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A Lawson Unto Himself

Two things I enjoyed on this assignment; a challenge and a good debate.

This commission took me to University of Bath where the Institute for Sustainable Energy and the Environment (I-SEE) hosted a talk on climate change by Nigel Lawson. Lord Lawson being a bit of a climate change sceptic (just a tad), I was looking forward to not only taking the pictures needed by I-SEE, but also hearing his point of view on the subject.

Lord Nigel Lawson delivers his views on climate change at University of Bath

Shooting through the audience brings a sense of the speaker/listener interaction

The problem with photographing a talk of this kind is that mentally I can only dip in and out because I’m concentrating fairly hard on getting the exposure, focus and composition right, and this particular venue (a dimly-lit, tightly packed lecture theatre) was quite a challenging space to work in.

But while I couldn’t quite concentrate on everything Lord Lawson said, I did catch the gist of his argument and I definitely detected the mood of some of the audience members who clearly didn’t agree with his views.

Of course I wasn’t there as a member of the audience, but whenever I cover something like this I do need to be aware of what’s being said and what the mood and reactions from the audience are. Likewise I had to ensure my technical set-up would allow me to get photos of Lord Lawson speaking as well as reactions and questions from the audience. Not an easy task when you really only have room for one flash on a stand, but with a bit of jiggery-pokery I think I pulled it off with reasonable success.

A man in the audience asks Lord Lawson a question

A packed auditorium means a busy picture, just trickier lighting

While the resulting images might not win any prizes or plaudits, I always work hard to make sure that even under difficult lighting and in tight spaces my images don’t suffer the ghastly effects of direct flash or extreme digital noise caused by high ISO settings, either of which would detract from the subject matter and would have made the photos less usable.

As for climate change, that’s really a debate for another place.

 

The selfie, a fine tradition

I’m a little nervous about this week’s post in that instead of featuring a photo of some poor, unsuspecting client, it features me. This potentially opens up my comment box to many hilarious responses, but that’s ok, it’s probably justified.

Self-portrait of Tim Gander reflected in a shop window near Paris

The man behind maketh the photo (click to enlarge)

The reason for inflicting this narcissistic portrait on you isn’t just that selfies have been a feature of the news in recent months (most notably David Cameron, Helle Thorning-Schmidt and Barack Obama at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service), but having taken the shot, it sparked a thought about photographers and selfies as something of a tradition.

First a little background to how this photo came about… I was in a little town near Paris, France at the weekend for a wedding (don’t worry, I was a guest, not the photographer – I haven’t gone completely mad!) and had some time to kill between arriving and the start of the service, so I took my camera and went for a wander around the streets.

Now I can’t speak for other photographers, but give me a super-reflective surface like a shop window and some interesting light and I can’t resist playing around to see what I can do with it, and this particular shop window seemed to call to me to make a selfie.

I’d just lined up for the best shot I thought I could get when I spotted a man in the reflection, walking along having a fairly lively conversation with himself. I waited until he moved through to the right spot and caught him in mid-animation. Without him I think the shot would have been about 50% less interesting, and possibly not even worth keeping. You can tell me if you think it’s worth keeping anyway, it’s probably not for me to say.

I’m not saying this photo is anything special, but where the selfie of iPhone fame tends to be of drunk teenagers gurning at themselves, there are plenty of examples of photographers who have used themselves as models when experimenting with light, composition and reflections. Take a look at the Vivian Maier official website and you’ll see she really played with the genre.

I suppose what I’m trying to say in probably too many words is that there is no shame in taking selfies. They can be flippant and fun, they can be more considered and exploratory. I could be honest and admit that mine is even more self-absorbed than a quick iPhone snap (which I’ve also done on occasion), but when there is no one else around to model, well you just have to go with what you’ve got.

I find them a useful way of trying out something new, I just wish I had a better model to work with.

Ta-dah! My new photography website (and blog integration)

It’s possible you’ve noticed this blog has been a little more sporadic than usual these last few weeks, but this  “sparodicness” has been caused by the combination of a major website redesign coupled with work assignments (Manchester was just one destination last week). The more observant among you will also have noticed changes in the way this very blog looks and in time I hope to be able to add more features to make it even more interesting (“how can this be?” I hear the crowd roar…)

Hopefully things will settle back into a pattern now, namely that I’ll publish on a weekly basis except where (as it’s always been) work commitments make this impossible, so thanks for your patience during the construction process and sorry for any inconvenience caused, as builders like to say.

silhouette against blue sky of construction workers lowering a RSJ into place on a building site.

