Photography compared to…


BOURNEMOUTH, DORSET. 08 April 2016. A fairground on Redhill Common. © Photo Neil Turner – Freelance photographer.

When you try to explain concepts in photography to someone who isn’t deeply embedded in the art/craft/science/passion it makes sense to find something else top compare it to. My favourite comparisons are driving, cooking and sport.

Driving is something most of us do and, on the whole, we do it without having to think too much about the basics. I’ve talked about it before so I’ll quickly recap my thoughts:

Changing gear, using the indicators, knowing when to use windscreen wipers and headlights are all pretty much done on auto-pilot whilst we think more consciously about road awareness, speeds, traffic, navigation and much else besides. The comparison to photography is an easy one to make because there are basic controls that we like to think are second nature; exposure, focusing, making sure we have memory cards and batteries whilst composition and anticipating things happening in front of your camera (and often off to the side and behind you) are things that require more conscious thought.

Tempting though it is to continue stretching the analogy I want to move onto cooking. All pictures have some basic ingredients and the skill of photography is to take those basics, add some interesting extras and know how to combine them and serve them up. That’s the schmultzy bit out of the way. Great chefs (and I’ve photographed a few and dined in the restaurants of several) are constantly looking for new twists and the odd exotic ingredient whilst making food that serves the joint purpose of feeding and engaging diners. Mediocre chefs overdo it, use too many trendy techniques and ingredients at the same time and generally fail in the main task of presenting good food where substance and style are in balance. The rest of us when cooking do the same old dishes, warm up too many ready meals and generally avoid any pretence of culinary ambition or expertise.

I’m pretty sure that I don’t even need to draw the comparisons between cooking and photography except to say that I’d almost rather have the gourmet food and the home cooked stuff all of the time and miss out the self-regarding nonsense in the middle. Restaurant critics and food writers have a lot in common with people who write pretentious twaddle about photography. This is one analogy that can go on for a long time.

So what about sport? I am sitting and writing this on the day of the opening ceremony for the 2016 Rio Olympics thinking of my many friends and colleagues who are already there working as photographers, editors and photo managers. They will be watching/photographing/witnessing some of the finest athletes in the word today. Athletes that have spent years perfecting their skills and getting themselves into peak condition being photographed by many of the finest photographers who have also spent years getting to where they are today.

Comparing photography to sports isn’t so much about finding similarities – it’s more about the differences. When you run 400 metres as a professional nothing much changes. Tracks are tracks and running shoes develop little by little. I know that diet, training and off-track activities change but, essentially, the principal task remains the same because running one lap of a track as fast as possible is what it is; tremendously tough but always the same. Photographing that event is a constantly changing thing. From black and white to colour, from manual focus to auto-focus and now we have to shift the pictures extremely rapidly too. Technology means that day-to-day, week-to-week and year-to-year shooting the same kind of job changes. An athlete remains at the top of their game for a relatively short time whilst the best photographers are around for decades. A swimmer attending their third or fourth Olympics is news whereas a photographer doing that would be just getting started!

Comparing apples with bananas has value when trying to explain the wider art and craft of photography to someone whose experience has been the odd compact camera and their smartphone. Right now I need to go and explain why it takes at least three hours to do the post-production on a six hour shoot and why I can’t just give the client some rough Jpegs. Anyone got a compelling analogy for that?

Thinking on your feet

My shadow using a monopod to get a high angle picture. March 2016 ©Neil Turner

My shadow using a monopod to get a high angle picture. March 2016 ©Neil Turner

I was out shooting a job yesterday and needed to get quite a bit of extra height. The best place to shoot the picture from was on the side of a grassy hill which was very wet and the client’s health and safety policies meant that it wasn’t going to be easy to use a step ladder – whilst building a tower was outside the budget. In an ideal world a proper pole-cam or even a drone would have been the best option but the light was right and I needed to improvise.

Having used the Canon EOS6D as a remote via their iPhone app once before I was reasonably confident that my idea would work but the app has been replaced/updated and it meant learning the new one on the job. I had a basic monopod, a tripod head and a Manfrotto Super Clamp in the car but no proper way to attach the phone to the monopod to use as a viewfinder and remote release. With a proper pole-cam you rest the base of the pole on the ground and it is pretty stable. You also have a cradle for the phone or even a tablet if you want to go bigger. I had to tuck the foot of the monopod into my belt to get enough height but I had about an hour so I went into full “1970s Blue Peter” improvisation mode.

