Diminishing returns?

Crow takes flight from railings on the cliff tops at Fisherman's Walk,  Bournemouth. © Neil Turner, October 2015 © Neil Turner

Crow takes flight from the cliff tops at Fisherman’s Walk, Bournemouth. © Neil Turner, October 2015

Most photographers have personal projects that they spend their spare time working on. Mine is to document one of my favourite places on the world – the area of Bournemouth known as Fisherman’s Walk. It’s a lovely place that is very close to my heart and I often just pop along there (it’s three miles or so from home) with a camera or two over my shoulder and see what is happening.

The light by the sea is almost always interesting. No matter whether we have dull clouds or sparkling sunshine there will be something happening and that is why I keep going back to the beach, cliff tops and gardens that make up the area.

I have titled this piece ‘diminishing returns’ because that’s what happens with most projects: they start slowly and quickly develop with a flurry of great pictures and then it tails off again. That is unless you really work at it. Commercially speaking all projects need to have a finishing point. They need to have a date where you say ‘enough is enough’ and stop working on it. At that point you need to publish the book, stage the exhibition or just post the web gallery and call it finished. If they are truly ‘personal’ that will probably never happen and because it is a labour of love and there always seems to be more scope for pictures.

When I work with students who are doing long-term projects I try to get them to distinguish between truly ‘personal’ work and self-generated commercially driven projects. Most people can see the difference but few can bring themselves to work differently unless, it seems, the self-generated project involves travel. Obviously any project that involves paying for plane/train/bus tickets has to be finite because the expense of continually going back to expensive destinations makes earning a living from the photographs ever more difficult. The number of times that I have been through the true cost of shooting longer-term stories and projects with talented and driven young photographers couldn’t be counted on a standard abacus. The number of times I have made one of them change the way that they approach their work could easily be counted on the fingers of two hands.

That’s why I want to get the concept of diminishing returns out there. That’s why I want people who read this blog post to start to see the difference between taking pictures to fulfil an inner need to document something special and shooting projects to pay the bills/pad the folio/impress the clients.

Imagine a project to document a place. Imagine that you have high hopes of getting those pictures used editorially. Spending money getting there and spending time shooting the pictures incur costs which have to come into the calculation when you try to monetise your work. Multiple sales to multiple publications has always been the gold standard and selling limited edition prints has become an almost obligatory add-on when the balance sheet comes into the picture. Totting-up what having some extra high quality work on your website is worth is a tricky one but being honest with yourself about the motivation behind what you shoot and how much it has cost you is very important if you want to call yourself a professional.

My frequent trips to Fisherman’s Walk fall into the ‘because I can’ category. I have no plans to market the pictures and I have never supplied them outside the worlds of social media. More importantly, I don’t really need or want to. Fifty pence worth of diesel and free parking for every visit makes this a cheap project in every sense bar my time and I would argue that a few hours here and there over a year is actually a great investment in keeping my creative soul up to date, charged and firing.

It is still the case that the returns are diminishing. When I first started to go there camera-in-hand I was getting three or four good and different images per visit. Now that’s down to none or maybe one. What is happening now is that I am getting slightly better versions of the original pictures – or at least ones that I prefer. In a commercial project that makes no sense whatsoever. When I am at the cliff-tops or on the beach I have more in common with someone indulging in their hobby, which is great because my career is a passion and it is a hobby.

To the students and teachers who read this I’d like to say the following:

  1. Decide when you start a project who the audience is and whether it is work or whether it is passion that is driving you on.
  2. Budget accordingly.
  3. Know when the returns have diminished to an unacceptable degree.
  4. Have the guts to pull the plug.
  5. Being a photographer is a joy but don’t let it become all that you are.

I know that I have at times been guilty of #5 and it isn’t good. There’s a difference between always having a camera around and seeing pictures and always having a camera in hand and missing daily life because of it. That’s why I go out specifically to take pictures – something that has never stopped being a joy.

