portfolio

Shooting fish in a barrel

London. January 2011. © Neil Turner

In 2008 when I had just left my staff job at TSL I was asked by a reporter working for a photographic magazine about what I intended to do with my career. I pointed out that I had an enormous amount of experience working in schools and universities and that in my time working for the Times Educational Supplement, Times Higher Education Supplement and Nursery World Magazine I had shot pictures in over 3,000 places of learning in at least 13 countries and that it seemed like a “no-brainer” to market myself as a photographer specialising in those areas. Plenty of prospectuses and websites as well as editorial shoots later my tally of educational visits and shoots tops 3,500 and I’m still in love with the genre. The reporter asked what special skills I had that made me good at that part of the job and my response was that if you can’t get great pictures of kids then you really shouldn’t be a photographer because it was “shooting fish in a barrel“.

A few days ago I made the same claim to another photographer who questioned my assertion. His point was that although the subject matter lent itself to nice pictures the rest of the set-up in schools and colleges tended to be somewhat more challenging. He pointed out that the light was rarely great and that the surroundings were often cluttered and busy. He also pointed out that there can be lots of legal and ethical issues and his own personal problem was that he couldn’t get the kids to ignore him enough of the time. He was right. The light is usually less than ideal and most classrooms are busy places with their walls covered and with all sorts of distractions – all obstacles to well composed and well lit pictures. I’ve worked in so many schools that maybe I just assume that children and even young adults aren’t remotely interested in me or what I’m doing – or at least once I explain that I’m not going to be able to get them on TV!

Shooting in a classroom requires some basic skills:

  1. Working with the ambient light
  2. Being able to get some extra light in that doesn’t completely disrupt what’s going on
  3. Having the ability to make pictures from what is already happening
  4. Setting up pictures when everything else fails

Everyone wants the pictures to look natural and everyone wants it to look as if there’s some great hard work going on. Every time I go to shoot a prospectus I get the same thing from the head teacher or their marketing people; make the children look as if they are happy and working hard and definitely not grinning for the camera. Nine times out of ten they select those grinning pictures because happy trumps serious almost every time. In a brochure that landed on my desk three weeks ago there were eighteen pictures in it. Seventeen of them were shot by me in one day and the other one was an architects photo of the newly refurbished building. Twelve of the pictures taken by me showed kids looking happy and engaged and four of the other five were portraits of staff and governors. The last of my pictures showed a child head-down and working hard.

Younger kids are definitely easier to take pictures of – in fact at the TES we had a saying “with acne comes attitude” and it was always tougher to make great pictures once the children became teenagers with all of the insecurities and hang-ups that come with that age. That was never quite as true when you were working overseas and it was always a huge privilege to witness education in action on other continents.

Choral scholars, Cambridgeshire, July 2008. © Neil Turner/TSL.

Previously on this blog I wrote about three important things that make a photograph and shooting in schools is a wonderful example of having to work hard to make two of them (light and composition) work for you when the third (subject matter) is usually pulling it’s weight. Sometimes you get lucky but, in my experience, most of the time you don’t. Thirty years ago I shot my first paid commission in a school just four years after I was a pupil in one. It’s funny and ironic in equal measure that I used to get into trouble for having a camera at school. I didn’t take many pictures during lessons but I do have a lovely archive of friends and teachers from my sixth-form years and I often wonder if that’s where my love of shooting in schools comes from.

Outdoor education centre, Dorset. April 2014.


Masindi, Uganda © Neil Turner/TSL Education. April 2005.


Nursery School, Kent. ©Neil Turner/TSL. January 2005


School playground, Surrey. ©Neil Turner. June 2011.

I don’t put many photos of children on this blog and when I do they tend to have been published elsewhere first and/or be from a few years ago. I’m still shooting as many jobs in schools as I can and I have a portfolio of school and college work sitting right here on my hard drive for when I get enquiries. If you’d like to talk about commissioning me to come and shoot your fish in your barrel, no matter what the light is like please get in touch.

You can also see a slideshow of headteachers and other education leaders that I put together a few years ago here.

