From submarines to cameras – My journey through the Royal Navy

Hello! I’m Joel, a mid-30s photographer serving in the Royal Navy. I was born in Leeds but haven’t lived there since I was 17 when I left to join the navy. As I type this, I live in Plymouth, but am on the cusp of a move to the West Midlands. I’m one of the Royal Navy’s 40 or so photographers, responsible for telling the navy’s story, which I’ve been doing for around ten years.

The relocation to the West Midlands is on assignment to teach at the Defence School of Photography, which is very exciting for me. After a decade of being on the spanners, I will now get to pass some of that experience and expertise on in a job I have dreamt of since the day I walked into the ‘school’, as we call it, all those years ago.

My journey to becoming a photographer within the Royal Navy was a fairly long one. I joined the navy in 2003, at exactly 17 years and 4 days of age! I never really fancied further education and wanted a career with some form of hands-on trade that offered some unique experiences. This desire led me to join as a Marine Engineering Mechanic in the Submarine Service.

It’s difficult to tell you exactly why I decided to join the Submarine Service and not General Service, because looking back, and knowing what I know now, it was a crazy one! Life on submarines can be tough, as you can probably imagine. I quickly figured out I wasn’t wired up for that kind of life, but it taught me several things early in my adult life – to appreciate the things we take for granted like fresh air and daylight and that I thrived in a natural environment, not a manufactured one and that I had an undying love for adventure.

After four years working on one of the navy’s hunter-killer submarines, I landed a job looking after the submarine wharves in the dockyard, which changed my life. I got to experience how good life in the navy could be, so despite my lack of love for the Submarine Service, I still enjoyed life within the Royal Navy and wanted more of what it had to offer, which is what led me to transfer to the Photographic Specialisation seven years after joining.

My relationship with a camera didn’t start in the navy though. I first picked up a camera in 2001 in Art GCSE. My project was on architecture. It went so horribly wrong that I ended up changing tool from a camera to a good old-fashioned pencil. Then, around 2006, under heavy influence from my brother, who had an interest in photography, I ended up buying my first DSLR – a Sony A200.

I probably have him to thank for my career, although I’d never tell him that! Since then, a camera is one of the few things I’ve picked up and never put down, in a metaphorical sense. Of all the things I’ve tried my hand at, it’s been the only hobby that satisfies most of my needs. It gets me to look at things differently, it’s creative, it gets me talking to people and it gets me adventuring, and if you were to ever meet me, you would find my camera would never be far away.

I’ve always had a passion for adventure. From an early age, I would be out on my bike using maps drawn by my dad to navigate, or was on a train somewhere with my grandma, discovering a new town around my home county. Thankfully, the navy has offered even more opportunity to travel, especially to places I would have probably never travelled to.

While working with a Royal Marine Unit, I found myself in every climate the globe has to offer, from the Arctic Circle of Norway to the jungles of Belize, separated only by a few days. In total, I’ve travelled to 40 countries across five continents and in two years alone, while working with the Royal Marines and at Downing Street, I travelled over 300,000 miles! It was quite intense, but incredibly rewarding and enjoyable.

There are no other jobs I would do within the navy. The best bit about it is it gets you in every corner of the navy and gives you an insight into lots of other jobs. Beyond the Arctic Circle and jungles, I’ve found myself in the Mojave Desert on exercise, covering anti-piracy and counter-narcotics in the Gulf, I covered the maritime aspect of the 2012 Olympics and, most notably, covered Humanitarian Aid & Disaster Relief in the Caribbean in the wake of Hurricane Irma in 2017.

I left home and no more than an hour later I was on a coach on the way to RAF Brize Norton to fly to the Caribbean. It was the single best job of my career. I got to record and witness first-hand the UK Armed Forces at their best – overcoming challenges and making things better. There’s also this other thing – the Royal Navy Ski Championships – an annual event held in the French Alps which I’ve covered twice.

For two weeks each year, I got to ski around the mountains, photographing guys racing and training. For the most part, it’s been a pleasure to be able to get paid for your hobby, while doing some cool stuff, like sitting in the doorway of a helicopter shooting aerial imagery.

