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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.

The third kit fetish

The Phottix 70cm collapsible beauty dish, adapted to fit an Elinchrom Ranger Quadra head.

Everyone knows about the fetish for camera bags shared by most photographers and anyone who has read this blog will know about my own personal one for card readers but there is a third one that has been exercising me of late. I have mentioned it quite a few times over the years and a particular need to have a repeatable set up has led me down this particular equipment rabbit hole once again.

I’m talking about lighting. I’m talking specifically about light modifiers. Those umbrellas, snoots, dishes, soft boxes and hybrid gadgets that you place on the fronts of your flash units in order to control and improve the light.

On our first day in the studio at college back in 1984 we were banned from fixing anything to the lights. Instead we had to place screens and diffusers in the optimum position independently from the light source so that we learned that there was no such thing as the perfect soft box, swimming pool or snoot. By inching a diffuser backwards or forwards by a small margin you could change the quality of the light considerably and you could use all sorts of flags and reflectors to stop the stray light from going where you didn’t want or need it. That was in the studio and that was a very long time ago. As soon as the restrictions about not using ready-made light modifiers was lifted we all sprinted for the big fabric soft boxes and rigid swimming pools and most never looked back.

Unfortunately I was left with a feeling that every time I used a light modifier I am making some really important and potentially detrimental mistakes. I blame the knowledge that I gained about the subtlety of light modification that I acquired in term one, year one of my formal photographic education for the dissatisfaction that I feel with every convenient and portable accessory that I own – and I own a lot of them. A brief headcount yesterday produced the following:

  • Four translucent or shoot through umbrellas
  • Two convertible umbrellas
  • Three reflective or bounce off umbrellas
  • One umbrella box
  • Two rigid beauty dishes
  • One folding beauty dish
  • Two square soft boxes
  • Two rectangular soft boxes
  • Three hexagonal soft boxes
  • Two strip soft boxes
  • Seven reflectors
  • One snoot
  • Three sets of grids
  • Two sets of barn doors
  • Nine reflectors

I have probably forgotten about some others but you get the idea; too many options, no clear direction and no way to always ensure that I have the right one with me at all times. Therefore the compromise is almost always to bring the two or three most versatile with me and have another three or four in the car before making the best of what I have.

This, surely, begs the question about which is my favourite. The answer is as simple as it is shocking. None of the above. My favourite way to work is often to use lights in a way that doesn’t give the signature look of a soft box or an umbrella. I like to bounce. Walls, ceilings, walls and ceilings or any one of a dozen other types of surface will almost always get my vote if I’m shooting a one-off creative image. I have written about my love of large pale surfaces and of using pretty much anything around as a bounce surface and it has become so important to me that creating a ‘look’ has become something I’ve had to work at. I know that something like 33% of photographers rock up and set up their lights complete with their favourite modifier and get on with the pictures and that another 33% turn up and shoot with available light. Many of the rest base their shooting options on what they find and choose between flash with their main modifiers or no flash at all. I like to think that I’m in a small group who will look around for ‘bounceable’ surfaces and go down that route as a matter of preference.

From my list of available light modifiers you can see that I never give up on my quest for ‘the one’ – the light modifier that will make sense of them all. I bought a new one this week and I’m off to use it today. Let’s hope that it both surprises and delights me and that the surprise and delight lead to being able to ignore some of those 1984 college year one, term one lessons

Seven things to agree on before taking a commission

© Neil Turner, October 2014. Production of John Foster's Shot At Dawn in the Council Chamber at Bournemouth Town Hall.

© Neil Turner, October 2014. Production of John Foster’s Shot At Dawn in the Council Chamber at Bournemouth Town Hall.

Quite a lot the posts that I’ve uploaded to this blog in the last few months have been related to the business side of photography. For those who want more of the old dg28 – your time is coming soon. In the meantime I wanted to post my thoughts on what you should agree with your client before undertaking a commission. This is taken directly from my own outline terms and conditions which are posted on my website. I have absolutely no objection to any photographer copying and/or adapting these seven points for use in their own terms and conditions because, in my opinion, the more of us who do this the more likely it is that potential clients will be used to the concepts and it will require less pushing to get them to negotiate.

