On Thursday pals Dave and Tony came for a shared day’s tuition. Dave has been to me before on one of my weekend workshops. This time he and Tony wanted to take things several steps further by doing a mini ‘assignment’ that would present a challenge. They felt they wanted to be ‘pushed’ a little, and could I arrange something.
I spoke to the local RNLI lifeboat secretary and got permission to take Dave and Tony along to the lifeboat station down the river here in Kirkcudbright Bay. One of the lifeboat crew members was able to join us for the morning and he proved to be not only great fun, but a willing and interesting photography subject.
The plan was to treat the morning as an assignment for an imaginary magazine editor who wanted a photo essay on the station and the lifeboat man. After they had got over their initial nervousness, both Dave and Tony did a fantastic job. They managed to find a couple of really good ‘key’ pictures and then set about gathering a whole range of really worthwhile peripheral, or detail, pictures. These included everything from the crews’ lifejackets hung in a row on the wall, to the winch that pulled the boat from the water into the boat shed, the inscribed plaques listing the number of rescues and rescued people, and shots of the boat’s powerful engines. By the end of the morning, they both managed to put together a really comprehensive photo essay, and everyone had a great time doing it. We went through the pictures together and did critique comments and advice during the afternoon
Today I have had Phil with me. He came up from Yorkshire for the day. Although he had taken up photography only 10 months ago, the moment I saw some of his work, it was obvious that he has a really good eye for a picture. He was less confident about composition and the workings of his camera, though. But we could soon help with that.
We spent the morning indoors as the rain lashed the windows and I went through each aspect of the camera controls with Phil. After lunch the sun broke through and we set off to my favourite little beach and cove. The light was truly spectacular, and the place presented a perfect situation to work on composition.
Phil was in seventh heaven shooting away happily. Whenever he had a query I would explain a few shortcuts and tricks. By the end of the afternoon, he was fully converted to the idea of the Manual ‘M’ settings on his little Canon 400D and wondering why he every bothered with the auto settings. I think we might be seeing more of Phil in the future
So another busy week comes to an end – have fun with your camera over the weekend.
Photograph by Ron Burton
Here is the photograph by Ron Burton that I spoke about yesterday. This is the picture that inspired me to become a professional photographer over 40 years ago. It triggered my determination that some day I would work for a national daily newspaper. It had a tremendous effect on me – initially, I suppose because of my boyhood interest in aeroplanes, but it was much deeper than that. Before this picture I never thought that there was actually a real person behind the camera when pictures appeared in newspapers – here was a picture actually showing the face of the photographer right in the centre of the action – that’s where I wanted to be, in the middle of the action.
It took Ron Burton six weeks to finalise the details and gain permission to fly with the Red Arrows. A Nikon F camera with a 21mm lens was fixed by the RAF chief engineer to the ejector seat in front of the photographer. The shutter was triggered by remote control. The Red Arrows normally fly in stepped-down formation so that each pilot has a clearer view of the aircraft next to him, but Ron persuaded them to fly stepped-up for this picture so that he could photograph them all more easily… quite a dangerous formation manoeuvre.
I seem to remember that Ron was working for the new Sun newspaper – when it was a quality newspaper! This picture was part of Ron’s portfolio in 1965 when he won the British Press Photographer of the Year Award.
I met up with Ron some years later at another Press Photographer Awards ceremony in London – I was then working as a staffman on The Daily Express and had won the News Section with a picture of an armed police raid. Ron and I became friends. He was a true professional in every sense of the word.
After some considerable prodding, I promised that from time to time I would write about how I got started in photography, and some of the stories behind my career. So here goes, this is the first one…
I was fourteen years old when I decided I wanted to be a press photographer. I’d seen a photograph on the back page of Dad’s newspaper. They’d call it a ‘light bulb moment’ these days, but then, way back in the early 60s, something much more powerful than your average 40 watt bulb was ignited inside me. I knew at that moment what I wanted to do with my life.
