balance

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.

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…

Post production is all about the details

Passenger on the top deck of a tourist bus passing through Waterloo. © Neil Turner

Passenger on the top deck of a tourist bus passing through Waterloo.
© Neil Turner

I’ve read a lot about the ‘instagramisation’ of photography. I think that means taking slightly dull images, applying filters and presets to them and presenting them as bits of creativity. At the right time and in the right place those kinds of pictures have value and can make significant additions to creative campaigns and can go a long way towards making some elements of social media and social marketing more visually interesting. I’m not talking about that here – this blog post is all about choosing between making decisions about individual pictures or letting technology take over and ‘improve’ your work for you.

If you are on Facebook or any other social media that has targeted advertising you will probably get as many ‘suggestions’ as I do for people selling magical presets or add-ons to make my pictures instantly better. That’s great – or at least it would be if I wanted all of my images to exhibit a sameness with each other and with those of so many others. Trying to reduce professional post-production down to a series of mouse-clicks using algorithms and actions developed for others isn’t, in my opinion, a very good idea. I don’t want bland, over-processed or unreal pictures and I certainly don’t want to supply them to my clients.

For those of us who remember machine printing from our colour negatives where some pretty smart state-of-the-art machinery replaced judgements made by well trained and experienced operators it all looks pretty familiar. No matter how smart the technology gets, the highest quality and the best representations of our creative visions can only be realised when we pay attention to the details. All of them.

When I look at a single (RAW) image on my screen I make a lot of decisions pretty quickly. That is what an automated system would do too. I go through a sort of check list of options to make that picture into the best thing that it can be. Arguably, that’s exactly what an automated system would do too. The difference comes when I start to think about context:

  • What is the purpose of the picture?
  • Who is the client and who are the audience?
  • Which elements are most important?

The list of possible questions is long and you are probably getting my point by now. The same photograph needs different treatment for different purposes and that means handling the detailed decisions in different ways. How could an automated system have any idea whether correcting barrel distortion in a lens is necessary or even desirable? How would any machine know whether blown highlights in unimportant areas of the frame need to be sorted or whether they add to the atmosphere? The same goes for blocked shadows, underexposed faces, oversaturated colours and another long list of potentially vital elements. Let’s not even start to think about cropping at this point.

All of this is deeply reminiscent of hand printing black and white photographs in the darkrooms of the earlier parts of my career. Getting the contrast right and doing some dodging and burning were things that made all the difference between an average picture and a thing of beauty but the degree to which you ‘worked’ your photographs was dictated by where they would end up. Letterpress newspapers required very different prints to gallery walls.

It’s not just about how you handle the options for grading and optimising your pictures as you go through the process either. Output options vary and choosing between sRGB, Adobe RGB and the half dozen other options that are less commonly asked for isn’t something that you’d want to hand over to a machine. Sharpening comes in so many different forms these days and then what should you do about file sizes?

I have calculated that I make between thirty and forty decisions for every picture and another four or five for every batch of pictures that go directly towards how my photographs look when they arrive on the client’s screen and almost every one of those decisions has an effect on so many of the others. This stuff ain’t easy and it certainly isn’t as easy as those advertisements that pop up in my social media would have you believe.

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

Not the DSLR, I’m having fun

© Neil Turner, March 2014. Shadows on the pavement as a pedestrian passes along Tottenham Court Road.

© Neil Turner, March 2014. Shadows on the pavement as a pedestrian passes along Tottenham Court Road.

Question: Why are so many professional photographers using mirrorless cameras, micro 4/3rds format cameras and experimenting with pretty much anything that isn’t a DSLR?

It’s a tough question and without conducting some sort of major survey I can only give an answer based on my own experiences and those of close friends and colleagues. DSLRs have been my main cameras for over sixteen years now and they have become an extension of me when I’m working. They do what I need them to do with no real fuss, the quality has moved from “acceptable” back in 1998 to “extremely good” and they allow me to do the day job without having to worry about my gear very much. But, and there’s always a ‘but’ – they have become a little bit boring and little bit ‘too good’.

When I’m shooting pictures for the joy of it (and despite doing this for a living since 1986 I still do that) I want to feel something different. Elegant competence isn’t enough any more. Talk to the folks who drive sports cars or motorbikes on the weekend where a saloon would be easier, safer and more comfortable and then talk to the people who buy, care for and listen to vinyl when digital storage is so easy because they’ll tell you that there is something more engaging and far more personal about not doing it the ‘easy way’. 

Of course I could go all the way and shoot film and build a darkroom but I have been there and done that and I’ve thrown away the chemical stained t-shirts. My solution is to own and use cameras that give me a real feeling of taking risks. Cameras that make me think differently and probably take very different pictures too. It’s the weekend, it’s my day off, it’s my time to engage in photography for my own sake and for its own sake. I’m not alone in doing this and feeling the way I do.

According to the conversations that we have, the vast majority of my peers are simultaneously professionals and hobbyists and most of them choose different cameras for each part of their obsession.

By moving away from their amazingly accomplished DSLRs they force themselves to work differently and even to be different and many have taken that feeling from their spare time photography to their professional practice. A few quote practical reasons: lighter weight, less conspicuous, cheaper to buy, quiet or silent operation. A smaller number even profess to prefer the quality of the pictures (which to me is less than compelling given the flexibility of all RAW formats these days) but for me, and most of those whose opinions I trust, it is just a question of ‘different’.

If I choose to use a camera that is less intuitive, more difficult to get consistent results from and more than a little quirky then that’s up to me. If I’m taking pictures ‘just because I want to’ then I reserve the right to use a camera that makes me smile, that makes me less of a camera-operator-businessman and one that enthuses me to pick it up and head out of the door looking for pictures. The best part is that, in turn, I enjoy the work that I do for clients much more – I think that they call that a virtuous circle.

I doubt that the designers of these cameras had people like me in mind when they came up with the concepts. I hope that they don’t watch the market too closely and start to make them as slick and as polished as my day-to-day gear because that would spoil the fun.

Fufifilm X100 where are you? We are going for a walk…

Hard light portrait

©Neil Turner/TSL, September 2007.

©Neil Turner/TSL, September 2007.

Not long after I took redundancy from my staff job at The Times Educational Supplement I spent several days putting together a collection of possible portfolio pictures. I was a long task as I’d been there for over fourteen years and when I eventually published my folio on line I had cut a couple of hundred photographs down to thirty. Whilst I was looking for something else today I came across that folder of 223 pictures and had a good root through.

Like most adventures down memory lane it reminded me of things that I’d forgotten and the story behind this picture immediately jumped into my mind. The lady in the portrait is a blind sculptor originally from Iran who was by this time married to a British teacher and living in south-west London. I have posted a portrait of her on this blog before when I discussed two surprisingly similar portraits that I’d made. This frame from the set has some of the harshest lighting that I’d ever used and it jumped out at me when I was looking today because I rarely use that kind of light any more. I guess that’s partly due to the nature of the clients I work for now – PR and corporates who don’t want anything as edgy as this was – and partly because my first instinct isn’t always to get the lights out any more. Even when I do light portraits I don’t mess around with the light as much as I once did. This goes with my Twitter #PWOTD which is TESTING

Techie stuff: Canon EOS1D MkII with a 70-200 f2.8 L IS lens at 70mm. 200 ISO 1/250th of a second at f8. Lumedyne flash.