world was watching the moment that I had the honour of shooting exclusively was a tremendous feeling. I was actually so excited, I blasted off a burst of 'selfies' on my fisheye lens with the torch in the background. It was only when I was walking from the centre of the stadium to the seats that I realised, because I was the pool photographer, my cards were going to every agency, unedited, so everyone would now have to wade through my moment of selfie madness.
There are also certain images that remain in my thoughts, such as No Life, which I shot at a very early stage in my career; it's a portrait of a girl who has scarred herself through self-harm. I received a message about it containing a request to make the sender 'famous'; they'd attached two images of their fresh injuries. Aside from sending a link to a support group, it was hard to know what else to say. When a photographer shares an image, does that make them responsible for justifying it or is their job completed purely by displaying it? It's easy to assume the latter is correct but can this just lead to people shooting images with no message or intention other than to shock? I know this happens all the time in the art world but for press photography, are the rules any different? I believe each story needs its own consideration and thought. Sometimes, you just have to trust in the strength of the viewer.
In my first few years as a press photographer I kept myself amused by blogging tips and fun observations, things like… photographers who smoke can make any overdue event happen by simply putting their camera down and lighting a cigarette… as soon as your local council starts accepting a photo credit as a valid form of payment for your council tax, you can start giving away your pictures to all those people who enquire about using them without payment… the moment you stop shooting to entertain and satisfy yourself, you might as well go and work in an office… for those of you wanting to get into the industry, consider the fact that US recruitment website CareerCast listed photojournalist as below sheet-metal worker in a list of 200 careers in relation to salary, working conditions, serious risk of injury or death, and poor employment prospects… if all else fails, just whack it on f/1.4 and call it art.
On a slightly more serious note, I was advised at a very early stage to be nice to everyone you come across. This is not just due to the fact that it makes the world a better place, but because it's guaranteed that you'll end up stuck on a doorstep for three days with the photographer you told to **** off, and because you also never know who'll be a commissioning editor one day!
Ha! Well one that surprises a few people is that I'm actually colour-blind. I didn't mention that to AFP until after I'd got the staff job...