Portfolio updates

Like many photographers I invest a lot of time and energy into my portfolio. I have had a Pixelrights folio since they launched their service earlier this year and every time they add more functionality I tinker with both the design and the content. Right now the service is looking great and the content management system is working well. One of these days I’m going to relegate my other folio platforms and throw everything at this service but until then please come along and have a look at the galleries for portraits, features and my personal work.

MY PIXELRIGHTS HOME PAGE

Another photo worthy of an obituary

©Neil Turner/TSL. Carl Djerassi, June 1999, London.

©Neil Turner/TSL. Carl Djerassi, June 1999, London.

Carl Djerassi, the chemist widely considered the father of the birth control pill, has died aged 91. I photographed him back in 1999 sitting in what I thought was a very ‘egg-shaped’ chair in his London apartment. If you want to know more about him, The Guardian’s obituary is worth reading but my very clear memory of being there was that he was one of the calmest people that I had ever met. He was confident without being arrogant and his understanding of my job and the job of the reporter who went with me was absolute. He had, obviously, been interviewed and photographed hundreds of times before but I still believe it to be true that most people who have had that kind of media exposure still don’t ‘get it’ in the same way that he did.

It seems that almost every week now I see an obituary in the press of someone that I photographed earlier in my career and it has two distinct effects on me. The first is quite predictable – I feel that bit older each time it happens. The second effect is to make me realise how amazingly lucky I have been in meeting the people that I have met and having been able to make what I hope are portrait and feature images that will stand the test of time.

This particular photograph lived in my folio for many years. It was unusual for me to have shot quite such a reflective portrait at that time. I was busy trying to make a reputation for myself as ‘the guy’ who used strong lighting and strong compositions to compliment that lighting. Like most phases of a career, it passed. I can still shoot the strong pictures when the situation calls for it but this portrait is far closer to my current favoured style than almost anything that I shot in those early days of digital. When I look back at the more memorable images that I shot through the late 1990s – the period of transition from scanned negative film to 1.9 megapixel digital cameras – a lot of them have this kind of feel and that surprises me because my memory is of lighting everything in slightly over-the-top ways.

Technical stuff: Kodak DCS520 camera with a Canon 28-70 f2.8L lens. Ambient light, 1/160th of a second at f4 on 400 ISO.

Hard light portrait

©Neil Turner/TSL, September 2007.

©Neil Turner/TSL, September 2007.

Not long after I took redundancy from my staff job at The Times Educational Supplement I spent several days putting together a collection of possible portfolio pictures. I was a long task as I’d been there for over fourteen years and when I eventually published my folio on line I had cut a couple of hundred photographs down to thirty. Whilst I was looking for something else today I came across that folder of 223 pictures and had a good root through.

Like most adventures down memory lane it reminded me of things that I’d forgotten and the story behind this picture immediately jumped into my mind. The lady in the portrait is a blind sculptor originally from Iran who was by this time married to a British teacher and living in south-west London. I have posted a portrait of her on this blog before when I discussed two surprisingly similar portraits that I’d made. This frame from the set has some of the harshest lighting that I’d ever used and it jumped out at me when I was looking today because I rarely use that kind of light any more. I guess that’s partly due to the nature of the clients I work for now – PR and corporates who don’t want anything as edgy as this was – and partly because my first instinct isn’t always to get the lights out any more. Even when I do light portraits I don’t mess around with the light as much as I once did. This goes with my Twitter #PWOTD which is TESTING

Techie stuff: Canon EOS1D MkII with a 70-200 f2.8 L IS lens at 70mm. 200 ISO 1/250th of a second at f8. Lumedyne flash.

Another ‘classic’ technique posting from the old site

The idea here is to have two separate lighting set-ups for one interview portrait without having to constantly move around the room adjusting lights. This interview was with a senior businessman who chairs a body that decides how much teachers’ pay rises will be each year. The reporter wasn’t all that comfortable with me shooting through the interview but it was what the picture editor wanted, so that’s what I did. This job required a bit of quick thinking so that I could get two different set-ups in place.

©Neil Turner/TSL, April 2008.

©Neil Turner/TSL, April 2008.