Construction has taken a while, but I hope it’s been worth the effort

Morrissey posed the question “What Difference Does It Make?” and that question is pertinent to my website redesign and you deserve an answer, damn it! In a nutshell, what I’ve needed to do for years is incorporate my blog into my website to make it much easier for visitors to navigate between the two. You’ll notice that unlike my previous blog site, you’re not whisked off to a site separate from my main photography pages. It sounds simple to do this, but it’s taken some doing because at the same time it seemed sensible to redesign the entire website to make it all easier to navigate, informative and with a fresher look.

It’s worth remembering that my site is designed predominantly for people looking to book a commercial, corporate, editorial or PR photographer and the kinds of people who need me often don’t have time for fancy features to load. They need to be able to get in, look at what they need to see and then get in touch, all as smoothly as possible and with minimum fuss. I hope I’ve achieved this.

And in this age of iPhones and tablet computers I thought I’d better make the site responsive too, that is to say it doesn’t fall apart when viewed on a screen smaller than a laptop. All this takes effort and thought and one thing I’ve learned is that NEWS FLASH the web is not a perfect place. You get one aspect of your website right and another aspect keels over. As with anything, unless you have infinite funds you’ll have to compromise here and there. I hope I’ve kept compromise to a minimum and I have to say I’m pleased on the whole with how everything has turned out.

 

Case Study: The Awards Event Photography

Innovator of the Year glass panel in the main hall, Horticultural Halls, London as delegates gather

This shot was created by firing a remote flash behind the glass panel to highlight the event title and add light to the delegates as they started to gather

Last Thursday I was in London covering the Fostering Innovation awards event for Biotechnology and Biosciences Research Council (BBSRC), an annual event which recognises those whose research is truly innovative and which will have real impact on society. It’s probably explained better here.

My challenge in covering this event is that every year it’s held in a different venue. This year it was the Royal Horticultural Halls, a very splendid setting, but the lighting was definitely on the lower side of low. This is often the case with large venues, and while some photographers make a big deal of working solely with natural light, they would have come spectacularly un-stuck in this situation.

Whenever I cover an event which involves a stage, a podium and a mixture of general shots and individuals either with their exhibits or receiving awards, if natural light isn’t abundant and of a good enough quality, I get to working out how to use flash without destroying all of the ambience or style of the event.

For this venue I decided to set one flash to cover the stage with a view to making it look as if there were a powerful stage light on the speaker (the light set by the AV guys was too weak and too strongly coloured for still images, even if it looked great from an audience point of view) , and the rest I shot with a hand-held flash held a little way away from the camera and using my favourite technique for softening the light to keep it as flattering as possible – direct, camera-top flash is unremittingly harsh and tends not to cover the subject as reliably as I like.

Keynote speaker addresses the Fostering Innovation Awards 2014 audience at Royal Horticultural Halls, London

Setting up a remote flash to cover the stage meant I could illuminate the speaker while audience heads finish the frame nicely

Portrait of Innovator of the Year 2014 Luke Alphey of The Pirbright Institute with his award trophy

Innovator of the Year Luke Alphey of The Pirbright Institute whose work investigates the genetic control of pests, including the dengue fever-carrying mosquito

The other difficulty of the low light was that sometimes this made it tricky to focus on subjects, but using fast, professional lenses certainly helps with this. It often strikes me that as camera technology has developed, I often find myself taking pictures in scenarios I might once have written off as impossible a decade or more ago.

But that’s what keeps this job interesting; giving the client creative coverage of their event in spite of all the challenges. I enjoy problem solving with each new event, venue and lighting challenge this presents. In fact I’m hoping next year’s awards ceremony is held in the darkest cavern imaginable just so I can really test my mettle*

*Please ignore that last statement, BBSRC, I didn’t mean it!

Stock Emo

The stock image library Alamy has just launched Stockimo, a new app for the iPhone which allows users to upload their phone pics directly to the library, and in spite of myself I’ve been using it.

Railway lines out of Exeter, filtered to look hip

Mmm Exeter suddenly looks more interesting don’t you think?

I say in spite of myself because I’m not a huge fan of stock imagery to start with. I have about 500 images on Alamy, and I’ve had that same number of pictures there for quite a few years. To make any decent money I’d probably need upwards of 4,000 images there. I rarely add to my collection because stock isn’t how I generate income from photography. I’ve always worked best when on commission to produce a particular set of images for a specific client, and I find going out to shoot stock just doesn’t inspire me.