The job can be very fast-paced, bounding from one place to another. While working with the Royal Marines, we travelled roughly 160,000 air miles in 12 months. From this job, I moved on to working for the UK Prime Minister at Downing Street, who was Theresa May, at the time. A very unique experience for someone in the military, let alone a photographer.

I was seconded to Downing Street for exactly 365 days, coincidentally leaving the same day Theresa May did and covered some big gigs, such as the Trump visits and plenty of the Brexit stuff. Brussels was like a second home! Ha! One of the best bits about it was the network of ‘Official Photographers’. You got to know the other world leader photographers. You’d bump into them all over the place and it was always nice to see a friendly face who would also be able to help you get what you needed.

All UK military photographers, whether they are Royal Navy, Army or RAF, all receive the same trade training at the Defence School of Photography. At the time, I started learning on the Nikon D300 and D3, of which both were an upgrade from the Sony A200 I was used to. When I finished training, I briefly went back to a Nikon D2X, which can only be likened to driving a bus without power steering!

From there, I moved onto the D3X, D3s and then D4, before we navy photographers switched to the Canon 1Dx Mkii and 5Ds. While working at Downing Street, I had the 1Dx Mkii and Fuji X-T2. I’d shoot Canon with 24-70mm and Fuji with 50-140mm to try and balance the weight of the Canon. I also managed to get my hands on a Sony A9 too while at Downing Street. At the time it was the single best camera I had ever used. It was fantastic.

In 2020, I was also fortunate to get my hands on a pre-release of the Canon R5. Miraculously, Canon pulled it out of the bag and took that title from Sony, in my opinion. However, it still isn’t my camera of choice for my personal work and wouldn’t be for my professional work, if I had the choice. Let me explain why.

I have been very fortunate in my career that I have shot on many cameras and every single one has been provided to me. It has enabled me to make decisions and view cameras without the financial, and in turn, the emotional investment that someone else might. I travelled to Paris one New Year with a Nikon kit.

It was insanely heavy and coupled with a poor choice of shoe, made the trip slightly less enjoyable, so I started to look for alternative cameras to better suit my needs. Fuji had the X-T1 out at the time but was beyond what I was willing to pay. Then, I won a competition in our annual photographic event, which left me with some Calumet vouchers, which bought me the X-T10.

Fast forward to 2018. I was issued a Fuji X-T2 to use at Downing Street. It had many benefits over the Canon, with one of them being the silent shooting in sensitive environments compared to the hammering of the Canon’s shutter… where EVERYONE turns to look at you… you know what I’m talking about! Ha! Beyond that, I found it outperformed the Canon too.

The cameras were in some tough situations, but the Fuji never missed a beat. It became my reliable workhorse, and the Canon became the second shooter. It just couldn’t perform as well as I wanted it to, which is quite frightening for a camera that was over twice the price! I will never forget the moment I took a picture of Theresa May and Naomi Campbell, either.

I lowered the camera and said, “thank you”, as I always did, and Naomi Campbell proceeded to talk to me about how she had never heard such a quiet camera. She didn’t hear it at all, of course! I grew up with her all over the TV as one of the world’s most recognisable models and there I was, locked in a brief conversation with her and the Prime Minister about how quiet this camera was.

A press photographer friend of mine had an X-T2 with 23mm lens he was selling, which I decided to buy. I’d fallen in love with the reliability and ruggedness of the X-T2 and it’s still my camera today. Of course, it’s been replaced twice over in the X-T line-up, but the reality is it still kicks out a quality picture, so there is still life in the old dog, as they say!

I travel as much as I can and have travelled a lot in both a professional and personal capacity and it becomes very unpleasant having to carry lots of kit. For me, this is where the Fuji X system comes into its own. You may not think there is much difference, but when you have a full professional kit of Fuji vs a full-frame camera, even a few kilograms can make a big difference. There is the trade-off here with the size and weight of full-frame vs cropped sensor, but the trade-off is worth it for me, especially when the quality of the Fuji X system is so good.

