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The Camera Does Matter (it just depends…)

There are many photographic clichés and my least favourites one goes “the best camera is the one you have with you.”

You’ll see it on so many camera forums trotted out by those who like to make themselves look “expert” in some way. Now, while clearly you can’t take a photo without a camera, I have to challenge the thinking behind this particular cliché which is that you can take a prize-winning photo on a pinhole camera and you can take a dreadful snapshot on the most expensive camera money can buy.

While it’s true there are many ghastly photos taken every day on cameras costing many thousands of Pounds, it’s incredibly unlikely you’ll get a prize-winning photo on a pinhole camera or cameraphone.

blurred, colourful photo of fairground waltzers ride

When I take personal photos like this the camera is less important

I’m sure someone somewhere has taken a photo with a cheap camera or on a smartphone which they’ve managed to sell to a newspaper or won a prize with somewhere, but this is to ignore the fact that the world is vast and the “infinite monkey” theory will disprove any sweeping statement. Except it doesn’t disprove anything, because I’m talking about likelihood. I’m also talking about context in which a photo is taken and the context in which it is to be published.

Of course if you get a nice colourful snap on your phone it’ll look lovely on the internet, which will prove you didn’t need a big fancy camera to take that photo. Try to sell that photo to a stock library and it’ll get rejected on the grounds that it won’t come up to client requirements for image size and quality.

Take a photo of Lord Lucan riding Shergar through the lost city of Atlantis, and no newspaper or magazine will give a stuff about the quality, they’ll be tearing your arm off at the elbow to get hold of the image. They might even offer some money to publish that snap. It wouldn’t even need to be particularly sharp.

Now if I turned up at a client’s job with nothing more than my iPhone I think the client would be rightly upset. Replying “but this is the camera I have with me, therefore it is the best camera” would go down like a lead balloon.

And so I’ve re-written this cliché. It goes “the best camera is the one you have with because it’s the best camera you own and because you’re being paid to use it.” There, that’s fixed now so I can go after my new least favourite cliché. Just as soon as I’ve worked out what it is.

No Post This Week

Hello, dear reader. This is just a quick post to let you know that due to a house move I won’t have time to post anything this week. I do apologise, I know much you look forward to reading my posts! Hopefully I’ll be up and running again next week.

Cheers!

Tim

The News is History

With their history of breaking everything they touch, it was only a matter of time before Johnston Press took their dull-edged, leaden axe to the staff photography jobs at The News in Portsmouth, and so it has come to pass.

As a former Portsmouth News photographer (I joined as a trainee in 1992 and left as assistant picture editor in 1998) I’m sorry to see some highly dedicated photographers losing their jobs. I’m sorry to see a daily newspaper , once highly respected by readers and sought-after as an employer by trainee photographers, reduced to running poor quality reporter and reader photos like some small town weekly paper. Not that small town weekly papers should run rubbish photography, but I can’t be Canute to every paper which dumbs down.

The internet effect will have been a factor in this, but papers like The News had a chance to invest in their print and online publications and take their cut of internet ad revenues and readership. Instead they wanted unrealistic profit margins and ever-upward share dividends. This was achieved through asset stripping and a lack of investment in talent and inevitably devalued their product. Readers aren’t stupid, but if you treat them as if they are, you’re bound to lose a few. Or a few thousand.

I’d risk a bet this latest move will be followed by the paper going weekly. In the longer term it’s hard to see what future there is for a newspaper with no photographers and eventually just a handful of reporters whose sole task will be to copy and paste public relations and reader-submitted copy and insert fuzzy photos into the gaps in between. Advertisers will continue to flee and spend their money elsewhere as the readership continues to leach away.

According to its Wikipedia entry, the paper was founded in 1873. Johnston Press took over in 1999, which means it’s taken them a mere 15 years of the paper’s 141-year history to kill it. Nice one.

