I don’t know about you but I can put my finger on exact dates and point to pictures that changed the way that I shoot pictures. Aside from the obvious ones such as the day that I used a digital SLR for the first time and the day that I bought my first medium format camera one very special day and one picture made me think really hard about the kind of lighting that I wanted to use.
This black and white portrait of Desmond Fennell OBE QC was taken in his chambers at one of London’s famous Inns of Court – The Temple. It was shot for a newspaper and it was during a time in my career that I was using a single Elinchrom 23 flash head with a soft box and a bit of cable connecting the camera to the flash. Nothing unusual there I hear you thinking… how did this change Neil’s life?
Cue anecdote: I was sent to shoot a portrait so I took my standard gear. When I was shown in to the eminent man’s office I started to look around for a power point to plug my Elinchrom into. He answered the phone at that moment (he was chairing a major public enquiry at the time) and so I looked at the desk lamp and followed the cable to the socket in the wall. The trouble is that it was the wrong kind of socket… the UK standard three pin plug has rectangular prongs and his only socket had round holes. Square pegs, round holes… ohhh c**p.
It wasn’t that I was incapable of shooting with either a speedlight or just using the ambient light it was just a bit of a shock. This was actually the second frame that I shot – Nikon FM2 with a 35mm f2 Nikkor, Kodak Tri-X film pushed to 800 ISO.
I like to think that I learn from my professional mistakes and I like to think that after a few days a shock turns into an eye-opener and I remember coming away from this shoot with two lessons learned. The first was to always shoot some ambient light because it often makes stunning pictures – especially at quiet, off-guard moments and the second was to buy some battery powered lights. In truth, that took about three years to accomplish properly and I invested in a lot of extension leads in the mean time. I recall the day that my first Lumedyne kit went into action – complete with a Wein infra-red trigger. No cables. I shot a portrait of another lawyer and left her office singing one of the songs from the Disney version of Pinocchio – “I got no strings to hold me down…”