Tomas Whitehouse’s Self-Taught Journey to the Pros
For someone who’s been a guitarist in a punk band, an actor, and a professional critic of high-quality single malt Scotch, Tomas Whitehouse’s work doesn’t reveal a commercial photography career is something he came to relatively late in his 31 years. This ex-patriot Englishman now living in Finland is full of the unexpected. Physically imposing, he is gregarious, generous, and if you didn’t know him, you could easily think his photographs were taken by someone shooting professionally as long as Whitehouse has been alive.
While studying acting in college, he found himself taking compulsory sub-modules like makeup, theatrical dress, lighting, and live sound reinforcement. Although he loved acting, he was drawn to art and technical aspects of lighting. In order to avoid the massive debt for university studies which he saw his peers getting drawn into, he left school to follow another dream—writing songs and playing guitars. The Birmingham-native ended up playing in the band Farse, which recorded several albums, and became fairly well-known by British youth. By 2004, the UK independent scene was not enabling them to pay their bills, and they were unable to break out of their home country.
After a series of unhappy jobs in a variety of industries, Whitehouse had enough, and felt the pull of international travel beckoning. He brought his first Fuji FinePix S7000 camera, and documented his travels. He became interested in editing and postproduction as a hobby. By 2006 he met his girlfriend in Helsinki and began to transition to professional photography. Finding himself drawn to shoot figure skating events, he was noticed by an editor at the Finnish Figure Skating Association, who liked his work. She began hiring him, and then he discovered David Hobby’s blog, The Strobist. This information resource opened a new dimension to his shooting, and Whitehouse became a convert to the ways of off-camera flash. Soon he recognized he was combining Hobby’s information with what he learned in his theater lighting courses, and quickly felt competent when planning light setups for his own shoots.
It became apparent he was well-ahead of the curve of most other photographers in the area, and he continued to excel. Given Finland’s proximity next to Sweden, the home of Profoto, Whitehouse took advantage of the strong representation the company enjoys in Helsinki. Soon he owned an AcuteB 600R, a D4 head, D4 Ring Flash, soft light reflector, ComPactPlus 600 spare batteries, and other accessories. “Then I had this huge amount of power in a really small box which I could still take to and from shoots, so it opened up a huge door for me,” he says. “You can rely on it, as well as it gives an immense quality of light consistency.” He rents Profoto Pro-B3 units when he “needs bigger guns,” he explains.
Whitehouse picked up work as a stringer for Getty, shooting figure skating. He also worked for Canon, several media agencies, and a range of record labels. Finding himself drawn to larger productions, he enjoys all the preproduction involved in a complex shoot. He sees this as the direction he’d like to continue moving in. “I’ve never been an assistant for anyone,” he says. “It’s just literally from reading an awful lot and getting out there. You really have to get out there and get to know the equipment you’ve got, respect its limitations and make a whole bunch of mistakes. Then you find what you want to do and develop your own style.”
Seeing diversity in personal photography as a way keep his professional practice fresh, Whitehouse shoots in different styles on his own time. He recommends this to all photographers. “I love macro photography, love taking pictures of tiny microscopic things,” he explains. “A lot of photographers sometimes get so consumed by their career they don’t have enough time to create stuff off their own backs sometimes. It’s a shame. I understand it when folks are really busy and their spare time is really limited, but it’s very healthy to have your own personal projects—the stuff you don’t have to worry about working towards clients requirements. You can just go completely crazy with something and really get what’s inside you out and into the picture and manifest it. It’s a healthy thing. It gets harder and harder to make that time, but it’s a good idea to allow the time for it if you can.” Not to be taken lightly, much of Whitehouse’s personal photography is as accomplished as his professional jobs.
Whitehouse is a Nikon shooter, relying on the D3 model for his main camera body. For portrait work, he uses the 50mm f/1.4 lens, which he dubs “my usual choice of lenses.” He continues by saying “I like the small primes, because when you’re using the Profoto D4 Ringflash, everything’s nice and compact and tidy. When you stick a big 24-70mm zoom, everything gets a bit bulky, and it slows me down a little.”
Connecting his Nikons to his Profoto gear, Whitehouse uses four PocketWizard Plus II units. He’ll next be trying the MultiMAX, but the Plus II’s have been working fine. “They’re about four years old, now, and still going strong,” he reports. “Out of all the equipment I’ve had so far, those are the die‑hards. They just refuse to stop working. A few friends of mine said, ‘Yeah, but they’re really expensive.’ It’s not what you get, it’s what you pay for. If you want something that’s going to survive come wind, rain, or nuclear holocaust, then you buy a PocketWizard. If you want to keep recycling all your stuff, or changing it over or upgrading year after year, then go ahead and buy something cheaper.”
Aside from their quality and reliability, there’s another reason Whitehouse uses PocketWizard. “I’ve always been a PocketWizard guy after making too many mistakes with cheap Chinese triggers. I was at an ice tour taking pictures of a figure skating team. I had three or four flashes all with these cheap triggers. Every time the organizers went past me carrying the walkie talkie radio and pressed their transmitter it would fire my triggers and my lights. We call them PovertyWizards. I’ve tried pretty much every brand of Chinese PovertyWizard there was. You wind up buying them over and over. You end up spending more in the end, don’t you? To students at my workshops, I say, ‘You can buy these if you’re just taking pictures for pleasure,” because it’s not so bad if they misfire, or something strange happens during the shoot. But, if you’re ever thinking of doing this for money, and where you absolutely, positively have to rely on your equipment keeping up to your pace, then don’t buy cheap. Buy something reliable, something everyone from all around the world will rate, and tell you, or swear by.”
Next year will be the European figure skating championships in Switzerland, which Whitehouse already has his eye on. He’s also aiming to shoot more elaborate and theatrical on-location stories. “I don’t care if I’m earning pennies, or if it’s costing me thousands. That’s the stuff I want to do and that’s the stuff that I’m getting sucked into,” he says. He plans on living in Finland from now on, with periodic trips to the U.K. for both work and family visits. Considering how far his technique and vision have developed in such a short time, we look forward to a long and exciting career from this accomplished autodidact.
Written by Ron Egatz