Zimbabwean born photographer moved to Kenya in 1999 finishing his studies in Daystar University in 2003. He thereafter worked for seven years in advertising and, in his own words, “got bored”. He had always wanted to be in business so he started his own advertising company from the media ownership side concerning purchasing rights. He did that for three years until the need for a hobby struck him. Recalling being in Masaai Mara, he was more interested in taking pictures of the tourists and their large cameras rather than animals. Photography was the hobby Thomson Ncube was searching for which turned into a fully fledged business under Thomson Photography. Here is his story and his experience.
Photography had always been his first love. Starting off in his teenage years, he bought his first camera as a result of a need for photographs in High School that was not being fulfilled. He began taking pictures of his classmates to sell them. He doesn’t quite recall his first camera or where it is right now for that matter. “I liked taking photos then, I wasn’t necessarily inclined into it, I was simply happy it worked out.”
When he started his ‘hobby’, he started researching on the different cameras, on photography and found out that they this was going to be an expensive but he wanted to give it a shot (no pun intended). So he saved up and bought his first professional camera with the basic kit (camera and kit lens). After four months of listening to photographers, he upgraded the “glass” (the actual lens). “There are sharper lenses and faster lenses that are good for lower light, some focus faster than others” he explains. He thereafter upgraded to a full frame body camera. “I sorted cheated in photography. Others start with minimal gear but for me I upgraded when I felt I my gear was limited.”
He initially thought he would shoot landscapes but experience took him elsewhere. His jump into the photography scene in Kenya began by attending a fashion show in Prestige Plaza on a whim and the Samantha Bridal Show held in Sarit Centre. This is the time he met Gibson Maina and David Macharia who helped and taught him about photography. Gibson and David shot weddings primarily, he explains, so in his learning on the job, he accompanied them to weddings and inevitably started shooting his own weddings.
“Learning the business of photography was Thomson’s greatest lesson.”
After a while, he wanted to learn more about wedding and fashion photography. The most interesting experience he remembers was learning from Brett Florens (South African photographer) regarded by Nikon as one of the World’s most influential photographers. “So I stalked him on Facebook until Brett accepted my invitations.” It was at a photography expo in South Africa, which he attended with Gibson Maina and David Macharia, that he began to learn about the business of wedding photography, which applies to the business of photography.
From Brett, his mentor, he learnt that in the business of wedding photography, he explains, you want to market to your industry more than anything else. “By industry, I don’t mean the market. The clients are the market, the wedding industry has players- event planner, make-up artists, caterers…etc…those are the people you market to.” So taking shots of the decorations, placements, the flower arrangements, the cake – those photos should be taken as though they could be used for marketing and advertising. He further explains that pricing is also important because at the end of it all, you want to make money.
“There is a misconception in Kenya that because you are a photographer it will be cheap.” His mentor, he describes, lives in the ‘Muthaiga’ equivalent of Durban (South Africa) with two houses and all from photography. This exposure changed his views on photography and how far it can take you, if you choose to apply yourself to the business. “That puts a lot of pressure on the quality of your work.”
What he also learnt was to target a particular market and be patient before he could start his company, Thomson Photography. Being more fashion photography oriented, he strives to fuse a fashion element to wedding photography. “I love fashion photography, but the fashion industry locally is not big enough to make a profit from it,” describing the lack of fashion advertising, which is “the reality of the industry now.”
In his opinion, “fashion in the world is going left and Kenya is going right”
Fashion photography in this market is a means to an end, he remarks. Giving his two cents on the fashion industry, he starts with a disclaimer: “my approach in learning how to do something is to learn how the world is doing it. So in fashion photography, I look at the standards globally. I have to learn from the key people in fashion photography and learning the bets practices.” In his view, there is a lack of the best practice approach in the fashion industry in Kenya. Asking the right questions to those who have been in it for years. Such as what is a fashion show, what is fashion photography, what is the point of fashion and the industry is one of the best ways to learn the best practices of the industry. In his opinion, “fashion in the world is going left and Kenya is going right”.
“Buyers will come but we need to change the perspective of what fashion shows are about.”
Having spoken to Vogue editors, Thomson Ncube understands that a fashion show is neither meant to make money nor for entertainment. Fashion shows, he explains, are not meant to be social events like they are now. “Fashion shows abroad is an invite only event specifically for buyers and other industry players to see the collections before the world sees them.” He does however state that, in contrast, those designers can afford to pay for advertising. In Kenya however, the fashion designer is everything (designer, marketer, manager, financed…) in the business and unfortunately does not have enough capital to push their brand in advertising. “For photographers, if our clients are the designers and the retailers and they are using a different model, it becomes hard for you to be affordable to them.”
Thomson Ncube further explained the issue of advertising and the affordability of it. What is happening now is the use of foreign adverts, with foreign models and foreign photographers, which, he opines, “is better than what they will source locally.” In terms of pricing, there is always a spectrum of affordability and accessibility.
“Buyers will come but we need to change the perspective of what fashion shows are about.” In terms of how he sees the industry changing, Thomson Ncube is trying to do his part in showing that fashion shots can be done well. “If you can’t find a good photographer in the first place, in fashion, then there is no hope for the fashion photographers. There has to be good photography before we complain about anything else in the industry.”
There is a catch-22 in fashion photography. Thomson explains this dilemma in a simple way. “I love beauty shoots, but who do I shoot it for? Is there a big enough demand to specialize in fashion photography? Am not too sure.”
“If you consistently do something very well, all the time, you will get noticed.”
One of the problems in the fashion industry, he remarks, is that “we are not making things that are relevant locally. Who is locally supplying Monday to Friday wear? Nobody.”
There is a need to learn the business of fashion and photography before they lose their life doing the wrong thing. Not having a business side in any industry will definitely cut your growth. In addition, Thomson notes, “we live in an age of knowledge. Learn from people’s mistakes. Don’t go out there and do the same mistakes and take 16 years to make it.”
The one thing he would advise for someone getting into the photography world is to shoot for oneself. This, for Thomson Ncube, was one of the best things he learnt in his career. “Do you! People book you for your style so if you shoot for other people’s style, you will end up being inconsistent and lose who you are.” Like any artist, there is a need to develop your own style, your own voice and unique element.
Take a look at Thomson Ncube’s ‘style’ below. Photos courtesy of Thomson Ncube (Thomson Photography).