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.


Having a gutter mentality

OK so it’s a deliberately eye-catching headline and, unfortunately, this blog post is about composing photographs for use in newspapers and magazines rather than anything X-rated. In publishing the ‘gutter’ is the fold or join between the two pages across a spread. It might be pages two and three, four and five or any other combination through thirty-four and thirty-five to the end of the publication. As photographers we have to handle those spreads carefully because there is always a chance that a badly composed or laid out picture can lose a lot of its impact through an important detail disappearing into the gutter. Experienced photographers and thinking photographers always go out of their way to give designers as much flexibility as possible to use their pictures across a spread without losing those important details.

How the pictures look

Here is an example of an image and how it was used. It’s not the greatest picture that I have ever taken but it is a very good example for the purposes of teaching – something I’ve used this picture for many times. You can see where the gutter lies – halfway through and that there is a single column of text on either side of the cropped picture. The designer could easily have laid the page out with two columns of text in white on the darker background or two columns on either the left or right of the spread – they had plenty of choice. That, to a large extent, is because the photograph was shot with design in mind.


Space on either side of the image with interesting but unimportant detail makes this an ideal editorial photograph in terms of composition. It could even have been cropped to a single page vertical if the layout hd called for the. Arguably it would have been a shame, but that’s the way it sometimes goes. You’ll also notice that the designer has taken advantage of a large dark area within the image to run a headline. Purist photographers hate having their work used (and they’d argue abused) in this way but I am happy for it to happen as long as it doesn’t trample the important details that I have mentioned previously. Put simply, shooting pictures more loosely than you might otherwise do nearly always gives designers more options.

When I’m teaching editing and workflow to other photographers I often see them cropping their images to perfection. The fact that those crops rarely coincide with the shape of the page and the fact that even if they did coincide things often change is something that I spend a lot of time talking about. The only times you get to crop your images exactly how you want to see them are in a) your self-published book and b) your portfolio. Photographers that want to get used over and over again by the same clients provide options and that means a range of pictures many of which have a strong element of flexibility about them.

I absolutely love shooting for editorial clients. I also love working for corporate clients who like to use images in an editorial way. That means that I have to think about what the designers and sub-editors might want to do with my pictures every time I have the viewfinder to my eye. When I was first starting out that was one of the steeper learning curves – easily as tough as correctly exposing transparency film and focusing manual lenses. Twenty seven years on, it has become second nature.

Social media … is it working yet?

A little over two years ago I wrote a blog post about social networking where I asked largely rhetorical questions about whether there was a point to it, which platforms were the right ones and whether or not it made any difference. About three weeks ago I wrote on Twitter that I’d spent half a day integrating my social media – getting my Tweets to show up on LinkedIn and getting my photos posted on EyeEm to show up on Facebook and then getting every single platform to react to one another when I wanted them to. Not only did I set all of that up on the desktop and laptop computers but I also did it on the iPad and the iPhone. Boy, am I ever integrated now!

This morning I added a post on a LinkedIn group about explaining to reluctant businesses why they should be using social media:

“The simplest way to explain it to the doubters is to point to the utter stupidity of NOT using social media in the world in which we currently live. You didn’t need it ten years ago and theres’ a chance it might be past it’s best in ten years time but right here, right now it is the method chosen by a massive proportion of the population for making choices, doing research and engaging with business.”

So… is social media working yet? You wouldn’t expect me to give a clear and unequivocal answer to a direct question that I posed myself would you? Of course not – except there is an answer that I have given a few times when talking about this:

“It isn’t not working”.

How do I explain that? I’d be worried if social media was having a negative effect on my business and career but I have been really careful to avoid the stupidity of posting banal, overly-personal or critical observations on any platform unless they were going to have a positive effect – which is almost never. On a few closed Facebook groups I might be a little less guarded and in private messages I might use the odd bit of cussing but on the whole my social media profiles have been kept clean. That has meant very little controversy, relatively few spikes in activity and a lower profile than I might have gained had I been happy to upset a number of people. That’s all OK but why would I imply that all wasn’t well with social media? Well, the hours spent plugging away haven’t been directly rewarded with more business and it would be hard to quantify the actual benefits of getting out there in the worlds of social media. So in the two years since I first blogged about this I have got a lot better at doing it, gained a few jobs here and there and generally promoted myself positively. I’m going to keep on doing it because I genuinely believe that to avoid social media is a very bad thing.

