portrait

Shooting fish in a barrel

London. January 2011. © Neil Turner

In 2008 when I had just left my staff job at TSL I was asked by a reporter working for a photographic magazine about what I intended to do with my career. I pointed out that I had an enormous amount of experience working in schools and universities and that in my time working for the Times Educational Supplement, Times Higher Education Supplement and Nursery World Magazine I had shot pictures in over 3,000 places of learning in at least 13 countries and that it seemed like a “no-brainer” to market myself as a photographer specialising in those areas. Plenty of prospectuses and websites as well as editorial shoots later my tally of educational visits and shoots tops 3,500 and I’m still in love with the genre. The reporter asked what special skills I had that made me good at that part of the job and my response was that if you can’t get great pictures of kids then you really shouldn’t be a photographer because it was “shooting fish in a barrel“.

A few days ago I made the same claim to another photographer who questioned my assertion. His point was that although the subject matter lent itself to nice pictures the rest of the set-up in schools and colleges tended to be somewhat more challenging. He pointed out that the light was rarely great and that the surroundings were often cluttered and busy. He also pointed out that there can be lots of legal and ethical issues and his own personal problem was that he couldn’t get the kids to ignore him enough of the time. He was right. The light is usually less than ideal and most classrooms are busy places with their walls covered and with all sorts of distractions – all obstacles to well composed and well lit pictures. I’ve worked in so many schools that maybe I just assume that children and even young adults aren’t remotely interested in me or what I’m doing – or at least once I explain that I’m not going to be able to get them on TV!

Shooting in a classroom requires some basic skills:

  1. Working with the ambient light
  2. Being able to get some extra light in that doesn’t completely disrupt what’s going on
  3. Having the ability to make pictures from what is already happening
  4. Setting up pictures when everything else fails

Everyone wants the pictures to look natural and everyone wants it to look as if there’s some great hard work going on. Every time I go to shoot a prospectus I get the same thing from the head teacher or their marketing people; make the children look as if they are happy and working hard and definitely not grinning for the camera. Nine times out of ten they select those grinning pictures because happy trumps serious almost every time. In a brochure that landed on my desk three weeks ago there were eighteen pictures in it. Seventeen of them were shot by me in one day and the other one was an architects photo of the newly refurbished building. Twelve of the pictures taken by me showed kids looking happy and engaged and four of the other five were portraits of staff and governors. The last of my pictures showed a child head-down and working hard.

Younger kids are definitely easier to take pictures of – in fact at the TES we had a saying “with acne comes attitude” and it was always tougher to make great pictures once the children became teenagers with all of the insecurities and hang-ups that come with that age. That was never quite as true when you were working overseas and it was always a huge privilege to witness education in action on other continents.

Choral scholars, Cambridgeshire, July 2008. © Neil Turner/TSL.

Previously on this blog I wrote about three important things that make a photograph and shooting in schools is a wonderful example of having to work hard to make two of them (light and composition) work for you when the third (subject matter) is usually pulling it’s weight. Sometimes you get lucky but, in my experience, most of the time you don’t. Thirty years ago I shot my first paid commission in a school just four years after I was a pupil in one. It’s funny and ironic in equal measure that I used to get into trouble for having a camera at school. I didn’t take many pictures during lessons but I do have a lovely archive of friends and teachers from my sixth-form years and I often wonder if that’s where my love of shooting in schools comes from.

Outdoor education centre, Dorset. April 2014.


Masindi, Uganda © Neil Turner/TSL Education. April 2005.


Nursery School, Kent. ©Neil Turner/TSL. January 2005


School playground, Surrey. ©Neil Turner. June 2011.

I don’t put many photos of children on this blog and when I do they tend to have been published elsewhere first and/or be from a few years ago. I’m still shooting as many jobs in schools as I can and I have a portfolio of school and college work sitting right here on my hard drive for when I get enquiries. If you’d like to talk about commissioning me to come and shoot your fish in your barrel, no matter what the light is like please get in touch.

You can also see a slideshow of headteachers and other education leaders that I put together a few years ago here.

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.

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…

Lightweight lighting

portralite_both

Front & rear views of the Elinchrom Portalite pressed into action.

Anyone who follows this blog knows how much I like using the Elinchrom Ranger Quadra system for a lot of my work. Next week I have a job coming up where I need to be able to pack light and rush around and I have been perfecting using the Canon radio slave system so that I can just use my Speedlights and a couple of tiny stands on the job. Whilst playing around I thought that I’d see how easily I could attach an old Elinchrom Portalite softbox to the Canon and the answer was “frightningly easily”. The Canon Speedlight 600EX II-RT comes with a diffuser cap and just popping that onto the flash after the flash tube section had been pushed through the plastic Quadra mount held the softbox rather well. I could easily add some foam tape or some velcro but this will stay in place unless I shake it around. It’s a bit smaller than I’d like a softbox to be but it is supremely light and so I’ll just have to get it that bit closer to the subject.

