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Hero portraits

A few months ago I got a call from a designer who wanted me to shoot some pictures at a gym in east London that would be used in many different ways but primarily as huge prints in the window of their high street premises. My instructions were to shoot what he called “hero portraits” of some of the gym staff and of the two owners who are both fitness experts. That was the extent of the advanced briefing.

©Neil Turner. March 2012, London

The designer was there on the day to act as art director and I turned up with plenty of kit: cameras, lighting, backgrounds, clamps, clips, gels and plenty of batteries. The day started with a quick chat, a couple of test shots and then we decided to shoot “black on black on black” – the team were all wearing black gym kit, we made use of the black rubberised floor in the free weights area and I brought in a six foot by four foot matt black folding Lastolite background. We settled on a mixture of strong side and back-light with some very warm gels being used in different ways in each of the four main shots.

Shot one was of one of the owners who uses boxing and boxing training to work with many of his clients and with some of the group classes he teaches. We went for a simple composition with him putting up his guard as if the 24”x36” soft box that was about four feet away from him was his opponent. That gave us the main light and I used a second head with a grid diffuser behind him to accentuate the shape of his shoulders, neck and head. The first few shots featured black boxing gloves but that was just one bit of black too far and so we swapped them for red and the resulting images were very pleasing.

Shot two was his business partner who does fitness classes and we featured her with a large blue medicine ball, three quarter length and slightly less side lighting.

©Neil Turner. London, March 2012

Shot three was of another male instructor who specializes in power training and he suggested that we used a variation on the American Football quarterback starting position. This was the most fun image to shoot because the shapes were instantly graphic and the light was almost instantly correct. The floor featured in this shot for the first time and so I needed to make sure that it didn’t dominate the composition. In the end I made sure that only the smallest area around his feet had any light on it at all and some nearby kit was used to “flag” the area – stopping unwanted light hitting the rubber tiles.

The fourth and final of the hero portraits was about physiotherapy and for that we had a client sitting on one large blue ball using a blue soft tube across his shoulders to stretch and twist. Four very large prints now feature in the window of the gym. Heroic!

A nice request for a picture

A few weeks ago I received a lovely email from the widow of a philosopher that I had photographed back in 1996. She had been looking through some of his papers and found a cutting from the Times Higher Education Supplement that had an interview with him along with my portrait of him. She saw the tiny 8 point byline and knowing that search engines are wonderful things she tracked me down. Emails went back and forth and today I got a photocopy of the cutting in the post.

I don’t have much of the work that I did between 1994 and 1998 but her luck was in and I had a Kodak Photo CD with some half decent scans from the job in my loft. It was an easy enough task to find the CD, grab the relevant image from it and get it ready to send to her. The old Kodak Photo CDs used an unusual and proprietary format that Photoshop doesn’t recognise so if anyone else comes across this issue I can confirm that the old Graphics Converter application will happily handle the format and convert your files into useful formats such as PSD, TIF or JPG.

Like most photographers I get regular requests for ‘free’ pictures and I am always wary but somehow a hand-written note from the widow of a very nice man where the words “please” and “thank you” chased away my cynicism rather easily. The portrait is of philosopher and Oxford Professor Bernard Williams (he became Sir Bernard a while after I shot the picture) and here it is…

©Neil Turner/TSL. Oxford, October 1996

Geek footnote: I was using a pair of Canon EOS1n bodies with Canon 28-70 f2.8L and 70-200 f2.8L lenses at the time and this was almost certainly shot on the 70-200. The film was Fuji 200 ISO colour negative scanned on a Kodak RFS scanner.

Archive photo: Carl Djerassi, London, June 1999

©Neil Turner/TSL. London, June 1999

I shot this portrait of Carl Djerassi, co-inventor of the contraceptive pill, scientist and playwright in his London flat. He was mainly resident in San Francisco but kept a home in the UK as well. He was a very quiet and considered man who was used to, but not particularly keen on, publicity. I was attracted to the shape of his dining chairs and the almost egg-like shape of the top. I don’t recall whether we discussed the shape at the time!

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’.

