contact sheet

Customising your Photo Mechanic IPTC interface

This could very well be the single most “niche” blog post that I have ever written but I found it incredibly useful and so I thought others might too. If you aren’t a Photo Mechanic user already, bear with me because it might just convince you to have (another) look at what, for me, is an indispensable piece of software.

When you open up either a Stationery Pad (best for bulk captioning) or click on the IPTC Info tab (best for editing a single caption) the default views show dozens of fields. Most of those fields will have little or no use for basic image captioning and some of them will have very specific uses for very specific clients. Recently I’ve been doing a lot of image editing and I have found that different clients have very different needs and because of that I want the IPTC interface to look different for each client. The great news is that in Photo Mechanic you can customise the interfaces to a very high degree. You can choose to:

  • Hide or remove fields
  • Change the order in which they appear
  • Group them in any way you wish
  • Change the labels on the fields
  • Change the size of the boxes of some fields

Once you have set up your custom ‘look’ you can then save that look and swap between any number of looks depending on the work that you are doing. You can, at any time, swap back to the Photo Mechanic default and create new versions of the interface.

So where does all of this magic happen? If you go to Preferences/Accessibility/ you should see this screen:

You then have two different options:

  1. Customize IPTC Info which will let you change the interface brought up by the “i” icon on a contact sheet.
  2. Customize IPTC Stationery which will let you change the stationery pad or Cmd+I on a Mac or Ctrl+I on a PC.

I have found that having a stripped down IPTC Info option has made amending the captions for individual images much slicker. If I can only see the fields that I’m interested in then I don’t have to continually scroll around to find the right fields every time. By clicking on Customize IPTC Info you get this window:

Which allows you to edit names, drag the relevant fields into the order you want them to appear, enable and/or make fields visible and edit/remove group labels. Once you have it looking the way you want it all you have to do is click on the small lightning symbol in the bottom left corner and Save the set up with a name that you will recognise. As I said before, you can go back to the default simply by clicking on “Restore Defaults“. If you want to make further changes to a saved interface then you can overwrite the file easily.

Deleting saved interfaces is a lot tougher. I have no idea how to do it on a PC but on a Mac you have to go into your Hard Drive/Users/User/Library/Preferences/com.camerabits.PhotoMechanic/CustomizeIPTCInfoDialog and remove the relevant .snap file from there.

If you want to create/remove a custom interface for the Stationery Pad it’s a very similar process – the Customize interface looks slightly different but, in essence, they do a similar job.

Revisiting my workflow

It is impossible to work digitally without having some sort of workflow. Most are a bit better than adequate, some are good and some are blindingly awful. I think that it is important to have a look at the way you do things every once in a while to make sure that yours is as good as it can be and achieves the four goals of being;

  • Efficient in terms of both time and memory
  • Repeatable so that the purely functional bits can be done almost on auto-pilot
  • Non destructive so that you don’t lose valuable RAW files or save changes to Jpegs shot in camera
  • Able to be short-cut for jobs where time is even more of an issue

I’ve written about my workflow before and I often teach workshops based on the “photographer’s twelve step plan” – a process with 12 distinct stages from camera to client including backing up and having a coffee! In this blog post I’m simply going to go through my basic workflow with a few hints and tips as I go. I normally use Photo Mechanic to import, sort, caption, rename and export my files and Adobe Photoshop CC to convert RAW (Canon CR2 most of the time) files into the required format. The whole process is colour-managed and I do as much as I can in-camera to save myself time when editing. I work on either a MacBook Pro, a MacBook Air or a Mac Mini depending on where I am and what the job is. Anyway, let’s kick off…

pm_preferences

Before I insert a card into the card reader I launch Photo Mechanic. This screen grab shows the “general” preferences for the application including what I want to happen when I load a memory card. I have checked the box “Open as contact sheet(s)” which means that as soon as the card goes in I see the images in a standard window. In the past I often used “show ingest dialogue” but I have found that ingesting every single frame doesn’t suit me and that it slows the whole process down drastically. Typically I only want between 25% and 35% of the images and so I go through them using the “tag” function (cmd T on a Mac or ctrl T on a PC) to identify those that I’m interested in or those which have unique content.