The Portalite folds up really small too and so I have another choice when I’m shooting. I will probably use a Westcott double folding umbrella most of the time but it really does pay to have options. Best of both modifiers work absolutely brilliantly with the Canon wireless remote set up with the ST-E3-RT transmitter and the RT flash. From testing today the recycle times on the 600EX II-RT are better than any Speedlight that I’ve ever used before and because of that I’m more than happy to work this way for this specific job.

Think Tank Logistics Manager 30

31 May 2016. Bournemouth, Dorset. Think Tank Logistics Manager 30. Hillcrest Road

Think Tank Logistics Manager 30.

A few weeks ago I bought some more Elinchrom Ranger Quadra kit and after a short while lugging my gear around in multiple bags and cases I decided that it was time to get myself one big case to take most or all of my Quadra gear. My rationale was that I am pulling one bag on wheels and carrying two or three others so why not make it one on wheels with the lighting and one smaller bag with cameras and lenses riding on top of it or over my shoulder as required? There’s quite a bit of choice on the market but all of my experience with Think Tank bags told me to start my search there. They make lots of rolling bags but only three specifically designed to lug large amounts of kit. My benchmark was that I had to be able to get at least two of my Manfrotto 156 stands plus a couple of Manfrotto 001s in there along with two or three packs, three or four heads, spare batteries, cables, light modifiers and plenty of accessories.

I had previously seen a colleagues Location Manager 40 case and so I wanted to check out the Logistics Manager 30 because on paper it appeared to be just about perfect. The internal dimensions were listed at 70cm length. My 051 stands are 68cm when folded and so I tried one and when it fitted the deal was pretty much sealed. All I needed to do was make sure that it fitted into the boot (trunk) of the car and it was at this point that I realised that neither of the two bigger “Manager” series bags would have worked. The 30 goes in with a bit to spare but anything much longer would need to go sideways and therefore wouldn’t be much use.

In the ten days or so since buying the case I have only used it twice. On job number one I was delighted with it when rolling it but less so when having to lift it up stairs or into the boot (trunk) of the car. There’s no bag or case in the world that can magically make its contents weigh less and the temptation to load this one has to be tempered with my need to be able to lift it. For job two I went with just two packs, two spare batteries, three heads and only three stands and quickly realised that I could only fully load this case if I were working with someone else who could help with the lifting. I’m getting old!

My loaded and ready to roll current configuration for the Think Tank Logistics Manager 30.

My loaded and ready to roll current configuration for the Think Tank Logistics Manager 30.

I am happy to report that this case comes with so many options for the inserts and dividers that I have a medium sized carrier bag full of unused bits. The flexibility is amazing and the quality of the construction appears to be right up there with every other bit of Think Tank kit I own. I am particularly pleased with the zipped mesh compartments in the lid. I have lots of gels cut into manageable pieces and they fitted into one of them very well whilst the other swallowed lots of those small accessories that can otherwise get lost drifting around in the base of the bag. You can see that I have a couple of pouches in this case. One has the Elinchrom Skyport HS triggers and the other has lots of small and medium sized clips which are great for holding gels etc.

I’m sure that there’ll be a few tweaks and some settling in but, for now, this layout works very well for me when I am working on my own. I haven’t even thought about using any of the exterior pockets but I have already given the built-in combination lock a go – chaining my locked bag to a radiator after I’d finished shooting, packed up and whilst I’d gone for coffee with the client.

My final point here is that turning up with completely professional solutions is good for your image. I’m sure that a reasonable quality suitcase with some makeshift padding would work almost as well and cost £200 less but this really is doing the job properly and my client definitely noticed.

Do you do corporate head shots?

headshots_header

I had a phone call call this morning from a potential client who had found me via a web search. That doesn’t happen very often and when it does the calls are normally from people trying to sell me something rather than commission me to do some work for them. The very pleasant lady who had called asked me if I did ‘corporate head shots’ and when I replied that I do and that I have done lots of them over the years she asked why there were none on my website. Wow… she’s correct. There are no easy to find samples of one of the most basic and important parts of my professional work on any of my folio sites.

During the call I promised to stick fifty varied images into a gallery and send her the link. I also explained that head shots weren’t the sole preserve of the corporate world and that some other sectors used them well and that the gallery that I’d prepare would have teachers and actors and other professionals too.

The way that I like to approach head shots is simple: concentrate on the person, make sure that the light on them is as good as it can be and have a sympathetic background. Where sets of pictures need to work together I want to discuss that with the client, their designers and anyone else who needs to have input. I often supply white backgrounds and sometimes I add a coloured light to them.

I love a good out-of-focus office, bookshelf, tree or cityscape and I’m not averse to a jaunty angle where it works. Colour works well and black and white can be very effective too – head shots is a wide ranging topic. They can be as simple as nice passport pictures and they can be half length – potential clients need samples – I completely get it and I have done just that… Here’s the gallery