The picture showed the photographer in the cockpit of one of the RAF Red Arrows jets. The camera, with a wide-angle lens, was in the front of the cockpit looking back and it showed not only the man who took the shot, but the tight formation of aircraft behind. It dawned on me that that man was not in the Air Force, yet there he was flying with the Red Arrows. That was the life of a press photographer, and that was what I wanted to do. Years later when I was a staff photographer on The Daily Express in Fleet Street, I met that photographer. His name was Ron Burton, and he became a friend. He was enormously pleased to hear that his picture had inspired a 14 year old kid to set off on a career in photography.
That very evening I announced my intentions to Mum and Dad.
“I want to be a press photographer. I don’t want an office job, and I really don’t want to work in a dirty old factory like Dad. I’d like to get out and about, and some of those London photographers get sent all over the world taking photos. Just you look at the pictures in Mirror. That’s what I want to do.”
Mum looked doubtful and I half expected a dressing down for saying what I had about Dad’s job at the diesel engine factory – it put the food on the family table after all. But Dad himself chipped in here. He paused from filling his pipe with the richly-scented mixture of St. Bruno and thick twist that bulged in his well-worn leather tobacco pouch and looked up.
“Now that’s what I call a proper ambition – see the world at someone else’s expense, and I don’t mean in the bloody army, either, square bashin’ and peelin’ spuds. Well paid, too, I’ll bet. You might even be famous and get your name in the paper one day. You give it a try son, I’ll write the letter for you if you like.”
That was it. Done and dusted – to Dad it was now all perfectly clear cut. With his total confidence in the talents of his only son it would be inconceivable that I would be turned down for a job as chief photographer on a top London daily newspaper. Not, that is, once he had written a letter asking the editor to give me a job. But then, Dad was also very sure of his own letter writing talents.
According to Dad’s bullet-pointed letter, those newspaper editors would be missing a golden opportunity, in fact they may even be negligent in their duty to their readers, if they did not immediately offer me a job.
When the letter was finished it was decided something was needed to illustrate my ability as a photographer. We hit upon the idea of enclosing with each letter a contact print of some of the snaps I’d taken with my new camera, an Ilford Sporty. The photos showed next door’s ginger cat, sat on the coping stones of the wall that separated the back yards of our houses. The cat had feathers stuck to his whiskers and a very satisfied expression on his face. At its feet, balanced across the apex of the soot-blackened wall, was the bedraggled corpse of a freshly-killed house sparrow. The Daily Mirror in particular was always keen on animal stories, so surely the editor would see from the evidence of this picture that I was an animal photographer of some distinction. These two-and-a-quarter inch square, black and white snaps of next door’s cat made up my entire ‘portfolio’.
I copied out the letters in my own hand, popped a contact print into each envelope and rushed down to the post office in the centre of town. Strangely, every editor wrote back within a week explaining that there were no photographer’s jobs available just then, but one of them did suggest helpfully that if the sparrow had been a little more chirpy he might even have considered using the picture in his paper. He also said it would be a good plan to get some more ‘hands-on’ experience with a camera before applying for a job in Fleet Street; perhaps on a local newspaper as an apprentice.
So Dad got busy again with his pen, paper and dictionary. He composed another letter to be sent to every weekly newspaper in a twenty mile radius of home. The replies came in dribs and drabs over the next few weeks, but each brought the same depressing news – there was still no prospect of a job when I left school in a few months time.
Right,” said Dad, who was beginning to take this as a personal slight on his letter-writing abilities, “Perhaps it’s more of a case of ‘not what you know, but WHO you know’. There are plenty of jobs like that, so maybe we should try and think of someone who might be able to help. We need what’s called a ‘contact’”.