The irony is that this blog is the one thing that I want people to see, read and interact with. That’s my strategy and that’s why I wanted to get the integration going – the other platforms are there to boost the blog and the blog is there to raise my profile. Whether or not that circle is vicious or virtuous is something only others can decide upon.

©Neil Turner, May 2013. First seen on EyeEm - there are so many ways to promote your business these days!

©Neil Turner, May 2013. First seen on EyeEm – there are so many ways to promote your business these days!


©TSL. July 2004. Nine years ago this week Canon delivered my first EOS1D MkII. I shot for the first time with it on a job where staff were using acupuncture in a Sussex school to help boys with their behaviour.

©TSL. July 2004. Nine years ago this week Canon delivered my first EOS1D MkII. I shot for the first time with it on a job where staff were using acupuncture in a Sussex school to help boys with their behaviour.

I woke up this morning to the headline news that it was Nelson Mandela’s 95th birthday. It is also my next-door-neighbour’s 50th birthday and my nephew’s partner is having her birthday celebration this evening as well. I started to think about things that had happened on (or near) this day over time in my life and I came up with a few:

  • 18th July 2012: I was working as a member of the Photo Operations team at the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic games. I have written before about just how exciting, tiring, inspiring and memorable it was but with the first anniversary athletics event about to happen those memories are coming back as strongly as ever.
  • 18th July 2011: I was coming to the end of the very first cycle of the NCTJ Photojournalism course that I help to teach at Up To Speed in Bournemouth whilst shooting a wide range of both editorial and corporate commissions. That was also an exciting time but for very different reasons.
  • 18th July 2010: I was shooting mostly corporate photography and things were starting to go quiet for the summer months. Really quiet as it turned out.
  • 18th July 2008: I was still employed as a staff photographer at TSL and I spent the day shooting a lovely set of pictures at a school in Hertfordshire that had spent a small fortune making their new building and the grounds as environmentally friendly as possible. I was still unaware that two weeks later I’d be called into a meeting with the Editor and the HR Director to be told that they were making me redundant.
  • 18th July 2003: I had been using my Canon ESO1D cameras for over a year and I was in love. The CRW file format was something of a revaluation and I really enjoyed using it.
  • 18th July 1999: had just been born – I started to publish samples of my work and a few bits of technique advice on my own website for the first time.
  • 18th July 1997: I was starting to experiment with borrowed and rented digital cameras before getting my own DCS520 in late October 1998.
  • 18th July 1995: A month previously I got my own scanner (Kodak RFS2035) and Mac laptop (Powerbook 160c) with Photoshop (v2.5) and began the long journey to digitisation
  • 18th July 1994: Having become a staff photographer at The Times Supplements in January 1994 I had just swapped from shooting with Nikon F4s to Canon EOS1n cameras.
  • 18th July 1993: Life was fun, fast and decidedly unpredictable. One day I would be shooting for a newspaper and the next it was a glossy magazine. On the third day it might be a PR job and you could lay money down that every week would be different from the last. I was shooting with a mixture of Nikon F4, F801 and FM2 cameras as well as having Leica M6s. Some days it would be black and white and some days it would be colour transparency. Some days I’d be using lights and others required nothing more than a fast lens.
  • 18th July 1983: I was working for Jessops when they only had five shops, offered great deals and great service and everyone knew the Jessop family. I was using Olympus OM1n cameras at the time and had acquired an awesome 35mm f2 Zuiko lens.

My career has (so far) failed to stand still for more than a couple of years. Technology changes, my employment status changes and I change. All of that adds up to excitement and that triggers a feeling of keeping it fresh. My style constantly evolves and the client base also evolves. A lot of my colleagues spend a lot of time bemoaning the disappearance of the ‘good old days’ and I am also prone to a bit of nostalgia but we are where we are and just under five years ago I wrote this line:

“It’s an exciting time to be a photographer with new challenges being presented every month and I am on record as saying that I am a very lucky man to be doing what I do.”

Today I’m shooting a nice mixture of editorial and corporate work as well as doing some teaching, writing and consultancy. I spend a lot more time on the beach and I’m constantly looking forward to the next exciting development… whatever that turns out to be!