Beyond the weight, there is also the size. I’ve never bought into ‘bigger is better’. I’ve run around with the Royal Marines, moved up and down ladders and through hatches on board ship, sat in helicopters and dived in and out of vehicles while in convoy with the Prime Minister – the Fuji is not only good for travel, but also for work when you don’t have much space and you don’t need the bulk of a huge camera getting in your way.

And not only this, but the cameras also look cool! You attract attention for different reasons to having a big, flash camera. On several occasions, people have approached me asking why I am shooting film – a sign that Fuji has also got their styling right.

I own a few Fuji cameras – the X-T2, X-T10 and X-E2s. The latter being my wife’s, which she never uses! And a few lenses – 35mm f/1.4, 23mm f/2, 60mm f/ 2.4, 18-55mm f/2.4-4 and 16-50mm f/3.5-5.6. In addition, I have used both the 50-140mm f/2.8 and 16-55mm f/2.8 extensively. What I love about the kit, beyond its size, is the quality. Even the cheaper lenses offer great optical quality.

I tend to use the prime lenses as much as possible, purely for the benefit of the wider apertures. You can’t really argue with the benefit of a variable focal length lens, but with a wider aperture in a lens such as the 16-55mm, comes a higher price tag and increased size and weight at the cost of losing the aperture of the 35mm, for example.

In terms of additional equipment, I don’t use a camera bag. I use lens wraps and stick them in whichever bag I’m using. I haven’t used a camera bag in my personal time for years. Why? Camera bags just don’t strike me as practical. A ridiculous point, right? Hear me out… They are always too big; they are expensive and too much space is wasted in the sponge protection.

I look after my equipment as best I can and would never throw any bag around, so I find it hard to see the benefits of a camera bag when a normal bag has more available space and I already own one, which can also store other useful things, like water, food and clothing. My wife and I travelled for 11 nights to Greece over the summer of 2020.

We both travelled with backpacks, mine being an Amazon Basics Slim, which carried my camera kit, MacBook Pro and everything I needed, and Stacey took my daysack, which then became the daysack while we were out and about exploring during the day. I don’t think this would have been possible if I took a normal camera bag.

Beyond my professional life and looking into my personal life – my main passions lie with photography and travel, probably because they go hand in hand and offer the ability to record where I’ve been and what I’ve done. It’s been one of the best bits about my job too – I’m the one who gets to record what I’ve seen, who I’ve met and where I’ve been.

Besides travel and photography, I enjoy daily exercise, whether that’s running or walking, and I’ve recently started to crochet. You read that correct – crochet! Ha! It’s helped to pass the time during the lockdown and something I have found to be both relaxing and creative and has helped me raise a little bit of money for charity. If you haven’t tried it, I recommend you do. It’s cheap to start and you can quickly see the end product.

To help satisfy our desire for travel and adventure, my wife and I bought a campervan, which we named Bumper, in the summer of 2018. Almost immediately after buying him, our outlook on life and where we wanted our future to be changed. From not knowing where life would be after the navy, we started to develop a bit of a plan which we kept adding to, which has led to the current plan – finish my time in the navy in 2026, then travel… without too much of a plan!

After 22 years of service in the Royal Navy, with structure and discipline, I look forward to making things up as we go. We want to live a slightly alternative life, away from the conditioning of normal life – mortgage-free, on four wheels, travelling and documenting our lives and the lives of people we meet along the way.

So, in 2020, during the endless days of Lockdown 1.0 in the UK, I decided to start a website to write about our travels, which planted a seed for when this time comes, in the hope we can build a bit of an audience who will want to keep up with what we get up to. It’s a work in progress, but please take a look if you have time at thebumpercrew.com.

It’s quite hard to define exactly what makes van life special, but I think it’s the simplicity and access to nature. I feel life is often too complex. Life can’t be so complex in a van. You have limited space, limited water, limited gas or electricity and have to simplify life to make the best of it. And when you open that side door you can be almost anywhere in the world.

You could open it and see your friends on a camping trip, or you could open it on a mountainside to see a spectacular view. It’s also fun – it presents challenges you may have never faced before, such as making pancakes in a square metre of space or sleeping in exactly the same place that you cook, eat, sleep, brush your teeth, go to the toilet, do your make up, wash the dishes, watch Netflix… and then you can drive it all with you to the next place because it offers unrivalled levels of freedom.

