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A freelancer’s nightmare

It all started with a twinge in the small of my back. The twinge became an ache and the ache became pain. A visit to the Doctor led to some prescription pain killers and a referral to a back-pain clinic two months into the future. Still working at full speed, I lost the feeling in the soles of my feet and had a few cramps. Every day it got a little worse and then, one Sunday morning, I couldn’t get out of bed without crying with the pain. We made our way to the accident & emergency department of the local hospital where an MRI scan confirmed that I was in trouble. They admitted me to hospital and just over a week later I had two operations on my spine.

The operations were three weeks ago today and, although I’m back home, I’m looking at several months before I can even start to think about working as a photographer. I’m on crutches, my rehabilitation is underway and it’s a struggle.

It has to be one of the worst fears of the freelancer – suffering some sort of injury or illness that keeps you from doing your work which in turn means a loss of income and knowing that your clients will have to look elsewhere for someone to provide the services that you have been providing.

All of this devastating news made me want to compose this rather different blog post and my advice comes in two parts:

  • What to do to avoid and prepare for a sudden, unplanned period of time off
  • What to do if it happens to you

The message has to be that it can happen to you. One minute you are buzzing around going from job to job and regularly burning the midnight oil to get those edits done, your cashflow is looking good and your clients keep coming back and the next you are laid up with an injury.

Getting yourself into a position that minimises the chances of it having a massive impact on you and your life isn’t necessarily easy but there are some major steps you can take.

  1. Understand that you are getting older.
  2. Get some savings behind you – enough to cover your bills for four to six months.
  3. Take out some loss of earnings insurance to cover your domestic bills if you are laid up for a long period.
  4. Avoid having too many credit and leasing commitments at any one time. It’s all too easy (and tax efficient) to have your car, your cameras and computers all on a leased or on contract hire.
  5. Keep fit and eat healthily.
  6. Don’t ignore niggling injuries and minor ailments.
  7. If you get an injury get it sorted properly and don’t rely on temporary relief or pain killers.
  8. Develop a network of colleagues that you trust to cover your clients if possible should you need them to.

If it does happen then you need to prioritise your full recovery – no matter how long that takes. It pays to make sure that the medical professionals that you are working with know that you are self-employed.

  1. Don’t panic.
  2. Be honest with your clients. Tell them what’s wrong (leaving out the gory details and avoiding making it an awkward ‘sob-story’) and let them know when they can expect to have you available again.
  3. Use the time to update your portfolio, your social media and your corporate image.
  4. Be prepared to shed some gear if you need to pay your bills.
  5. Don’t dive straight back in. Make sure that you are fit enough before you launch yourself back onto the market and then ease back into work.
  6. Make sure that you talk to friends, family, colleagues and even professional counsellors about what is going on.
  7. Don’t expect to win every single client back straight away. Be prepared to play the long-game and win them back over time.
  8. Look for alternative ways to make money. Could you maximise the revenues from your back catalogue? Can you use your expertise in ways that don’t require you to be at your physical, emotional or professional peak?

Having to make those phone calls letting clients that had already booked work know that you aren’t going to be able to fulfil their needs is hard. Most are sympathetic and wish you well, many ask for recommendations for other photographers to cover the work but a few can be angry with you – “how dare you damage your back and leave us without a photographer” is the sub-text of a few conversations.

Having to politely decline other offers of work whilst lying in a hospital bed isn’t an experience that I’d wish on anyone either. Again, most take it well but a few are less than sympathetic.

Having to let good clients know that you are out for a long stretch is possibly the hardest call to make. I found that being in hospital had a drastic effect on my emotions and I struggled to keep it together on the phone to one or two people.

In my case there is some good news:

  1. Prior to suffering the injury, I had been working hard and had invoiced clients for enough money to keep me solvent for at least two or three months if I’m careful.
  2. In a few weeks I’ll be able to take on work as a remote editor with one or two clients for whom I do editing work already which should bring in a bit more income.
  3. Whilst I’ve been laid up lots of colleagues have been generous with their wishes for a speedy recovery and more than a few clients have been kind too.

I cannot wait to be in a position to get back on the phone and let people know that Neil Turner, editorial and corporate photographer is back in business but in the mean-time I’m going to follow my own advice as closely as I can. I’m not going to overdo it. I’m going to listen to the Doctors, Physiotherapists and my family and friends who are doing such a great job of looking out for me.

