Some answers to your questions

A couple of weeks ago I invited people to ask me questions about anything. The idea was to generate some ideas for blog posts because some of the best ones that I have written in the past have been initiated by good questions. I have kept a couple of the most inspiring back for longer answers (and let the questioners know) and I thought that I’d give some answers to some of the other questions now. So, in no particular order, here goes:

Q: Do you do one-to-one training with other photographers and would you be happy to do that in my hometown of Oxford?

A: Yes I do and yes I’d be happy travel if the travel costs were covered. It doesn’t come particularly cheaply but I hope that people who book training with me get an awful lot out of a session. Anyone who has read my blog lately will know that we did a new small group workshop at Up To Speed in Bournemouth a couple of weeks ago. It was a wonderful day with five great people attending the session. You can get in touch with me if you are interested in one-to-one or small group sessions and we can take it from there.

Q: How has you move from London affected your work? Have you tried to hide it from London clients? Do you get any sense that you are looked down upon at all by London-based clients, or have you found benefits in being an out of town photographer?

A: I have always had a home in Dorset, even when I was working as a staff photographer in London. In that respect nothing has changed – I still have bases in both London and Bournemouth. What is different is that I have tried very hard to change the balance of the work that I do so that I can spend a lot more time at home in Bournemouth. My clients all know that I have two bases and one or two have definitely chosen not to pick up the phone for simple jobs that they perceive would involve me popping up to London for a quick portrait or a one hour PR job. The truth is that the vast majority of my photographic work comes from London clients and a big percentage of that is still in London. That’s absolutely fine: I stay up in town as and when I need to. On balance the work that comes from London is better paid, more interesting and more plentiful. The photographic market down here is a lot smaller and there is a relatively large number of photographers chasing that small pool of work. There are one or two photographers down here that will work for stupidly low fees and I am not about to get into a race to the bottom with them. All of that adds-up to the status quo where I am working all over the country for mostly London or overseas clients and less than 5% of my work is locally sourced. The benefits of living down here are self-evident: it’s a lovely place, I was born here and have lots of family and friends here. When I’m not shooting I am able to do the other stuff (like blogging) at home. The drawbacks are all about perception and I spend a lot of time on the phone trying to change negative perceptions.

Q: Best portable light modifier for location work (for the Quadras)? I’m toying with the idea of getting a Rotalux Deep Octa (100cm I think it would be) as an upgrade to my current brolley, grid or small Easybox softbox, and wondered what you have found to be the ‘best’ portable light modifier for your Quadras?

A: Quantify best… For me, it’s all about the compromise between quality of light and ease/speed of use. I have a huge soft spot for the Chimera ProII soft box that I’ve owned for well over ten years. It’s a 32″ x 24″ rectangular box with an inner diffuser that fits onto the Quadra via the Elinchrom soft box adapter and a suitable speed ring. I can assemble and attach it in under a minute (30 seconds if I’m on form) and it rotates on the speed ring allowing either portrait or landscape orientation. I also use a shoot through translucent umbrella. Many years ago I acquired a Lastolite umbrella box which is as quick as an umbrella to put up, almost as cheap as an umbrella and yet give a really nice even efficient light in the way that a soft box does. It has been in and out of my bag over the years as I get bored with doing things the same old way but I recently started to use it again and it finally broke. I have ordered a new one and when it comes I expect to get back to using the umbrella box for a while. I think that the important thing here is to have options and to know when and where to use each of them. I never, for example, use the translucent umbrella outdoors – too much loss of light. The Rotalux deep boxes are great but they are expensive and relatively cumbersome. I have never owned one but I’d like to.

Q: Hello. I own a 5D mark1, 24-105, 430ex2. I work with ambient light & tripod mostly because I’m scared of flash. This is OK for landscapes/architecture etc but not for people shots in low light. I have tried E-TTL in P & Green mode but am always disappointed. Would you have safe manual settings you could share with me for low light people shots?

