Gareth Cattermole fell in love with photography at high school, when he first studied it in art class and realised he wanted to do it as a career. A keen outdoor swimmer and wannabe triathlete, he originally dreamed of working for AllSport, but 'completely fell into the showbiz world' when an unmissable opportunity as a celebrity photographer arose at the end of his two-year photography BTEC.

Since then, he's not looked back, and for the last 13 years has been working all over the world as a staff photographer for Getty Images, covering events as diverse as Cannes to the Olympics, with stellar names like Al Pacino, Tommy Lee Jones, Lily Cole, Lady Gaga, Jay-Z, Rihanna and Beyoncé in his portrait gallery. What really makes his work stand out is his reportage approach, often rendered in his favoured monochrome – an atmospheric, 'alternative view' look nurtured from his personal project work. Find out more about his high-octane job and why he rates his Nikon kit…

How did your professional career take off?

Just before I finished my BTEC at West Herts College in Watford, I was with my mum and dad in W H Smiths when my dad picked up a copy of the British Journal of Photography and saw an ad for a celebrity photographer with Big Pictures. I wasn't keen – I'm really not a celebrity person – but my dad said, 'Sometimes you have to do things you don't want to do to get where you want to be.' So I went for an interview and they called me straight back and gave me the job. I'll always be grateful to them for my first break. All I wanted to do was take pictures every day. I stayed with them for around three years, did a lot of travelling and learned so much being a paparazzo – I'm certainly not ashamed of it. Then in 2002, Getty Images approached me to do celebrity work for them, and I've been on staff there ever since.

How did you develop your style?

At college I was very different from a lot of the other students, especially when it came to printing pictures. I'd experiment by spraying developer onto the paper, trying different techniques and finding my creative side. As a pro you can fall into the trap of just shooting what you need to shoot to pay the bills, and that can sap your creativity. Someone I knew at work said it was really important to do something you like and enjoy, so I thought about my private work, which is mostly black and white, and it went from there. The whole idea behind my personal projects is that they're an alternative view; these are images that give me the freedom to push my photography to the limits, and I'm now getting the chance to do that in my work, too. That's what's so good about Getty Images – they encourage you to try different things and be creative, which is great.

What are your favourite subjects or shoots?

I like everything I shoot, especially when it's black and white. The majority of the celebrity portraits I do are '30-second' shots, and often more like 10 seconds in reality, but I really love that challenge, of being given just a couple seconds to get something good. As well as the celebrity work I do a lot of sports photography for Getty Images, such as the Athens, Beijing and London Olympics, working for the sponsors' teams, and Ironman competitions – in fact, I'm currently in training for my first Ironman. I love shooting sporting events as I'm really into them; and if you enjoy the subject, it makes such a difference. With Ironman and similar sporting events the access is incredible, and the real difference is the people. You can ask Ironman competitors for a picture as they cross the finish line after nine hours' hard slog of swimming, biking and running, and they're happy to do it. You can't do that with celebs and footballers… Another of my passions is the tube – it's a great place for pictures. When I was a kid, I lived in Pinner in northwest London, so the Metropolitan line was my main transport into London. As I got older I used to hate driving in London, too, so I continued to get the Metropolitan in and out. I have this love affair with it; I can just sit there and let the pictures come to me.

Have you always been a Nikon photographer?

Over the years I've had various cameras, including a Nikon FE10, and I tried different systems when digital came in, but I switched to Nikon when the D3 came out and have been Nikon ever since. I now have two D4S DSLRs as my main cameras, and I'm really happy with them. The D4S's biggest advantage for me is that massive ISO range – I've used it at the highest ISO that's possible and I always love the results. I mainly shoot with the 85mm f/1.4 – it's a lens I can use all day long, especially for portraits. I'm very lucky with Getty Images in that I have access to such a huge range of lenses and cameras, so if I ever need any additional Nikon kit I can borrow it. Recently I tried out the Nikon Df, which is great – especially as I can use all my NIKKOR lenses with it. I also have two D4 bodies, which I tend to use as remotes.

How does a typical week or month look?

You can plan, but every day is different. Some weeks I'll do three or four jobs, other weeks I'm mostly pitching ideas, because I don't want to just wait for the jobs to come to me. At the major fashion shows I tend to be up at 7am, shoot until 6pm, then I've got a good few hours of editing ahead of me, so I'll be working into the early hours. For New York Fashion Week [to which Gareth was flying off the day after we spoke] I'm doing an 'alternative view' project – it will be a real experience and I'm looking forward to covering three shows a day and then editing my images each evening in the hotel. I do all my own editing because it's a very personal thing. I like my pictures to look a certain way and I'll often redo them – I'm quite a perfectionist.

What's the best piece of advice you've ever been given?

When I was younger I often struggled to get any advice at all – there was the attitude that 'everyone's a threat to you in this business', but I always knew I wanted to give back. I regularly go back to my old college and mentor students. I'm not worried about passing on my 'secrets' – I'm confident about what I do. One of the best bits of advice I've had was that the photography is just 30% of the job, and the other 70% is being a good operator – learning how to work with people to get what you need, treating them how you'd want to be treated. Sometimes you have to do things you don't particularly want to do to get where you want to be, so pick your path and be open to possibilities. And be prepared to wait ; I might be hanging about for five hours to get a 30-second portrait slot, and then they don't want to have their picture taken, so I don't get anything. But that's just how it is.

For more information visit www.garethcattermole.com/