styles

The third kit fetish

The Phottix 70cm collapsible beauty dish, adapted to fit an Elinchrom Ranger Quadra head.

Everyone knows about the fetish for camera bags shared by most photographers and anyone who has read this blog will know about my own personal one for card readers but there is a third one that has been exercising me of late. I have mentioned it quite a few times over the years and a particular need to have a repeatable set up has led me down this particular equipment rabbit hole once again.

I’m talking about lighting. I’m talking specifically about light modifiers. Those umbrellas, snoots, dishes, soft boxes and hybrid gadgets that you place on the fronts of your flash units in order to control and improve the light.

On our first day in the studio at college back in 1984 we were banned from fixing anything to the lights. Instead we had to place screens and diffusers in the optimum position independently from the light source so that we learned that there was no such thing as the perfect soft box, swimming pool or snoot. By inching a diffuser backwards or forwards by a small margin you could change the quality of the light considerably and you could use all sorts of flags and reflectors to stop the stray light from going where you didn’t want or need it. That was in the studio and that was a very long time ago. As soon as the restrictions about not using ready-made light modifiers was lifted we all sprinted for the big fabric soft boxes and rigid swimming pools and most never looked back.

Unfortunately I was left with a feeling that every time I used a light modifier I am making some really important and potentially detrimental mistakes. I blame the knowledge that I gained about the subtlety of light modification that I acquired in term one, year one of my formal photographic education for the dissatisfaction that I feel with every convenient and portable accessory that I own – and I own a lot of them. A brief headcount yesterday produced the following:

  • Four translucent or shoot through umbrellas
  • Two convertible umbrellas
  • Three reflective or bounce off umbrellas
  • One umbrella box
  • Two rigid beauty dishes
  • One folding beauty dish
  • Two square soft boxes
  • Two rectangular soft boxes
  • Three hexagonal soft boxes
  • Two strip soft boxes
  • Seven reflectors
  • One snoot
  • Three sets of grids
  • Two sets of barn doors
  • Nine reflectors

I have probably forgotten about some others but you get the idea; too many options, no clear direction and no way to always ensure that I have the right one with me at all times. Therefore the compromise is almost always to bring the two or three most versatile with me and have another three or four in the car before making the best of what I have.

This, surely, begs the question about which is my favourite. The answer is as simple as it is shocking. None of the above. My favourite way to work is often to use lights in a way that doesn’t give the signature look of a soft box or an umbrella. I like to bounce. Walls, ceilings, walls and ceilings or any one of a dozen other types of surface will almost always get my vote if I’m shooting a one-off creative image. I have written about my love of large pale surfaces and of using pretty much anything around as a bounce surface and it has become so important to me that creating a ‘look’ has become something I’ve had to work at. I know that something like 33% of photographers rock up and set up their lights complete with their favourite modifier and get on with the pictures and that another 33% turn up and shoot with available light. Many of the rest base their shooting options on what they find and choose between flash with their main modifiers or no flash at all. I like to think that I’m in a small group who will look around for ‘bounceable’ surfaces and go down that route as a matter of preference.

From my list of available light modifiers you can see that I never give up on my quest for ‘the one’ – the light modifier that will make sense of them all. I bought a new one this week and I’m off to use it today. Let’s hope that it both surprises and delights me and that the surprise and delight lead to being able to ignore some of those 1984 college year one, term one lessons

Hands and portraits

John Redwood MP, photographed during an interview in January 1994. © Neil Turner/Insight.

John Redwood MP, photographed during an interview in January 1994. © Neil Turner/Insight.

It’s January 2017 and like most photographers I am looking forward to the year with a mix of excitement and trepidation. What kinds of challenging and interesting projects are going to come my way in the next eleven and a half months? How is my work going to develop? Am I going to get enough work to pay the bills? Big questions that add to the roller-coaster of emotions that being freelance brings out.

One of the things that I always try to do is look back at some of last year’s work and compare it to older stuff and try to come up with some thoughts that help me to understand my own style better and to make sure that I don’t get tripped up by the same old mistakes. There’s a question that pops into my head about this time every year and it is one that I think that I am finally happy to answer:

What do you do with hands in editorial style portraits?