The cradle that holds my iPhone in my car was pressed into service and that attached very easily to the Manfrotto Super Clamp. Having extended the monopod to its full height I then attached the clamp to the second stage of the monopod (about eye-level when the whole thing was in use I guessed). Then I stuck the tripod head onto the monopod tilting down a little and put the EOS6D with a Canon 16-35 f4L IS lens on it. Whilst all of this was being done I was downloading the latest Canon Camera Connect app from the Apple App Store.

After a few minutes messing with settings I had the system working. I could use the phone as a viewfinder and a remote release for the Canon DSLR and I set about shooting the pictures without leaving the ground myself. After a minute or two I decided that I needed more height to look down on the subject a bit more and so I tilted the tripod head down a little and when I put the camera back into the air the foot of the monopod was resting on my chest. Even with a camera as light as the 6D I couldn’t hold it up for more than a minute at a time but we got the shot and I only got pointed at (and laughed at) by a small handful of passers-by. I wouldn’t want to have to work this way very often but, having just edited and uploaded the pictures, I know that I have a “Blue Peter”** solution that works.

** Blue Peter was required viewing as a child growing up in the 1970s. They always showed you how to make useful things from odds and ends lying around the house.

The story behind a picture #4

Trying to interest tourists in the shell game on the South Bank in London. © Neil Turner, December 2015

Trying to interest tourists in the shell game on the South Bank in London.
© Neil Turner, December 2015

I almost always carry a camera when I’m out and these days I have to go to a lot of meetings with clients and potential clients – most of which are in central London. There’s always something to see and as I was on my way to a meeting just before Christmas I saw a small group of people trying hard to get passing tourists interested in playing ‘the shell game‘ on the South Bank near the Royal National Theatre.

The idea is simple; one of the group pretending to be a tourist plays the game and wins whilst other members of the group stand around playing the joint roles of lookout and interested bystanders. It took them about ten seconds to realise that they were having their photograph taken and whilst some of them hid their faces the others tried to block my view and make me move on. It was a cold and damp day and they weren’t getting any trade so my presence probably angered them but I stood there, shot some pictures before moving on.

My favourite frame was the attempt that the man actually conducting the game made to hide his face as he approached me to tell me that I wasn’t allowed to take his picture!

Shell game players hides his face with £50 notes on the South Bank in London. © Neil Turner, December 2015

Shell game players hides his face with £50 notes on the South Bank in London.
© Neil Turner, December 2015

Technical stuff: Fujifilm X100S, 1600 ISO 1/125th of a second at f5.6. Converted into black and white in Photoshop CC2015

The story behind a picture #3

Sitting in the window seat at Subway on Shaftesbury Avenue Photo: Neil Turner Photo: Neil Turner

Sitting in the window seat at Subway on Shaftesbury Avenue
© Neil Turner, November 2014.

This photograph falls into the ‘personal work’ category. I had been to a meeting in central London during the evening and had arrived fashionably on-time having failed to park in my favourite evening parking space near the location of the meeting. That had forced me to park a bit further away. As a result my walk back to my car at around 10.30pm was both longer and much more interesting than usual.

I nearly always have a camera with me and it is nearly always either my Fujifilm X100S or it’s little brother the X20 but on this evening I had a Canon EOS6D with a couple of fast prime lenses and so I shot some photographs of things that interested me as I walked. This shop window – a branch of Subway that stays open until the early hours was the very first thing that caught my eye and I was very interested to see just how good the EOS6D is at higher ISOs. This was shot at 3200 ISO with a shutter speed of 1/250th of a second at f1.8 using a Canon EF 28mm f1.8 lens. For a DSLR this is about as unobtrusive as you can get – the quiet shutter mode is really good and the speed and accuracy of the auto focus on the centre focusing point means that you can ‘snatch’ a frame in really low light with quite a high degree of certainty.

Just around the corner I saw the potential for another nice image with the frontage of a theatre after the last member of the public had left the building. I composed, waited and finally got this frame as a solo pedestrian passed through the frame.

Pedestrian passes under the "Memphis" banner outside a west end theatre at night. © Neil Turner November 2014.

Pedestrian passes under the “Memphis” banner outside a west end theatre at night. © Neil Turner November 2014.

This photograph was also shot at 3200 ISO but was better lit at 1/640th of a second at f1.8. I was actually quite disappointed when I got back to my car and realised that I had a two and a half hour drive home. I knew that I had half a dozen good photographs and I sat in the car and transferred a couple of them to my phone using the camera’s built-in wifi before uploading them to EyeEm and Twitter. Then I drove home…

Zooming with your…

©Neil Turner/Bupa 10,000. May 2015. A Police rider accompanies a detachments of Guards as they march back their barracks.