So why am I playing with Stockimo? Partly because I thought it would just be interesting to see how the app worked, partly to see what sort of images Alamy are after.

The app works pretty well, you can take a photo from within the app or choose an image that’s already on your camera roll. You caption it, add tags (which are the words clients will use to find the image), answer some model/property release questions and upload it. After a variable wait from a few hours to a day or so, you get an update to tell you whether or not the image has been accepted.

Here’s where Stockimo is a bit different from the regular Alamy image submission process. With iPhone photos they’re not looking at technical quality (it’s much lower on an iPhone of course) so much as the content and “emotional impact” of the photo.

Most of what I’ve uploaded (36 images so far) have been accepted, but I learned some early lessons. The first being not to be too light-

Landscape view of a section of  a section of Cley Hill near Frome

Making the colours a bit hyper gets a higher rating, though I still won’t touch HDR

handed on filters. Alamy want you to batter your image with the hipster-filter-stick until it’s begging for mercy. Vignettes, light leaks, desaturated (or massively over-saturated) colours, retro textures, you name it. Throw enough effects at your image and chances are they’ll love it.

The images are rated by a mysterious group of “experts” who rate it’s emotional impact (ie how many filters used) and it’s saleability. Top score is 4, bottom score 0, and as long as your image scores above 2 as an average of all the judges’ scores, it’ll be accepted.

Angled photo of a boy on a bike on a cycle path

This first version failed to pass

I’ll be honest, I’ve found it interesting to trawl my older images, re-edit them and see whether they get accepted or rejected and what scores they get. Some scores surprise me while others seem low, but the scoring does give a guide on what to aim for and what to avoid.

Hipster photo of boy on a bicycle on a cycle path, filtered with muted colours and orange light leaks

Feel the emotion! This version passed

The question is whether I’ll take fresh images to upload on a regular basis. From my view as someone who isn’t a stock fan, at least this is minimal effort for the small returns stock image licensing delivers. I don’t see it damaging my commissioned work, so on balance I probably will. In reality I doubt I’ll upload enough to ever have any more than a homeopathic ratio of images within the many many thousands of images which will be uploaded, so it’ll be interesting to see if I ever sell anything. So I’m going to treat it as a bit of fun, see where it goes and not get too emotional about it.

Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes

This week’s blog is going to be mercifully short because today I’m working feverishly behind the scenes to get my newly designed blog and website up and ready (exciting and scary!)

However, I hate to disappoint all the beautiful people out there who like to swing by every Tuesday in search of some nugget of information, entertainment or um… can’t remember what the third thing might be, so I’m taking this opportunity to give you an early alert to one of the changes you’ll see on the site.

Angled detail view in black and white of cobbled street, Frome

Now available to buy as an enlargement

It’s all a bit work-in-progress at the moment, but if you look at the Personal Project Photography gallery you’ll see that the images there are available to buy as prints or enlargements. New options will be added and updated, as will images from my archive and (in time) new images which I’ll add as and when they’re ready.

You’re welcome to have a look, and if you see something you like you’ll be welcome to order it! If you see a photo you like which isn’t available in a size or finish you’d want, let me know and I’ll see what I can do.

For technical reasons, not all photos will be available in all sizes because I want to ensure that whatever you buy looks fantastic on your wall.

This is just one feature of the new site which will have a different look and will incorporate this blog far more seamlessly, making it easier for everyone to see and access the bits they need.

So exciting times all round! I’m hoping that by the time you read my next article, the new site will be finished and live. Wish me luck, and thank you for your patience during this construction work.

Where JP fail, others choose to follow

I had promised myself I wouldn’t re-visit the subject of Johnson Press or anything else quite as depressing for a while. The reaction to that article was incredible, receiving over 360 hits in two days which, for a modest blog such as mine is quite a big deal.

Indeed I had every intention of keeping things upbeat for a while, but then I got one more reaction to the article which I just couldn’t ignore; an email from someone whose situation perfectly illustrates the insanity which has overtaken newspaper publishing in this country. The victim of another publisher taking a short-term view and discarding both staff and reader loyalty in the hope of bigger margins.

There’s really nothing I can add to what this photojournalist says, so I’ll let their email speak for itself. Reproduced with permission…

Great to read your blog about Johnston Press.

Days after their announcement the publisher that I work for as a retained photo journalist also announced that it was going down the free content route and will no longer require my services!

The new model is to copy and paste press releases, and the associated pictures, thus removing my position.

