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Emma Drabble - A life in photography

20.01.2023

 

Emma Drabble is a commercial and commissioned documentary photographer working in the UK. As well as being a Lumix Ambassador she does a fascinating variety of work for corporate and government clients. She also undertakes her own projects that take her all around the country. We were delighted to interview her about her wide ranging work that includes portraits of other notable British photographers.

 

Emma Drabble
Our interviewee: Emma Drabble

 

Can you tell us about yourself?

I'm Emma, I work as a commercial and commissioned photographer as well as shooting documentary film for clients. I'm a Lumix Ambassador, working on full frame and mirrorless cameras.

I'm originally from Yorkshire, thus my love for the outdoors began. I grew up next to the sea and the moors and the extraordinary light that comes with that landscape. My love of early mornings most likely started at that point and followers on my insta story regularly see my morning views from the Wye valley, where I live these days, I'm up with the dogs before I start work.

 

Frog in Cleddon in the Wye Valley. Photo by Emma Drabble.
Frog in Cleddon in the Wye Valley. Photo by Emma Drabble.

 

I started in press photography and straight out of Uni went into a French Newspaper, hitting the ground running. It was hard training but vital and I still draw in that in my everyday practice. I photographed for various publications in the UK. I started my own commissioned and commercial practice after I had children, the deadlines and pressure remained the same, but at least on my own terms. I feel very fortunate to have built up a business model that keeps rolling onward and clients who are as passionate as I am.

My life is a thrifty juggle of clients and personal project work, family and travel. I have a super supportive network of great people who underpin what I do, and it seems to all work fairly seamlessly. On reflection I think that years in the industry teaches you how to build patterns of good practice and secure good and supportive relationships that not only save time but help you focus on the stuff that you are good at.

I have been a working photographer for 35 years and have told some wonderful stories with my camera. Our industry has changed for women over the years and it is in my mind always been good to be a female photographer. My camera has always been a help to my work as a story teller. These days I tend to work across lots of mediums including Film and Audio. Technology has changed so fast and continues to evolve. The real trick is to hone your equipment to that, that best serves working style and carry on delivering great daily practise.

 

Brighton Pride. Photo by Emma Drabble.
Photo from Brighton Pride by Emma Drabble.

 

How did your photography journey begin? Did you study photography or have formal training, or was it something that developed over time?

I’ve been a photographer since I was 16. My first assignment was to photograph the closure of the small farm abattoirs in the North of England, which lead onto the mad cow/BSE crisis. Back then we were shooting on film. I felt in some way that the lens and camera up to my face disassociated the harsh reality in front of me and helped me focus on the story through the lens. I came from an art school background so an appreciation of light and shade, shape, composition and colour is installed before you’re taught to pick up a camera. I had a great tutor called Mike Ambler who was an inspirational photographer in his own right. He knew the value of keeping notes and a sketch book. He reeled off the great photographers as if they were old friends. He was an advocate of keeping the creative mind awake.. which means keeping other art practises going at the same time as your main photography practice. It's something I still do today. I’m also a potter. 

I work as a commercial and commissioned Photographer, I started out in  documentary and that is really my first love and this underpins most of my practise. I have three teenage children, Ella is studying at Manchester Met, having also been in art school is seeming to follow in my exact footsteps. I worked in Marseille in France so had that in my early training, I hope Ells works abroad too, I think it’s so helpful to have as broad a perspective on our industry as possible. We visit exhibitions home and abroad such as Paris Photo, Visa Pour L’image (Perpingnan) and The Centre for documentary (Sete) to keep informed on current trends in documentary, portraiture etc. Notably, the brilliant Steven Gill at the Arnolfini as well recently this year, the mixed media piece at The Holburn in Bath, by Nalini Malani called ‘My reality is different’. All incredible for insightful sharing of practice. 

  

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 Mel C at Lakefest. Photo by Emma Drabble.

 

You take quite a variety of photography, from commercial, food, music, family to portraiture and head shots. Which is your favourite to shoot and why?