He was absolutely right of course. I needed an introduction, a personal contact who could smooth the way a little; open a door just enough to get my foot in. With a solitary ‘O’ Level in art and a profound loathing of school, it was obvious that I had no future as an academic. Photography seemed to be the only job that would offer me the life I dreamed about. It was a job that had everything; travel, excitement, fame, the lot, and, as far as I could understand, you didn’t need to pass any exams to get to the top. My mind was made up, my heart was set on it; I simply had to become a press photographer when I left school after my fifteenth birthday. But after so many disappointing replies to all those letters, hopes were definitely beginning to flag. No one in the family knew anyone even remotely connected with journalism, photography or newspapers, perhaps it was hopeless after all.
Next – sometime soon – how I made my first ‘contact’
In the lower photograph I have moved the camera back a little to take the white area back into the frame and away from the lower edge of the composition. This darker foreground ensures that the viewer’s interest does not drop away. However, I do find the rock at the bottom of the shot just a tad distracting.
A word about white balance here when photographing this type of subject. In this situation the waterfall was in the shade of a deep ravine. That meant high temperature blue light. By all means experiment with your White Balance (WB) settings, but I tend to avoid Auto White Balance (AWB) in these situations because it can be difficult to achieve consistency between each shot due to the fluid ‘self-adjusting’ nature of the AWB mode – it can change the colour of your picture by very small degrees each time you adjust your composition. I found that setting the camera on the ‘cloudy’ white balance icon gave exactly the tones I wanted without making the water look too yellow. Using these WB icons, or indeed setting a Custom White Balance, locks the white balance on that particular setting, so the colours should not change between frames.
The weather was good and after lunch we had the choice of either photographing one of the many coves just along the coast, or another of my favourite locations – a beautiful and delicately intricate waterfall that drops out of the Galloway hills not far from my base here in Kirkcudbright.
As Yvonne was keen to try out her skills with moving water – we donned our wellie boots and headed to the waterfall.
You can hear the roar of the waterfall well before I can see it. It’s very well hidden – a real fairy dell. The water drops about 40 feet down a sheer face, it’s stream splitting into several channels which tumble over blackened, mossy rocks. The fall was once used for industrial purposes, and some cast iron pipes still mar the pristine quality of the scene. These can be used as subjects in their own right, or, with careful framing be cut out altogether.
I suggested a simple shooting plan to give the shoot a sense of purpose. We did not rush in to get shots of the water right away, but stood well back and took a good look at the whole scene before me. There is no need to rush in these situations. Waterfalls do not run away, nothing is going to change except the light, and on an overcast day that is unlikely to change much, so take your time and consider each shot. I prefer an overcast day because it helps reduces contrast between the white water and black rock, and if the sun does shine through the trees it can soon create over-exposed hot spots.
We started by taking pictures that included lots of foreground. The green mosses made a startling foreground, so too did the branches of the dead trees.
A good solid tripod is essential if, like me, you prefer to create that mystical, fairy-like, movement in the falling water. You need very slow shutter speeds to do that, about 1sec for maximum effect with a small waterfall, and here overcast weather helps again. The less daylight there is, the slower the shutter speed you will be able to use.
In my DVd on Light and Composition (available from my website), I showed you how to look at the world in rectangles, and introduced you to an imaginary ‘Rectangle Monkey’ who always helps you think and see in rectangles – that’s the way the camera sees. Photographing a waterfall like this is a good time to adopt that way of thinking, because the actually face of the waterfall as it drops down the cliff is really quite two-dimensional, and it is a simple matter to divide the waterfall up into interesting rectangles – starting with the overall view and then framing different interesting areas in both horizontal and vertical rectangles.
To find the exposure using Manual (M) exposure mode is simple. Knowing I need a slow shutter speed, I just set a very small aperture, f22 and point the camera at the subject (I prefer centre-weighted metering for this type of subject). Then I slow the shutter speed down until the exposure scale in the viewfinder tells me I have the correct exposure. At ISO 100 this gave me a shutter speed of around 1sec; perfect for the moving water effect I was looking for. You do not need fast ISO settings when the camera is on a tripod and you want to use a slow shutter speed… keep it low for best results and better quality.