©Neil Turner/Bupa 10,000. May 2015.
A Police rider accompanies a detachments of Guards as they march back their barracks.

I was on a job the other day, standing next to a very young photographer in a ‘press pen’. He glanced over at the gear I was using and mentioned how much he would love to own the 135mm f2L lens that I had on one of my cameras. He said that he had never really got the hang of “zooming with his feet” in the way that so many of the photographers he admired had advised. He had also had it drummed into him by one of his tutors at college and it had left him wondering if he was doing something wrong.

Zooming with your feet is a great concept and it is one of the catchphrases in contemporary photography that appears to be beyond question. But is it? Is it actually as much a cliche as a universal truth?

There we were on a job where we couldn’t have zoomed with our feet even if either of us had the skills to do so. We couldn’t go forward – there was a metal barrier in the way. We couldn’t go backwards because there were other photographers and a couple of TV crews behind us – and behind them was another barrier. We had a tiny amount of sideways movement if we could change places with each other but, apart from that, we were in a very fixed position.

The event we were shooting was a fixed distance from us and so it was possible to get the right prime lens on the camera and then to shoot the job.

What my young photographer friend didn’t know was that I had my 70-200 lens in my bag but that I had some real concerns about its performance earlier in the day which is why I had grabbed the 135 and decided to use that.

As we had plenty of time to spare I explained my choice of lens and explained that a lot of press work means that zooming with your feet is somewhere between difficult and impossible and that to get the most from a fixed position a set of zoom lenses is actually the right choice. I went on to admit that I would be doing a fair bit of zooming on the job myself, except that it would be in the post-production – zooming with the crop tool is what I decided to call it.

And that’s what I did. The resolution of modern DSLRs is such that you can get a high quality Jpeg from 50% of the actual frame and the quality of the best lenses easily allows you do that and maybe more. Starting off with a lens wider than you probably need and then refining your crop in post-production was very common in the days of darkrooms and prints but when we were shooting 35mm colour transparencies or with the early low-megapixel digitals it became important to get the crop right in-camera. We have come full circle and some judicious cropping makes sense once more.

Shooting with prime lenses is something that I have discussed more than once before and it is something that I find myself doing more and more on jobs where I’m the only photographer or where I have enough freedom to go with the universal truth/cliche (delete where applicable) and actually zoom with my feet. The rest of the time it is zooms and now that I am using two distinct sets of lenses for different types of jobs I’ve decided to invest in some new gear – and I’ll be blogging about that very soon.

Reliance on the internet

As photographers we have got used to using a range of web-based technologies to deliver our work to our clients. Most of the time it works and nobody notices how amazing these technologies are. Over the years we have come to expect more and more in terms of bandwidth and speed and we have come to rely on getting good connections to easily accomplish what would have been regarded as time-sensitive alchemy only a few years ago.

On an overseas job last week the client wanted a lot of high resolution Jpegs delivered to them very quickly and their chosen method was WeTransfer. It’s a very good and reliable system in itself but it depends on a half decent internet connection. Sadly we didn’t get that connection and out of sheer frustration I did these screen grabs:


Yes that’s right: one million, two hundred and one thousand, seven hundred and thirty hours to complete a transfer that should have taken about half an hour on a half decent network. In case you are interested that is fifty thousand and seventy-two days or one hundred and thirty-seven years and sixty-five days. A bit slow. The second screen grab says less than a minute but that was also wildly inaccurate as no further data moved.

In the end I had to abandon the ethernet and wifi networks that the client had arranged for us to use and head outside where I could pick up a great 4G mobile signal by tethering to my iPhone and use my roaming package to send the pictures – which took about 44 minutes (by then I had 1.2Gb of pictures). The point here is that now we have come to reply on the internet for almost all of our image delivery it has become crucial that we have multiple ways of connecting to the internet.

Quiet documentary image

©Neil Turner, January 2015. Flowers and a memorial plaque to four local surfers on Boscombe Pier.

©Neil Turner, January 2015. Flowers and a memorial plaque to four local surfers on Boscombe Pier.

The light on the beach is almost always interesting and whilst out walking this morning I shot a few frames of a small bunch of flowers tucked behind a memorial plaque to four young local surfers on Boscombe Pier. I guess that I would call this a documentary image and it is yet another different way for me to shoot a beach picture. For me the photograph is a great deal stronger for having the back of the gentleman in the frame.

Tech stuff: Fujifilm X100S, 1/170th of a second at f11 on 320 ISO. RAW file processed through Adobe Camera RAW in Photoshop CC2014.