With the impending move from Plymouth to the West Midlands, we will be well placed to access the national parks of Snowdonia, the Brecon Beacon and the Peak District, so we’re looking forward to Bumper taking us to these places. We also bought some kayaks to get around the canals and waterways – an alternative way to see the local areas of the West Midlands. So, once the pandemic is out of the way, we plan to explore all these places… and more!

"I’m Joel, a mid-30s photographer serving in the Royal Navy. I was born in Leeds but haven’t lived there since I was 17 when I left to join the navy. As I type this, I live in Plymouth, but am on the cusp of a move to the West Midlands. I’m one of the Royal Navy’s 40 or so photographers, responsible for telling the navy’s story, which I’ve been doing for around ten years. The relocation to the West Midlands is on assignment to teach at the Defence School of Photography."

10 Comments

  1. Wow, that’s a huge set of splendid pictures! All of them are really nice, but somehow I can’t get enough of looking at UK’s landscapes and old architecture like in you photo of Castle Combe.

  2. Yes, echoing Michal’s comment – your images are stunning. Almost all of them are, I think, at the lowest ISO setting of the camera, and surprisingly low apertures for the depth of field that you achieve. Is this something that you do intentionally? Was it how you were taught at the “school”?

    1. Hi Graham,

      Thanks for your kind words and I’ll try to answer your question as best I can. It most definitely is something I do intentionally. We are taught how to take technically sound photographs at the school, for purposes that the military require. It’s basically a starting point to enable you to do your job effectively. But I didn’t really develop your own ‘style’ until I got out and about on my own. That probably took me about two years. Two years of loads of different experiences and feedback to develop what is working and how I like to shoot…plus a little bit of understanding about the factors that affect depth of field and weighing up all the options in any given situation. I hope that answers your question – there is never a simple answer from me! Ha!

  3. Thank you for sharing some of your amazing career and travelling stories. Very inspiring and of course your photos are amazing. All those photos speak to me a thousand words. I have a Fuji X-T2 as well. Even now I’m still using it and it’s enjoyable. So far, the camera has served me flawlessly. Stay safe and healthy.

    1. Hi Didit,

      I’m really glad you like them and it’s a pleasure to read they are inspiring. You can’t beat the trusty Fuji X-T2! I hope it serves you well for a while yet! I have just dragged mine around a 24-mile walk, which confirms part of my love for it – it’s so small, light and still takes good pictures!

  4. Thanks for sharing your images they are really impressive. Rock solid technique and a good eye. Do you do your own post processing and, if so, was that part of your training?

    1. Hi Chris,

      Thank you for your comment. Yes, I do my own post processing. It is part of training, but dark room equivalent techniques only, so there is no heavy editing for work content. For my personal stuff, my techniques have developed over time. Editing is something we need to adapt to, I think. Success as a photographer doesn’t seem to be about imagery alone, unless the content is excellent…it seems a good edit can do wonders!

  5. Joel, Superb photos, excellent article. We share many passions, ex RAF, joined civilian police now retired and throughout have had a camera at my side. Your career has given you some great opportunities to capture life, which you have done in a very professional way, with good use of technical skill and a variety of great camera stock. I currently use an x-e4 with 35/1.4 and 16-50 (cheap & light). I’m currently on my third camper build, and your explanation of the experience of travelling with a camper says it all. We live in the South Lakes, an area where your skills could excel. Look forward to your retirement, you deserve it after the service you have given, but beware – there is never enough time once you press the retirement button. How did I ever have time to work, walk my dogs, raise my kids, travel, take photos, build kit cars and campers? I have a wife of course, ex PMRAFNS, who is understanding and supportive. Keep up the good work, enjoy your teaching job and I hope to see you on your photographic journey. I like great passion and your photos demonstrate this in bucket loads! Ian

    1. Hi Ian,

      Thank you for your comment and your kind words. And it just so happens we have just returned from the Lakes! A beautiful part of the world! The weather wasn’t onside for those classic Lakes shots, sadly. But we will return…

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