composition

Best light of the year

©Neil Turner. Fistral Beach, Newquay, Cornwall.

It is almost inevitable that when the best light of the year so far offers up a number of creative possibilities the only camera you have with you will be the one built into your phone. I don’t mind admitting that this has always filled me with dread and I have often missed the picture that I know I should have taken because the phone couldn’t do what a ‘proper camera’ can.

We were away in Cornwall last week for a few days and had just arrived at our hotel after the drive from East Dorset when we decided that a stroll along the beach before dinner was in order. We had been to Fistral Beach many times before but never really experienced the magic of the sunset there and when the light started to dip it was obvious that we were going to be treated to something rather lovely. These days I have an iPhone 7 which has a pretty good camera. I normally use it for snaps, record shots and general visual note-taking but when I needed it to produce the results using it with the 645Pro app allowed me to get exactly what I would have wanted if I’d had my Fujifilm X100S with me.

I was so pleased with the picture that I approached the man who features in it and sent him a copy whilst still on the beach. Photography is still a joy.

Moody technique post from the old website

I have been cleaning up some of the behind the scenes stuff on my original dg28.com website and got side-tracked looking at some of the old technique posts (again). I really liked this one from July 2003 which was originally entitled “Choosing a Mood”. Anyway, here is the original post cut and pasted:

©Neil Turner/TSL. July 2003. English, Media Studies and Philosophy teacher in a north London comprehensive school.

©Neil Turner/TSL. July 2003. English, Media Studies and Philosophy teacher in a north London comprehensive school.

Every time you take a photograph you are saying something about what is in the image. It’s impossible to avoid a frozen frame being anything other than an interpretation of that moment so it becomes a mark of a good photographer to make sure that every element of the image (composition, subject matter and light) helps to paint a consistent story. 

The mood required for every image – especially with portraits – is something that you have to consider very carefully.Some lighting guides will tell you that there is a lighting set up for each mood and that it is a simple matter of placing light A in position B and light C in position D to achieve this. I have to agree that there are some obvious starting points for many of the moods that I use, but there are many other factors that have to be taken into account when setting the scene.

Even a short list of variables such as time of day, age of subject, subjects clothing and location mean that there can be no such thing as a standard lighting rig. This portrait of a teacher who feels that he wasn’t prepared during his training for the attitude of pupils needed a lot of thought.

We met at his home in a pleasant London suburb and I was determined to give the whole portrait a real inner city feel. I asked him if there were any dark alleys or heavily graffitied walls near his home but he couldn’t think of any. We got back into my car and went in search of a location, being very careful not to identify the location in the photographs. We found this shady wall with a small amount of graffiti and parked the car. It was an overcast, if bright, late morning by this time so I decided to add to the “street” atmosphere by using a strong side light.

My subject was just about the same height as the wall so I decided that he needed to be crouching or sitting down. I set up a single Lumedyne 200 w/s (joule) pack and head without either an umbrella or soft box on a stand at about sixty degrees from the lens axis and about ten degrees above eyeline. The flash was set to maximum power at a range of seven feet (2.1 metres) which, combined with a 1/250th shutter speed, made the available light unimportant. The aperture was f11 at 200 ISO and I shot a few frames with just the subject and the wall immediately around him. When I consulted my LCD screen I liked the shadow and decided to include it more obviously in the composition.

My subject appeared more relaxed looking out of camera so I asked him to fix his eyes on a point in the distance between me and the flash. I also asked him to rest his head in his hand and this gave the shadow a better defined shape. I shot a few more frames and then changed the composition to include some of the grey sky. The sky at 1/250th at f11 was very dark so I changed the shutter speed to 1/125th and the sky was a better tone.

I shot quite a few variations after this, including some safe images without the obvious flash but this was my favourite frame when I came to do the edit an hour or so later. The mood was about right, it conveys the slightly dark theme of the article and screams “street” at you. I’m very pleased with end result, although this wasn’t the frame chosen for the paper!

Technical Note: Canon EOS1D with Canon EF 16-35 f2.8L lens. 1/250th of a second at f9.5 with Lumedyne Signature Series flash.

Hands and portraits

John Redwood MP, photographed during an interview in January 1994. © Neil Turner/Insight.

John Redwood MP, photographed during an interview in January 1994. © Neil Turner/Insight.

