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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.

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.

The Press Photographer’s Year

ppy_2013_grab

I always have a look at who has won various competitions and I’m always interested to see what the judges go for. Most competitions leave me a little cold but The Press Photographer’s Year is different. Well thought out categories, independently judged (I have to say that, I’ve been on the Jury twice myself) and backed by The BPPA I have always been part jealous and part proud of the winners. Jealous because I never seem to win anything and proud because I can call most of the winners my colleagues and friends

Press photography has a tough time in the UK. It’s undervalued by the publishers and misunderstood by a lot of the public. This year’s batch of winning and selected images will go on show at The Royal National Theatre next Saturday the 6th of July for seven weeks where it will be seen by a huge number of people who wouldn’t necessarily go to a photography exhibition. Please take some time to look at the winners’ slide show on The PPY website and please try to make some time to go to the exhibition and see for yourself just how good the work that these guys produce on a daily basis is.

So, congratulations to Adrian Dennis of AFP, Jack Hill of The Times and all of the other winners and thank you to Diageo for supporting this great project. Maybe next year I’ll actually enter!

Posed by model – my revenge…

Jez Coulson is a great photographer and he is one of my oldest friends in the industry. We went to college together, shared a house and even started a business together – you get the picture, we are friends. A few days ago he was obviously looking through some old pictures and stumbled across one of me that he shot for a brochure. I was “posed by model” playing the part of a young, upwardly mobile, business type talking loudly on his old Motorola mobile phone on a train back in either 1987 or 1988. You can read his blog post here.

The thing is that we often acted as models for each other’s commercial shoots – which was a good way to put a few pounds in each other’s pockets when we were starting out. It happened all of the time and we used a lot of other friends and colleagues for the same purpose. We didn’t really do it on editorial shoots (unless the pictures were captions “POSED BY MODEL”) and definitely not on news jobs.

Anyway, Jez posted a picture of a twenty-something me in a suit so I thought that I’d do the same. This was a brochure for an insurance company who covered employees against legal issues and this picture shows Jez leaning on a car that happened to be parked outside our office (no idea whose it was) being given a good talking to by another friend, Peter Anderson, wearing a rented traffic police uniform. Enjoy…

©Neil Turner. London, March 1988

©Neil Turner. London, March 1988

Geek stuff: Shot on 5″x4″ colour transparency Fuji RDP film on an Arca Swiss View camera with a 150mm Rodenstock lens, available light.

Darts legend teaches mathematics… using a dartboard

©Neil Turner/TSL. June 2008, Kent.

Bobby George is a showman. He drives a flash car, he wears more rings than I could lift and he has made a nice life for himself playing professional darts. He went to Langley Park School for Boys in Beckenham , Kent in June 2008 to talk to GCSE maths students about how much he has gained from good mental arithmetic. He kept an audience of teenaged boys, most of whom weren’t even born when his career was at its height, engaged and even managed to get most of them to realise that maths, probability and mental agility were actually ‘quite cool’.

Interviewing for September 2012 NCTJ Photojournalism course

It only seems like a few weeks ago that I was writing about how excited I was about being involved with the development of a new photojournalism course here in Bournemouth. It was actually well over a year ago and since then we have completed one cycle of the six month course and we are over half way through a second one. The course has already evolved and we are now in the process of recruiting people for the next course which begins in September 2012.

Photo of me playing the 'role' of a confused and lost motorist during a creative flash workshop. January 2012

The idea of the course is a simple one: to train people who already have a decent standard of photography to a level where they can start or improve their careers as editorial photographers. We cover news, features, portraiture, sport and several other sub-genres of photography as well as teaching about workflow, media law, video, caption writing and story development. At the end of the course, and all being well, our students have an NCTJ Preliminary Certificate in Photojournalism as well as a lot of business studies and market knowledge. It isn’t an easy course and it isn’t particularly cheap but it is highly focused on becoming a freelance photographer in today’s rapidly changing market place.

My own involvement averages out to one day per week during which I will bring all of my knowledge and experience into play as well as getting some of my contacts to come along to the course and give seminars and talks.

The course is run by Up To Speed Journalism, based in their offices at The Bournemouth Echo and is divided into two terms – one of which is very much theory and classroom based and the other is all about shooting portfolio pictures and arranging work placements. If you are interested in finding out more, please get in touch with Tom Hill at thill@uptospeedjournalism.com

Mild winter – bees in January…

I know that I live in a temperate part of the United Kingdom but I really don’t remember seeing too many bees busy pollinating plants in January before. We were out for a walk this morning and saw this little chap (and several of his black and yellow friends) hard at work about two hundred metres from the beach at Boscombe…

©Neil Turner. 22nd January 2012. Bournemouth, Dorset.

Geek bit: Canon Powershot G9, cropped down to a 1:1 aspect ratio.