Some answers to your questions

A couple of weeks ago I invited people to ask me questions about anything. The idea was to generate some ideas for blog posts because some of the best ones that I have written in the past have been initiated by good questions. I have kept a couple of the most inspiring back for longer answers (and let the questioners know) and I thought that I’d give some answers to some of the other questions now. So, in no particular order, here goes:

Q: Do you do one-to-one training with other photographers and would you be happy to do that in my hometown of Oxford?

A: Yes I do and yes I’d be happy travel if the travel costs were covered. It doesn’t come particularly cheaply but I hope that people who book training with me get an awful lot out of a session. Anyone who has read my blog lately will know that we did a new small group workshop at Up To Speed in Bournemouth a couple of weeks ago. It was a wonderful day with five great people attending the session. You can get in touch with me if you are interested in one-to-one or small group sessions and we can take it from there.

Q: How has you move from London affected your work? Have you tried to hide it from London clients? Do you get any sense that you are looked down upon at all by London-based clients, or have you found benefits in being an out of town photographer?

A: I have always had a home in Dorset, even when I was working as a staff photographer in London. In that respect nothing has changed – I still have bases in both London and Bournemouth. What is different is that I have tried very hard to change the balance of the work that I do so that I can spend a lot more time at home in Bournemouth. My clients all know that I have two bases and one or two have definitely chosen not to pick up the phone for simple jobs that they perceive would involve me popping up to London for a quick portrait or a one hour PR job. The truth is that the vast majority of my photographic work comes from London clients and a big percentage of that is still in London. That’s absolutely fine: I stay up in town as and when I need to. On balance the work that comes from London is better paid, more interesting and more plentiful. The photographic market down here is a lot smaller and there is a relatively large number of photographers chasing that small pool of work. There are one or two photographers down here that will work for stupidly low fees and I am not about to get into a race to the bottom with them. All of that adds-up to the status quo where I am working all over the country for mostly London or overseas clients and less than 5% of my work is locally sourced. The benefits of living down here are self-evident: it’s a lovely place, I was born here and have lots of family and friends here. When I’m not shooting I am able to do the other stuff (like blogging) at home. The drawbacks are all about perception and I spend a lot of time on the phone trying to change negative perceptions.

Q: Best portable light modifier for location work (for the Quadras)? I’m toying with the idea of getting a Rotalux Deep Octa (100cm I think it would be) as an upgrade to my current brolley, grid or small Easybox softbox, and wondered what you have found to be the ‘best’ portable light modifier for your Quadras?

A: Quantify best… For me, it’s all about the compromise between quality of light and ease/speed of use. I have a huge soft spot for the Chimera ProII soft box that I’ve owned for well over ten years. It’s a 32″ x 24″ rectangular box with an inner diffuser that fits onto the Quadra via the Elinchrom soft box adapter and a suitable speed ring. I can assemble and attach it in under a minute (30 seconds if I’m on form) and it rotates on the speed ring allowing either portrait or landscape orientation. I also use a shoot through translucent umbrella. Many years ago I acquired a Lastolite umbrella box which is as quick as an umbrella to put up, almost as cheap as an umbrella and yet give a really nice even efficient light in the way that a soft box does. It has been in and out of my bag over the years as I get bored with doing things the same old way but I recently started to use it again and it finally broke. I have ordered a new one and when it comes I expect to get back to using the umbrella box for a while. I think that the important thing here is to have options and to know when and where to use each of them. I never, for example, use the translucent umbrella outdoors – too much loss of light. The Rotalux deep boxes are great but they are expensive and relatively cumbersome. I have never owned one but I’d like to.

Q: Hello. I own a 5D mark1, 24-105, 430ex2. I work with ambient light & tripod mostly because I’m scared of flash. This is OK for landscapes/architecture etc but not for people shots in low light. I have tried E-TTL in P & Green mode but am always disappointed. Would you have safe manual settings you could share with me for low light people shots?

