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Moody technique post from the old website

I have been cleaning up some of the behind the scenes stuff on my original dg28.com website and got side-tracked looking at some of the old technique posts (again). I really liked this one from July 2003 which was originally entitled “Choosing a Mood”. Anyway, here is the original post cut and pasted:

©Neil Turner/TSL. July 2003. English, Media Studies and Philosophy teacher in a north London comprehensive school.

©Neil Turner/TSL. July 2003. English, Media Studies and Philosophy teacher in a north London comprehensive school.

Every time you take a photograph you are saying something about what is in the image. It’s impossible to avoid a frozen frame being anything other than an interpretation of that moment so it becomes a mark of a good photographer to make sure that every element of the image (composition, subject matter and light) helps to paint a consistent story. 

The mood required for every image – especially with portraits – is something that you have to consider very carefully.Some lighting guides will tell you that there is a lighting set up for each mood and that it is a simple matter of placing light A in position B and light C in position D to achieve this. I have to agree that there are some obvious starting points for many of the moods that I use, but there are many other factors that have to be taken into account when setting the scene.

Even a short list of variables such as time of day, age of subject, subjects clothing and location mean that there can be no such thing as a standard lighting rig. This portrait of a teacher who feels that he wasn’t prepared during his training for the attitude of pupils needed a lot of thought.

We met at his home in a pleasant London suburb and I was determined to give the whole portrait a real inner city feel. I asked him if there were any dark alleys or heavily graffitied walls near his home but he couldn’t think of any. We got back into my car and went in search of a location, being very careful not to identify the location in the photographs. We found this shady wall with a small amount of graffiti and parked the car. It was an overcast, if bright, late morning by this time so I decided to add to the “street” atmosphere by using a strong side light.

My subject was just about the same height as the wall so I decided that he needed to be crouching or sitting down. I set up a single Lumedyne 200 w/s (joule) pack and head without either an umbrella or soft box on a stand at about sixty degrees from the lens axis and about ten degrees above eyeline. The flash was set to maximum power at a range of seven feet (2.1 metres) which, combined with a 1/250th shutter speed, made the available light unimportant. The aperture was f11 at 200 ISO and I shot a few frames with just the subject and the wall immediately around him. When I consulted my LCD screen I liked the shadow and decided to include it more obviously in the composition.

My subject appeared more relaxed looking out of camera so I asked him to fix his eyes on a point in the distance between me and the flash. I also asked him to rest his head in his hand and this gave the shadow a better defined shape. I shot a few more frames and then changed the composition to include some of the grey sky. The sky at 1/250th at f11 was very dark so I changed the shutter speed to 1/125th and the sky was a better tone.

I shot quite a few variations after this, including some safe images without the obvious flash but this was my favourite frame when I came to do the edit an hour or so later. The mood was about right, it conveys the slightly dark theme of the article and screams “street” at you. I’m very pleased with end result, although this wasn’t the frame chosen for the paper!

Technical Note: Canon EOS1D with Canon EF 16-35 f2.8L lens. 1/250th of a second at f9.5 with Lumedyne Signature Series flash.

Canon feature request?

I had an email from someone who has followed my blogs for many years this week. He’s a working news photographer who I bumped into on a job a few weeks ago. He had noticed some tape on the top of my Canon EOS5D MkIII and my EOS 7D MkII and simply pointed to his cameras and said “snap”. He had tape on his cameras too – doing precisely the same job that the tape on mine does and went on to ask what the chances of Canon making a change to future cameras that would eliminate the need for us to tape that particular feature on our cameras. The email was to remind me that I had promised to do a quick blog post about the issue.

Taped diopter adjustment on a Canon EOS 5d MkIII

Taped diopter adjustment on a Canon EOS 5d MkIII

The tape on our cameras holds the built-in diopter adjustment dial and stops it from being moved in the bag or over your shoulder – something that happens to me a lot if I remove the tape. I have no idea if anyone from Canon’s design department reads this blog (I doubt that they do) but it seems to me that if enough of us sufferers from this problem mention it to them when we talk to them then they just might do something about it. Nikon have a lock on the diopter adjustment on some of their professional cameras so it has to be relatively easy to do.

The EOS5D MkIV will be appearing later this year if all of the rumours are to be believed so this may be a little late but you have to give these things a try.

Canon employees and dealers reading this… please help to reduce my gaffer tape bill. Soon. Please.

Twenty-five years ago today

©Neil Turner, 13th February 1990. Whitecross Street Market, London EC1.

©Neil Turner, 13th February 1990. Whitecross Street Market, London EC1.

Over the last few years I’ve posted a few pictures from my own filing cabinet when they have had some relevance or when there is a specific anniversary. This picture was taken twenty-five years ago today as I went for one of my regular wanders around bits of London that were near Metro – the 24 hour laboratory where we all got our E6 transparency film processed. It was about a mile and a half from our Hoxton office (before it was trendy) and it took about twenty minutes to walk there or five minutes to drive. Sometimes there would be other photographers around and we would adjourn to a local cafe for a cup of something and a sandwich and at other times I’d take myself off for a walk around one of the many fascinating side roads and markets that made up the Clerkenwell/Farringdon/Smithfield area and take a few personal and/or stock pictures whilst the film made its hour and three quarter journey through the system and the ‘soup’ at Metro.