I thought I’d furnish this post with some of the portfolio photos I was allowed to take away with me after my time at The News, some of which hold quite interesting memories and pretty much none of which could ever happen again if it’s left to readers and PR managers to fill the picture boxes between the copy and the adverts. No more big events covered in an interesting way, or un-planned photos which end up being a story in themselves. Just an endless parade of big cheques, big groups and readers’ sunset photos. Which is fitting when you think that the sun might finally have set on creative, engaging and entertaining newspaper photography.

A Royal Marine reservist emerges from freezing arctic water as part of his training

A facility to photograph the Royal Marine Reservists on arctic training in Norway resulted in this shot of one marine learning how to escape a frozen lake.

Anthea Turner has makeup retouched on set of National Lottery Live, Portsmouth

Anthea Turner has her makeup retouched during National Lottery Live. My taking this photo nearly resulted in the show being cancelled until Ms Turner was convinced I’d destroyed the film. The picture ran with the headline “The Photo Anthea Turner Didn’t Want You To See”.

A youth threatens a pensioner near Hamble, Hampshire

I stopped on my way to a job when I spotted this lad kicking another who was lying on the floor. I called the police and took photos. The fogging on the film was where he kicked my camera open. The story grew when it became apparent Police powers were inadequate to dealing with the incident as ABH laws had just changed.

Anatomy of Photo Delivery

According to my records, I’ve been serving up my images to clients via an online library system for exactly six years. What follows is a little back story and (spoiler alert) why I’m not about to change my setup.

Flowchart showing Tim Gander's workflow for client photography

The way I currently shoot and supply client images goes something like this

 

One of the benefits of my current system is that the turnaround of work is much faster; wherever possible I aim to deliver images within 48 hours from the end of the shoot.

Beyond this, the main benefit to clients is that they have a central image library which they can access at any time and download the images they need, when they need them. The image files are also available at a variety of sizes from web resolution to large print format, which can save the client the headache of having to resize files for different media.

Corporate photographer Tim Gander's old workflow, now obsolete

My old workflow was cumbersome and was prone to delays

The old system relied on building a web gallery which was really just for proofs, from which the client would then choose the files they wanted me to edit, process and deliver, and had the distinct disadvantage that what the client saw on the gallery were un-processed, imperfect images. I also had to await the client choices before I could finish the editing and processing stage, after which I usually had to burn a CD or DVD of photos and post them off. Lots of delay in that system, but it was as up-to-date as things were at the time.

Clients who are still served by photographers supplying images via email or posted disc have the added problem that if the originals are lost, they have to go back to the photographer (assuming they can remember who took the photos) and request duplicates. With the system I use, the client merely has to log back into their gallery and re-download their pictures with no unnecessary delay.

The gallery system allows me to offer simple, set-price packages which suit the majority of my clients. I can also set up reprint sales galleries on the odd occasion people will want to buy prints from an event. I can taylor gallery content to suit the client, removing pictures which have become obsolete and adding new pictures after a fresh photo session. I can set up duplicate galleries with different levels of access security, I can create multiple galleries with different content for different client requirements. It’s an incredibly versatile system which I imagine will serve me well for years into the future. Assuming, that is, no one invents a way of delivering photos via telepathy. Now that really would be fun!

Photographing Children for Corporate Communications

School pupils in casual clothes arrive at University of Bath campus with suitcases

Making sure faces are hidden is an obvious solution when identities can’t be shown.

One area of photography which can really give clients the jitters is the use of children in promotional and editorial materials, and rightly so. Extra care should be taken when featuring people under the age of 18 in corporate communications, but this doesn’t mean they have to be invisible or horribly pixelated to disguise identity.

In some areas I do feel protection can be heavy-handed and overzealous. I particularly dislike the habit amongst local newspapers, and it’s a habit which seems to come and go with the tide, to only feature children’s first names or no names at all. Newspapers form part of our local history and are to some extent historical documents. A photo captioned simply with “James wins the 100m swimming competition” is pointless and silly. James has a surname and deserves recognition for his achievements just the same as any adult, but I won’t labour the point here.