The beach at Fisherman's Walk, Bournemouth. © Neil Turner, September 2015

The beach at Fisherman’s Walk, Bournemouth. © Neil Turner, September 2015

Do you do corporate head shots?


I had a phone call call this morning from a potential client who had found me via a web search. That doesn’t happen very often and when it does the calls are normally from people trying to sell me something rather than commission me to do some work for them. The very pleasant lady who had called asked me if I did ‘corporate head shots’ and when I replied that I do and that I have done lots of them over the years she asked why there were none on my website. Wow… she’s correct. There are no easy to find samples of one of the most basic and important parts of my professional work on any of my folio sites.

During the call I promised to stick fifty varied images into a gallery and send her the link. I also explained that head shots weren’t the sole preserve of the corporate world and that some other sectors used them well and that the gallery that I’d prepare would have teachers and actors and other professionals too.

The way that I like to approach head shots is simple: concentrate on the person, make sure that the light on them is as good as it can be and have a sympathetic background. Where sets of pictures need to work together I want to discuss that with the client, their designers and anyone else who needs to have input. I often supply white backgrounds and sometimes I add a coloured light to them.

I love a good out-of-focus office, bookshelf, tree or cityscape and I’m not averse to a jaunty angle where it works. Colour works well and black and white can be very effective too – head shots is a wide ranging topic. They can be as simple as nice passport pictures and they can be half length – potential clients need samples – I completely get it and I have done just that… Here’s the gallery

Post production is all about the details

Passenger on the top deck of a tourist bus passing through Waterloo. © Neil Turner

Passenger on the top deck of a tourist bus passing through Waterloo.
© Neil Turner

I’ve read a lot about the ‘instagramisation’ of photography. I think that means taking slightly dull images, applying filters and presets to them and presenting them as bits of creativity. At the right time and in the right place those kinds of pictures have value and can make significant additions to creative campaigns and can go a long way towards making some elements of social media and social marketing more visually interesting. I’m not talking about that here – this blog post is all about choosing between making decisions about individual pictures or letting technology take over and ‘improve’ your work for you.

If you are on Facebook or any other social media that has targeted advertising you will probably get as many ‘suggestions’ as I do for people selling magical presets or add-ons to make my pictures instantly better. That’s great – or at least it would be if I wanted all of my images to exhibit a sameness with each other and with those of so many others. Trying to reduce professional post-production down to a series of mouse-clicks using algorithms and actions developed for others isn’t, in my opinion, a very good idea. I don’t want bland, over-processed or unreal pictures and I certainly don’t want to supply them to my clients.

For those of us who remember machine printing from our colour negatives where some pretty smart state-of-the-art machinery replaced judgements made by well trained and experienced operators it all looks pretty familiar. No matter how smart the technology gets, the highest quality and the best representations of our creative visions can only be realised when we pay attention to the details. All of them.

When I look at a single (RAW) image on my screen I make a lot of decisions pretty quickly. That is what an automated system would do too. I go through a sort of check list of options to make that picture into the best thing that it can be. Arguably, that’s exactly what an automated system would do too. The difference comes when I start to think about context:

  • What is the purpose of the picture?
  • Who is the client and who are the audience?
  • Which elements are most important?

The list of possible questions is long and you are probably getting my point by now. The same photograph needs different treatment for different purposes and that means handling the detailed decisions in different ways. How could an automated system have any idea whether correcting barrel distortion in a lens is necessary or even desirable? How would any machine know whether blown highlights in unimportant areas of the frame need to be sorted or whether they add to the atmosphere? The same goes for blocked shadows, underexposed faces, oversaturated colours and another long list of potentially vital elements. Let’s not even start to think about cropping at this point.

All of this is deeply reminiscent of hand printing black and white photographs in the darkrooms of the earlier parts of my career. Getting the contrast right and doing some dodging and burning were things that made all the difference between an average picture and a thing of beauty but the degree to which you ‘worked’ your photographs was dictated by where they would end up. Letterpress newspapers required very different prints to gallery walls.