Yes, I do shoot a wide range of subjects. Commercial and commissioned photography is almost seasonal in some respect. You get to know which clients are building campaigns for which season possibly before they know themselves. I work closely with my clients marketing teams and in some respect photographers can predict jobs in the diary before they come in. I guess it helps us keep abreast of trends before we shoot, research and be client ready for that phone call. The frustrating part, is that my commercial and commissioned work is always for a client, so I’m unlikely to share on social media, because it already has dedicated marketing purposes and are paid for by the client. I am working out how parts of this process can be shared better in 2023.

 

Food photography by Emma Drabble.
Food photography by Emma Drabble 

 

Why did you choose to follow a career in photography?

My Grandfather’s Father was originally a printer in Leeds, Cardigan Press. My Grandfather, after the war, opened up a printers called Greaves Gravure that printed the Sunday Times back in the day, but also he took photographs of picture postcards of all the seaside resorts around Britain. You know, the faded ones, hand painted ones…so photography is part of my family in that respect. It’s interesting because I see the camera as a means to telling a story in front of me. I think that a camera is really an extension of your hand and eye, and as unobtrusive as possible in the process of helping you connect and tell the story.

 

Ghillie/river bailiff George Woodward. Photo by Emma Drabble.
Ghillie/River Bailiff George Woodward. Photo by Emma Drabble.

 

A lot of your work is shooting for the Welsh government and this seems to create some very interesting projects for you. Can you describe some of the highlights of this work?

Commissioned work comes from a wide range of places, which means the subjects are usually determined by the outcomes that the funder is after. I really enjoy heritage work, funded by the Heritage Lottery and the Wye Valley Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and Gwent Living Levels Partnership. This type of work is increasingly community led, as it should be, which means engaging with the public and their interpretation of what’s around them. Be it a GameKeeper, on the River Wye surrounded by the heads of all the animals he’s ever shot to a Gwent Reen [drainage channel] dredger waist deep, or the Black Rock fishermen under the Severn Bridge standing with their Lave Nets in the estuary tide. You can head off to every part of the world, but Britain has the most fascinating living history and real characters on your doorstep.

 

Black Rock fishermen under the Severn Bridge - Photo by Emma Drabble
Black Rock fishermen under the Severn Bridge - Photo by Emma Drabble

 

The fascinating part of my work is that I have been in the studio working on a Christmas Turkey Leftover Campaign for a major supermarket chain. I love the variety!

 

Food photography by Emma Drabble.
Some of Emma Drabble's food photography.

 

Do you have an ‘idol’ in the world of photography? Who and why?

I met Mary Ellen Mark before she passed away in 2015. I have many photography greats current and other wise who fill my boots with their talent and inspiration. Notably, I think Mary is my favourite, possibly for her love of humanity. I think much the same as she does in that respect.

I feel you have to love and really respect people to get to the bottom of why they do what they do. Whether photographing a commercial slaughter man or standing in a river waist deep with the camera down your waders.. you really have to stand in someone else shoes to pass their life through the lens to the viewer. It just doesn’t work any other way.

  

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 Homer Sykes, photo by Emma Drabble.

 

One of your ongoing projects has been to do portraits of notable photographers such as Homer Sykes. How did that begin? And how willing were they to be photographed and be on the other end of the lens?

Yes, my project has been seemingly slowed in the last two years because of Covid, but I am hoping to be back up to it this year. I had the wonderful opportunity to meet and photograph Homer Sykes at a pop up studio I set up at a very British Festival that we were both shooting as part of each of our work.

Another is legendary Magnum photographer, David Hurn. What a wonderful man he is. I photographed him at his home in Tintern, Monmouthshire he smiled at the combination of my Lumix S1R and my vintage Leica M lenses - he shoots on something far more compact these days. The shot that I used is the one in his bedroom. He proudly showed off his William Morris wallpaper. The obvious shot which I took too, is with his negatives and books of work. But I also like the ‘other’ side to someone that not everyone else would get to meet.

 

David Hurn - Photo by Emma Drabble
David Hurn, photo by Emma Drabble

 

You’re a Lumix ambassador. Can you tell us how that came about?