One more thing, I’m going to kept this blog going…

AA batteries

Eneloop AA 1.2v batteries and Think Tank 8 AA battery holder.

Back in September 2008 when I returned to the world of freelancing I tried every way that I could think of to cut my ‘cost of doing business’. One of the central ideas was to reduce the number of disposable batteries that I bought and used. I had a number of speed lights and a whole bag full of triggers, transmitters and gadgets almost all of which took AA sized batteries and so I went out and bought a lot of NiCd (nickel cadmium) rechargeables along with three decent quality chargers.

Every-once-in-a-while I would buy a few single use batteries if I was on a job which justified doing so but I kept to my plan and used the NiCd ones where I could. Over time they lost their power and after about four years they were relegated to being used in kids toys and my wireless keyboard. I bought some new NiCds but the way that I used them meant that the dreaded memory effect killed them off more quickly than I would have liked.

For about six months I was lazy and kept buying Duracells (and other brands) but the box I kept the dead ones in filled up far too quickly and I went back to buying and using rechargeable batteries. By this time the nickel metal hydride (NiMH) revolution had pretty much taken place and I started to buy those. It took me a few months to realise that the old NiCd chargers weren’t the best option for the newer generation batteries and so I invested in a couple of new chargers a year or so ago. Slowly but surely and over the course of 18 months I went from NiCd to a mix of NiCd and single use batteries and then to NiMH. The big battery swap-over has now been completed.

The general consensus amongst my peers was that the Eneloop branded batteries (by Panasonic) were the best and so I built up a stock of thirty or so white Eneloops. Very happy with them, they work really well and hold their charge splendidly. One of my colleagues mentioned Eneloop Pro batteries and that upset me – I am always keen to get the best – and so I bought a few of those to see if they were worth the 60% price hike over the standard ones. Well, they are anecdotally about a third better in that they last that much longer under heavy use in Canon flash units. I cannot see any difference in the recycle times for the speed lights and so I had to ask myself whether it was worth paying more in order to have to change batteries a little less frequently. On balance, the answer is “no” but I now have eight of the Pro batteries and so I use them in amongst the set. The big downside of the Pros is that they have a shorter life. They can handle about 500 charge cycles before they lose their potency whereas the standard Eneloop can do around 2000 charges. That makes the Pro quite a bit more expensive than the ordinary one but there will be colleagues out there who are more than happy to pay that extra to get what they need – it’s a personal decision.

Carrying so many batteries around is heavy and cumbersome. I really like the Think Tank nylon case that holds eight AAs and I have a couple of those in my bag in the same pocket as the Think Tank 4x DSLR (Canon LP-E6) battery holder. I hate the idea of running out of power on a job and I have the two DSLR battery holder in my pocket most of the time too.

I saw a couple of reviews of high quality ‘smart chargers’ the other day and so I’ve now invested in new chargers too. That’s made quite a difference and I’m back to being up to date with the technology. It’s cheaper, it’s greener and my flash units are cycling faster. All good!

Manfrotto umbrella bracket challenge

Photo: Neil Turner

The old Lite-tite on the left and the Snap Tilthead on the right both with Canon 600EX II-RT Speedlites.

When, like me, you have been using a single product successfully for over twenty years it is normally out of a mixture of boredom and curiosity that you have to try out the next “new idea” when you see it. That happened to me a few weeks ago. Having owned and used several of the venerable Manfrotto 029 Lite-tite brackets for so many years I thought that I’d give their new Snap Tilthead with hotshoe a go. For my purposes they will do pretty much the same job: hold a Canon Speedlite flash on a stand with a folding umbrella on those jobs where using other lights isn’t so much of an option. I know that there are dozens of other brands out there but I’m a sucker for certain makes – ones that have served me very well for such a long time.

The more that I have used the new bracket, the more that I have realised that it is very different. Before you take it out of the box you realise that there’s no lever sticking out, no large plastic knob to tighten it onto the stand and that it has a coldshoe built-in. They both have a hole through them to slot an umbrella or other light modifier. In order to compare the two I’m going to start with that built-in shoe.