It’s not just about how you handle the options for grading and optimising your pictures as you go through the process either. Output options vary and choosing between sRGB, Adobe RGB and the half dozen other options that are less commonly asked for isn’t something that you’d want to hand over to a machine. Sharpening comes in so many different forms these days and then what should you do about file sizes?

I have calculated that I make between thirty and forty decisions for every picture and another four or five for every batch of pictures that go directly towards how my photographs look when they arrive on the client’s screen and almost every one of those decisions has an effect on so many of the others. This stuff ain’t easy and it certainly isn’t as easy as those advertisements that pop up in my social media would have you believe.

The story behind a picture #3

Sitting in the window seat at Subway on Shaftesbury Avenue Photo: Neil Turner Photo: Neil Turner

Sitting in the window seat at Subway on Shaftesbury Avenue
© Neil Turner, November 2014.

This photograph falls into the ‘personal work’ category. I had been to a meeting in central London during the evening and had arrived fashionably on-time having failed to park in my favourite evening parking space near the location of the meeting. That had forced me to park a bit further away. As a result my walk back to my car at around 10.30pm was both longer and much more interesting than usual.

I nearly always have a camera with me and it is nearly always either my Fujifilm X100S or it’s little brother the X20 but on this evening I had a Canon EOS6D with a couple of fast prime lenses and so I shot some photographs of things that interested me as I walked. This shop window – a branch of Subway that stays open until the early hours was the very first thing that caught my eye and I was very interested to see just how good the EOS6D is at higher ISOs. This was shot at 3200 ISO with a shutter speed of 1/250th of a second at f1.8 using a Canon EF 28mm f1.8 lens. For a DSLR this is about as unobtrusive as you can get – the quiet shutter mode is really good and the speed and accuracy of the auto focus on the centre focusing point means that you can ‘snatch’ a frame in really low light with quite a high degree of certainty.

Just around the corner I saw the potential for another nice image with the frontage of a theatre after the last member of the public had left the building. I composed, waited and finally got this frame as a solo pedestrian passed through the frame.

Pedestrian passes under the "Memphis" banner outside a west end theatre at night. © Neil Turner November 2014.

Pedestrian passes under the “Memphis” banner outside a west end theatre at night. © Neil Turner November 2014.

This photograph was also shot at 3200 ISO but was better lit at 1/640th of a second at f1.8. I was actually quite disappointed when I got back to my car and realised that I had a two and a half hour drive home. I knew that I had half a dozen good photographs and I sat in the car and transferred a couple of them to my phone using the camera’s built-in wifi before uploading them to EyeEm and Twitter. Then I drove home…

Back on Flickr

Screen grab of my new Flickr account

An important client recently asked me to do some preparation work ahead of a project with which I am involved. One part of that preparation was to find out all I could about sharing some of their content on Flickr. I decided that the best way to learn about it was to do it and so I established a brand new personal Flickr account and started to post some of my personal work.

Now, when I get five minutes to spare, I’m uploading new pictures, joining groups and generally playing around with the various options that the site has to offer and I’m getting close to the point where I can go back to the client and tell them what I know and get ready to set up their account ahead of the project.

Those of you that are using Flickr; what do you think? Have you got any hints or tips for me? I have the iPhone and iPad already set up to upload images and I have a new IPTC template for photographs so that the correct information gets placed into the right fields for the Flickr system. Please come and have a look at my pictures on the site, exchange “follows” with me and let me know what I need to do next.

You can find me at neilgavinturner .

The story behind a picture #2

© Neil Turner. Joe Rush and the Mutoid Waste Company stage a spectacular demonstration of their vehicles on the beach next to Bournemouth Pier.

© Neil Turner. Joe Rush and the Mutoid Waste Company stage a spectacular demonstration of their vehicles on the beach next to Bournemouth Pier.