Once I’ve been through that card and tagged the images I want I use the “copy” function (cmd Y on the Mac and ctrl Y on a PC) and copy those tagged files to a new folder. I use a simple formula YYMMDD-jobname-RAW for those files and then repeat this process with every card used on that job. Photo Mechanic can be set to automatically open and update a new contact sheet with the copied files. I always eject the cards without deleting anything just in case there are problems during the process and put those cards to one side to be deleted later.

pm-preview

pm_contact_sheet

The preview and contact sheet windows are extremely easy ways to look at and select pictures. Once I have my first edit done I apply a generic caption using the Photo mechanic stationery pad (cmd I or ctrl I). At this point I’d like to mention two enormously useful features of Photo Mechanic (available on some other applications too).

The first is variables. These are simple ways of automatically adding information to your captions or filenames. Many are derived from the EXIF data applied in the camera. These include time, day and date as well as other shooting data. Some cameras allow you to set copyright information in the camera and others apply GPS location data too. Other variables might include camera serial numbers, original filenames as well as items that you can add yourself from pre-loaded drop-down menus. I have every county in the United Kingdom loaded as well as a large number of towns and cities and I also have some specific locations where I work regularly pre-loaded. By choosing a specific city from one drop-down menu you can use variables to add it to relevant other areas of the IPTC automatically. You can see some examples of variables in the caption below.

pm_stationery_pad

My main caption starts with {city}, {state}. {iptcday0} {iptcmonthname} {iptcyear4} which will then become something like Brighton, East Sussex. 12 December 2013 if I have all of the right information ready to go. If there are more details to add to the generic caption it is easy enough to do those in batches using the stationery pad.

Variables can also be used in the renaming of files.

pm-rename

This requires you to add the IPTC caption before you rename the files because using the {headline} variable automatically includes the headline you have used in the filename. I find this to be very useful and very good for saving time. In practice Photo Mechanic will sequentially rename 100 files in about ten seconds using this method.

The other really useful feature that Photo Mechanic has for helping with captions is code replacement. The idea is similar to variables except you create your won shortcuts. Sports photographers use this a lot and it saves a great deal of time. Imagine a football (that’s soccer to everyone in north America) team with 22 squad players – many of whom have unfamiliar and difficult to spell names. Using code replacement you can preload a text file with the teams before the game using shirt numbers. The England team, for example, would have numbers from EN01 to EN22 with the names of the players set against those numbers. Using code replacement you would type \EN08\ and the software would immediately recognise that as 8 Wayne Rooney or whatever you have set it to say. I use it for political figures so \dcam\ automatically becomes The Rt Hon David Cameron MP. I can add a second part to that if I so wish \pm\ would add Prime Minister.

I also use code replacement for shooting musicians and bands. It is really easy to create a text file with the names of all of the band members and then use the shortcuts to add the relevant people to each frame. You select the shortcuts yourself and the long versions yourself. Once you get the hang of code replacement, it becomes a central part of your workflow.

At this point I’ll often do a second tighter edit. I’ll keep all of the RAW files that I have copied over from the cards but only convert and send the best to the client. For some news jobs that is only 6-10 images and for other editorial assignments anything between a dozen and thirty. Some of the corporate jobs I shoot end up with a couple of hundred files and working on those proves the efficiency of this workflow because it is scaleable and repeatable.

Once I have my RAW (CR2 or RAF) images selected, captioned and renamed it is time to highlight them all and open them in Adobe Camera RAW in Adobe Photoshop. There are a number of great RAW conversion options out there and whether you use Photoshop, Lightroom, Aperture, Capture One or any of the others you need to make sure that the one you use doesn’t strip your carefully added caption information during the RAW conversion process.

acr-window

This is what the Adobe camera RAW window looks like. You can select a number of images from the strip down the left hand side and apply the same adjustments to all of them. I don’t want to run a complete ACR tutorial here but I would like to mention the straighten, sharpen, crop and lens correction adjustments as well worth learning. Of course those are secondary to the basic correction options such as colour temperature and tint, exposure, contrast, highlight and shadows etc. I find that I rarely need to open an image into Photoshop itself simply because all of the things that I’d normally do to a picture can be done right here in Camera Raw. Every few frames I will highlight those that have been corrected but not yet saved and save them. A decent computer with enough RAM will happily save the adjusted RAW files into whatever format you choose in the background whilst you continue to work on the rest. Once I have hit the “save” button on the last files I then click on “done”. Most of the time I am saving files at their default size as high quality Jpegs with some sharpening into the same folder as the RAW files. Photo Mechanic then updates the folder to show the RAW and Jpeg files together (you can separate them if you wish to) with a thumbnail from the newly saved Jpeg.