One of the major gripes with the old Lite-tite is that you had to but a separate shoe that attached using the brass post that was supplied. When I bought my first one I was using Metz flashes which didn’t attach with a shoe and therefore it was fine. From there I moved to using them with Lumedyne flash heads which, again, didn’t attach via a shoe. It was only when I started to work with speedlights that I really noticed. The idea of a shoe attaching via a brass thread and relying on being tightened to stop it spinning has annoyed me for years and the built-in shoe that doesn’t spin on the new bracket appeals to me – and so far, so good. It is easy to use and very secure so that’s a thumbs-up. The metal-to-metal contact is less exciting but it hasn’t caused any issues… yet. A point to the new bracket.

Moving down there is the umbrella slot. On the old bracket this is angled so that the flash points more accurately into the centre of the umbrella (if you attach everything the right way around). On the new one it appears to be straight which means that it never helps with the angling of the flash and so you need to use the dip on the speedlight (if it has one) to better target the light into the modifier. Of course this means that you can’t get it wrong but, for me, this is a point to the original.

Altering the tilt has always been a question of loosening the substantial handle and making sure that the whole thing doesn’t tip (easily done with a big flash and a big umbrella). The build quality of the Lite-tite has meant that they have lasted for a long time – even if you tighten the handle a lot. There is a small round knob on the new one and there is some sort of tensioning mechanism that stops the whole thing tipping. It doesn’t feel as if you could over-tighten this one and the only issue that I have is that it may not have the longevity of its older sibling. A tentative point to the newcomer.

The next point is where it attaches to the stand. There is a simple metal clip that tightens down onto the top of the stand on the new one which initially feels like a big improvement over the substantial threaded knob on the old one. That knob could always be loosened and used as a twist for the light which isn’t really that easy to do with the new one so, once again, you have to play off a bit of functionality against slimline design. The point here just goes to the added functionality of the older model.

Two points each so far. The slimline design of the newer model is very welcome but Manfrotto have, yet again, added a pointless large red logo onto one of their products to annoy me. The victory by the tiniest of margins goes to the new bracket because there’s no way that the flash can twist, because the mechanism that stops it tipping so easily is a welcome plus and because it is smaller and slimmer. That having been said the old one is tougher, better built and far more versatile if you use accessories that don’t use a shoe. I’ve got both now so let’s see if my opinion changes after the now obligatory 32 months.

Photo: Neil Turner

Not a bad Christmas present…

Whilst I was out…

Whilst I was out shooting some pictures for the EOS5D Mark IV Update I shot a small set of pictures that reminded me that it is almost inevitable that you find interesting human stories whenever you are out shooting pictures. I met and chatted to a former Royal Marine who had donned his green beret and his medals to come along at the eleventh hour to honour one of his relatives –  a Royal Marine Musician – who died when the ship he was on, HMS Hood, was sunk in 1941.

A moving gesture from a man who had himself served for over 27 years for a relative and fellow Marine who he had never met.

Mark Tapping who served 27 years in the Royal Marines places a framed photograph of his relative Royal Marine Musician Albert Pike who died when HMS Hood was sunk on the 24th of May 1941. Armistice Day at the War Memorial in Bournemouth 11 November 2016. Bournemouth, United Kingdom. Photo: Neil Turner

Mark Tapping who served 27 years in the Royal Marines places a framed photograph of his relative Royal Marine Musician Albert Pike who died when HMS Hood was sunk on the 24th of May 1941 on the memorial. Armistice Day at the War Memorial in Bournemouth
11 November 2016. Bournemouth, United Kingdom.
Photo: Neil Turner

 

First impressions of the EOS5D Mark IV wifi

5d4_close_up

The Canon EOS5D Mark IV – the first professional DSLR from Canon with a fully functioning wifi capacity built-in.

When Canon announced that they had added a wifi capability to the new EOS5D Mark IV I was simultaneously surprised, delighted and apprehensive – emotions which have in turn given way to a sense of relief. Wifi was a feature that many photographers had asked manufacturers to implement over a number of years and we had always been told that there were technical reasons why it couldn’t be done and that most buyers simply didn’t want it. The rise in popularity of limited wifi in consumer and ‘prosumer’ models told a different story and Canon did the right thing by including it in this latest release.

