philosophy

I need people in photographs

Children play football with an improvised ball in the Copperbelt of Zambia. ©Neil Turner/TSL.

Like most members of the photographic profession, the bottom has dropped out of my business and any and all photography bookings between the first week of March and the end of July have been postponed or cancelled. Not my fault, not my client’s faults either so I’m being pretty calm about it and getting used to being in lockdown. Lots of my news photographer friends are out there day after day coming up with fabulous picture to illustrate the only story that anyone is interested in – the Coronavirus Pandemic – and I applaud them warmly. That applause goes for the health workers, retailers who are at work, the emergency services, delivery drivers, refuse workers and every other key worker who is there doing their jobs to keep society ticking over and, more importantly, safe.

Again, like most members of the photographic profession, I am looking back through old images of mine to remind myself what it is about the job and making the pictures that I love so much. I’ve also been looking through some of the hundreds of photographic books that line the shelves in my home and it has taken almost no time at all to re-affirm what I already knew: (more…)

A nice request for a picture

A few weeks ago I received a lovely email from the widow of a philosopher that I had photographed back in 1996. She had been looking through some of his papers and found a cutting from the Times Higher Education Supplement that had an interview with him along with my portrait of him. She saw the tiny 8 point byline and knowing that search engines are wonderful things she tracked me down. Emails went back and forth and today I got a photocopy of the cutting in the post.

I don’t have much of the work that I did between 1994 and 1998 but her luck was in and I had a Kodak Photo CD with some half decent scans from the job in my loft. It was an easy enough task to find the CD, grab the relevant image from it and get it ready to send to her. The old Kodak Photo CDs used an unusual and proprietary format that Photoshop doesn’t recognise so if anyone else comes across this issue I can confirm that the old Graphics Converter application will happily handle the format and convert your files into useful formats such as PSD, TIF or JPG.

Like most photographers I get regular requests for ‘free’ pictures and I am always wary but somehow a hand-written note from the widow of a very nice man where the words “please” and “thank you” chased away my cynicism rather easily. The portrait is of philosopher and Oxford Professor Bernard Williams (he became Sir Bernard a while after I shot the picture) and here it is…

©Neil Turner/TSL. Oxford, October 1996

Geek footnote: I was using a pair of Canon EOS1n bodies with Canon 28-70 f2.8L and 70-200 f2.8L lenses at the time and this was almost certainly shot on the 70-200. The film was Fuji 200 ISO colour negative scanned on a Kodak RFS scanner.

Photography and the art of compromise…

This is an old opinion piece that has been well used in teaching, writing and seminar work.

Photography and the art of compromise is a title for an essay that’s been rattling around in my head for a while. The other day I tweeted a version of what I wanted to say in “140 characters or less” and it was responded to or re-tweeted more times in a few hours than anything else that I’ve ever written on that particular social networking site. It was at that point that I decided that I needed to put my thoughts about the subject down as a blog piece.

All photography requires compromise – the better your skills as a photographer, the more control you have over the compromises you make.

That was the wording on Twitter (OK, there was a hashtag on the word photography). It seemed to strike a chord with a lot of my peers – maybe because it is possibly the single hardest lesson to learn when you become a photographer.

For the less experienced photographers amongst you who might be unsure about the kinds of compromises I am talking about, here are a few of the choices that you need to make on a day-to-day basis that lead to compromise:

  • Shooting wide open apertures to get a shallow depth of field versus stopping down a little to make sure you get the subject in focus.
  • Going for a higher ISO than your camera is comfortable with versus the chance of getting camera shake at the lower ISO where there won’t be any noise in the shadow areas…
  • Having to shoot at f22 in bright sunshine so that you can shoot flash and still keep the shutter speed down to the camera’s maximum sync speed.
  • Placing your flash unit close to the subject to get the effect of a proportionally larger light modifier versus placing it further away to reduce the effect of flash fall-off.

And so on and so on. Every time you alter a setting on your camera, every time you place a light and every time you focus the lens you are making decisions most of which lead to a compromise. Sometimes the decision has a small effect on the image and sometimes it has a crucial one. The technical and creative skills that we pick up throughout our time as photographers equip us with an ever greater understanding of the options. As we practice our craft, we learn to take more and more decisions in real time – often without really thinking about them and it’s these decisions that dictate our style of photography.

As a photographer my preference might be to worry less about depth of field and more about critical focus when I’m shooting some jobs whilst I’d almost certainly place a light where it will give me the right light on the main subject and allow me to worry about backgrounds second.

Put simply, that’s what makes my pictures mine and the decisions that you would take in a similar situation would mark your images out as yours. Where decisions become compromises is the place where creativity lives and where most photographers do their best work