The pictures here were taken by me on a previous visit to the waterfall – yesterday, I was far too busy helping Yvonne and Phil to get their photographs.
Lower photograph of the waterfall
You will notice that I use the word ‘gathering’. That seems the most appropriate way to explain the way I work. I really do go out there to gather pictures that capture something of the essence of a place. When I leave my hotel room and walk into the street I am in ‘gathering’ mode.
Quite apart from the fact that I have only ever been able to throw 100% effort into the things I undertake, there is another very good reason for this approach to photography. Getting to, and staying in, a place (travelling) is almost always the most expensive aspect of any photographic assignment. So my attitude is very simple: once I am on location, I work flat out to gather as many sellable pictures as possible. That doesn’t mean that I don’t thoroughly enjoy what I do, but the job has to pay and I have a job to do.
I rarely, if ever, worked ‘on spec’. I was always commissioned by a newspaper of magazine to photograph a particular country or assignment. When I was working for The Sunday Times, for instance, this meant they paid all the travelling expenses. Great, but that put the responsibility squarely on my shoulders to provide them with what they were paying for; to give them what they wanted – and more.
Over the years I adopted a very simple ‘rating’ system in order to cut down time wasted on trying to capture pictures that were never going to ‘happen’.
When I see a subject that I think has good visual possibilities, I will, in the back of my mind, give it an instant time rating. I might, for instance rate a subject as just ‘two-minutes’ and will expend just two minutes exploring it and trying to realise its potential. If it fails to produce a worthwhile photograph that pleases me in that time, I simple drop it down a hole and move on. I’m afraid I apply the same rating system to some people too while I am working – time is just too valuable to waste. This may appear calculating and cold-blooded to photographers who take pictures purely for pleasure.
If I believe a subject has tremendous picture potential it will, of course, get a far higher time rating, and I will be prepared to wait many hours for that special shot. The picture of the gondolier above was a ‘three day’ rating. I saw the potential of the shot as soon as I saw this particular canal corner and the way the sidelight was striking the buildings facing me. But think of all the ingredients that were vital for the success of a picture:
I needed a gondola in the right place.
The gondolier had to be positioned precisely between those two window.
He had to be wearing the proper straw hat.
He had to be pushing the gondola along
There had to be the hint of a passenger in the boat
The lighting had to be coming down the alley from the left.
I went back each afternoon when the light was perfect and waited for about one hour. I photographed many gondolas passing down that canal, but only on the third day did a get exactly what I wanted and what I had envisaged on that first day.
I’m sorry – yesterday I got it wrong.
When talking about the way I set the exposure for the live gig, I incorrectly said that I set the camera on Shutter Priority (TV) mode, then set a wide aperture and let the camera decide on the shutter speed. This, of course, is dribble.
I meant to say – set a wide aperture using AV (Aperture Priority) mode and let the camera decide on a suitable shutter speed.
Thanks to Alwyn for drawing my attention to this silly mistake. I have now corrected the wording of yesterday’s post.
There, confession over – I feel better now.
I arrived at the theatre early, well before the start of the show so that I could check out shooting positions and angles. The stage had very limited access to the wings and as the best shots are often taken from the side of the stage, this would make things quite difficult.
The only way to get into this position would be from the front of the stage, so the band had to be happy for me to move up there between songs. Access to the back of the stage, where I could shoot from behind the band, was easy and I checked out all my routes from one position to another while all the house lights were on. I had put a small torch in my pocket so that I would not be stumbling around in the dark when I went back stage during the performance – it would be very dark there then.
I even managed to gain access to a small lighting gantry above the audience from where I could use a telephoto lens for frontal close-ups of the band. During the show, I dodged from one position to the next, and often back again.
As I was on the move and adapting to the different light conditions and positions of the performers, I left my bulky camera bag safely locked in a dressing room and operated with two camera bodies and two lenses.