Almost every time that I shoot a portrait I try to give the client/editor as much choice as I can. Tight head and shoulders only portraits are one thing but what about wider compositions where the subject’s arms and hands start to feature? How should I get people, who don’t do it naturally, to pose? I quite like to keep some pictures as tight as I can and so folded arms are really useful because they bring the hands and arms higher up the body allowing me to frame the photographs that bit tighter. Nine times out of every ten that you ask someone to fold their arms you end up having a conversation about body language and lots of corporate types have been told by their PR people that folded arms look defensive. If only all things were that simple: folded arms bad/hands in pockets good just doesn’t work in photography. Folded arms in pictures can appear defensive but they can also appear as positives – they can be friendly, strong, loving, confident, feeling cold and so many other things. On the negative side they can appear aggressive, angry, lacking in confidence and forced. If you put “body language folded arms” into your favourite search engine you’ll get a few thousand articles written from a few hundred different perspectives telling you that folded arms can mean a number of different things and that context matters. Like so many things in life, it is a matter of judgement and skill and in the photographic portrait it is definitely a matter of getting the relationship between the folded arms, the composition and the facial expression right.

I can understand why PR people are wary of folded arms because they can go hideously wrong but you should never rule out a fantastic photographic tool just because it can be misused.

What about hands in pockets?

I’ve already mentioned hands in pockets. This, by the very fact that the hands are further away from the face, gives a wider composition and some people look great when relaxing hands in pockets whilst others look awkward. That’s where the skill of the portraitist comes into its own; working out who does what well and getting them to trust your judgement when photographing them that way. The difference between lazy and relaxed isn’t that great and you need to train yourself to distinguish between the two.

Over the last twelve months I have been asked to shoot a lot of pictures where the subject has their hand on their chin/lips/ears/hair (mirroring one of the least appealing ‘selfie’ trends appearing all over social media) or where they are cupping their face with their elbows on a table or the back of a chair. It isn’t something I would naturally ask someone to do but if they naturally do it themselves then I will often work with it and see if it makes the picture. Sometimes it comes off but it mostly looks contrived and, quite frankly, a bit naff. Did I say a bit naff? I meant a lot naff.

What else can you do?

One of the most useful ways to shoot portraits is to do it when the subject is talking to you or to someone else and gets a bit animated. Hands suddenly move away from being a potential problem to be a massive asset. Again you have to be a bit careful about what kind of gesture because we all know that pointing fingers, waving two fingers or forming a fist can be misinterpreted very quickly but, if you are in the business of portraying someone as they really are then their subconscious hand movements are a very useful way of getting there quickly.

Jacqueline Wilson receives up to 400 letters from young readers each week and does her best to answer as many of them personally as she can. © Neil Turner/TSL

Jacqueline Wilson receives up to 400 letters from young readers each week and does her best to answer as many of them personally as she can. © Neil Turner/TSL

Back in the mid 1990s I even shot just people’s hands on several occasions. Lots of people were exploring the same idea and several photographers did it far more assiduously and successfully than me. It is, however a great exercise for two reasons: the first is that it gets you notice that people have character in bits of their body other than their faces and the second is that shooting their hands can help to relax more nervous subjects.

Of course you can get the subject to clasp their hands gently on front of them or behind their backs. Hands on hips works about 2% of the time and almost always requires a smile

You may have noticed that I’ve used words like useful and often and sometimes a lot in this short post. That’s deliberate because there really are very few hard and fast rules in good portraiture. Getting people’s hands into the frame is something that I love to do (not a January 2017 revelation) and portraying people as themselves is a primary goal (probably a January 1987 thought). Great portraits rely on a number of factors working together and getting something that is a lot stronger than the sum of its parts.

My January 2017 goal for the year is to get better at the way hands appear in my portraits. I’m not going to shy away from folded arms, hands on hips or anything else but I’m not going to ask anyone to touch their lips or in any other way pose as if they were a teenager doing a selfie that they’ll regret in six months time.

Want to see more? My portraits portfolio can be seen here.

Photography compared to…

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BOURNEMOUTH, DORSET. 08 April 2016. A fairground on Redhill Common. © Photo Neil Turner – Freelance photographer.

When you try to explain concepts in photography to someone who isn’t deeply embedded in the art/craft/science/passion it makes sense to find something else top compare it to. My favourite comparisons are driving, cooking and sport.

Driving is something most of us do and, on the whole, we do it without having to think too much about the basics. I’ve talked about it before so I’ll quickly recap my thoughts:

Changing gear, using the indicators, knowing when to use windscreen wipers and headlights are all pretty much done on auto-pilot whilst we think more consciously about road awareness, speeds, traffic, navigation and much else besides. The comparison to photography is an easy one to make because there are basic controls that we like to think are second nature; exposure, focusing, making sure we have memory cards and batteries whilst composition and anticipating things happening in front of your camera (and often off to the side and behind you) are things that require more conscious thought.

