Sunday 28 April 2013

How to get that dream assignment.

In my career I have been given some dream assignments.

A five day assignment to photograph the islands in the the Venetian lagoon (with my own speedboat and driver), the crowning of the world's youngest King, and the seal hunters of Newfoundland are some which stand out to me at the moment but the truth is all the work that I am really known for I have never actually been commissioned for.

A question I frequently pose at workshops is 'What is your dream assignment?'

The answers from the delegates range from shoots with super models, movie stars, top fashion magazines, National Geographic, you name it.
All laudable and great things to aspire to.

I then break the news to them.

On the balance of probability they are never going to get them.

Now this does sound harsh, but let me explain.

You cannot just aspire to be one of these photographers you actually have have to BE the photographer who shoots the kind of work which your dream client requires.

If you can clearly demonstrate to a client that you can and do shoot the kind of photography they use on a regularly basis your chances rise immeasurably.

Commissioners of photography at the very highest levels have fought hard to get their jobs and even harder to maintain their positions. They are not going to risk their necks on someone who is unproven. They need to know themselves and justify to their superiors why the job they commissioned you for was a rip roaring success or save their necks if it goes south.

This may sound like the ultimate 'catch 22' situation, not getting the gig without doing the gig first.

It comes down to a passion for what you photograph and translating that into self commissioning.

One cannot do it endlessly, but a few focused shoots on your chosen subject, to build a body of work which enables a commissioner to see that you can actually do the job will take you a long, long way.

Be prepared to face some harsh criticism and some tough meetings but even in these potentially disappointing or extremely rewarding moments you will be remembered.

An approach which focuses on something which is of interest and is of relevance to a chosen client will take you a long, long way. A stream of photographers will beat a path to see people who commission 'dream' assignments, but surprisingly very few will have a focused portfolio which is tailored to their specific requirements, something you can only do by being fully aware of what the client REALLY loves and uses all the time.

It is an approach I continue to use, and has served me very, very well indeed.

The phone is not going to magically ring, you really do have to make it happen for yourself.

Friday 26 April 2013

A degree in photography- is it really worth it?

A harsh headline, but let me explain.

A friend from the television world who has a light smattering of photographic experience asked me a question this week.

How do I go about opening doors and getting meetings?

How indeed.

I regard this as an art more than a science, which occupies an increasing amount of my own day.

I was mulling over what answer to give when my friend then inquired if going back to university would increase their chances?

Education is a good thing, but not at any price, and not when it is seen a passport to a job in the photographic industry.

Knowledge of photography, being a good photographer, and getting a job as a photographer are three very different and distinct things.

Having lots of photographic knowledge, and being a good photographer in no way guarantee you a place in the photographic industry.

Likewise I know some very, very successful photographers whose photographic knowledge is patchy at best, and sometimes their photographic eye is not the best either.

If you are going to university to gain further knowledge, fine.

If you are going to university to put you in a better position to get a job, I believe you could spend your time and money much more effectively.

Let me try to unravel this photographic knowledge/good photographer/working photographer knot.

The photographic industry is an industry like any other, subject to the rules of supply and demand.

There is much, much more supply than demand, which in turn drives the price of photography down.

Another working photographer friend of mine told me a statistic which put all this into perspective.

In Greater London he said there are more than 60,000 people offering their services as professional photographers.

A number which is roughly equal to the number of employees of General Motors in the whole of Europe.

How has this happened?

Going to university to learn something that was very complex and where you had to be precise, exposing medium format transparency to an accuracy of 1/3 of a stop, and creating effects in camera made a great deal of sense, something I wish I had done.

But quantum leaps in technology has led to a widespread democratisation of photography.

You no longer NEED to know about F-Stop's and shutter speeds to take a beautiful photograph, reaching into your pocket for a smart phone will put your hand on a remarkable device capable of great results.

I know of more than one pro photographer who has work shot on their iPhone in their portfolio to show clients (they sure as anything don't tell them this!)

Let me be clear, I'm not actually saying this is a bad thing, nor a good thing but it is the world we live in and better start getting used to it, smart phones are going to get better all the time.

Consider this scenario, which I know for a fact has happened repeatedly.

40 something person fed up of the day job in a high paying career, is quite handy with a DSLR and sees a career in photography as the way out. Only yesterday I overheard a conversation at a cafe where someone was telling their mate they had given up their day job to become a pro photographer 'you know portraits, landscapes that sort of thing'

These were the actually words used too.