One of the best improvements between Adobe Camera RAW in Photoshop CS6 and Photoshop CC is an improved and expanded “save” dialogue window. You now have the option to set a target size, target amount of compression and apply a set degree of sharpening. With modern cameras producing pictures of over 60 megabytes and many of my clients wanting their photographs to be considerably smaller than that I am now using the target size more and more. My default setting is 4800 pixels along the longest side and with a maximum compressed file of 3200 kilobytes.

acr-save

Once I have my images all saved I return to Photo Mechanic and copy the Jpeg files into a new folder ready to send to the client. More and more that folder is a Dropbox one and I will give the link to the images to the client. For news jobs I can simply FTP the images (having saved them at a smaller size) and for some commercial clients that means burning the pictures to a DVD or CD. However they are delivered, the images are correctly sized, nicely prepared from the RAW files and properly captioned and renamed. All of this is done quickly and efficiently without damaging any originals.

When the urgency of the edit is over, I copy the files to a RAID drive in my office, to a portable drive that lives in my car and to a third drive which is away from my office ‘just in case’. I might then treat myself to a coffee…

What kind of photographer are you?

© Neil Turner, August 2013. Evening light from London's Tower Bridge. From my EyeEm feed.

© Neil Turner, August 2013. Evening light from London’s Tower Bridge. From my EyeEm feed.

When you are introduced in a social situation as a ‘photographer’ there is almost always a follow up which will vary from “do you do weddings?” via “what kind of photographer are you?” to “I take a lot of pictures myself”. How you respond to these various questions and comments says a lot about you.

There was a time when I got quite annoyed that so many people automatically equated professional photography with wedding photography and it didn’t help that I wasn’t a huge fan of the work most wedding photographers were doing.

That has literally all changed. Fewer people automatically assume that I must shoot weddings at the same time as the quality of the best wedding photography has gone from quite good to extraordinarily good. It is inexcusable, not to mention counter-productive, to get worked up about people not understanding a job market as complex as photography when the only professionals that the majority have met are high street portrait photographers and wedding photographers.

My annoyance has gone away (that could of course be my age showing through) and been replaced with a desire to educate as many people as I can about what makes a professional photographer different from a person with a nice camera. I’ve had a go at defining professionalism on this blog before so I want to visit my notions of myself as a photographer:

What kind of photographer AM I?

This is an exercise that we should all do no matter what we do for a living and no matter how we have described ourselves in the past. Every website, social media platform and discussion forum that I appear in has some form of description of me but they vary subtly from one to another. For example, on the EyeEm photo sharing site I have been using this;

Middle-aged editorial photographer still obsessed with taking pictures for fun, for a living and for posterity

Whereas on my AboutMe page I use the following;

Middle-aged editorial & corporate photographer, still crazy about pictures after all of these years

And then on LinkedIn – which I regard as the most important and most serious of the social media platforms for work I use a much longer description;

Freelance photographer based in the south of England providing editorial and editorial style photography to the media industries. Features, portraits, case studies and documentary style work for newspaper, magazine, commercial, PR and NGO clients

On the one that matters, I don’t mention my age and I don’t try to be even remotely witty or self-depricating. Horses for courses. Encapsulating who you are and what you do in one line is a lot easier when you have time to think about and when it is written down. I have lost count of the number of people that I’ve met in situations not directly connected to finding work as a photographer who have gone on to provide me with work. Your social media presence, your website or your blog are important shop windows and it is very important to have good and concise biographies available for those who want to know more. It’s important to keep them up-to-date and professional and that is something we all need to work hard on. Responding in person in a social or business setting is a lot tougher unless you give it a great deal of thought and have a few reasonably well rehearsed (without sounding glib or insincere) answers up your sleeve. I say this because it does matter.

So what are the options?