Tempting though it is to continue stretching the analogy I want to move onto cooking. All pictures have some basic ingredients and the skill of photography is to take those basics, add some interesting extras and know how to combine them and serve them up. That’s the schmultzy bit out of the way. Great chefs (and I’ve photographed a few and dined in the restaurants of several) are constantly looking for new twists and the odd exotic ingredient whilst making food that serves the joint purpose of feeding and engaging diners. Mediocre chefs overdo it, use too many trendy techniques and ingredients at the same time and generally fail in the main task of presenting good food where substance and style are in balance. The rest of us when cooking do the same old dishes, warm up too many ready meals and generally avoid any pretence of culinary ambition or expertise.

I’m pretty sure that I don’t even need to draw the comparisons between cooking and photography except to say that I’d almost rather have the gourmet food and the home cooked stuff all of the time and miss out the self-regarding nonsense in the middle. Restaurant critics and food writers have a lot in common with people who write pretentious twaddle about photography. This is one analogy that can go on for a long time.

So what about sport? I am sitting and writing this on the day of the opening ceremony for the 2016 Rio Olympics thinking of my many friends and colleagues who are already there working as photographers, editors and photo managers. They will be watching/photographing/witnessing some of the finest athletes in the word today. Athletes that have spent years perfecting their skills and getting themselves into peak condition being photographed by many of the finest photographers who have also spent years getting to where they are today.

Comparing photography to sports isn’t so much about finding similarities – it’s more about the differences. When you run 400 metres as a professional nothing much changes. Tracks are tracks and running shoes develop little by little. I know that diet, training and off-track activities change but, essentially, the principal task remains the same because running one lap of a track as fast as possible is what it is; tremendously tough but always the same. Photographing that event is a constantly changing thing. From black and white to colour, from manual focus to auto-focus and now we have to shift the pictures extremely rapidly too. Technology means that day-to-day, week-to-week and year-to-year shooting the same kind of job changes. An athlete remains at the top of their game for a relatively short time whilst the best photographers are around for decades. A swimmer attending their third or fourth Olympics is news whereas a photographer doing that would be just getting started!

Comparing apples with bananas has value when trying to explain the wider art and craft of photography to someone whose experience has been the odd compact camera and their smartphone. Right now I need to go and explain why it takes at least three hours to do the post-production on a six hour shoot and why I can’t just give the client some rough Jpegs. Anyone got a compelling analogy for that?

So I bought a Canon 7D MkII

I wrote a long blog post about this time last year talking about the choice between three of Canon’s full-frame DSLR cameras. At that stage in my work I couldn’t imagine buying another crop frame camera after selling my original EOS7D and giving my opinion of it as “loving everything about the camera apart from the image quality above 800 ISO”. Well, hold the front page – the EOS7D Mk II can handle ISOs a fair bit higher than 800.

Cropped area of approximately a frame shot at 3200 ISO blown up to 100%

Cropped area of approximately a frame shot at 3200 ISO blown up to 100%

In the frame above shot at 3200 ISO you can see some noise in the out of focus areas but it isn’t nasty and it isn’t overwhelming. In the sample shot under ‘press conference’ conditions at 1600 ISO I think that the camera performed brilliantly. I would say that the MkII is at least two stops better in low light than the original 7D and maybe a bit more under certain lighting conditions and those two stops are the difference between a camera that is very usable as an every day available light camera and one that isn’t.

So far I have been delighted with it. I’ve used it on ten assignments already and it is rapidly becoming one of those things that goes into the bag first. Married with f4 L series zooms with the image stabilisation turned on I have been deeply impressed with this camera. The AF is brilliant, the shutter is responsive and shooting video with this camera has been the best DSLR video experience I’ve ever had.

Cropped area of approximately a quarter of a frame shot at 1600 ISO blown up to 100%

Cropped area of approximately a quarter of a frame shot at 1600 ISO blown up to 100%

I’m not saying that this camera can, in any way, compete with something like an EOS5D MkIII or even an EOS6D but it is a lot better than the original 7D and I’d be happy to use it at 3200 ISO on a job if I needed to. I bought the camera for other reasons than its high ISO performance (AF performance, speed, video performance and price) but this was a nice surprise. I won’t be parting with any of my full frame Canons but my prejudice against the APS-C format just disappeared in 1/200th of a second.