Some people who leave their day job do very well, who are they and why do they do well?

The winners are the shooters who are connected, who know people in positions of power to commission.

Some real illustrations of this.

A call to me out of the blue which paraphrased was 'I have just landed a major job for a major multinational but I don't know how to do it, what do you suggest?'

Owners of a London studio sometimes have to light massive budget shoots for photographers who have landed the job of their life and don't know to light at all.

An enquiry to shoot an annual report for a very successful company NOT to shoot an annual report but to oversee employees who are 'excellent photographers' whom the company has bought the latest and greatest camera gear for. I kid you not.

All of this in 2013 too.

I am in no way rubbishing University degrees, I just feel that the money spent on a photography degree over 3 years, (up to £9000 a year plus living costs) could in-fact be money much better spent if you do want to be a full time pro photographer.

There is the moral issue too of churning out more photographic graduates that the industry can feasibly employ.

The best one can do to break in is to shoot something you know and love, or at the very least have a strong interest in and build on that.

It will take time, possibly years but you will build a cohesive body of work and crucially it will start to put you in touch with people who may actually commission, you will be learning as you go too.

We live in an age of dazzling digital possibilities, with endless and free ways of promotion, all you need to do is to apply this to something where there is actually a market which will sustain you financially.

This may or may not be in photography.

Sunday 21 April 2013

How to break through? Lighting (and other challenges) with Guinness World Records Part 2

When I embarked on my odyssey to photograph the UK's 20 most unusual Guinness world Record holders, I knew a little about lighting but not really very much.

To me this is me this is the really significant part of the series.

Yes, it did help put me on the map but perhaps more importantly the project gave me the opportunity to establish a style and hone my lighting without the whole world watching, making mistake after mistake in my own time.

Some of these mistakes were expensive.

One of the record holders on my radar was Peter Dowdeswell who held, and perhaps still holds, multiple world records for food consumption.

One of his records was for the fastest consumption of strawberries.

How to illustrate this?

I wanted a burst of colour which was almost 'acid' in appearance, beyond vivid.

I came up with an idea in my head of a 'wall' of strawberries.

How to achieve this image?

To make my vision a reality I figured that I would need some sort of set build.

Bearing in mind that my budget was extremely limited, and that I not in-fact previously built a set, it was going to have to be ingenious.

I came up with idea of using a bathtub, and fixing the strawberries to the inside of it, as it would give a rising 'wall of strawberries'

So I went down to the local municipal dump and bought for £2.

I bought it home in my big estate car and considered my next move.

When you are shooting big projects such as this, which involve set builds, large crews and lots of gear, the number one saving you can make is a car which means you can move all of this around the country, or continent, without having to hire a vehicle when you want to do a really big shoot.

I worked out that I would have to cut the bath tub in half, on its shortest side, a few calculations with the tape measure and a call to one of my neighbours who had a fine collection of power tools and the job was done.

My first tests predictably revealed that if you stack strawberries against a vertical surface that they do fall over.

So I needed to fix them to the surface, just how to do that?

I worked out that if I evenly drilled small holes which would accommodate inward facing cocktail sticks, I could skewer the strawberries.

The problem I then encountered was the gaps in the strawberries were seen very easily in a photo as the bath tub was a delightful 1980's vintage green, so I sprayed the interior of the bath with matt black paint, which worked a treat.

Shoot day loomed and I calculated that I would need to buy approx £80 of strawberries to get the coverage I required.

One does not eat strawberries with the green stalk on, so I removed every single stalk.

This was a major mistake.

Strawberries photographed on masse with the top stalk removes look very poor indeed, removed stalk reveals a large white patch which is most unappealing.

If I was smart I would have tested and realised at the beginning, but I did not.

I blew £80 and many hours removing strawberry stalks.

Worse still I went ahead with the shoot.

It looked dreadful, shabby and botched.

I could have lived with the result, just about.

But I chose not to.

I wanted this work to be better than anything that had been done previously, I wanted this project to be a calling card for me and my photography, and I was not going to achieve this by compromising.

So I bought another load of strawberries and did it again.

Peter did not have quite so much time for the reshoot and I completed it in much less than 30 mins.

