neil turner

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

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.

How many hours in a day?

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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.

 

The Photographers’ Summit 2017

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A graphical breakdown of the types of work that I do these days and where the images end up.

I do quite a few talks and lectures throughout the year and I don’t normally discuss the specifics here on the blog because they are rarely open to a general paying audience. This one is different. The National Union of Journalists here in the United Kingdom invited me to run a couple of one hour workshops at a very interesting event they are running in London this Saturday. Titled “The Photographers’ Summit 2017” the day includes the following:

  • Improve your videography skills.
  • Rights & restrictions: how privacy and property laws affect photographers & videographers.
  • Using copyright law to make sure you don’t get ripped off.
  • Moving from staff to freelance photographer.
  • Innovations in photography — 360degree filming and other developments.
  • New models and ways to make money.

The good news is that you don’t have to be a member of the NUJ to attend and it looks likely to be an interesting day.

My part in the proceedings is to do two identical one hour sessions which I have given the working title of “Making a living with the skill set of a press photographer”. OK, so it isn’t particularly catchy but it does sum up what I’ve been tasked with delivering. What I am trying to do is to say to people with press photography skills that they can take those skills and use them elsewhere within the wider photography industry given that the market for news pictures has been shrinking and changing for many years and given that the world still has a massive appetite for photographs. We’ve all had to accept that a relatively small percentage of those pictures come from professionals but it is my contention that as we reach saturation point for the quantity of images the only place to do go is to do something about the quality. Press photographers have the skills to be part of that change and we just need to do something about applying those transferable skills to the task.

As a quick preview of what I’m saying I have done an updated pie chart (yes, there will be pie charts) based on the one that I did for this blog a few years ago when I wrote about where the work comes from. The changes aren’t too big but it’s worth going back and reading the original article to see how this chart came about.

The 2015/2016 financial year's version of the pie chart.

The 2015/2016 financial year’s version of the pie chart.

Now these are only two of the 20+ slides that I am currently planning to use and for the whole explanation there’s no substitute for being there. These are only a one hour sessions (I’m doing the same one twice) and the material that I have had to condense down normally takes about twenty hours to deliver. Ours is a complex business and it would be childish to promise to distill the last eight and a half years worth of freelance business experience down into a few catchy subtitles but I have had a go, so my talk will feature the following in reverse order;

  • Seven vital skills to learn or develop
  • Six things that press photographers have going for them
  • Five things that press photographers need to know
  • Four assumptions we can make about the industry
  • Three facts about me
  • Two distinct parts to the session
  • One major piece of advice

Christmas is long gone and so there won’t be any partridges in any pear trees (at least in my sessions) and if any Lords turn up they will be asked to restrict their leaping to the breaks. I’m hoping that the whole day will be both fun and informative and that we’ll all get a chance to do some serious networking in the breaks.

If you are interested, there were still a few tickets available at a cost of £35 each for non-members and £15 each for members.

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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…

EOS5D Mark IV Update

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A few weeks ago I wrote on this blog about the wifi potential of the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV and I have been using three of its functions pretty heavily on jobs over the intervening period. It wasn’t hard to learn all about the system having used a number of different wireless systems over the last three or four years and my first impressions were very favourable. There are definitely one or two changes that I’d like to see Canon make (preferably in a firmware update) but the system has been remarkably stable and reliable. It’s wireless which means that there will be glitches but I’d stick my neck out here and say that this is the best wifi that I’ve used given that 1) it is built-in and 2) doesn’t require any extra gadgets or adapters.