A: Shooting people in low light requires quite a lot of practice to get great results and shooting direct flash whilst keeping the flash unit in the hot shoe will make getting better results really hard. The ‘secret’ to great flash photography is how you modify the light – bouncing it off of walls, reflectors or almost any surface that will direct the light onto the subject from a pleasing angle is what makes the picture. Shooting modes are a secondary issue. I know people who use E-TTL and some of the auto modes who get great results because they know how to bounce or modify the light. You should experiment with bouncing and you shouldn’t be afraid to try a wide range of surfaces. I wrote about how to approach bouncing a few months ago and that is a good starting point. As far as settings go, you need to think about how much power you have in your flash (not that much) and so you need to use apertures like f4 or f5.6 to conserve the flash power. If you are new to shooting in manual modes you might consider using aperture priority and deliberately setting the ambient exposure at -1 or -2 stops. Alternatively you can set everything manually and use the screen on the back of the camera to judge whether the exposure is a good balance or not. Introducing flash as a secondary light source is scary and you need to take some baby steps. Changing absolutely everything at once is a tough call because you will probably take longer to work out what works for you. If you have some money I’d suggest that you get a small light stand, a white umbrella and a either a Canon ST-E2 remote trigger or a pair of off-camera radio triggers so that you can get the flash out of the hot shoe and open up a world of creative options. After that, many of my old technique samples will make a lot more sense.

Q: The Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act… How do we fight against the potential legislation this has paved the way for?

A: There are lots of things that we can all do. The first is to get into a dialogue with your Member of Parliament. Ask them to oppose the orphan works proposals as they stand and point out that the work that the Intellectual Property Office has done so far has left photographers and other creators angry and feeling as if the IPO has an agenda which doesn’t include us or our livelihoods. Your MP will almost inevitably write back quoting a generic reply from Lord Younger pointing out that the stripping of metadata is illegal (which is circumvented by so many websites terms & conditions) and that the right to attribution of your work already exists. This is a red-herring of a response and needs to be challenged if you don’t want you MP to think that they have fulfilled their obligation to you. Next, you should keep the discussion up within your professional and social circles. Don’t let the subject drift into the background. The good news is that there are plenty of people working on this as we speak. Stop43, EPUK, the NUJ, the British Photographic Council, the major agencies and The BPPA amongst others are going to meetings with people that matter and keeping up the pressure on the IPO and the legislators. The Stop 43 website is a useful one to bookmark if you want to keep up to date. Finally it is important that we all try to influence those websites (Flickr, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook etc) whose websites strip metadata to change their ways. You can avoid adding images to them or actively use their competitors who don’t strip stuff and you can try to persuade your friends to follow suit. It’s going to be a tough battle and we need as many people to join-up as possible so your efforts in helping others to get involved will be vital.

Thanks to everyone who has sent me questions so far. Please keep them coming…


  1. Hi Neil,

    Thanks for your response to my questions in this post.

    I too used to have a Lastolite brolly box and really liked it. Sadly it broke on a windy day and for some reason I never replaced it. Your post has made me think of it again – it’s certainly easier on the budget that the Rotalux and also faster to put up, which is critical for a lot of my work.

    I had a look just now noticed there is also the Lastolite 8 in 1 brolly. This gives you a variety of options including using it as a brolly box with a silver or white inner. There is also a way to flag the front of the brolly, allowing you to focus the light and reduce spill. It looks quite interesting, although it it is twice the price of a regular brolly box which is temptingly cheap.

    As you’ve recently looked, I just wondered you have any thoughts on this?

    Thanks again, cheers


    1. Hi Andrew. I hope that you found my answers both useful and complete. I have seen the 8 in 1 on the Lastolite website but have yet to see one in the ‘flash’. Having had the Westcott 3 in 1 umbrella I would expect that the big downside of all of this flexibility is that it will be rather fiddly to use. I know that swapping the Westcott from translucent to full bounce mode took me about four or five minutes – something that I’d never want to do in front of someone that I was photographing or in front of a client (or both). That having been said, I’d be keen to have a play with one without laying my own cash down. The umbrella box is easy to use and I am very familiar with it which is why I have one on order. As far as ‘flagging’ goes, I have a piece of black nylon and a few clips in my bag that I use on the very rare occasions I get to do that kind of thing.


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