Interview: Iain Masterton

Hong Kong pro-democracy protests
Iain Masterton / Alamy Stock Photo

The streets are packed with people and the air is filled with tear gas. A water cannon soaks everyone with a blue dye, impregnated with a pepper spray that stings your eyes and makes you cough. Amid all the chaos and confusion, photographers are trying to document what is happening. In autumn 2019, Iain Masterton was one of the many photographers covering the Hong Kong protests, “It was hot and humid and you were on your feet all day – it was very exhausting,” recalls Iain, “but I had to be there to record this event.”

Iain never planned to be a photographer. He was born in Fife in Dunfermline in 1965, and in 1986, graduated in civil engineering from Glasgow University. Iain’s first job was as a structural engineer at a consultancy company in Glasgow (he has designed bridges in Scotland and Hong Kong). This route would eventually lead to a career as a professional photographer, “I got my first camera in my late-teens – a cheap Carina if I recall. Photography wasn’t a serious hobby,” says Iain, “structural engineering involves visiting lots of construction sites, and I became the company photographer, documenting progress and producing promotional pictures. Photography offered a lot of opportunity for creativity.”

In 1995, Iain – aged thirty – moved with the company to Hong Kong, “I was in Hong Kong from 1995 to 2000, so I was there when the territory was handed back to China in 1997. While I was in Hong Kong, I joined the Cathay Camera Club, where I met lots of friends and my wife, and learnt how to take pictures properly.”


Portrait of Iain Masterton taken by Ulana Switucha
Iain Masterton geared up and ready to get into the thick of it. Credit: Ulana Switucha


Iain left the company in 2000 and moved to Beijing, where he studied Chinese (Iain can speak, read and write Mandarin) and became a technical journalist for a UK magazine covering bridge design.” I visited large projects in Asia and wrote articles and took the photos. I also got commissioned by construction companies to photograph their projects in China.”

While living in Beijing, Iain documented the city’s old streets and alleyways, which were later bulldozed during construction work for the 2008 Olympic Games. His black and white images were published in a book, To The Hutongs.

In 2003, Iain became a full-time professional stock photographer. “I knew a lot of stock photographers who were making money. At the same time, I discovered Alamy and Nikon launched the D100, which meant I could deliver high quality photographs. The D100 was the gateway to this new industry and I have never looked back.”

Iain explains the appeal of stock photography, “It allows you the freedom to do what you want and build up a good collection of images. If you’re a commercial shooter and don’t have any clients one month; you don’t get any money. If you build up a decent set of sellable stock images, you will hopefully get a cheque at the end of each month.”


Iain Masterton covering the European Championships in 2018
Iain Masterton / Alamy Stock Photo


Iain focuses on four main genres: news, industry, travel and the built environment. His vast portfolio includes everything from images of some of the greatest bridges, museums and galleries from around the world, to major sporting events, and from shopfronts on a Glasgow high street to the Hong Kong protests.

“There are advantages in covering a range of genres,” states Iain, “[stock photographer] Jeff Greenberg said the secret of making sales was QQV – quality, quantity and variety. So you have to shoot as many subjects as you can. I don’t do food, wildlife, lifestyle or plants, as I wouldn’t enjoy doing this. You have to enjoy what you shoot or else it will show in the end product. You also have to shoot the mundane subject matter, and many people don’t want to do that. But photography is the art of creating art from the mundane.”

“I shoot shopfronts,” he adds, “and newspapers are also looking for quirky images as well as hard news. I did a series of shots of iPhone screens and some of these were my bestsellers.”

This strategy has resulted in Iain’s work being purchased by an impressive range of organisations and publications including: The Times, The Economist, BBC, High Life, Die Welt and Rolling Stone. “That list is all down to the sales that Alamy have got me,” says Iain, “you need a stock agency that gets you regular sales and is trustworthy.”