  • You can come up with one or two simple descriptions of what you do that rolls off of the tongue and says exactly what kind of professional you are.
  • There is an option to have a slightly less perfect description that invites further questions to which you have good answers that will lead into a proper conversation rather than you just giving a straight answer to a straight question.
  • It’s very easy to have some rather more enigmatic answers that give hints to what you do for a living but that have the goal of really dragging the other person/people into a detailed analysis of you and your work.
  • Finally you might want to deflect the question altogether – sometimes you meet people who aren’t interested in you and just want to talk about themselves and it is often easier to give them permission to indulge in that. Similarly there are occasions where you meet people who have a camera around their neck and who want to bore you rigid with their questions about the minutiae of photography.

Once you have been in this business for enough years you tend to make snap judgements and use an answer from any one of the four bullet pointed categories above as the situation demands. That isn’t always easy and so my default position is the second option – the imperfect description that invites conversation. The question can be phrased in far too many ways to work out an exact response for each one but my stock response would be something like;

“I make 90% of my living as an editorial and corporate photographer”

That gives them a chance to ask for definitions of editorial and corporate, to ask who my clients are and to ask how I make the other 10% of my income. I guess that there is a hint of ‘enigmatic’ in that answer but it mainly gives me a chance to assess their response and to line up some good descriptions and the odd anecdote. This is basic conversation and we all have conversations all of the time but I’m a very strong believer in responding professionally to enquiries about my profession.

To me, editorial photography is anything used in a newspaper or magazine, on a website or in a video to help to tell or illustrate a story. The pictures should have been shot as a third party where the person paying you doesn’t have a direct relationship with who or what is in the photographs. I also shoot a lot of PR and commercial pictures in an ‘editorial style’ where I use the same styles and techniques of lighting and composition but where I am being paid by someone who have a personal or business relationship with my subject. My corporate work is very similar but isn’t intended for use in an editorial context. The corporate stuff might be for a brochure or an annual report – a blatantly non-editorial context.

You can see that I have spent quite a bit of time thinking about this stuff. It’s important. At a time when the amount of work out there hasn’t increased with the number of people chasing it and when prices are under constant pressure because of supply and demand you have to have some clear ideas and visions about where you want to be, where you are perceived to be and how to marry those two often conflicting views. As time moves on, your own attitudes and positions change as well and you need to be able to give articulate responses to questions because more than ever before everyone you meet is a potential client or knows someone who is.

Because I make 10% of my income without a camera in my hands – something that has come into being in the last five years – I also have to have simple descriptions of what that entails. That, weirdly, is a lot tougher than describing how I make the 90%. Simply put – I teach, write about and consult on editorial and corporate photography. I am at pains to stress that whilst I love having the variety my heart remains with taking pictures and that my value to clients as a teacher, writer and consultant is vastly increased because I’m still a practitioner.

Quite how many social situations allow you to get through the whole script is a whole other blog post. You have to obey the social conventions and be interested in other people too. How easy that is depends on who they are and how engaging they are – exactly what they were thinking about you.

 

The constant software update dilemma

Back in the day we used to occasionally try out new chemicals and different printing papers. We used to experiment with new film stock when it hit the market and, on the whole, it was a welcome distraction from the day-to-day work. In the digital era we have to get new cameras a bit more often and we need to keep our IT current but the biggest battle and the largest dilemma is software. Because I teach a bit and because I am a complete anorak** I always have a look at new software packages as they become available.

menu_bar_screen_grab

Keeping up to date is not cheap. Upgrades are often necessary – especially when none of the software companies make their RAW converters backwards compatible when new cameras and new lenses hit the market. The move by Adobe towards the monthly or annual subscription model is very interesting and brings into very sharp focus the real cost of having the latest software. I have written before about making the business case for buying new gear and the same formula should apply to upgrading software. Every time I talk or write about these kinds of financial decisions, the same piece of music pops into my head… Bruce Springsteen’s song “Cautious Man” where there is a line that says:

“When something caught his eye he’d measure his need
And then very carefully he’d proceed”

lightroom_5_screen_shot

This week, to misquote the wonderful Fast Show, “I are mostly been playing with Lightroom”. To be more precise I have been looking at the new Lightroom 5 beta that Adobe have made available. This comes against a background of having experimented with pretty much every version of Lightroom since it hit the shops back in 2007 and found that I wasn’t entirely sold on the application despite seeing why others love it so much. And that is a huge part of the software conundrum – there are lots of options that achieve pretty much the same end result but get there via very different routes. If, like me, you shoot RAW pictures you need to have a way of editing, captioning, renaming, converting, saving, delivering and archiving your work. This can be achieved using a single application or you can use three , four or five different ones – it really doesn’t matter as long as your workflow is repeatable, flexible, efficient and accurate.