The picture on the left was lit using a single Lumedyne head at 50 joules bounced off of a wall almost in front of the subject. The image on the right was lit by a single Canon 550ex flash gun with a Honl Photo snoot attached aimed directly at the subjects face and set further away from the camera.

Both flash units were fitted with Pocket Wizard receivers set on different channels from each other. The idea here is that by simply switching between channels on the transmitters I could switch between two very different lighting styles without moving.

The left hand image is far more evenly lit. The large expanse of off-white wall made a very good and large light source. The exposure here was 1/60th of a second at f5.6 on ISO200. There was some available light play – without flash the scene would have been two stops under exposed with that amount of flash. You can see from the diagram below how the room was laid out and the flash head was positioned at about 10 degrees above the subjects eyeline.

The right hand image is far more starkly lit. The exposure was 1/250th of a second at f13 on ISO 200. There is almost no available light in this picture and the lighting effect is dramatically different. The very narrow angle of the light offered by the Honl snoot makes it difficult to always get the subject right in the centre of the small pool of light and so you need to be careful when aiming it to centre it on where the subject is most likely to be.

The layout of small conference room where the interview took place.

The layout of small conference room where the interview took place.

The point of this technique is that you can arrange more than one style of lighting and then switch between them at will simply by selecting a different channel on the trigger. I find that I use the Honl snoot a lot more than I had imagined that I would. It fits into a bag very easily and it is simple to use. When you are in complete control of the lighting, it’s very easy to achieve dramatic results. This style of light might not be to every picture editor’s taste and so the evenly lit alternative is a very good idea.

Late November afternoon in the park

©Neil Turner, November 2014. Playing football in the  park.

©Neil Turner, November 2014. Playing football in the park.

This is just another of those “just because I like it” photographs that I have added to my personal work folio on my Pixelrights account. The family had been out to breakfast and we went to the park for the youngest members to have a run around. I had my Fujifilm X20 with me and shot a few frames including this one.

For the technically curious amongst you, the black and white conversion was done in Photoshop with a 5% red layer added to the desaturated sRGB file to give it more body and depth.

If you haven’t seen Pixelrights – check it out…

pixelrigts_ss
When friends of yours start up a new business it is natural to wish it well and then forget all about it until you see those friends again. That’s kind of what happened with me and Pixelrights. Shaun Curry, one of the founders is an old mate and when he rang me out of the blue a while ago to explain his new business venture I was happy for him and offered my support as I would with pretty much any of my friends.

A few months later Shaun got back to me and asked to ‘borrow’ a couple of pictures for their development website. Always happy to help I sent him a couple of JPEGs and signed up for email, Facebook and Twitter feeds to remain abreast of their progress. Once more, nothing much happened and then Pixelrights offered to develop the new website for The BPPA and suddenly there I was having an in depth explanation of their ideas complete with a demonstration of what their idea could offer.

Passive supporter becomes active advocate over the course of one afternoon. I love the idea and I really love the fact that these are people doing what they are doing for money AND for the love of what they might achieve. So what is Pixelrights? Here’s a cut and paste from their own concept page:

Working in photography and the visual arts ourselves, we wanted to create something that we would not only use, but also enjoy using. We saw the need for simple, functional yet sophisticated portfolios which would serve photographer’s interests and needs, in an honest manner with no marketing trickery.

Pixelrights provides a secure, simple, classically-presented choice of website designs, backed up with state-of-the-art technology, all for a single price. There are no hidden charges to remove branding, no divisive price plans and no subscription fee traps.

What it actually provides is a portfolio of the simplest form with good image protection and the option to allow carefully controlled and monitored sharing. There are quite a few design options and there will probably be more by the time the current “Beta” phase is completed. I have three folios on my pages and I have a range of hidden galleries which are invite only so that clients can go and look at images that I have uploaded for them to Dropbox making use of a cool and simple interface. The whole point of a beta phase is to gather opinions of users and make things even better and that’s exactly what is happening.

I’d strongly recommend that you go and check out Pixelrights for yourself and the best way to get there is via my members page. Make sure that you look at the features and the pricing because this is a good idea from good people with an awful lot of backing from working photographers.