I gather that everything is now geared towards ad revenue and pleasing PR people and press officers in the hope that they will advertise with said publishing group. As a result, all critical reporting has been banned in case it upsets said PR departments and everything will now be portrayed as sunny, regardless of the reality.

On the odd occasion a picture is needed from an event the ad man or webmaster will go along with their tablet, iphone etc and take a picture that is “good enough”. The parting shot was “with digital photography nowadays, we don’t need a retained photo journalist”

An editorial policy where PR people dictate content, as that’s what will happen, is an odd policy to adopt for a news publication. But hey, got to keep those PR people happy!

I was retained for 10 years and they just cut me adrift as if I never mattered. Over that decade the publisher would constantly apologise for not being able to pay me more (1k a month), but when they abolished my position this figure suddenly became a “considerable amount” . Loyalty, what ever happened to it?

It’s good to talk

After last week’s article (rant) about the Johnston Press photographic staff redundancies, I feel the need to chill and talk about something a little warmer and fluffier. I could have another rant, this time about the new powers UK police might soon have to seize press photographers’ images, but since there won’t be any press photographers left soon I suspect the law will be redundant by the time it hits the statute books.

I could have a rant about the latest European Union copyright review, which could very well be another attempt by big business to grab photographers’ rights, since these reviews never seem to centre on ways of strengthening copyright law. And on this matter, I urge all creatives to make submissions to the review, the deadline of which has been extended in to March 5th.

Yes, I could rant about all of that, but while rants get hits to my blog, it also gets boring. In any case it’s likely I’ll have to have another go at these subjects later, so rant lovers needn’t despair entirely.

Instead I’m going to tell you about a rather fun Friday evening last week when I addressed members of the Frome Wessex Camera Club and spent a couple of hours talking about the work I do now, and the experiences I had working for the News of the World from around 1998 to 2001 when I left abruptly due to unpaid expenses.

A milkman delivers a crate of milk to 10 Downing Street, London

Sitting overnight in Downing Street in case Cheri Blair went into labour, I captured a shot of the milkman delivering and broke the story that this delivery is a national secret

I’d not previously addressed a room full of people on this subject before, and it was kind of cathartic for me. I’d prepared a presentation with lots of photos from the period, each with its own back-story, and while I was nervous in the build up to the evening, once the house lights went down and I got started it was like I was flying. I’d made presenter notes, but barely referred to them for the entire talk. Everything just seemed to flow naturally.

Queen Elizabeth II rides out in a horse-drawn carriage at the start of the Trooping the Colour ceremony and parade in London in 2001, protected by a transparent umbrella to protect her from the rain

Some stories I covered were more conventional, such as Trooping the Colour, 2001

The audience of club members (plus my son who I’d dragged along under mild protest) did a very strange thing too; they laughed at my tales of celebrity chases, brushes with bodyguards and sitting in the backs of vans waiting so long for a particular scallywag to appear I’d have to pee in a bottle or risk blowing my cover.

A group of black ladies laugh heartily at the end of a march in honour of murdered teenager Damilola taylor

Marking the anniversary of the death of Damilola Taylor not with sadness, but unity and joy

And when the house lights went up at the end of the presentation, the image which will stay with me forever is the look on my son’s face because this was the first time he’d heard many of these stories. I’d assumed he would have been bored to tears, but his expression was a mixture of happiness and pride. Of everyone in the audience, he was my most important critic and it seems I passed the test.

Supporters of the National Front are escorted through the streets of Bermondsey by police officers.

A National Front march in Bermondsey, London. A lot less laughing and joy than the Damilola Taylor march which happened on the same day.

Johnston Press soon to be renamed Johnston Er…

It’s hard sometimes to write a post and not be completely ranty, but I’ll give it my best shot this week even though I think I have good cause to vent.

In 2010 Michael Johnston, Johnston Press Scotland divisional MD, was being scrutinised by a committee of Members of the Scottish Parliament about the state of the newspaper industry North of the border.

I quote from Mr Johnston’s submission to the MSPs, “We possibly did not invest enough in journalism. Looking at the here and now, and moving forward, I want to ensure that the businesses that I am responsible for are sustainable and can continue to function in a viable way.

“Journalism is fundamental to what we do. I recognise journalism as being not only a significant cost but a significant attribute of our business.”

So what are Johnston Press playing at now? It emerged yesterday (Monday, 27th Jan 2014, via HoldTheFrontPage) that JP are to axe all the staff photographers from their Midlands division in favour of reader-generated content. It’s quite hard to see how this tallies with an ethos of investing in journalism. I guarantee that whatever state those Midlands titles are in now, their readerships, sales and advertising revenues will all see an accelerated slide once the papers are populated with submitted images.