It’s January 2017 and like most photographers I am looking forward to the year with a mix of excitement and trepidation. What kinds of challenging and interesting projects are going to come my way in the next eleven and a half months? How is my work going to develop? Am I going to get enough work to pay the bills? Big questions that add to the roller-coaster of emotions that being freelance brings out.

One of the things that I always try to do is look back at some of last year’s work and compare it to older stuff and try to come up with some thoughts that help me to understand my own style better and to make sure that I don’t get tripped up by the same old mistakes. There’s a question that pops into my head about this time every year and it is one that I think that I am finally happy to answer:

What do you do with hands in editorial style portraits?

Almost every time that I shoot a portrait I try to give the client/editor as much choice as I can. Tight head and shoulders only portraits are one thing but what about wider compositions where the subject’s arms and hands start to feature? How should I get people, who don’t do it naturally, to pose? I quite like to keep some pictures as tight as I can and so folded arms are really useful because they bring the hands and arms higher up the body allowing me to frame the photographs that bit tighter. Nine times out of every ten that you ask someone to fold their arms you end up having a conversation about body language and lots of corporate types have been told by their PR people that folded arms look defensive. If only all things were that simple: folded arms bad/hands in pockets good just doesn’t work in photography. Folded arms in pictures can appear defensive but they can also appear as positives – they can be friendly, strong, loving, confident, feeling cold and so many other things. On the negative side they can appear aggressive, angry, lacking in confidence and forced. If you put “body language folded arms” into your favourite search engine you’ll get a few thousand articles written from a few hundred different perspectives telling you that folded arms can mean a number of different things and that context matters. Like so many things in life, it is a matter of judgement and skill and in the photographic portrait it is definitely a matter of getting the relationship between the folded arms, the composition and the facial expression right.

I can understand why PR people are wary of folded arms because they can go hideously wrong but you should never rule out a fantastic photographic tool just because it can be misused.

What about hands in pockets?

I’ve already mentioned hands in pockets. This, by the very fact that the hands are further away from the face, gives a wider composition and some people look great when relaxing hands in pockets whilst others look awkward. That’s where the skill of the portraitist comes into its own; working out who does what well and getting them to trust your judgement when photographing them that way. The difference between lazy and relaxed isn’t that great and you need to train yourself to distinguish between the two.

Over the last twelve months I have been asked to shoot a lot of pictures where the subject has their hand on their chin/lips/ears/hair (mirroring one of the least appealing ‘selfie’ trends appearing all over social media) or where they are cupping their face with their elbows on a table or the back of a chair. It isn’t something I would naturally ask someone to do but if they naturally do it themselves then I will often work with it and see if it makes the picture. Sometimes it comes off but it mostly looks contrived and, quite frankly, a bit naff. Did I say a bit naff? I meant a lot naff.

What else can you do?

One of the most useful ways to shoot portraits is to do it when the subject is talking to you or to someone else and gets a bit animated. Hands suddenly move away from being a potential problem to be a massive asset. Again you have to be a bit careful about what kind of gesture because we all know that pointing fingers, waving two fingers or forming a fist can be misinterpreted very quickly but, if you are in the business of portraying someone as they really are then their subconscious hand movements are a very useful way of getting there quickly.

Jacqueline Wilson receives up to 400 letters from young readers each week and does her best to answer as many of them personally as she can. © Neil Turner/TSL

Jacqueline Wilson receives up to 400 letters from young readers each week and does her best to answer as many of them personally as she can. © Neil Turner/TSL

Back in the mid 1990s I even shot just people’s hands on several occasions. Lots of people were exploring the same idea and several photographers did it far more assiduously and successfully than me. It is, however a great exercise for two reasons: the first is that it gets you notice that people have character in bits of their body other than their faces and the second is that shooting their hands can help to relax more nervous subjects.

Of course you can get the subject to clasp their hands gently on front of them or behind their backs. Hands on hips works about 2% of the time and almost always requires a smile

You may have noticed that I’ve used words like useful and often and sometimes a lot in this short post. That’s deliberate because there really are very few hard and fast rules in good portraiture. Getting people’s hands into the frame is something that I love to do (not a January 2017 revelation) and portraying people as themselves is a primary goal (probably a January 1987 thought). Great portraits rely on a number of factors working together and getting something that is a lot stronger than the sum of its parts.

My January 2017 goal for the year is to get better at the way hands appear in my portraits. I’m not going to shy away from folded arms, hands on hips or anything else but I’m not going to ask anyone to touch their lips or in any other way pose as if they were a teenager doing a selfie that they’ll regret in six months time.