On this particular day I went to Whitecross Street with a couple of cameras and a couple of rolls of Kodak Tri-X film. It is amazing what you remember when you start to think about a day and a place and my memory of this day is that I was half an hour into the walk when I bumped into another photographer (there were three or four agencies close by) and we had a coffee anyway!

The man in the photograph (who said his name was Frank but I’m not sure he was being 100% honest judging by the cheeky look in his eye) had been a stall holder at the market selling books and a few magazines for many years. Trade was brisk as the workers from the many offices on the edge of the City of London were having their lunch hours and I didn’t really finish my conversation with him.

Anyway, another ‘archive’ picture that brings back happy memories and brings a smile to my face. This was, quite literally, half of my lifetime ago and I still love the photograph.

Techie stuff: Nikon FM2 camera with a 135mm f2 Nikkor, Kodak Tri-x film.

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.

What’s your favourite lens?

©Neil Turner, November 2014. Surfer heads towards Bournemouth Pier as the waves get bigger during a storm.

©Neil Turner, November 2014. Surfer heads towards Bournemouth Pier as the waves get bigger during a storm.

It’s been a while since I’ve directly answered a question from a reader on this blog. I haven’t been ignoring people – it’s just that the questions best suited to an answer on here haven’t been coming my way. A fellow news photographer causing mischief asked this one last week:

“What’s your favourite lens?”

It’s tough to answer because one of the things I love doing in my work is to use as wide a variety of focal lengths as possible and to use the right lens for the situation (if I own it and/or have it with me of course). I’ve written before about the best lens for portraits and I’ve written about zooms versus primes quite recently and so I thought that I’d give a couple of different answers to the question.

Most used lens

There is one lens that I use more than any other, one that I’d find it hardest to live and work without and which has given amazing service over many years. That lens is my Canon 70-200 f2.8L IS. Put simply, I shoot more ‘keepers’ and have more pictures published with this lens than any other that I’ve ever owned. Mine is approaching thirteen years of age and it replaced the almost identical non-IS version of the lens when I got it. It’s been serviced and repaired more times than I can count but it keeps going and it is still a great lens.

Most intuitive lens

I have another lens that I love which is nowhere near as versatile but has a quality and a simplicity that constantly makes me smile. That lens is my Canon 135mm f2L. It’s tough to say exactly why I love it so much except that the results I get from using it and the ease with which I seem to be able to compose pictures are both a step up from any other prime lens that I own. I shot a job in a pub at night just before Christmas. It was pretty dark and there was a live band playing but I managed to get some nice images at 3200 ISO, 1/100th of second at f2. Hand-holding the lens on a 5D MkIII is a doodle because it is so well balanced and having gear that fits into your hands that well encourages you to push yourself a little more

Most recent lens

Recently I have been using the 135 as part of a two lens set-up with the new Canon 35mm f2 IS – which is itself something of a revelation. This is the third Canon 35mm prime that I’ve owned (non-IS f2 and the f1.4L) as well as being part of the range of the two small zooms that I use a lot (16-35mm f2.8L and 24-70 f2.8L). In the past I’ve owned Olympus, Nikon and Leica 35s as well so I guess that you could say that it is a focal length that I have a lot of experience with! The new 35mm f2 IS is fast to focus, very sharp and a bargain at under £500.

I have a theory about why 135mm lenses on full-frame cameras are such a joy to use for me: the first serious lens that I ever owned on my first SLR was a 135 instead of the normal 50mm that came as part of a kit back then (late 1970s) and I trained myself to see using a medium telephoto instead of a standard lens. When I bought my Olympus OM1 system in the early 1980s a 135mm f2.8 was my second purchase following on from a 50mm f1.8. I can also remember getting the Nikkor 135mm f2 AIS in the late 1980s and falling in love with the pictures I shot with that too. A definite pattern wouldn’t you say? It’s a bit of a cod-theory but it is the best answer that I can come up with. I like my current 50mms well enough (I actually have three of them) but my ‘eye’ appears to prefer the 135.

At some point this year I will need to buy some new gear (I think that I say that every year) and it would make sense to buy a new 70-200 with a new 24-70 because those are the two lenses that I do the vast bulk of my work with. It would be the correct business decision – especially if Canon do bring out the much rumoured 50+ megapixel camera but I might just get my old 24-70 and 70-200 serviced again and go for something from left-field – especially if someone brings out a newer and even better 135mm lens.

Mint in box

©Neil Turner, November 2014

©Neil Turner, November 2014. Canon EF 200mm f2.8L II USM lens.

There are lots of things about the world that I don’t understand. Some of them I ignore, some I oppose and there are others that I just go along with.

One of those that sits squarely in the latter category is the obsession with keeping the boxes for items of photographic and computer equipment that you are intending to use. I go along with it because people are actually prepared to pay more for a used item if you have the original packaging. Basically, it appears, you are prepared to pay me a premium for a secondhand piece of kit if I keep cardboard, plastic and polystyrene in my loft so that you can do the same during your ownership of that item.