Today is Armistice Day – the anniversary of the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month when the guns finally fell silent at the end of the Great War in 1918. I had no jobs on and so I took myself down to the War Memorial in the centre of the town where I was born to pay my respects and to give the wireless on the Mark IV a real world test that I could actually share with you. I have a server set up at my house ready to receive images transmitted via FTP (File Transfer Protocol) – which is the preferred image transmission system of most newspapers and agencies. For the purposes of this test I was sending to myself but it could equally have been to any third party with an FTP set up. I decided to use my Apple iPhone 7 with the Personal Hotspot function enabled as my network and I timed how long it took to set up each camera to transmit using the phone back to my server. The first camera (thanks largely to the Mark IV touchscreen) took just under two minutes and the second camera about ten seconds less.

This is where I would like Canon to make a firmware change: on the EOS1DX and EOS1DX Mark II you can set up one camera, save the settings to a memory card and load them into other cameras. There is no facility (yet?) on the 5D series cameras to do this. I’m sure that it is to help distinguish between the top-of-the-range 1 series and the much cheaper 5 series but I’m pretty sure that nobody will make a purchasing decision based on this. And whilst we are at it, only being able to store three sets of settings is a bit mean. The original 1DX had five, as do the 5D Mark III, 5DR, 5DRS and 7D Mark II when used with the WFT-E7 transmitter whilst the 1DX Mark II has twenty – as do various Nikon cameras.

This was never going to be a full-on coverage of this low-key event. I wasn’t on commission and I didn’t want to be intrusive and so I just took a few pictures with two cameras and two lenses and uploaded eight as I shot and selected them from the back of the camera. I have the 5D Mark IVs set up to write RAW files to the CF card in slot one and medium sized JPEG files to the SD card in slot two. I selected from the SD card and transmitted the pictures as I went and each picture went in about ten seconds. I had Photo Mechanic running on the server and it added a basic pre-prepared caption to the files before saving them to another folder which in turn synched them to Dropbox. I could have set the system up to do any one of a thousand tasks – ranging from renaming files to distribution which are amongst the options that I use a lot of the time on paid jobs.

I used the Transmit app on the phone to check that the images had arrived and could then have shared them with anyone via FTP or via a Dropbox link generated in the iPhone’s Dropbox app but this was just a trial. Having the images on Dropbox also means that I can grab them onto the phone to use for social media but on this occasion I swapped the wifi function to send one picture to my phone from the camera. It takes less than a minute to swap to this function and, having rated the picture I wanted as a one star, I quickly added the selected image to the phone using Canon’s own Camera Connect app. A lot of people use Shuttersnitch to do this and I am trying my best to learn how to best use that app but for now I use the Canon app to transfer the file and Photogene 4 to edit and caption it. All done in under two minutes and uploaded to Twitter in another thirty seconds. Easy.

The annoying part of this process using the iPhone (or iPad) is Apple’s insistance on renaming files with an “img_” prefix when the cameras are set up to use a personalised prefix. Please Apple, if you see this, give us the option to NOT rename files.

One of these days I am going to make a short video about how to set up one of these cameras quickly and another about how the iPhone workflow works for me. For now I am very happy with this  improved set-up and would love Canon to make the firmware changes that I suggested above.

Just a couple of other points that I’d like to add:

  • The Mark IV appears to require less sharpening than the Mark III. No idea why yet but I seem to be on about 60% of the amount and getting great results.
  • The Anti-flicker on the Mark IV is superb. I will blog about this one day soon when I have some samples that I’m allowed to share on here. It made me look again at the anti-flicker on my 7D Mark II which is also pretty good.
  • The new button on the back of the camera which I’ve customised to allow me to adjust metering patterns on the fly is a really welcome addition. They have used a different switch to the one on the 7D Mark II which does much the same job and I marginally prefer the one on the 5D Mark IV.
  • The touchscreen is so much better than I had expected and I have become so accustomed to it that using a Mark III the other day felt old-fashioned.
  • It’s a shame that there’s still no lock on the diopter correction wheel though.

So all-in-all I am delighted with the Mark IVs. I’d be grateful if Canon could just make those small tweaks that I have mentioned above and I’d be really grateful if they could make the latest version of their EOS Utility software compatible with Mac OSX Sierra too.