Want to see more? My portraits portfolio can be seen here.

Canon 16-35 f4 L IS

Test shot with Canon 16-35 f4 L IS in the crypt of St Martin-in-the-Fields

London. 08 December 2015 Test shot with Canon 16-35 f4 L IS in the crypt of St Martin-in-the-Fields Photo: Neil Turner

A couple of months ago I cracked and bought the Canon 16-35 f4 L IS lens to replace my very elderly 16-35 f2.8L having borrowed both this one and the f2.8L MkII to see what all the fuss was about. I shoot quite a few pictures of buildings and having a 16mm lens is very useful – especially when the space is really tight.

My old 16-35 and just about every other super-wide lens I have ever used has suffered from barrel distortion, been less than pin sharp in the corners and generally required a bit of work to get great pictures that are as free from distortion as possible.

I was on a job last night in a tight space where the 16-35 f4 L IS was being pressed into service to do shots of an empty venue before an event. I hadn’t brought a tripod because I hadn’t expected to be doing these shots but I did my best with what I had. The photo above was taken hand-held at 1/60th of a second at f4 on 2500 ISO with the IS switched on with a Canon EOS5D MkIII. I have applied no correction to the uprights and the frame is un-cropped at 16mm focal length.

It was dark down there and the white balance did need a subtle tweak but apart from that this frame demonstrates just how little barrel distortion (can you see any?) this lens has even at 16mm and it also demonstrates how good the image stabilisation is.

The 16-35 f4 L IS isn’t a perfect lens. It’s quite large for what it does and whether or not the maximum aperture of f4 is accurate is something I am still thinking about (my gut reaction is that it is actually 1/3rd of a stop slower than it claims). The lens hood seems to jump off a little too often for my liking (maybe that’s the way I carry it) and my brand new lens has quite a stiff zoom action compared to an equally new 70-200 f4 L IS.

Those niggles apart my verdict is that this is a brilliant lens and more than a match for the f2.8 MkII one that I was otherwise looking at buying. It may not be the hard news lens that the faster lens undoubtedly is but for all other uses and for anyone who doesn’t need to shoot at f2.8 I’d say that this is a better option and represents way better value for money.

How rugged it will turn out to be isn’t something that I can answer yet but the signs are good because it feels really solid and there are no exposed moving parts to get filled with dust.

The addition of this lens to my bag means that I now have a set of f4 zooms and I am very happy with all three of them. Anyone want to get me a 200-400 f4 L IS to complete THE set?

What makes this photo a Flickr favourite?

Waiting for people and texting their friends outside the Apple Store, Covent Garden.

Waiting for people and texting their friends outside the Apple Store, Covent Garden. © Neil Turner. November 2015

When I rejoined Flickr a couple of months ago my main aim was to learn the ins and outs of how it works so that I could help an important client build their Flickr profile. One of the side-effects is that I have become quite interested in how and why some pictures get no attention and why some others get loads. This was made all the more interesting when one single picture of mine went from the normal 100-200 views and 2-3 likes to having over 10,000 views and around 130 likes.

I don’t think that it is any better or worse than most of the rest of the (178 and counting) pictures I have uploaded so why did it get so much attention?

I genuinely don’t think that it is because it is a wonderful image so maybe it is because someone influential in the Flickr-sphere decided that they liked it and that prompted their followers to also like it. Maybe it is because I uploaded it on the right day at the right time in the right groups to get so much attention.

The truth is that I don’t know – and that’s a problem because that means that I have yet to master or even comprehend the vagaries of Flickr. If you remember, that’s why I rejoined the sharing site – to acquire a zen-like understanding of the medium.

Some things appear to be obvious though:

  • Black & white pictures get more attention and more likes
  • Certain people follow everything you do
  • If you interact with lots of people it helps to raise the ‘like count’
  • Likes don’t put food on the table
  • Social media takes a lot of work

The really interesting thing is that a potential client did see one of my photographs on Flickr and is keen to buy it for use in their business and so whilst likes don’t put food on the table having the right people seeing your work does. Whether Flickr will ever bring the financial returns that justify the amount of time spent working with it is still unclear but that’s the same for all social media.

Is the picture at the top of this post any better than any of the 176 (and counting) others on my Flickr Photostream? If you know why it attracted a comment of “Nice capture” when so many others didn’t, please let me know!

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