The surprise element came because very few of the rumours that preceded the announcement of the Mark IV mentioned wifi at all. A lot of those people awaiting the new camera had resigned themselves to another generation of cameras with bolt-on accessories to handle rapid image transmission.

The delight was that I was looking at finally getting cameras that could not only talk to a smart phone or a computer in the way that the Canon EOS 6D already could but to be able to send pictures using File Transfer Protocol (FTP) which is what the majority my clients want and need without the cumbersome WFT units or the increasingly flaky Eye-Fi cards.

The sense of apprehension was that I was worried that Canon would have done half a job and implemented a solution that didn’t do everything that I wanted and needed it to do.

Having had the camera in my hands for five days now I can finally talk about my sense of relief. It works.

Not only that but it works really well.

Over the last few days I have done some unscientific but real-world testing of the wifi built into the EOS5D Mark IV and compared it to the EOS5D Mark III and EOS7D Mark II both using the WFT-E7 transmitters that have been am almost permanent feature in my working life for the last couple of years. Put simply and in ‘normal’ use the FTP transmissions from the Mark IV are as quick and as reliable as the older cameras with their £600 bolt-on transmitters. Setting up FTP on the Mark IV is in many ways a lot quicker thanks to the excellent touch-screen option on the camera and getting the wireless operating from getting the camera out of the bag is way quicker.

One of my big fears with the new set up – based on various manufacturers telling us that metal bodied cameras might block the signals too much – was that the range of the transmitter would be too short and so I went to a place where there would be a lot of wifi congestion and ‘pollution’ to test it out. Coffee shops in busy shopping centres have loads of wireless traffic at lunchtime – especially when the students roll in and so I went to one with no fewer than twenty-three different wireless signals and I set the cameras to transmit over my own Netgear 4G mifi unit.

With the mifi in my pocket and the camera in my hands, there was no discernible difference in signal or time sent to send images between the Mark IV and the WFT-e7 equipped 7D MkII whereas the 5D Mark III was a little slower as always which I have always chalked up to the slower USB connection to the transmitter.

I tried the same test connecting each camera to my Apple iPhone both using it as a personal hotspot and to transfer pictures to the phone in the direct mode and, again, there was no real difference that I could see.

When I got back home I tried to see what the maximum range was to get a good signal between camera and 4G mifi and here I found a difference. The Mark IV range was completely effective up to about 2.5 metres whereas the 5D Mark III with the WFT-E7 was around 4 metres. The plastic top plate on the EOS6D was supposedly there to allow greater wifi range and in my admittedly un-scientific tests it appears that you do get a little more range.

At this point it might be worth remembering that the Mark IV is fully compatible with the WFT-E7 (as long as you update the firmware in the transmitter) should you need the extra capabilities – which include greater range, more preset FTP channels and the built-in Ethernet. All of that, when added to the WFT-E7 having it’s own LP-E6 battery, make it worth considering having the separate transmitter for those odd occasions when you need them. I already own three of them and so will definitely be keeping one or two for those very eventualities.

Having conducted all of the mobile testing with a three year old iPhone 5S I took delivery of an iPhone 7 part way through the week and the speed with which connections are made and images transferred with the new phone is dramatically better which is worth keeping in mind if your work involves transferring pictures to the phone and/or controlling the camera through Canon’s smartphone app.

Close up of the main menu screen that allows you to choose which wifi function you want.

Close up of the main menu screen that allows you to choose which wifi function you want.

Exactly how you set your system up for rapid transfer of images from the camera over wifi can make quite a bit of difference to how it performs. Most of my quick transmissions are for various corporate and editorial clients to get my pictures onto their social media and web platforms almost as quickly as they can when shooting pictures on their own smart phones. For that they need medium sized JPEGs at best and so I tend to set my cameras up to write the RAW files to the Compact Flash card and medium size/quality JPEGs to the SD card and then transmit only the JPEG with basic IPTC metadata attached.

Whilst most of my usage for the wifi built into this camera will be based around various FTP servers I will be using the direct transfer to smartphone, tablet and computer options a fair bit too. I’ve had a fair bit of experience with Canon’s apps over the last few years and I’ve decided that the best way to use the phone and tablet apps is to set the apps up to display images based on their rating rather than having to scroll through hundreds of images on a phone screen to find the right one. By using the ‘Rate” button on the camera to add a single star to selected pictures I can shortcut the whole searching on the phone process greatly. When I review the pictures on the camera’s LCD screen (and the screen on the Mark IV is beautiful by the way) I can use the rate button to tag them as I go through. Once connected to the phone those tagged images are right there at the top of the page saving me loads of time. I find that I only need one-star or no-star options to make this work really well too.