Getting to grips with my Sony RX1

Stage door of the Apollo Theatre, London. ©Neil Turner, January 2016

Stage door of the Apollo Theatre, London. ©Neil Turner, January 2016

A week ago I was shocked when the lovely folks at Castle Cameras here in Bournemouth got in touch to let me know that I’d won a new camera in a Sony competition that they were running on their Flickr site. I had completely forgotten that I had entered and when they told me to come and collect my shiny new Sony Cybershot RX1 I popped up later that afternoon. I spent most of the rest of that day playing with the camera and (shock horror) reading the instruction manual. I checked out what “the internet” had to say about the camera and stuck it in my bag determined to give it a proper outing at the first opportunity. You can see the winning picture here.

The weather hasn’t been great and I have been a bit busy with the day job and so it took a full six days before I got a proper chance to take some pictures. I happened to be in London with about three hours to kill yesterday and even though the weather was poor I was determined to have a wander and see whether I could get to grips with the RX1. I don’t really write full-on product reviews because there are other people that do it so much better than I can and this particular model Sony has been around for quite a while. It is, however, a very close contemporary of my beloved Fujifilm X100S and I was keen to find out whether the Sony could do two things:

  1. Outperform the the X100S for image quality, handling, battery life etc
  2. Be as much fun to use and be as nice to use as the Fuji has been

My first worry was that the Sony doesn’t come with a viewfinder of any description other than the large and very clear LCD on the back of the camera. The cheapest viewfinder that Sony sell is just over £300 which would make the RX1 more than twice the retail price of the Fujifilm X100S. I was excited by the fact that the Sony has a full-frame sensor and the write-ups for the fixed Zeiss 35mm lens meant that I was actually looking forward to some low-light photography. So I headed out with a fully charged battery and a 16Gb SD card to see what I could see. Walking from Mayfair through China Town and Soho to Covent Garden and back I was looking for pictures that might once day grace my personal work folio and/or my Flickr stream. As is often the case on these days with no particular brief a theme started to suggest itself and for the first hour or two I found myself snatching pictures of people texting and I started to build a gallery in my mind.

As it got darker the texting pictures started to dry up and it was then that my favourite pictures of the day started to happen. Dusk, as I have written before, is just about my favourite time of day to take pictures and yesterday was no exception. Here below is probably my favourite picture from the day:

31 January 2016. London, Greater London. London on a cold and wet January Sunday afternoon.. Soho Neil Turner

Soho, London on a cold and wet Sunday afternoon. ©Neil Turner, January 2016

There’s only one problem with this picture. It wasn’t taken on the Sony RX1. Why? Because the battery had given up twenty minutes previously and I didn’t have a spare. I had taken my Fujifilm X100S “just in case” and I’m glad that I did because this picture wouldn’t have worked on my iPhone! The X100S has poor battery life and because of that I carry three spares when I go out for the day. There are lots of things that you can do in the set-up menu to restrict the battery-drain including using the optical viewfinder. The Sony RX1, on this evidence, has a bigger problem than the Fujifilm with power and I would bet that the big bright LCD screen is the biggest part of that problem. It doesn’t end there either because Sony don’t even bundle a battery charger with these cameras – they expect you to charge the battery in-camera which means that you have to switch the thing off when you might want to keep shooting. I know that there are plenty of after-market chargers available for these common batteries but really? At that price? I understand that batteries get a bit better after a few charge cycles but less than two hours from brand new one is unacceptable. On the day I had my external battery which I use to recharge my iPhone with me and I spent the final hour walking around shooting with the X100S and with the Sony RX1 plugged into that external battery in my bag. I would bet that adding a viewfinder and refining the power settings on the Sony would be a big help but this camera needs to wow me if I’m going to spend £300 to find out.

What about the low-light performance? There’s no arguing that here the Sony is very, very good. At 3200 ISO it is a match for any of the Canons that I use in the day job and so I’d say that it is as much as two stops better than the Fuji when shooting RAW based on the evidence of the few pictures that I’ve taken.

Which brings me to the Carl Zeiss 35mm f2 lens on the Sony RX1. I’d rate it at somewhere between very good and excellent and, again, a fair bit better than the 23mm f2 on the crop sensor Fujifilm X100S. Surprisingly, the Zeiss lens suffers from some barrel distortion but the lens correction algorithm in Adobe Photoshop’s Camera RAW sorts that out with ease. I will do a direct comparison between the Sony and a Canon 6D with a Canon 35mm f2 lens at some point and I would expect it to be far too close to call.

