pearls

Workflow “greatest hits”

The other day I was chatting to a young photographer and trying to explain why a consistent and logical workflow was so important. I confidently referred to my own (this) blog and the many years that I have been writing about photography in general and about workflow specifically. Much to my own embarrassment it took me a few minutes to find the posts that I was looking for. I made a note to come back and create some “greatest hits” lists of posts for various topics and this is the first one – workflow and Photo Mechanic. (more…)

Card readers are the new camera bags…

©Neil Turner, December 2014. A small selection of the CF card readers that I own

©Neil Turner, December 2014. A small selection of the CF card readers that I own

As I sit here about to hit “buy” on yet another new reader for compact flash cards I am feeling more than a little bit of deja vu. And when I say “deja vu” I mean multiple layers of it. Sure I’ve bought plenty of CF, SD and even PCMCIA card readers in my time and of course none of them has been perfect but that feeling is an identical replica of the feeling I get when I buy a new camera bag – it’s a complex emotion; optimism meets resignation as I want to think that “the one” that I am buying is as perfect as I long for it to be whilst knowing full-well that it is going to be just as disappointing and just as deeply flawed as the last one, the one before that and the twenty or more before that.

It appears to be part of the psyche of professional photographers that we have to seek perfection in the equipment that we buy and use without acknowledging that such a thing doesn’t exist and that it probably never will. In just the same way that there is a colossal amount of choice in the camera bag market, there are lots of different CF card readers out there. Where the two markets diverge is in the quality of the construction and the longevity of the products. I have camera bags that have lapped the world and lived in more car boots than I can remember and that are still perfectly serviceable whereas CF card readers are cheap, poorly made and don’t appear to be of professional quality at all.

It isn’t completely the fault of the manufacturers: the pin design on compact flash cards isn’t as tough as you’d like and the way that the current crop of USB3 readers with separate cables  experience problems with the cable to reader connection would imply that it may be the USB3 standard that is at fault rather than the manufacturers quality control or design. This is backed up by the number of portable USB3 hard drives that are being reported as failing due to that same connection. It wasn’t always this way. I still have a couple of Sandisk Firewire 800 card readers that are as good as new despite having a hard life and being pretty much obsolete and the ancient PCMCIA reader that lives in a box in the loft was a proper professional bit of kit.

The accepted wisdom was that readers with removable cables were a good idea because the cables were the part of the kit that was prone to damage but that’s no longer the case. In an almost heretical move I am leaning towards the idea that built-in cables, avoiding the car crash that is the USB3 standard, are once again a good idea – and that is why my finger is hovering over the “buy” button because Delkin Devices have produced a reasonably solid looking USB3 reader with a built-in, chunky cable. Of course I’m resigned to the idea that there will be issues – this is one of those moments where optimism is high and the deja vu is strong.

Here goes…

Empathy

empathy

As photographers we have a vision. We know how we want our photographs to look and we know what kind of response we are trying to encourage from our viewers and from our clients. When we don’t get the reaction that we were looking for or we don’t get any reaction at all then we have either got it wrong or we have a vision so unique that nobody else gets it.

One of the qualities shared by pretty much all of my favourite photographers is the ability to empathise. The best of the best can do it on just about every level too. They understand the feelings and motivations of those that they are photographing every bit as well as they understand those of the target audience. It doesn’t matter if that’s the doting parents of a newborn baby in a studio in the northern hemisphere or the parents of a critically ill child in the southern hemisphere – having the ability to imagine yourself into the position of those whose lives will be effected by your photography is a key skill. I find it hard to think of a genre of photography where empathy wouldn’t be right up there with an understanding of composition or light as a piece of the jigsaw that comes together to make us ‘photographers’.

Somebody reading this is gesticulating at their screen and shouting about being single-minded and determined and not letting emotion get in the way of doing a good job and they have a valid point. Having empathy doesn’t always mean that you have to act on it. There will always be situations where you have to put your ability to understand everyone else’s needs and desires to one side and shoot the pictures that you need to shoot in the way that you need to shoot them but the great photographers – even the single-minded great photographers – have empathy.

If your are finding it hard to agree with this idea then I’d ask you to look at some pictures and try to work out whose feelings, needs and desires the photographer concerned might have been taking into account and/or ignoring when they shot them. I would hazard a guess that the pictures that have the most impact will be those where empathy is a factor and those that are just eye-candy are those where empathy isn’t a big part of the formula.

Stage two of the RAW argument

Ten years ago the “should I shoot RAW” debate was raging between all kinds of photographers. Slowly but surely the vast majority of us have moved over to the RAW camp having realised that you not only get better quality but can also save time if your workflow is good enough. OK, so you only get 300 images on an 8 gigabyte memory card but memory is cheap these days and all of the other advantages of shooting Jpegs (unless you are offloading files straight from the camera) have disappeared one by one.