I discussed the idea of getting images away quickly on a blog post last year https://neilturnerphotographer.co.uk/2015/08/24/getting-pictures-away-quickly/ and having the Mark IV just adds to my choices. It takes the WFT-E7 if I need the extra features and it accepts Eye-Fi cards although I don’t see any need for them any more.

There are already dozens of reviews talking about image quality, video capabilities, auto-focus, speed of use and the new button on the back of the camera and I’m not going to add to those except to say that in another blog post I described the Canon EOS5D Mark III as the best camera that I have ever used for the work that I do. That statement is no longer true. The Canon EOS5D Mark IV has superseded it in every way that I can think of.

Editing, editing and more editing

olympic_park_pano

The day that the taxi dumped us in the wrong place and we had a yomp across the Rio Olympic Park to the Main Press Centre. ©Neil Turner, September 2016

By the time I leave here tomorrow I will have been in Rio de Janeiro for three weeks. In that time I have managed to take less than a dozen photographs – none of which are of any note whatsoever. I’ve been here as part of the OIS Photos team as one of two editors with my colleague Julia Vynokurova grabbing RAW files from a seemingly endless stream of FTP transfers from the four amazing sports specialists that have been here shooting the Paralympic Games for the Olympic Information Service.

Editing and captioning other people’s work is something that I do from time-to-time and it is a whole different skill set from shooting and editing your own pictures. It may sound obvious but I wasn’t there when the pictures were taken and so I have to judge them against criteria set down by the client and by each individual photographer on the team. They only send the pictures that they judge to be their best from the LCD on the back of the camera and so the editor has to assume that the photographer likes the picture. Some only send the cream whilst others send a wider selection to be narrowed down at the edit stage and you get to learn really quickly which camp each of them falls into.

Some photographers add voice captions to their pictures whilst others include frames of scoreboards, close up of competitor’s numbers – basically they need to do as much as they can to help the editors identify people, places and events so that captions can be as full and accurate as possible. It all happens really quickly and turning the photographs around looking their best consistently takes skill.

The photographers that we have been working with here are shooting with different cameras too: Bob Martin and Thomas Lovelock were using Nikon D5 bodies whilst Simon Bruty and Al Tielemans were using Canon EOS1Dx MkIIs. That means subtle but important differences with the file handling – although I don’t think that there has ever been so little difference between the way the two major manufacturers top-of-the-range DSLR’s RAW files have rendered.

The picture preparation, even with the truly challenging light that we have had both indoor and outdoors here, is in many ways the easier bit. Getting the captions right takes time – especially if there’s no voice caption and no obvious clue who is in the picture. We have had to turn detective more than once eliminating people from the list of who it could be. The schedules and results system provided by the Rio Media service has been great along with a bit of selective Googling have combined to get the captions done.

Then there’s distribution. Getting our entire edit onto the www.oisphotos.com website (Photoshelter has proved to be really valuable again) quickly with a selection out to seven different wire agencies even more quickly has meant some long hours and intensive work. It has been worthwhile. We have got quality Paralympic images out there being used in printed and online media all over the world day after day. Athletes and their families have Facebooked and Tweeted us and Paralympic associations, federations and national committees have used our pictures right across social media as well as on their websites.

The pictures are there for everyone to see on the OIS Photos website and any and all editorial use is free. Have a look at the site – I’m going to do just that when I get five minutes too.

Elinchrom Quadra ELB

27 April 2016. Bournemouth, Dorset. Elinchrom Quadra ELB. Hillcrest Road Neil Turner

When I get a new piece of kit worthy of mention, I usually write a first hand account of how it is working out and go into details based on using it on a few jobs. I bought an Elinchrom Quadra ELB HS kit a couple of weeks ago and I thought that it was about time I gave some first impressions on this blog. Sadly, I haven’t used it for anything particularly interesting and I certainly haven’t stretched it beyond what I would normally do with my old Quadras (some executive portraits and a quick location shoot) but I can already see a lot of small but amazingly significant changes from the original system.