A: Shooting people in low light requires quite a lot of practice to get great results and shooting direct flash whilst keeping the flash unit in the hot shoe will make getting better results really hard. The ‘secret’ to great flash photography is how you modify the light – bouncing it off of walls, reflectors or almost any surface that will direct the light onto the subject from a pleasing angle is what makes the picture. Shooting modes are a secondary issue. I know people who use E-TTL and some of the auto modes who get great results because they know how to bounce or modify the light. You should experiment with bouncing and you shouldn’t be afraid to try a wide range of surfaces. I wrote about how to approach bouncing a few months ago and that is a good starting point. As far as settings go, you need to think about how much power you have in your flash (not that much) and so you need to use apertures like f4 or f5.6 to conserve the flash power. If you are new to shooting in manual modes you might consider using aperture priority and deliberately setting the ambient exposure at -1 or -2 stops. Alternatively you can set everything manually and use the screen on the back of the camera to judge whether the exposure is a good balance or not. Introducing flash as a secondary light source is scary and you need to take some baby steps. Changing absolutely everything at once is a tough call because you will probably take longer to work out what works for you. If you have some money I’d suggest that you get a small light stand, a white umbrella and a either a Canon ST-E2 remote trigger or a pair of off-camera radio triggers so that you can get the flash out of the hot shoe and open up a world of creative options. After that, many of my old technique samples will make a lot more sense.

Q: The Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act… How do we fight against the potential legislation this has paved the way for?

A: There are lots of things that we can all do. The first is to get into a dialogue with your Member of Parliament. Ask them to oppose the orphan works proposals as they stand and point out that the work that the Intellectual Property Office has done so far has left photographers and other creators angry and feeling as if the IPO has an agenda which doesn’t include us or our livelihoods. Your MP will almost inevitably write back quoting a generic reply from Lord Younger pointing out that the stripping of metadata is illegal (which is circumvented by so many websites terms & conditions) and that the right to attribution of your work already exists. This is a red-herring of a response and needs to be challenged if you don’t want you MP to think that they have fulfilled their obligation to you. Next, you should keep the discussion up within your professional and social circles. Don’t let the subject drift into the background. The good news is that there are plenty of people working on this as we speak. Stop43, EPUK, the NUJ, the British Photographic Council, the major agencies and The BPPA amongst others are going to meetings with people that matter and keeping up the pressure on the IPO and the legislators. The Stop 43 website is a useful one to bookmark if you want to keep up to date. Finally it is important that we all try to influence those websites (Flickr, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook etc) whose websites strip metadata to change their ways. You can avoid adding images to them or actively use their competitors who don’t strip stuff and you can try to persuade your friends to follow suit. It’s going to be a tough battle and we need as many people to join-up as possible so your efforts in helping others to get involved will be vital.

Thanks to everyone who has sent me questions so far. Please keep them coming…

Lighting gels… the best in VFM?

Almost all photographers spend money on accessories, gizmos, gadgets and photo-related odds and sods. Sometimes we waste our money but I wanted to put in a brief plug for the things that constantly amaze me by the amount of “bang for the buck” I get from them. I’m talking about lighting gels. They cost a few pounds each and they last for years if you look after them even reasonably well.

Screen grab from Swatch App

Screen grab from Swatch App

The reason that I am writing this today is that last week I was shooting a job and was slightly embarrassed that the pieces of gel in my lighting kit were looking a bit tatty. I realised that some of them were bought as shared sheets (ie I only had half of a 52 x 61 cm sheet of each) when I was at college in the mid 1980s. I might have added a few more colours and strengths since then but even the newest gel in my bag is five years old. The beauty is that you don’t need to look after them that well really – even a scrunched and screwed up gel is still the same colour and will work. Of course they don’t like extreme heat and they aren’t partial to liquid damage either but at under the boiling point of water and kept dry they are very durable.

When I decided that I needed some new gels I phoned The Flash Centre and they arranged for Rosco to send me some. I have been playing with the iPhone Swatch app for about eighteen months now and it made ordering the new gels rather easy. They arrived rapidly in a strong cardboard tube and all I had to do was cut them down into the right sized pieces to fit into a pocket in my Think Tank rolling case.

This time around I ordered various grades of CTS – that’s Colour Temperature Straw, the gel that changes the light coming out of my flash units to varying degrees of Tungsten right up to the Full CTS which does a very good job of making the Elinchrom Ranger Quadra flash tube into a Tungsten light that very closely matches the Tungsten setting on a Canon EOS DSLR. I also got some ND (Neutral Density) gels and a sheet of a diffuser called ‘tough spun’. I didn’t need to get any effects gels – the purple, orange, red, blue and green gels that I have in the case are fine even if they are old enough to buy alcohol by now.

Comparing the cost of this big batch of new gels to some of the money that I have literally thrown away on rubbish gizmos over the last 30 years I feel very smug. I know that after one single use I will have justified the (tiny) expense and that after the 50th use it will get embarrassing how smug I feel about the VFM (value for money) that you get from quality lighting gels.