Back in 2013 the Bournemouth Arts By The Sea Festival was getting bigger and better and I was asked to come along and shoot some of the events. The climax of day two was to be a spectacular show on the beach next to Bournemouth Pier by Joe Rush and The Mutoid Waste Company who build and drive fantastic vehicles made from scrap. The organisers had penned off a large area of beach, put up a large public address system and once night had fallen the vehicles and their crews came onto the beach.

I had been there earlier in the festival when some of the vehicles had driven through the town and so I knew roughly what to expect. I got there reasonably early and staked out what I thought would be a good position with the sea and the pier in the background. I had two cameras with me – one with a 70-200 f2.8 and the other with a 24-70 f2.8 zoom lens. I had a couple of Canon speed lights and a high-voltage battery pack, plenty of memory cards and then waited for darkness and the start of the show.

Half a dozen vehicles sped onto the sand and I started shooting away without flash. It was pretty dark, despite the arc lights that had been positioned at various points around the perimeter. These vehicles weigh several tons and one or two of them got caught in the soft sand but that made for great pictures because the people who ‘crew’ them are artists and showmen and they gave the most amazing static display whilst waiting to be hauled free.

© Neil Turner. Audiences watching Joe Rush and the Mutoid Waste Company  on the beach next to Bournemouth Pier to close day two of the third annual festival.  Photo: © Neil Turner

© Neil Turner. Audiences watching Joe Rush and the Mutoid Waste Company on the beach next to Bournemouth Pier to close day two of the third annual festival.

The edit of the pictures was done in rapid time and sent to the client ready for the next day’s papers and any number of websites and social media platforms and accounts.

The 2015 festival takes place in October and I’m looking forward to seeing some of it up close.

Technical stuff: Canon EOS5D MkII cameras with Canon EF 70-200 f2.8L IS and 24-70 f2.8L lenses. Top picture 1/100th of a second at f2.8 on 2000 ISO with white balance corrected in Adobe Camera RAW. Bottom picture 1/25th of a second at f3.2 on 2000 ISO.

The story behind a picture #1

Young England cross-country runners posing for a photograph in Winchester. © Neil Turner/TSL

Young England cross-country runners posing for a photograph in Winchester. © Neil Turner/TSL

Even after nearly thirty years shooting photographs I can almost always remember something about ‘being there’ on the job when I look back at the pictures. There’s also a story to be told about why a particular picture was shot, lit or composed in a certain way.

A while ago I was posting a “photography word of the day” on Twitter and one of the first was compromise. This photograph of two rising stars of cross country running is a classic example of compromising to get a decent shot.

When I arrived at the college where they were both studying neither of them had their kit with them to do an action shot. Luckily their England team tracksuits had arrived and so I had to manufacture an action portrait of them that left one important part out of the frame – their feet. Neither of them had suitable footwear to be photographed in action and so I had to find a way to shoot them without drawing attention to their lack of running shoes.

In front of the college was a large banked area of grass and playing fields. I realised quite quickly that I could get the best of the light (dusk was fast approaching), lose most of the buildings and hide their feet by getting down low and using one of the banked grass areas to fill the foreground as they ran towards the low angled sun whilst shooting on a long (ish) lens.

So that’s what I did. The two runners were amused by the lengths to which I was determined to go to get a decent shot. They had been photographed two days before but just wearing their street clothes and standing by the college sign and they had assumed that I’d do the same. They did about ten lots of the ten yard run that had them in the right place and I shot some of them horizontally and the others vertically to cover the possible shapes that the newspaper might use. I also shot it using a range of aperture and shutter speed combinations to get the depth of field right.

I did some static upper-body photographs as well as having them pose with their trophies (feet hidden) on the grass.

Technical stuff: Canon EOS1D MkII with a 70-200 f2.8L IS lens. ISO 320, 1/1000th of a second at f6.7