But what about those who claim that the bottom has fallen out of the stock photography market? “Obviously fees are lower than they were ten years ago, but if you are dedicated, and persevere and shoot for the market and not yourself (although I can do both), then you can still earn decent money from stock. You’ve got to do your research. Most people who don’t make regular sales don’t do these things. It’s about how much are you prepared to put into it? You have to motivate yourself to get out and shoot.”


Iain Masterton had to get up bright and early to catch this beautiful sunrise
Iain Masterton / Alamy Stock Photo


In late September 2019, Iain returned to Hong Kong to cover the protests, staying for four weeks. “I hadn’t been back for 18 years and the skyline hadn’t changed,” he recalls, “the people looked the same and it was still everything that Hong Kong is – packed, humid and exciting. There was more graffiti on signs and buildings – it looked like Berlin.”

“When I arrived, there were still regular protest marches, and most ended with a minority of protesters seeking confrontation with the police – this ended in violence and vandalism. The first week was the most eventful and I saw clashes at close range. The main battleground is outside the Government headquarters at Tamar and there is a large PLA [Peoples’ Liberation Army] base adjacent to it. A highway flyover passes in front and is a hot-spot for clashes.”

Shooting under such conditions required special measures, “All the photographers had helmets, high-vis jackets and a gas mask. I also had a copy of my NUJ [National Union of Journalists] card on a lanyard, so I could be easily identified as press,” On the streets, Iain shot with two Sony A7 III cameras and mainly used a Sony 24mm-105mm lens (he also carried 12-24mm and 70-200mm lenses). For night shots, Iain used two prime lenses: a Sony 35mm f/1.8 and a Sigma Art 24mm f/1.4. Not surprisingly, there were challenges, “Pepper spray jammed my camera shutter and I got hit by water cannon and covered by stinging blue dye – it’s called being ‘smurfed’. And I would be up at 3am uploading images on a slow internet connection.”

Iain was one of around 100 photographers on the streets and he was very impressed with the local Hong Kong press, “They were very brave and very young, and got right in the thick of things. Many of them are females and most were live streaming. None of the photographers – both local and international – were impartial: everyone was pro-democracy.”

The press are held in high regard in Hong Kong public and Iain’s interactions with the public were positive, “People would translate Cantonese messages for us, so we knew what was going on, and people were happy to be photographed so long as they couldn’t be identified. But that wasn’t an issue, as most people wore gasmasks or facemasks.”


People eating at busy seafood restaurant at night in Kowloon, Hong Kong
Iain Masterton / Alamy Stock Photo


The images from Hong Kong make it look like a city under siege, but as Iain explains, “The protests are localised and it is a bit surreal – a few streets down from the clashes, people are sitting in restaurants happily eating their noodles.” Iain hopes to return to Hong Kong at some time.

After living in various places around the world, including Tokyo, Russia, Sweden, The Netherlands, Dubai and Germany, Iain settled in Edinburgh in 2017. It was here that he moved into news photography, “A steep learning curve when working next to seasoned press photographers,” he notes, “It can be lucrative if you make live news sales and the papers are always on the lookout for interesting images, but it’s hard to compete with the established agencies on hard news, as they are much quicker to file images.”

Iain’s advice for budding professional photographers is to, “Get a good skill set in lighting and other areas, and you have to be good at self-marketing – not just using social media, but knocking on doors and meeting people. You have to know what you want to shoot and be prepared to do lots of networking. Diversify in stock but also get some clients. Shoot locally, because that will cut down costs. You have to be patient and not pigeonhole yourself. Shoot what people want to buy and not what you like, although if you’re lucky, you can do both.”

As for Iain’s plans for the future: “I want to create solid, sellable images. I want to enjoy what I’m doing. I think it’s important to create images for the media and it’s very satisfying getting images published.”

Get into the thick of the action with this selection of Iain’s photos. Don’t forget you can search for Iain’s captivating captures with our ‘Advanced Search’ function

And you can find Iain’s website here.

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