The first shot was not a complete waste of time though, and apart from a freezer full of strawberries, I noticed that his face was too clean so for the reshoot I pureed some strawberries and applied them to Peter's face with a turkey baster.

The lighting was very straight forward.

I used a pair of Elinchrom Style heads, one as the key light at camera right with an Elinchrom beauty dish, one as a backlight with a kill spill and grid pointing high and over the back of the bathtub.

I used a California Sunbounce reflector camera left to fill in Peter's face.

I was using film for the project and shot the image on a Mamiya RZ67 ProII with a 140mm macro lens I exposed the shot at something like F11.

When you are undertaking a 'breakthorough' project one should not be afraid of reshooting an image.

This is the time to learn, develop a style and impress.

'Good enough' photography just does not cut it.

Friday 19 April 2013

The Photoshop model lottery- What is your model REALLY going to look like?

This is by no means a new phenomena but it is getting worse I think.

When modelling agents send out models cards you face a challenge.

The photo's can bear little resemblance to how the model actually looks.

Every model wants to look her best to get sometimes extremely lucrative assignments, so the images are 'tidied up' in post.

I don't have a problem with this when it is limited and serves to give a fair representation of what is achievable, but sometimes it goes further, much further.

Changing skin colour and the use of the liquify tool on facial features are beyond acceptable I would say, and not unknown.

Last year I was commissioned to shoot a campaign for a certain client, whom I chose the models in consultation with, referring to a modelling agencies website.

Three of the four models we used were just fine, and looked pretty much as they had been represented on the web.

The fourth bore little to no resemblance, with a complexion which was as far from perfect as one could imagine, pock marked and scarred.

The amount of post involved in getting her skin back to something like ok would have added a whole layer of retouching that simply had not been budgeted for, so the model was sent away with more than a tear or two shed.

How does this come about?

Nearly every representation of women we see on magazines has to a greater or lesser extent, a degree of post production.

So it becomes the norm.

This is all very well but there has to be some sort of starting point - knowing what the model really looks like without make up and without hours of retouching.

When I'm choosing a model I want to be doing exactly that, not choosing a retoucher without even realising it.

Modelling agencies I think should include at least one current shot of the model with limited make up and no post production. It might seem like a big call (and brave call) to make, but I believe clients and photographers would welcome this for the sheer amount of time saved, and I believe it would do wonders for the model agent too.

Somehow I don't think this will be happening anytime soon.

Photographers, producers and clients do have to shoulder responsibility here too.

Often the worst situation to be in is to have a model imposed on you by the client who has solely made the choice from the web.....

There is no substitute for a casting call.

Casting in the flesh gives you a full idea of what the model is actually like, and what they are going to be like to work with, lets face it you are going to be spending a lot of time with them in an often high pressure situation, and though the look has to be right, if it comes down to two models, one whom I feel I can have a good rapport and the other who is potentially difficult, guess which one I will recommend to the client?

With increasingly tight budgets and often really short lead time face to face casting is not always possible.

It often comes down to looking at the modelling agencies website or models card and then insisting  someone takes a photo of the model on their smart phone, and sends it through straight away.

When I receive the shot I will of course share it with the client but I ideally will first share it with the make up artist prior to this, to get an opinion on what is achievable in line with the brief.

This might seem like a performance but this sort of thoroughness and attention to detail will help retain current clients and win new ones.

Sunday 14 April 2013

How to break through? Lighting (and other challenges) with Guinness World Records

How to make an impression in the wider world with your photography?

You might be a great shooter, but how do you get your message across to other people.

It is pretty straightforward.

Chose a subject that you are interested in, research it, and shoot it better than it has been shot before.

Ideally choose something that others will take interest in.

I was worn out, just returned from the Kosovo conflict, realising that I no longer wanted to be at the cutting edge of news.

So I came up with the idea of photographing the UK's 20 most unusual Guinness World record holders.

A manageable number that would be achievable on a budget, or so I thought.

I will be expanding this subject in future posts but I wanted to start with a post about one of the very notable records in the series.

Tony Mattia of Brighton has (or at least had) the biggest collection of Barbie dolls.

Tony is a lovely guy and as with all the record holders it was a matter of portraying them in a respectful manner, no matter how seemingly eccentric their record is to a viewer.

So how to make a Barbie collection look cool?

I came up with this idea of photographing a collection from above.

On this occasion I shot from the ceiling of a large car studio straight down.