Terms and Conditions of supply – commissioned photography

INTRODUCTION – The following seven sections represent the basis under which I undertake photographic assignments and commissions for commercial, public relations and editorial photography. They are intended as a background document to which specific or varied terms can be added or amended.

There are, of course, many pieces of legislation that will have an effect on how my relationship with clients works, not the least of which is the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

I really don’t want to scare clients and so I have worded them as simply as I can and I’m always happy to discuss and explain how my terms and conditions apply to you.

  • COPYRIGHT – Unless agreed in advance and in writing I do not assign copyright to any clients or third parties. Please be aware that buying the copyright is far more expensive than buying an extensive and wide-ranging license.
  • LICENSES GRANTED – As a client, you would be granted a license to reproduce and/or distribute the photographs. All licenses have geographical, time, media and usage restrictions. My policy is to negotiate a license that meets your needs and represents the best value for money for you and/or your client. Use of the photographs outside the terms of the license granted would be a breach of copyright.
  • LICENSE EXTENSION OPTIONS – If, having agreed a set of license conditions you subsequently realise that you need wider use of the photographs I am always happy to negotiate a license extension. Whilst the cost of buying extensions will be greater than that of buying the right license in the first place, you will find that my rates are very competitive.
  • DELIVERY METHOD AND DEADLINES – As part of the commission we will agree how, when and where the photographs will be delivered. Options include web galleries, CDs and DVDs, FTP, email and on USB flash drives. Photographs will be supplied in the agreed format within the agreed deadline. Copies of all files will be retained in line with industry best practice and any subsequent re-issue of any or all of the image files will be subject to a charge equal to the actual cost of producing and delivering them plus a 20% service charge.
  • INVOICING AND PAYMENT – Fees and costs will be negotiated and agreed before the commission takes place. Should the details of the commission change then alterations to the costs will be agreed as soon as possible. New clients will be asked for a purchase order or a letter confirming the commission, agreed fees and costs as well as acceptance of my terms and conditions in advance. Once the commission has been completed I will send an invoice to you with payment terms and methods outlined. The grant of license will only come into force once payment has been made in full. VAT will be charged where the law requires. If the client postpones or cancels the commission within 72 hours of the start time I reserve the right to charge 50% of the agreed fees. Cancellations or postponements within 24 hours of the start time may be charged at 100% of the agreed fees.
  • THE LIMIT OF MY LIABILITY – As a professional photographer I take great care and pride in my work and in my relationship with clients and the subjects of my photography. I cannot, however, accept liability for unexpected events including: poor weather, industrial disputes, sickness or injury, equipment malfunction, model release disputes, property release disputes and other actions or accidents that are outside my control and that cannot be reasonably predicted. Please note that any mains powered equipment that I use will be PAT tested, that I carry £5 million of Public Liabilities insurance and that my photographic equipment is regularly tested and serviced. Should you require any specialist insurance to be taken out for your project, the cost will be included in the fees. Back up copies of your images will be stored using reliable methods but I cannot accept liability for systems failures.
  • DISPUTE RESOLUTION – If, for any reason, you have any queries about the service that I have provided I will be happy to discuss your concerns. Photography is a creative activity and I accept commissions on the basis that you are buying my skills and that you trust me to apply those skills in accordance with our discussions and verbal agreements. Written confirmation of commissions should always include any “must-have” picture requirements and, where technically and creatively possible, I will fulfill your requests. If I consider any of your requirements to be unfeasible or if any of them become so during the shoot itself I will point them out at the first possible opportunity and offer solutions.

None of this rocket science and none of it would be form a great contract in isolation but we have seven things to think about and a rock solid basis upon which to build a working relationship with a new client.

How many hours in a day?

freelance_definition
Is there anybody out there who would argue against a ‘working day’ being eight hours? Maybe eight hours spread over a nine hour period with an hour for breaks? However you think about it and whatever your opinion actually engaging in work of some sort for eight hours is a good starting point to talk about ‘a day’s work’.