It makes sense for collectables where the market loves “mint in box”. We have a few Star Wars items safely tucked away still sealed in their original packaging and I have a couple of Corgi model cars in their boxes too (the box for one on my desk is actually more attractive than the die cast metal contents anyway). But the logic of hoarding packaging for something that is in use is beyond me. Again, I get the concept of saving the instructions and any accessories (I have a massive box full of both of those) but not the packaging. It’s no big deal which is why I am now going with option 3 and just accepting that it is just the way it is. No sense fighting against it and ignoring it isn’t much of a principled stand!

I wasn’t always of that opinion. Somewhere there’s probably a whole load of boxes being safely squirrelled away that look exactly like the original boxes for the items they were bought with but they are just substitutes. When I bought my first two Canon EOS5D MkII bodies a dealer bought the boxes and instructions from me. I thought it a bit weird at the time but £20.00 is £20.00 and I sold them. He presumably “re-united” those boxes with cameras that were missing theirs and sold them on to some unsuspecting soul who thought they were getting the original packaging.

I’m not even sure why this is taking up an hour of my time thinking about why I find it so absurd – other than the fact that I am getting rid of some superfluous gear and one of the lenses really is “mint in box”.

“What gear is that?” I hear you ask – it is a Canon EF200mm f2.8L II USM prime lens that I bought a few months ago when I was going through a phase of using prime lenses for as much as I could while my 70-200 f2.8L IS (ditched the box for that one in 2003) was away having major surgery. The repairs cost less than I had expected and in the end I only used the 200mm lens twice – both times indoors for large groups of head shots. I had bought the lens as secondhand myself although Castle Cameras did (which I trust) say that it had barely been used and had been originally purchased through them a few months before that. So here we have it; a fabulously sharp current model lens with all of the correct bits and pieces – including cardboard, plastic and polystyrene – which retails for £569.00 new going for the bargain sum of £449.00 + delivery.

I am loath to stick it on eBay given the massive commissions that they now charge but the average selling price for one of these (and it would be impossible to be in better condition) is £473.91 on the auction site. The lens is registered with Lenstag and so I would obviously transfer that over. By clicking on the link you can check that it is verified – such a good system!

I will be clearing some more gear out soon. None of it will be ‘mint in box’ because 99% of my equipment gets used for many years before I sell it on but it will be well looked after, properly serviced and verified by Lenstag.

Performing the ritual of “The Selfie”

For as long as I can remember I have shot pictures of my wife and I on holiday with a compact camera at arm’s length. I have examples in the family album dating back to 1984 and, whilst I’m not claiming to have invented “The Selfie”, it really isn’t anything new in our house. We started doing those pictures just because there was never anyone else around to take the picture for us and so it was very much a second best picture. Slowly and over the many holidays that we have enjoyed together it became something of a tradition to do at least one of those arm’s length couple pictures but we always liked to get a passer-by to do the picture if we could. It is a phenomenon that I am fascinated by and I often shoot pictures of people as they perform the Ritual of the Selfie.

Olympic and Commonwealth Gold medallist Laura Trott posing with riders on The Mall in a break between media interviews during the Freecycle event - part of Prudential RideLondon. 9th August 2014.

Olympic and Commonwealth Gold medallist Laura Trott posing with riders on The Mall in a break between media interviews during the Prudential RideLondon Freecycle event. ©Neil Turner, 9th August 2014.

I was prompted to compose this blog post because I suddenly realised why it works so well. One of the media team working with Prudential RideLondon had offered to take the picture and the three young women dutifully posed but their faces didn’t come alive until they rescued the phone and performed the ritual of the selfie. There seems to be a confidence and a joy in taking your own picture of yourself and your friends or, in this case, you, your friend and an Olympic and Commonwealth champion. Is it because these days that can see themselves in the screen and only shoot when they are happy with what they see? I believe that there’s an element of that in it but the sense of self-reliance is just as important as far as I can see. There is a joy in The Selfie that is missing from a perfectly well taken group photo. Time after time we all saw people enjoying taking self portraits during the event and that’s the case almost everywhere almost every day.

Where I depart from the celebration of The Selfie is where media outlets and PR companies encourage people to do it and post them as part of marketing campaigns. For me the innocence and joy of the ritual gets lost when it is prompted like that. Where I also have an worries about it is when people do it dozens or even hundreds of times a day. I had a link request on EyeEm the other day from a guy who have over 6,000 images on his account and, from what I could see, they were all of himself.

I don’t object to The Selfie at all. In fact I indulge in the ritual myself from time to time. All I’d ask is that marketing people without another great idea stop trying to make something from them that isn’t really there. Photography is about a lot of things and fun is right up there as one of the most important.

The one "selfie" that I do like of mine - under water at the beach in Bournemouth in the summer of 2013. ©Neil Turner.

The one “selfie” that I do like of mine – under water at the beach in Bournemouth in the summer of 2013. ©Neil Turner.