Archive photo: Frances Partridge, London, May 1995

Frances Partridge was the last surviving member of The Bloomsbury set when she died, aged 103 in 2004. She had lived an amazing life full of love and tragedy and had known the brightest and the best people of her generation. She was a writer and a famous diarist. I photographed her when she was a mere 93 in 1995 at her home in London.

©Neil Turner/TSL. London, 10th May 1995

When I arrived she seemed agitated, which I didn’t think was unusual given her age and the fact that she had a stranger in her home but it became obvious that something specific was bothering her. She told me that her only corkscrew had broken and that she hadn’t been able to have a glass of wine. Like all good photographers I had a Swiss Army penknife and so I was able to open her bottle – which cheered her up a little. The thing that really made the rest of the job go very well was that I was able to fix her corkscrew so that she would be able to have he wine the following day too.

Mrs Partridge looked old and she knew it. She had spent most of her life surrounded by artists and writers and had been photographed many, many times. She celebrated her age and was keen that I portray her in my own way. We spent a good deal of time working out where she should be in her flat and the light coming in in early May changed every few minutes. I tried to shoot as little flash as I could – not because she didn’t like it but because somehow I thought that ambient light was more in keeping with the ethos of the Bloomsbury group.

Geek moment… I was using two Canon EOS1n cameras with 28-70 and 70-200 f2.8 lenses and Fuji 800 ISO colour negative film without flash and the frames shot with flash were in Fuji 200 ISO colour negative film. The scans were done with a Kodak auto feed scanner onto a Photo CD.

One light, big space

It’s very useful to be able to kill two birds with one stone – especially when you have a limited amount of time. I have been very busy this month and blogging time has ben limited. I had intended to carry on my review of the ERQ and maybe post a new technique piece as well. I was sent on a job the other day that allows me to do both.

The quality that you can get at 3200 ISO with the latest generation digital cameras is amazing but sometimes you really would rather light something. I was asked to shoot some pictures of “An Evening with Alan Bennett” – an event staged to raise awareness and funds for the Christie NHS Hospital Foundation Trust. The Christie is a world renowned hospital in Manchester and they decided to hold an event in London to raise their profile. The venue was the Royal College of Physicians in London’s Regents Park. The library is a spectacular blend of 20th century modern architecture and the fixtures, fittings and books from earlier centuries. The light is kept deliberately low and that presented me with a few issues. At 3200 ISO I was only getting 1/60th at f2.8 and so I used my Elinchrom Ranger Quadra kit to give the room a lot more light.

Allan Bennett talks to Jenni Murray. ©Neil Turner

My idea was simple. I set up the light as far away from the interview as I could get it and bounced the light off of a wall. This gave me a light source of about eight feet (2.4 metres) by four feet (1.2 metres) at almost 90 degrees to the subject and at a distance of over thirty feet (9 + metres). Quite a decent soft light, but very directional and it looks utterly unlit.

This is an effect that I have written about before but the power of the ERQ kit, given that it is only rated at 400 w/s, made this very easy. I was able to be quite a distance away using a 70-200 f2.IS L lens on an EOS5D MkII and frame my shots with relative ease. I was shooting between rows of chairs and invited guests and had been asked by the organisers to severely limit my use of flash so I only got half a dozen goes at the shot. This was my favourite frame and it shows the interviewer – Radio 4’s Jenni Murray – asking Alan Bennett a question right at the start of the session.

This was shot at 1/60th of a second at f5.6 at 800 ISO. The available light was non-existent and the effect is very interesting. I had been worried about the range of the Elinchrom Skyport triggers but they worked very well at a range of at least thirty feet, probably nearer to forty feet and my only gripe with them is their lack of a locking mechanism to keep them in the hot shoe. The ERQ system passe another important test here and I’m still very very happy with the kit.