I met Mark Baber, who was head of imaging at The Photo Show back in 2014. I was increasingly frustrated with how big and heavy cameras were getting. Panasonic had launched the Lumix GX7 and with that lighter mirrorless camera systems. I decided to shoot a professional series on this little, non-pro camera and came up with some remarkable results. I think we all know that you’re only as good a photographer as where your feet are stood at any one time, so I was in the mind that heavier kit is a disincentive to be in the right place and how many photographers are missing that shot. The concept of the GX7 created that key to being free of heavy kit. I shot the horse dentist on it and professional standard images. I am always happy to share my working practice with other photographers and Lumix had been a great forum to show off the work I have shot in the year on their kit. 

I’ve been online mentoring a working group from the Sodbury and Yate Camera Club on Documentary since last year, again especially in Covid times, it’s so helpful to share what we know as practising photographers.

 

The Horse Dentist - Photo by Emma Drabble.
The Horse Dentist, photo by Emma Drabble.

 

Most photographers have a personal favourite photograph. What would you consider to be the most notable or outstanding picture you’ve ever taken and why?

The horse dentist is one for sure. I love that its shot with such a simple camera and lens, but that meant I could be in the same stable with a rearing horse and still be safe. The other is probably the shot of Iris and Ivy. It encapsulates their love and sibling love over the years. It’s interesting that question, because for many reasons, the image of the Game Keeper too with the heads of the animals he’s shot on the walls…he was so funny, the way he said the only one he hadn’t shot was a human! Favourite can mean a few things!

 

Iris and Ivy, photo by Emma Drabble.
Iris and Ivy, photo by Emma Drabble.

 

You sometimes carry around two camera bags at once! How did this set-up come about?

It’s about always working with open bags and prime lenses and balancing my back. I run and do a lot of sports too. My physio always talks about balancing the bags. If a back pack spreads the weight across your shoulders then so can two Hadley Pro 2020s.. No back pain .. Yet !

 

Emma Drabble with two Hadley Pro 2020 Camera Bags
Emma Drabble with two Hadley Pro 2020 Camera Bags.

 

What’s in your kitbag currently?

I work out of two Hadley Pro 2020’s. I use one for full frame kit (Lumix SR1, Leica Q2’s ) and the other for Micro 4/3rds (GH5, G9 etc) and for film/ video/ audio kit. This big pockets are amazing!

 

Emma Drabble's Daily Carry including two Billingham Hadley Pro 2020 Camera Bags, Lumix GH5, Lumix SR1, Leica Q2, a selection of lenses and a Røde Filemaker Kit.
Emma Drabble's Daily Carry including two Billingham Hadley Pro 2020 Camera Bags, Lumix GH5, Lumix SR1, Leica Q2, a selection of lenses and a Røde Filemaker Kit.

 

What is your favourite Billingham product and why?

Hadley Pro 2020. So many good things! I love the front pockets.. they are huge and helpful in changing lenses quickly. I wouldn’t use anything else. I love that the shoulder pad [optional] doesn’t slip when you’re working and I love the padding - I’ll keep saying that! I shoot mostly on primes, vintage and otherwise, so I need that padding and storage and ease to be working in and out of the bag. The bag is also waterproof and wipes clean without marking, which is perfect and important as I have to be seen disinfecting my kit bag. I love the colours. And I love the ‘we love your camera bag’ compliments from clients who aren’t even in the photography industry that love them too!

 

The Billingham Hadley Pro 2020 Camera Bag - Photo by Emma Drabble.
The Billingham Hadley Pro 2020 Camera Bag - Photo by Emma Drabble.

 

If you could take one piece of equipment with you to an important event or trip, what would it be?

Apart from my Billingham bags (the padding is perfect in every respect), my vintage Leica M prime and S1R Lumix Camera... Oh heck you said one thing! ... now I’m stuck. I use a Leica Q2 which is great in size and versatility. Then that… I’m working on a hybrid rangefinder type of solution for 2023 .. I have some trips to do…watch this space..

 

How did you hear about Billingham?