Those of you who read this blog regularly will know that I was very impressed with the Quadra when I wrote about it in my “32 Months On” and was further impressed when the Lithium Ion batteries came out. The differences between the ELB and the Quadra for most jobs aren’t huge but everything about the new kit tells me that the designers have listened and that the manufacturers have allowed their engineers to implement some great changes. For me, the positive changes with the pack are:

  • Far better display
  • Vastly improved menu system
  • Ability to recondition flattened lithium batteries
  • Better cable port covers
  • All of my old Quadra bits and cables are compatible with the new pack

I have the new High Synch head too which brings one key improvement which is the ability to synch with my cameras at shutter speeds right up to 1/8000th of a second using the EL Skyport Plus HS Transmitter and I’ll talk about these a bit further down the page.

Let’s talk about the menus: back a few years I said this about Quadra menus “some bits of the menu system are not too obvious without the book. Changing stuff like the duration of the beep that signifies that the pack has recharged or whether the readout is in f-stops or watt/seconds isn’t too much of a problem but switching Skyport channels for the first time isn’t all that easy.” With the ELB I was changing stuff without having to resort to any instructions and the display is easy to read in just about any light. For me, this kind of progress is brilliant and it makes the new kit that bit easier to use – which is what you want, serious evolution rather than revolution.

When I swapped over to the Lithium batteries I posed the question “What do you call it when something that was already very good gets quite a lot better?” I went on to answer “an upgrade”. The downside of the lithium batteries is that if you leave them flat they can appear to be dead and not accept a charge, no matter what you do. When this happened to one of mine the marvellous folks at The Flash Centre reconditioned it for me. The new ELB pack has the facility to recondition batteries and that could turn out to be a real help. I try not to leave anything flat but if it happens again, I have the wherewithal to get myself out of that particular jam now.

As I said before, small improvements add up and the less heavily engineered and simpler port covers are great. Nothing revolutionary but a fair bit better than the old ones and the same can be said for the relatively small power bump from 400 watt seconds to 424. That’s a fraction of an f-stop but, to paraphrase a well know UK supermarket, “every little helps”.

So far, I cannot see any negatives with the new pack – a solid upgrade with some great functionality. The same cannot be said for the EL Skyport Plus HS Transmitter . That’s a mouthful so from now on it is the HS Transmitter and it’s infinitely better. It’s a lot bigger than the old Skyport – which is a great thing as I have always said the old one was unnecessarily small. The new one runs on AA batteries which answers another one of my criticisms. You get viewfinder feedback such as a ready light and, most importantly of all, you can now shoot with high speed synch if you have the right flash head. With the ELB pack there are way more functions built into the transmitter and all-in-all it is way more than an upgrade. If I have a criticism, it is pretty expensive but that’s all I can find wrong with it so far.

27 April 2016. Bournemouth, Dorset. Elinchrom Quadra ELB. Hillcrest Road Neil Turner

Moving onto the high synch head, well it looks and feels exactly like the old heads. It takes exactly the same accessories and cables as the old head and it definitely works when synching at shutter speeds in excess of 1/200th of a second. I have yet to give it a thorough testing but it appears to do exactly what it should – which is great.

Up until now everything I’ve had to say is positive and I am extremely pleased with my new acquisitions. I was asked the other day why I didn’t buy the Profoto B2 instead. The answer is that I wanted the backward compatibility of sticking with Elinchrom and I refused to pay the price for the Profoto. It has a TTL function which the Elinchrom lacks but I have no idea when or even if I’d use it and I don’t like the way that light modifiers attach to the B2. Maybe TTL would be another (the next) upgrade for Elinchrom’s ultra-portable. Maybe it would push the price up too far. Who knows.

What I do know is that, yet again, the engineers at Elinchrom’s Swiss HQ have taken a very good product that I had 100% trust in and made it better in every way that I can see. I’m a fan of these ultra-portable kits and I’ve tried pretty much every one of them since I first handled the Lumedynes and Normans back in the early 1990s. The Quadra ELB is one of the best bits of kit that I own and I will post some examples when finally get to shoot pictures that stretch its capabilities out beyond what the old Quadra could do.