Like a lot of photographers I tend to base my charges based on full or half days combined with the end use of the pictures. A half day with a fully loaded PR license costs more than a whole day for a single use in a newspaper. Half a day that makes it impossible to do any work through the rest of the day isn’t a proper half day and should be charged at a higher rate. It isn’t always easy to explain to inexperienced potential clients but, compared to other charging methods, it is as easy as I can make it.

I mentioned the eight hours because I have had some trouble explaining to a potential client why I won’t be at their premises for eight hours shooting pictures. I have tried to put it simply and the best that I can come up with is the ‘reverse-engineer’ a day. In my opinion you need to set aside a minimum of two hours to edit and process the pictures. It’s often more but rarely less from a whole day’s shooting – a whole six hour day that is. When I say a six hour shooting day what I actually mean is six hours devoted to shooting and travelling combined. Three hours in the car cuts that day down to three hours shooting whereas one hour in the car leaves a healthy five hours.

Freelancers have to charge for their time. That’s a fact of life. The potential client who couldn’t get his head around that worried me because how else does he think we can make a living? He actually wanted me to only charge for the time spent on site. Travel time and processing time was, apparently, not ‘actual time’. His argument was that he didn’t start his clock until he got to his desk so why should I. It was a frustrating conversation that could only end one way; we decided that I wasn’t the right photographer for his project! I guess that I could have taken my normal day rate, doubled it and then told him that was the fee for the time spent on site – a sort of win/win I guess. I didn’t so I won’t be doing anything there any time soon.

So I lost some possible work. That’s almost always a shame and when things like this happen I try my best to make sure that if I get into a similar position again I can explain myself even more clearly and avoid any and all conflict. There are a few rules that I do:

  • Charge for travel time
  • Keep time from a job to do the production
  • Try to be as flexible as I can without stitching myself up
  • Get new clients to put everything in an email
  • Give occasional discounts and not lower rates
  • Publish my own terms & conditions online and work according to them

Things occasionally fail to work out. Fact of life, fact of being freelance.

 

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’s flash evolution

When I switched to Canon cameras from Nikon in 1995 the one thing that I missed from my old F4S cameras and my old SB25 flash units was the accuracy and reliability of the Nikon TTL flash. Canon, with all of their promises for the EOS1N and Speedlite 540EZ combination just couldn’t quite match what I had left behind. I have no idea how Nikon managed to get their off-the-film-plane metering to be so good but it was very good indeed.

Coincidentally, it was about this time that I started to use high quality battery powered lights. The Lumedynes that I took delivery of in 1996 changed my professional life and TTL flash became something that I used when I absolutely had to.

Fast forward to 1998 and the arrival of the first decent digital cameras we had (the Kodak DCS520/Canon D2000) and flash took a big backward step. There was no ‘film plane’ for the cameras to meter from and we had to dig out old Vivitar and Metz flash units with old fashioned auto settings just to get somewhere near where we needed to be with our exposures. Canon introduced the 380EX flash which helped but it was basic and relatively low powered with no swivel head and working with them wasn’t a patch on shooting with the pre-digital Canons, let alone the film based Nikons.

Time passed and with every new camera and every new flash unit things got a tiny bit better but I have never felt as comfortable or as confident with TTL flash on digital Canons as I did with film Nikons. There were work-arounds – I used flash exposure compensation at the same time as reviewing the LCD screen and using some pretty good guesswork which, when used with RAW files, meant that we were always able to do the job but it was never without effort in the way that you used to be able to shoot flash with the far less forgiving transparency film.

That was until now. Strike up the band. Hang out the bunting. Canon have, in my opinion, finally done it. They have a camera and flash combination that handles TTL as well as anything that I’ve ever used professionally. A few weeks and a few jobs with the new Speedlite 600EX II RT on my EOS5D MkIV cameras have convinced me that twenty plus years of being unsure with on-camera flash are over. Congratulations to everyone at Canon involved in this evolutionary process – well done.

Footnote: I have owned and used 220EX, 380EX, 420EX, 430 EX II, 430 EX III RT, 540EZ, 550EX, 580EX II, 600 EX RT Speedlites before arriving at the 600 EX II RT. I’ve had the ST-E2 and ST-E3 RT transmitters and any number of external flash packs and light modifiers. The joys of being a photographer – no wonder so many of colleagues swear by ambient light.

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