So far the Sony wins on image quality and lens quality and the Fujifilm wins on battery life. Their respective pluses and minuses on the handling tests mean that they are pretty much even when shooting with the LCD but that the Fuji is streets ahead because it has the electronic and optical options when you don’t want to use the LCD. I’d rate the Sony as the marginal winner on exposure accuracy and a clear winner when it comes to auto focus speed and accuracy – although this was only a fair fight when using the LCD screen to focus.

For build quality the honours have to go to Sony (given their respective pricing that should be a given) but the difference isn’t as wide as you’d expect. The two cameras have OK menus but neither wows me with them. I suspect that is largely due to the fact that I find Canon’s menu systems to be both easy and familiar.

The kinds of pictures that I like to shoot with these kinds of cameras aren’t paid work. They come under the categories of food for the photographic soul and fun. This is where the Sony loses out badly. I don’t like shooting with the LCD very much and that means that I would have to pay out a lot of money to find out if the Sony can catch up. They offer two different viewfinders and that’s expensive if you want the choice. The newer RX1R MkII has a small electric viewfinder – which would be most welcome.

At the end of day one with the Sony I have some choices to make if I want to continue to take advantage of the superior image quality on offer. Do I:

  • Spend £300+ on an electronic viewfinder?
  • Spend £50+ on spare batteries and chargers?
  • Hope that after spending the money, the camera becomes more fun to use?

I’m off to Norway for a two week job next week and I’m going to take the Sony RX1 with me. One afternoon in poor light with a failing battery isn’t enough time to make my mind up about such an interesting camera. That means that the spare battery purchases will happen anyway. If I find that by the end of February the fun quotient of the Fujifilm outstrips the quality one of the Sony then I may just end up selling my prize camera on.

Not the DSLR, I’m having fun

© Neil Turner, March 2014. Shadows on the pavement as a pedestrian passes along Tottenham Court Road.

© Neil Turner, March 2014. Shadows on the pavement as a pedestrian passes along Tottenham Court Road.

Question: Why are so many professional photographers using mirrorless cameras, micro 4/3rds format cameras and experimenting with pretty much anything that isn’t a DSLR?

It’s a tough question and without conducting some sort of major survey I can only give an answer based on my own experiences and those of close friends and colleagues. DSLRs have been my main cameras for over sixteen years now and they have become an extension of me when I’m working. They do what I need them to do with no real fuss, the quality has moved from “acceptable” back in 1998 to “extremely good” and they allow me to do the day job without having to worry about my gear very much. But, and there’s always a ‘but’ – they have become a little bit boring and little bit ‘too good’.

When I’m shooting pictures for the joy of it (and despite doing this for a living since 1986 I still do that) I want to feel something different. Elegant competence isn’t enough any more. Talk to the folks who drive sports cars or motorbikes on the weekend where a saloon would be easier, safer and more comfortable and then talk to the people who buy, care for and listen to vinyl when digital storage is so easy because they’ll tell you that there is something more engaging and far more personal about not doing it the ‘easy way’. 

Of course I could go all the way and shoot film and build a darkroom but I have been there and done that and I’ve thrown away the chemical stained t-shirts. My solution is to own and use cameras that give me a real feeling of taking risks. Cameras that make me think differently and probably take very different pictures too. It’s the weekend, it’s my day off, it’s my time to engage in photography for my own sake and for its own sake. I’m not alone in doing this and feeling the way I do.

According to the conversations that we have, the vast majority of my peers are simultaneously professionals and hobbyists and most of them choose different cameras for each part of their obsession.

By moving away from their amazingly accomplished DSLRs they force themselves to work differently and even to be different and many have taken that feeling from their spare time photography to their professional practice. A few quote practical reasons: lighter weight, less conspicuous, cheaper to buy, quiet or silent operation. A smaller number even profess to prefer the quality of the pictures (which to me is less than compelling given the flexibility of all RAW formats these days) but for me, and most of those whose opinions I trust, it is just a question of ‘different’.

If I choose to use a camera that is less intuitive, more difficult to get consistent results from and more than a little quirky then that’s up to me. If I’m taking pictures ‘just because I want to’ then I reserve the right to use a camera that makes me smile, that makes me less of a camera-operator-businessman and one that enthuses me to pick it up and head out of the door looking for pictures. The best part is that, in turn, I enjoy the work that I do for clients much more – I think that they call that a virtuous circle.

I doubt that the designers of these cameras had people like me in mind when they came up with the concepts. I hope that they don’t watch the market too closely and start to make them as slick and as polished as my day-to-day gear because that would spoil the fun.

Fufifilm X100 where are you? We are going for a walk…