The problem Johnston Press have is that after a long programme of acquisition and asset-stripping in the 1990s and early 2000s, they racked up large debts at the same time as fatally damaging the newspapers they bought.

Under-investment in journalism and photography has meant their readership and advertisers have run away to the internet. Had JP and other publishing groups like them already been AT the internet, ready and waiting with quality online content from the get go, they might not be in the terrible position they’re in now. But time and again, JP management have proved themselves to be woefully incompetent. So here we are, yet again hearing about the wholesale redundancies of photographers.

To many people this is just seen as inevitable change. A consequence of the internet, the digital revolution. This is lazy thinking and doesn’t take into account the loss of democracy that comes with quality reporting supported and enhanced by quality imagery. The Midlands group of newspapers affected by these redundancies will be expected to rely on images sent in by readers. In other words, the daily and weekly agendas of newspapers are to be set by whatever free pictures are sent in, not by reporters and photographers digging up stories which really matter to the communities in which they live and work. This harms democracy.

And no, this state of affairs would not have been inevitable had publishers taken a different course early on, but as Mr Johnston admitted, journalism is expensive and twenty years ago, when they were making more money than they knew what to do with, they could have invested rather than push for ever greater profit margins. This  might not have pleased shareholders looking for quick returns, but this lack of foresight means that companies like JP are among the “zombie” companies we’ve been hearing about of late. Their debts and years of under-investment leave them prey to the banks who control the finances and make them desperately un-attractive prospects for potential buyers who might have had the means to save them if things hadn’t gone to terminally dire.

Guardian columnist Prof. Roy Greenslade commented that these redundancies are inevitable and just a result of newspaper economics. Well, bless the dotty professor for forgetting to mention that current newspaper economics are a direct result of massive mis-management around 20 years ago. All this might be inevitable now, but it’s as a result of reckless greed, not out of a need to have rubbish newspapers filled with rubbish content. I don’t think anyone truly needs that.

There, I just failed to not rant.

 

Update: Professor Greenslade follows-up after photographers argue back. He says he’s right, then goes on to prove he barely has a grasp of newspaper economics. It’s quite worrying really.

A long-winded way of saying I haven’t lost my hobby

Looking down Great Pulteney Street in Bath

Who can resist a pretty sunset?

When I was a wee lad, photography was one of my hobbies. I also played guitar (badly). I still play guitar (badly), but until I was given a prompt to think about it, I thought I’d lost the other hobby because it became my career.

It’s true though that ever since I took up photography professionally, I’ve always enjoyed having a hobby camera to swing about and use for off-the-cuff shots. I still own a Yashica T3 Super, an excellent compact film camera with a Zeiss T* f2.8 lens, though I never use it.

Before people started paying me to take photos for them, I was always interested in using recent photographic experiences to inform my next outing with the camera. Looking through the prints from my first 35mm film camera, a Voigtländer, I would work out what I’d done right and wrong (and why I needed a better camera), and use that knowledge next time I went out.

A view of a grassy field rising up to a line of tall, straight, leafless trees in winter. There are vehicle tracks in the grass

Sometimes I’ll catch a good view while out cycling

These days for “fun” photography I generally carry my Fuji X20. I know it’s not going to give me the quality of my big camera, but it does give me a quality which looks great on a screen (and sometimes an old timey print!) and still lets me twiddle the dials I get to twiddle on my big camera, so I can have some creative control too.

A white bracket fungus growing on tree bark

I love shooting close-ups of fungi, even if I can’t name them

My iPhone is also handy, but apart from picking a subject and an angle, the only creativity I can have with that is with in-built filters, and I prefer my photos to be seen as close to their original state as possible (ie, little or no filtering). It’s also not so great in tricky lighting. The iPhone doesn’t allow me to skew the exposure much or play with depth of field either, so although I’ve taken some pictures with that of which I’m quite fond, it’s the X20 which I routinely use out and about.

The X20 has limitations as does any camera, but it’s particular mix of them forces you to see and record things differently than you would with an SLR. Sometimes I find the experience frustrating, sometimes rewarding, and sometimes it’ll feed back into what I do for my professional work.

When a client recently asked me if photography was still a hobby I struggled to answer, but now that I’ve thought about it a little more I can see that it is still a hobby, but one that informs my professional work. It ties in nicely with my cycling hobby sometimes, but I can’t say it’s improving my guitar playing.