Initially I thought it would be a matter of roughly placing the dolls around Tony.

How wrong I was.

It looked a horrible, horrible mess.

So then we worked on the radiating circles which worked very well indeed.

How to portray Tony in a fun way?

A colourful suit.

Easy, right?


I initially could not get anyone to loan me a suit, I tried many big companies, all of whom said no.

So I called brand x, who's shirts I often wear.

The call went something like, I wear your shirts, I'm doing a really cool photo-shoot with the biggest Barbie doll collector in the world, will you loan me a brightly coloured suit.

It is remarkable how many people agree to help for little or no money when you are doing something cool.

They said 'yes' on condition that I did NOT reveal their name, which at first sounds a little strange.

They wanted to avoid every photographer beating a path to their door.

So we had our components, but how to light it evenly?

with lights pointing in from the edge of the frame there would have been shadows and hot spots on the floor and on the collection.

The other challenge was to keep the lights themselves out of the shot.

What to do?

I used 4 tungsten continuous lights just out of shot angled up at 45 degrees pointing toward the hole in the ceiling where my lens was poking through, the reflected light bouncing back off the ceiling of the cove onto Tony and his impressive collection.

It was back in the day and I was shooting on colour transparency film on a Mamiya RZ 6x7 ProII with a 110mm lens.

I cannot recall the exposure but F8 I think, a slow, slow shutter speed.

As I said I have lots of fun stories to share regarding the World Record breakers and the considerable impact it had on my career.

Stay tuned for more on this transformative project.

Friday 12 April 2013

Frank Doorhof visit to Gardner towers

Recently Frank Doorhof and his wife Annewiek stopped by for dinner, I cooked my favourite Winter warmer dish, Ox cheek stew.

If you are not familiar with his excellent work may I recommend you check his site out, I'm always learning a trick or two on it.

After dinner Frank invited me to participate in an impromptu interview for his regular interview series 'The DOORhof is always open'

It was a wide ranging interview covering, the importance of styling, personal work, boring work, why a medium format camera is the ultimate blank sheet of paper, why retouching is a commercial decision, how my work is built on disaster/failure plus many, many others too.

In episode 9 Frank also interviews Alastair Jolly, Maisy James, Larry Becker, Steve Howdle, James Schmelzer and Rick Sammon.

I do hope you enjoy it.

Monday 8 April 2013

Learning how to light with The Worlds Youngest King

Lighting was not always my 'thing'

For the first half of my career (back in the days of film) I never really went near a light.

It was only when I started to see the work of a tiny number of my peers that I started to realise that there was something in it.

My first forays into lighting were erm, pretty variable.

And not in a good way.

Superb photographer and good friend of mine Graham Trott, who was doing rather well at the lighting thing let me in on his set up.

He told me he used Norman 400b flash units with a Chimera Medium softbox.

Armed with this info I duly went out and bought the combo.

And so it began, that was back in early 90's

When I was working on the Sunday Telegraph newspaper I found out about this remarkable story, about the worlds youngest king, Oyo IV of Toro kingdom in Uganda, who went to school in the UK,where he was treated like just another kid, but was being crowned back in Uganda at a ceremony called the empango and the paper having had their fill of it, I pitched it to Life magazine who commissioned me to shoot the story, I worked with my partner and journalist Clare Pillinger on the project.

This remains one of my most special and treasured assignments, the type of adventure I yearned for when I was a photojournalist.

Truly exotic in every way.

If you have even half a chance to go to Uganda I strongly suggest you take it, for it is a vibrant and wonderful country, with a very friendly population and where most of the countryside is an emerald green which you will not quite see anywhere else due to its equatorial location.

I gather quite a bit has changed since I was there though.

Back in the day it was case of hiring a Land Rover and driving 200 miles up country to Fort Portal on some of the most challenging roads I have ever driven, a quagmire of deep ruts in places which would have your heart in your mouth for many an hour.

I was just watching the Africa special on 'Top Gear' when they were driving through Uganda and some of the roads were truly staggering for their billiard table like smoothness, tarmac seems to have taken the place of mud, Africa is a continent undergoing massive changes, for the better I hope.

The empango was a complex ceremony and just like any news story it was a matter of working out where to be at exactly the right moment.

I hope these shots give some sort idea of what the ceremony was like.