I have known and used a Billingham years and years ago. As a brand more established than most camera brands on the market. It’s interesting how kit got heavy and bag brands went to back packs. I just cannot for the life of me work out of a back pack. I need to be in and out of my bag while shooting. So I met Mike from Billingham at a show and we talked about how I work. I get asked by clients, “Can I carry your bags” .. I always say.. nope.. I’m perfectly balanced thank you! .. My sports physio always says two not one! .. It’s all in the balance!

 

Photograph from Brighton Pride. By Emma Drabble.
Photograph from Brighton Pride. By Emma Drabble.

 

What can readers expect to find on your social media channels?

The variety of work that I cover mostly. I intend this year to share my ongoing projects a lot more and do some live streams from where I am working too. I think it is so important to share on the spot information and challenges..

 

We have seen that you have dogs! For our dog lovers, can you tell us about them? Do you take them with you on some shoots?

Ha ha … Oh heck.. yes I have two dogs that I run with in the morning. Running keeps me fit for the long days on a photo shoot. Eva could come on shoots, she’s trained to sit and wait for long periods of time. In fact once I forgot to release her from her sit wait and she fell asleep and I almost left without her! 

  

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 Emma's dog Eva during a shoot, photo by Emma Drabble.

 

What do you get up to when you’re not out taking photographs? What’s your biggest passion or hobby?

I have a few at the moment. Pottery yes!.. I have a fascination with fragility in pot making or as I call them ‘disaster pots’, as lots don’t make the final firing. I have worked out that it’s probably linked to my photography working connected to working with life and death, plus I was also resuscitated about 15 years ago. It is interesting the concept of something being permanent one moment and gone the next and our attachments around that.. On a lighter note!.. I love playing squash, running and more recently taken up skiing.. The latter probably likely to be linked to breaking something… like my pots! Lol

 

2020 and COVID-19 has posed challenges for a lot of photographers. Can you tell us how it has impacted you and your work?

So I was commissioned to work on a project through Covid, documenting how it was affecting a group of people. This is an ongoing mixed media piece. Photographs and audio. I was also working with my B2B clients so I managed to continue my work plus get to some other European countries to see how Covid was affecting them. This is all documented and will continue to be. 

"Documenting Now Abigail Katsande". A nurse and her son speaking about their experiences early in the pandemic. Part of Emma's work pairing photographs with audio during Covid 19 mentioned above.

 

What advice would you give to young people thinking about a career in photography today?

Wow.. Well my daughter is a photographer and my advice would always be.. to care about whoever you photograph. Really listen, really care and it comes through in the photographs.. work on that relationship because that is the key to the photograph being just an image or a powerful story.

 

What’s next for Emma Drabble? What are your next big projects or adventures?

A few things. Certainly my portraits of the great British Photographers and Artists.. I’m in my 50th year this year so that’s certainly a pivotal moment to create a 10 year piece, that brings together the themes of what I have been doing in the past 50 years. The commercial phone is always ringing. I need to make more space for my personal project work. January is a good time to pull some plans together for the new year. It’s a struggle that working photographers have.. but I have a plan!

 

Emma Drabble's commercial work for Firepits UK.
Another example of Emma Drabble's commercial work.

 

Where can people come and see your work or meet you? Do you have any forthcoming exhibitions, talks, tours or workshops?

I am online quite a bit holding and supporting camera club groups like Sudbury and Yate’s CC . I try and look in with Damien Demolder every Wednesday night for the Lumix Experience where people talk about their work. Do get in touch if anyone would like some mentoring, or an online talk. Always happy to talk and be part of our photography community.

 

Emma Drabble with the Billingham Hadley Pro 2020 Camera Bag.
Emma Drabble with the Hadley Pro 2020 Camera Bag.

 

You can find Emma Drabble online at:

Website: https://www.drabbleandco.com/
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/drabbleandco/
Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/drabbleandco/
Twitter: https://twitter.com/emmadrabblepics
YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCBhUfLF_lAmC1Fo4ryWU83Q

 

The bag featured in this article:

Hadley Pro 2020 Camera Bag (Sage FibreNyte / Chocolate Leather)

Hadley Pro 2020 Camera Bag

 

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