Charity PR portrait

©Neil Turner, July 2013. The Victoria Education Centre & Sports College

©Neil Turner, July 2013. The Victoria Education Centre & Sports College

Back in July I was commissioned by Livability to go to the Victoria Education Centre & Sports College to shoot a range of pictures for their in-house publications, websites and PR work. I’d worked on news events a couple of times with the charity before but this was the first time I was shooting this kind of job for them. The afternoon started in the horticulture department where a team of professionals and volunteers works with students and clients growing a range of plants for use around the college and for sale to visitors and the public.

The young man in this picture volunteered himself for this picture and he chose which of the several hundred plants he wanted to be photographed with which made my job rather easy. I found this railing in the woods behind the greenhouses and poly-tunnels (where the work gets done) for the portrait. I chose it because I liked the way that the light was coming through the mass of green foliage, because the rail was sturdy and a great height and because I could see the scope for lighting the foreground in balance with the lovely ambient light in the background.

The photograph that you see here is completely ‘as shot’ with no cropping, no white balance adjustments and only a very simple tweak of the shadows in Adobe Camera RAW from the Canon CR2 files from an EOS5D MkII.

I knew that I wanted to shoot with a relatively shallow depth of field so that the background was sufficiently blurred. I was able to get back a decent distance and so I decided to shoot on my 70-200 f2.8L IS Canon lens and to light the subject with my Elinchrom Ranger Quadra with a shoot-through white 100cm umbrella. Once I had everything set up:

  • The flash was just under two metres away from the subject
  • About 30 degrees from the axis of the lens and ten degrees above his eye-line
  • A quick Custom white balance using the Lastolite EzyBalance grey card
  • It quickly became obvious that shooting at f2.8 or even f4 wasn’t really going to work – I wanted to have the whole plant in focus as well as my subject and then have the whole background as far out of focus as possible.
  • I shot a few test frames and looked at them on the LCD screen before opting for a third of a stop wider than f8 (f7.1 according to the EXIF data) and a balancing shutter speed of 1/80th on 200 ISO.

This gave me the lighting balance that I wanted and the depth of field was as good a compromise as I could get. These shoots are always a mass of compromises and that’s one of the biggest lessons that I try to teach when doing seminars and workshops.

I often get asked about the time it takes to shoot these kinds of pictures and the answer in this case was from the moment I unzipped the bag with the light stands in to shooting the first meaningful frame was just over four minutes. I then had another three minutes before other people were demanding the subject’s attention and it took a final three minutes to pack the kit away again – a nice round ten minutes from start to finish. That’s nowhere near being a record but it was comfortable for me and the subject and it really helps that the client liked the results.

Back when I first started to use portable lighting in this way I used to have a Lumedyne head already on a stand in a sling bag with a pack already connected and used a simple umbrella with Pocket Wizard triggers. I used to boast that my kit was not only lightweight but well planned and that I could be ready to shoot in under forty-five seconds from the time I touched the zip on the bag. When I did seminars and talks I’d even get people to time me getting the kit out and regularly beat forty-seconds. These days I’m a bit slower and I carry a bit more kit (I’m also a fair bit older by the way) and so a three minute set-up and break-down time is pretty good (three and a half minutes if there’s a softbox involved). It means that even if your subject is watching you, they don’t really get the chance to get bored waiting.

The rest of the day was fun and the other highlights were the students playing Boccia (a sport that I hadn’t encountered before last year’s Paralympics), one young woman showing off her excellent art and spending time with younger students and their rather docile rabbits.

Why do YOU take pictures?

Most of this blog is about the professional side of photography but, like a lot of people who make their living taking pictures, there is a passionate enthusiast inside me too. From time-to-time I get a lot of emails from keen amateurs asking me how they can improve their photography. The first answer is always “take more pictures” but beyond that it really helps to know what you are taking photographs and who the audience for those pictures is.

©Neil Turner. November 2011, Branksome Beach, Dorset. This picture was taken as part of a set to illustrate why the BH13 post code area is such a desirable place to live.

Defining who your audience is and realising what their requirements are is a huge step towards becoming a better photographer – especially if you care about what others make of your work. Of course there are many among us who would profess that they only take pictures for their own enjoyment and who don’t really care what other people think. I’m sure that those people exist but they are an incredibly tiny minority. The rest of us want to share our work, get feedback on it and (hopefully) have praise heaped upon it.

A few years ago I wrote an essay entitled “Commission Yourself” as an early attempt to give some direction and purpose to photographers who had a desire to be out there taking pictures but who struggled with what, when and why they were doing it.

It doesn’t matter if you are a professional photographer, a keen amateur or a weekend and holiday compact user – shoot the best pictures that you can. It is all a matter of approach so here is how I suggest you try to take pictures. There are a number of things that a professional photographer knows long before he or she starts to take pictures. The pro knows who the client is, what the end use of the pictures will be and what they will be taking pictures of. This enables them to “focus” on the job ahead, an approach that can easily be translated into the type of photography you do.

The “client” could be your partner or your children and you know that the pictures are destined for the family album. The pictures might be of a child’s birthday party. Already you are starting to think in a far clearer manner and you can concentrate on making a list of the important images. You could, for example, need a range of images that would fit accross a double page in the album. You need a shot of the birthday boy – maybe a nice tight one. You need some pictures of the guests – perhaps a wider picture with three or four revellers in it. Some smaller images of a cake and other guests and something with a bit of humour. A total of five or six images, shot from different heights and some tight, some wide. To get five or six good images you will need to shoot at least thirty pictures and on a digital you have wasted nothing by trying different things. You can print images to different sizes and edit on screen adding captions as you go.

By deciding what your goals are in advance you will actually spend less time just snapping and hoping. Next time you will know how well you did and what worked in the framework you set yourself and adjust your self-commission accordingly. It is one of the great ironies in photography that tighter briefs often make better pictures. I have never been able to just “go and take photographs”, but if I am looking for a something specific I nearly always get what I want.

As you become a better photographer you can learn to recognise what you like about certain images and trying to shoot in a given style becomes a great way of finding your own. So go out and commission yourself tomorrow and if nobody is having a party try to document your garden or street. Pick out details and shoot the wide picture – you’ll soon have your own photo story in the can.

Of course it is equally true that there are people out there who don’t really care about what they shoot; they just want to own and be seen with some very cool and expensive gadgets. I have met so many people with cameras over the years who can quote the features of their kit as if they had learned the brochure by heart but who don’t actually like taking pictures. Each to their own.

Another tactic for becoming a better photographer is to analyse and even mimic the pictures that we see from other photographers. Shooting street scenes in the style of Henri Cartier-Bresson or portraits in the style of Terence Donovan can be a real creative spur and sooner or later you will develop your own spin on those styles and start to move towards having your own way of shooting. There are fashions in photography related to specific lenses that you can follow and there is a constant cycle of effects doing the rounds that you can analyse and adopt if you need more inspiration. It’s all out there waiting. Light, subject matter and composition – master being able to assess those three elements in other photographers’ work and you will be well on your way to being a much better photographer.