The personal frames you shoot…

I have shot thousands of editorial portraits over the last 26 years and every once in a while I shoot a few “personal frames” at the end of a job. What I mean is that there are pictures that I shoot if I have time that I know the client would not publish in a million years and so I am doing them for my own amusement/sanity/experience/curiosity. When you start shooting pictures, everything you do is an adventure. Slowly you learn how to achieve the results that you (and your client) want and it becomes very easy to just take the pictures that you need to take without pushing any boundaries or trying anything new.

Professor Lewis Wolpert. London, March 2004. ©Neil Turner/TSL

I wrote an essay in 2004 about why black and white is so effective and why so many people profess to preferring it to colour for a lot of ‘serious’ pictures. The reason that I have always believed is that good photography is about giving people a view of your subject that they recognise but that, at the same time, is not how they themselves would have see the same scene. There are plenty of ways of achieving this but the one that non-photographers seem to respond to most positively is to show black and white pictures. For about two weeks after writing that for the first time I consciously shot pictures that I could convert to black and white to prove or disprove my theory. I even submitted a few black and white images with my edits to the newspaper I was working for.

The experiment developed a little and I started to try to actually mimic the feel of black and white film and prints. Lots of filters and plug-ins were appearing on the market at the time and I played with as many as I could get my hands on. The experiment ended when I shot this portrait of Professor Lewis Wolpert at the Department of Anatomy, University College London in March 2004. I had spent quite a while using Photoshop’s darkroom style tools to dodge, burn, correct contrast and generally make an otherwise ordinary picture look rather nice. I really liked the picture but I decided that the personal frames idea needed to head off in a different direction and so I stopped shooting with mono in mind for quite a while.

In common with almost all of the work that I was doing at that time, this was shot on a Canon EOS1D with a 70-200 f2.8L lens. It was shot at 640ISO (which for me was the highest you could go on the original EOS1D without getting a lot of noise) at 1/125th of a second at f2.8.

Nikon Vs Canon (no, really, honest…)

A Wise man said to me recently that the best way of getting a shed load of traffic to your blog was to make the title something like “Canon versus Nikon” of something along those lines. Well, as it happens, I actually do want to write about Canon versus Nikon – or at least to make the point that with the imminent arrival of both the Nikon D4 and the Canon EOS1DX (at least on specification and raison d’être) the two camera giants will have a broadly competitive and similar offering for the first time since the Nikon F3 and the Canon F1n did battle back in the early to mid 1980s. Both of those cameras were built like tanks, had optional and fast motor drives and were principally designed for heavy duty professional use.

The new offerings have remarkably similar specifications – knock for knock, these are the most similar cameras on the pro market for thirty years. There are a few differences of course: Nikon have stuck their necks out and gone for a dual memory card slot with one of them being for a new and largely untried format. Both cameras have the odd quirk here and there but it will all be about personal preference when purchasing decisions need to be made.

Of course one manufacturer might have exactly the lens range you want or the other might just feel better in your hands but, the bottom line is that for the first time in the digital era and maybe even for the first time since the original EOS1 film camera hit the shelves we don’t have a clear leader. Can’t wait to try them out…

Space makes you think

In general I am a fan of tighter compositions, but there are some subject matters that are just crying out for space. A large area of foreground or background can lend an enormous amount of emphasis to an image. Placing a small subject in a large space helps you to tell a story. If you place a person in one of the bottom corners you might suggest loneliness or vulnerability, whereas placing them at the top may well imply the opposite.

©Neil Turner | Bournemouth | January 2005

This photograph of a child playing on the beach in the winter suggests that he is really enjoying his freedom. The photograph was taken from quite a height (maybe 25 feet) to isolate the sand from the confusing background and the fact that he is nearer the right of the frame suggests that he has a lot more room to head into. The oldest rule about composition – the rule of thirds – is being observed.

If the space around the child in the photograph was full of details then the impact of the composition would be lost. You would inevitably give the image more than one subject and spoil the simplicity which is the real secret of the picture. Of course if the child’s mother was in another area of the otherwise empty frame then that would give another message altogether, the space would still be making you think – but differently.

Cluttered photographs are much harder to pull off, simple images are often more effective and this image proves that simple doesn’t necessarily mean tight.