The Royal family could not have been more welcoming and accommodating, having photographed the family in the UK I had formed a friendship with them.

The empango was a complex ceremony and just like any news story it was a matter of working out where to be at exactly the right moment.

I knew this spectacular building, the old palace which was burned out by the troops of Idi Amin, would play a key role in the shoot.

When covering an important event alway look for a vantage point where you can set the scene from, and this was a gift.

I shot these images from the rooftop, while making sure I did not get stuck up there, preventing me from shooting on the ground.

I shot a ton of images which told the story of the ceremony quite well, I thought.

But I did not have THAT one shot which would hold the piece and potentially make a cover.

Due to the intense and busy nature of the ceremony there was limited opportunity to do something special.

But find time the family did, and I shot this image at the back of the palace as the sun set over the mountains of the moon.

I have to admit I was struggling for a shot until King Oyo IV until he readjusted his crown and I caught this moment.

No EXIF to refer back to so this will be from my memory, but it was shot at a super slow shutter speed (a technique I continue to use) no faster than a 15th sec on my Canon Eos-1, on a 'L' series 70-200mm, stopped down a fair bit (it looks like F8 ish to me)

My one Norman 400B flash was place off to camera right, modified with a Chimera Medium softbox.

The light is long gone (replaced by the excellent Elinchrom Quadra) - gave it away on this blog in fact.

The softbox is another story.

I'm still using it, and though it is very, very dog eared and has been drenched in heavy rain (a few times) blown off a hill side, urinated on by a possessive tom cat(not mine, but a subjects, I hasten to add..), run over by a car, fallen out of a tree and fallen over dozens of times it is still crisp white.

It is one of those quality things, in terms of quality of light and build, and I cannot recommend Chimera highly enough.

You get what you pay for, and I would not use any other kind of soft box.

Did I really know what I was doing with lights back then ? Not really, but I found that getting hands on with a single light and just moving it round a little taught me more about lighting than I ever learned in a seminar.

What of King Oyo IV and his family? It is a long time since I have been directly in touch but I hear all is well with them and I hope to return one day to visit them.

I wonder if I ever shall?

Friday 5 April 2013

The Boeing 787 Dreamliner factor

I may well be tempting fate as I don't even know there is one.

You are probably aware of the protracted wrangling and possible safety issues with the Boeing 787 'dreamliner' which makes extensive use of Lithium Ion batteries throughout.

The batteries have many benefits, high power output combined with low weight, perfect for use on a cutting edge, more fuel efficient airliner.

The batteries were at the centre of investigations regarding their possible role in onboard fires, and the plane and the fleet of 50 around the world were grounded, with a successful test flight just being carried out in the past couple of days.

There has long been rules governing their being carried on board.

This really excellent piece on gives you an insight into what in theory is, and isn't allowed on board as hand luggage, or indeed in the hold.

I have been aware of that there are some restrictions about flying with Li-ion batteries but I have never, ever, been challenged by security staff at airports regarding Li-ion batteries.

I fear this is all about to change, with passengers Lithium Ion batteries being singled out for special attention following the dreamliner saga.

Perhaps I'm unduly concerned that I could come unstuck post dreamliner?

Does anyone have any experiences of this so far? I would like to know.

I have just been speaking to Alex Ray tech guru of the Flashcentre in London about this and he says that ironically following a number of Macbook battery incidents on aircraft some years ago the rules of what is, and is not safe to fly with in terms of Li-ion is actually much better defined than with other types of batteries.

Flight safety should be paramount and I'm not advocating unsafe behaviour in carrying on unsafe batteries, what I'm most concerned about is an overreaction by busy, poorly informed and sometimes ignorant security staff.

What can we do to ensure we don't hit trouble?

Firstly, try to track down all those battery terminal covers you threw away, so when you do get stopped you can demonstrate you are being responsible.

Secondly. If your battery IS safe to fly with, but looks a bit iffy, track down the document of certification that says your battery is indeed safe for air transportation. I'm thinking of high-powered flash cells like Elinchrom Quadra's, I have downloaded this declaration from the Elinchrom website so you can see what it looks like.

Thirdly. Know the rules! This cannot be stressed enough. If you know the rules better than the security guys do and can back this up with paperwork there is a much higher likelihood that you will make the flight.

Some folk out there may think all this is overkill but better to be prepared than miss the flight or arrive with all you gear and no means to power it.