So that’s stage one of the RAW argument out of the way.

Screen Shot 2014-07-17 at 10.39.41

So far, stage two has appeared to be a whole series of “my RAW converter is better than your RAW converter” arguments played out endlessly across social media. Proponents of one system produce videos that “prove” their point of view on YouTube and then those links are posted on Facebook, Twitter and who knows where else until someone else comes along and “proves” the exact opposite. Some of them even try to sell you expensive and largely pointless plug-ins and actions that promise to take your photos and turn them into masterpieces in a single click of a mouse. Is it all valid comment or is it just hot air? I’m leaning heavily towards the latter.

Buying, learning and mastering every single quality converter would be expensive and mind-numbingly dull. Few of us use any software to anywhere near its limitations and some of the claims for various applications go largely un-challenged.

A few years ago people started to talk excitedly about Capture One as being a gold-standard amongst RAW converters. It would have been around version four that I persuaded my then employer to send me on a one-day course to learn the basics of the workflow. It was good. It was actually very good and I bought it (well, my employer bought it for me). Fast forward to version six and I wrote glowingly about it on this blog saying that I really liked it despite a few flaws. Well of course that was comparing it to Adobe Camera RAW in Photoshop as it was then. Both applications have upgraded since then as have Aperture, Canon DPP, Nikon Capture, DxO and a range of others. Each of them has advantages and disadvantages that skilled users of each piece of software can and will point out to anyone who will listen. Those skilled users can also get the very best out of a file using their chosen converter. Capture One Pro 7 is wonderful but so is Adobe Camera RAW 8.5 and so are lots of others.

And here is the first major conclusion – as long as you have the RAW file, you can endlessly go back and rework those files with every new and supposedly better application you try or buy. For the record, I don’t believe that there is anything other than a tiny difference between the best of them when it comes to image quality if the person doing the work has the skills and experience to get the most out of the files or the software. The old “this application is better at recovering highlights” comment that you hear so often is not only subjective but largely a thing of the past. As new versions come out and as new cameras present us with new variants of the RAW formats then differences do become apparent. A quick upgrade to your chosen application and those problems go away again.

Here is the second major conclusion and the principle piece of wisdom that I want to impart: It’s all about the interface. How you interact with the application has a greater influence on what you get out at the end than anything else. Application A does a great job but so do Applications B and C. If you are comfortable with B then choose B and don’t stress about the relative merits of A or C until such times as B can no longer deliver the quality from your files that you and your market demand. Changing workflow and moving to a new RAW converter is painful, time-consuming and throughly depressing (unless you are a geek like me). My heart goes out to the Aperture users who are facing having to do just that at some time in the near future now that Apple have announced that they are stopping development.

As software gets better, the files we process through that software gets better and our workflows become more embedded someone, somewhere will do some “testing” and pronounce that they have the perfect workflow and Groundhog Day will be upon us for the zillionth time.

I sometimes end up working with other photographers files and the difference between types of files is astounding. Canon 5D MkII files next to Canon 5D MkIII files require different handling but the difference between those and something like a Nikon D4S file is astonishing. Not better, not worse but different. Different to the point that you have to tweak your technique. Using the exact same software, workflow computer and set-up the two types of file react very differently to the same treatment. This, ladies and gentlemen, is my third and final major conclusion from stage two of the RAW debate – Not all RAW files are created equally so don’t assume that you can work the same way with them.

Bring on stage three please.

Eye-Fi card workflow

eye-fi_cards When I was rounding up 2013 I mentioned that I had a lot of success using an Eye-Fi card to wirelessly transmit pictures from my cameras (Canon EOS5D MkIII and Fujifilm X20) to either my iPhone, iPad or laptop where I can do a quick edit and caption before sending them to clients. Inevitably I got a couple of emails using the “ask me anything” feature of this blog asking me to describe my workflow. It is similar between an EOS5D MkIII and the Fujifilm X20 except that the former has twin card slots (one CF compact flash and one SD secure digital) whereas the latter only has the SD slot. I like to shoot RAW which means that in the X20 I have to do an in-camera RAW conversion to create a Jpeg to send out. I have two cards (shown left) – an Eye-Fi branded 8Gb Pro X2 and a Sandisk branded 4Gb one. In practice, they both do much the same job but the orange Eye-Fi one has more options should you want to work differently. Without further ado, here is how it all works on the Canon…

Getting the the settings on the card, your camera and your phone/tablet/computer right is the key to getting everything working well:

  1. Setting up the Eye-Fi card. When you get the card it should come with an SD card reader and by far the best way to set things up is to use that reader to load the card into a computer. There are lots of options that will appear once you have loaded the supplied “Eye-Fi Centre” application. This workflow is all about working in what the manufacturer calls “direct mode”. I choose to only transfer the files I want to my iPhone and so on the card I have selected “Selective Transfer” via the Eye-Fi Centre application. This means that only images that I have protected in the camera menu get transferred. On the Canon I have assigned the “rate” button to protect images for speed. It is also useful to add a couple of wifi networks and to define which file formats to transfer using the application whilst the card is in the computer because it isn’t possible to alter some settings once the card is in the camera. This whole process takes a few minutes and if you get it right, the whole thing test a lot easier from here on in.eye-fi_screenshot
  2. Setting up the camera. In the EOS5D MkIII menu there are three things that I’d recommend you do. The first is to assign the “rate” button to protect selected images. The second is to get the camera to write RAW files to the CF card and medium size Jpegs to the SD (Eye-Fi) card. Finally, you need to enable Eye-Fi transfer from the camera menu. This way you can use the review function with card 2 (the SD slot) and then every time you protect an image written to the Eye-Fi card it will automatically look to transfer that file to the device you have nominated.
    eos_screens
  3. The receiving device. I use an iPhone and an iPad and the whole process is eventually controlled by the free app that Eye-Fi make available through the Apple App Store. There are equally useful apps available for Android powered devices and the functionality is pretty much identical. Apart from loading the app the only other thing you have to do is to download and authorise a small change to your wifi settings on your phone which simply installs the settings for the direct mode to work. Once you launch the app you get an opening window which then gives way to the gallery window which in turn tells you what is happening about transfers. Below you can see the card paring screen and the gallery screen.eye_fi_phone
  4. Editing your pictures. Once you have the image on your phone or tablet you can then use the apps of your choice to edit and caption your image before shifting them on. My personal favourite is Photogene4 which has some good image options such as clarity, contrast, saturation, straighten, crop, sharpen and the ability to add IPTC captions – including defaults such as the EXIF time day and date as well as any pre-loaded captions and copyright information. I find that it’s a good idea to write some generic captions using Apple’s Notes app and then copy and paste them into Photogene4. The app also has the option to upload to a wide range of sharing sites as well as to email and ransomer images to FTP servers – making it really useful for work.photogene
    From shooting a frame to having it uploaded to my own FTP server normally takes twenty to thirty seconds if there is a good phone signal and the various uses that I’ve found for this rapid upload range from offering images to people I’ve photographed to providing almost instant pictures for corporate clients to use for their Facebook, Instagram and Twitter feeds at events. This is a very versatile piece of kit and I haven’t even come close to describing everything that it can do. I like the way that this workflow actually does flow and I love the effect that it has had on a couple of clients who really appreciate what it offers them. My first Eye-Fi card was £24.99 including VAT – possibly the best investment that I’ve ever made!

New year’s resolution

We all do it… make promises to ourselves about what we are going to do and how we are going to do it as another year begins. Take more pictures, get more exercise, make more money, be nicer etc etc. You can take it as read that I’m attempting all of those but I thought that I’d talk about the first one – taking more pictures.

©Neil Turner January 2014

©Neil Turner January 2014. Shot using a Fujifilm X20

Time after time in my career I have realised that the more I shoot, the better my reactions are and the more instinctive the operation of the camera becomes. I’m pretty sure that someone could even devise a mathematical formula for it where x is the number of pictures you shoot over a given period of time, y is the number of days over a given period where you don’t take pictures and z is the probability that when you are shooting an assignment you absolutely nail the job. Unfortunately I’m not an imaginative and innovative mathematician so I’m not going to be able to define that formula – if you have the ability, please feel free to finish the task for me but not until you have read the rest of the puzzle:

All of this seems to be rational, don’t you think? There are a couple of flies in the ointment though: If you do too much of the same kind of thing, you can get into a rut and just keep producing cookie-cutter images.

So does that mean that there is an optimal amount of pictures to be taken? Well yes… and no… If you are shooting very different images on each occasion then you can take a lot more pictures and get a lot sharper without becoming stuck in the rut that I mentioned just now. There is a further variable that we need to include in our increasingly complex formula – having the time between shoots to properly edit our own work and to reflect on why and how certain pictures did and didn’t work and this requires a degree of knowledge and of technical and analytical skill.

Now we need to clarify what the formula needs to say:

  • Take lots of different pictures using different techniques and different equipment.
  • Don’t take so many pictures that you get stuck in your ways.
  • Have the time to edit and analyse your work.
  • Learn from your successes and mistakes.
  • Make sure that you know why and why the pictures that you like worked and why the rest didn’t.

All of this makes me re-assess my new year’s resolution. It isn’t just to take more pictures – it’s to take more different pictures and to learn as much as I can in the process. If I get time I might even learn a bit more about mathematical formulae too.

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.