I will write a lot more about Lightroom 5 when I have really used it properly but I have to say that it seems a lot quicker than the previous version and the interface for Adobe RAW Converter is even closer to to the version that I use in Photoshop CS6 than ever – making using Lightroom a lot easier for me. I have also realised that Adobe’s efforts to create a programme for photographers to edit their work in are bearing fruit. The time has definitely arrived when I could easily do without Photoshop altogether and run pretty much everything from Lightroom. Of course that doesn’t mean that I want to… yet.

Philippa Gregory – the contact sheet

© Neil Turner/TSL. Philippa Gregory, October 2004

© Neil Turner/TSL. Philippa Gregory, October 2004

I haven’t done one of these contact sheets for a long time and I thought that this set was an interesting example. I submitted this set of sixteen pictures and they are all landscape in orientation. That’s because the slot they were shot for was across two pages and always a squarish landscape image. As I said in the previous post, the whole thing was done in ten minutes on a dull Autumn (fall) day in Hyde Park. That time included setting up and breaking down the Lumedyne light and chatting to the subject. Note that she is clutching her novel in the opening frame. I find that it’s always a good idea to do that if their publicist insists so that you can then go on to get the pictures that will actually get used.

Fearne Cotton – The contact sheet, October 2004.

Back in 2004 Fearne Cotton was enjoying a very rapid rise in her profile and her career was really taking off. The TES Magazine had done an interview with her for their “My Best Teacher” feature and I was sent to a studio in west London to shoot a portrait to go with it.

©Neil Turner/TSL. October 2004, London.

It turned out that it was a hire studio where she had been shot for a BBC magazine earlier in the day and they were (rightly) less than happy about another photographer coming in and piggy-backing onto another shoot. In the end we reached a deal where I shot using all of my own lights in the main studio and in the dressing room as long as I was in and out in twenty-five minutes. I think that the shoot in the studio was over in less than ten minutes and the whole job was completed in fifteen. Fearne had had a long day and the weather outside was dreadful. Neither of us wanted to prolong the job and, even at an early age, she was such a good professional that it was a very successful shoot.

These portraits were shot using a Canon EOS1D camera with 16-35 f2.8L, 24-70 f2.8L and 70-200 f2.8L lenses and lit using a single Lumedyne Signature series flash kit with a 24×32 inch Chimera soft box. The job was shot in the days when I was happy to shoot JPEGs straight out of the camera.

BMX Rider: Contact Sheet

©Neil Turner. Ringwood, Hampshire. 2011

©Neil Turner. Ringwood, Hampshire. 2011

This was a set of pictures shot on location as part of a “how to do it” technique piece for Photography Monthly magazine. The idea was simple – use flash to make something very cool from some sort of active sport. I was put in contact with the tier, Keegan Walker, through a young photographer that assists me from time to time on commercial shoots and we arranged to shoot at the skatepark near where they both live which is about ten miles from my own home.

I used a couple of Canon EOS5D MkII cameras with 16-35 f2.8L, 24-70 f2.8L and 70-200 f2.8L IS lenses as well as the excellent Elinchrom Ranger Quadra flash system supplemented by a couple of Canon 580exII Speedlights with Elinchrom Skyport receivers triggering them. There were plenty of clamps, gels and light modifiers in use too – including my rather lovely modified beauty dish and the equally great Chimera 24″ x 32″ soft box.

The sky at dusk is my favourite backdrop for all kinds of shoots and the May evening sky provided us with something special to work with. Keegan is pretty good at what he does and I had to ask him several times to actually get less height from the ramps so that my pictures looked better! Two hours on a nice evening messing around and shooting pictures is a pretty good way to make a living. The unfortunate part of this particular commission was that I had to write the words that described exactly what I had done and how I had done it. One day I will get around to reproducing the whole piece for you.