With the stage lights constantly changing intensity direction and colours, you may find it useful to use the Aperture Value (AV) exposure mode. Remember, this is more correctly called the Aperture Priority (AP) mode. Just set a wide aperture and let the camera decide on the shutter speed. However, I prefer to use the basic M (Manual) mode whenever possible, so that I can change the exposure myself as the lights change. It is also more reliable if shooting directly into bright stage spots – a situation that can confuse any automatic metering mode.
I set my ISO to 800 with the certain knowledge that I would need the fastest shutter speed possible to stop any action. This would result is some loss of quality, but that was a price worth paying.
Most of the shots were taken at between 1/60sec and 1/125sec at f2.8 or f4. Of course these shutter speeds are pretty slow for stopping action, and there were some failures when I pressed the button as the subjects moved, so it was important to take lots of pictures so that these could be discarded. The camera’s LCD illuminator is invaluable when checking settings in the dark in the dark.
You will never win completely when the stage lights are changing from bright blue to deep red. I simply set AWB (Auto White Balance) and let it happen. Any adjustments I made later in Photoshop.
The most useful lens proved to be the 17-35mm f2.8. With this I could get really close from the side of the stage and include the stage lighting in the shot for dramatic effect. For the long shots from the lighting gantry I used a 70-200mm f2.8 zoom. I don’t often bother with lens hoods, but in these conditions, with lights shining into the lens at an angle, I made sure I had a hood fitted to avoid flare
Doug Carroll may not be as famous as Mark Knopler, but he is one of the most gifted guitar players in the UK. I wanted to get a picture that really summed up his total immersion in his music when he played solo. I liked his natural pose with the spotlights shining down on him through the stage smoke. Stage lighting is mostly from front and back of the performers, so if you are photographing a band from the wings you will not be shooting directly into the light
From the lighting gantry just above the audience I was able to use a telephoto lens and get reasonable close-up shots of the band. The light behind Mary was flashing on and off and changing colour so there was an element of luck involved in getting a good facial expression with the right light backlight
Earplugs are essential for photographers working directly in front of a powerful sound system. It’s LOUD. Over the years, I’ve covered dozens of rock bands’ live gigs – from the Rolling Stone’s, Rod Stewart, Freddie Mercury. I hate to admit this, but I’ve covered The Beatles as well – and my hearing has never been the same.
Whenever I think of really difficult light conditions I think of live stage performances – especially of rock music. Few situations present the photographer with more challenges than a live pop concert. Everything is difficult – for a start, the amount, contrast and colour of the lighting is likely to change every few seconds and the performers will be moving or jumping around the stage. You will be working immediately in front of a sound system so powerful it can easily damage your hearing, and behind you the paying audience will not be at all pleased if you block their view of the stars on stage.
I was reminded of all these problems at the weekend when we went to enjoy a gig by a fantastic local band here in SW Scotland. I was not working – just there to enjoy myself, but at the band’s last gig in the same theatre, I did take lots of pictures. Singer Mary Barclay and her husband lead guitar Doug Carroll, of the ‘The Sensational Mary Barclay Band’ are personal friends of ours, so it was a job done with real pleasure.
If you decide to try this type of assignment yourself, it will really test all your skills in timing and camera craft. The result can be great set of pictures and a tremendous sense of achievement. Most rock groups and musicians, except famous professionals, will be only too pleased if you approach them and ask if you can photograph one of their live gigs. However, it’s always best to check with the theatre manager well before the event.
Who knows? the band may become famous one day and then your pictures might be worth a small fortune. In the case of The Mary Barclay Band, they really do deserve stardom and fame. Mary has a fantastic voice and Doug is one of the finest lead guitar players in the UK – if not beyond. The band now write and produce much of their own music and songs.
If you don’t fancy rock music, there’s sure to be an amateur dramatic society putting on live theatre somewhere near where you live.
I’ll go into the technique side of photographing this type of subject in part 2. Meanwhile I can recommend you listen to some of the band’s music at…