What I want to focus on instead is how I get around issues of keeping youngsters’ identities safe where it is necessary to do so while still fulfilling the brief and communicating some kind of narrative.

My approach will vary according to the situation, the brief and age of the children. I sometimes have to account for special behavioural needs which will again guide my approach, but in any case there is always a way to take interesting, well-composed, properly lit photos which show the client at their best and respect the dignity of the youngsters involved.

THe hand of a child colouring in with a pencil

Details of activities is another good way to give a picture life without giving away an identity

One important thing to remember is that if children are identifiable in something which is to be used to promote a business or organisation, permissions will be needed and care taken about how images are used. I will always liaise with my clients at the briefing stage as to the requirements and limitations of a photo session involving minors, and there’s nothing like good old common sense to make sure everything goes smoothly before, during and after the event.

What Kind of Photographer Am I? (or not)

Scene of a section of Cley Hill, Wiltshire, at dusk with blue sky and the sun just touching the edge of the hill.

Cley Hill is a favourite area for me to walk. I find detail shots work better than trying to capture the whole thing, which always ends up looking like a small pimple in the landscape.

It’s quite possible I’ve mentioned here and there that while my main photographic work concentrates on taking pictures for businesses and publications, I don’t try to fill diary gaps with weddings. I repeat I DON’T DO WEDDINGS.

I believe in concentrating on what I do best, marketing my strengths and leaving my weaknesses to those who can fulfil those tasks better than I.

But weddings aren’t the only discipline I don’t cover. I haven’t shot sport in several years. I used to do a fair bit of football for the Mail on Sunday when I lived in Portsmouth. I can’t say I enjoyed it especially, not helped by my general disdain for football, and I’d certainly never claim I got to be anything as good as any of the top sports photographers in the land, but I turned in good quality results on deadline and even got the occasional exclusive. I covered Wimbledon a couple of times, but really I think it’s best these things are left to people who have the experience and the passion to turn in stunning results time after time. Otherwise, I’m just another person with a camera clogging up the photographers’ pit.

If there is one area I wish I was better at, and which I really need to give myself a kick up the arse to do more of, it has to be nature and landscapes. Not because I expect these to be an important part of my business in the sense of making a living from them, but because on the odd occasion I get to take such images, I enjoy the challenge and sometimes the results.

One thing which is true of all good (or great) photography is that it’s not the camera or any of the other fancy equipment, but the eye, experience, foresight, passion and determination of the wetware behind the eyepiece (the photographer) which makes it great.

Now I’m setting myself a goal; I may never be a ground-breaking landscape photographer, but I’m going to try harder to get out there, shoot landscapes and find a style and an angle which pleases me, which might also inform my corporate work and which might actually please others too. You never know, it might become a respected body of work, but I appreciate that might have to happen posthumously.

I wonder if anyone fancies forward-dating a cheque for the first million-pound image I sell after I die?

 

Entering The Press Photography Dark Ages

Bizarrely, having written in my last blog post about the Pine Range fire which I covered for The Bath Chronicle in 1991, I was heading back to my flat from a family gathering on Sunday evening to discover the sheltered housing complex on the opposite side of my building from where Pine Range once stood was surrounded by fire crews, engines and hoses. A fire had broken out in one of the flats and 11 residents had to be evacuated, with one resident being taken to hospital suffering smoke inhalation.

Aside from the obvious concern that everyone had been evacuated safely I couldn’t help feeling I should take a few photos, in spite of the fact I had a fair number of other commitments that evening, limited time and no obvious client for any photos I would take.

But the news photographer blood which still courses through me was buzzing and telling me to get on with it and at least take a few frames to offer up to the local paper. More in hope than expectation; time was a paper would have torn my arm off at the elbow for a set of pictures from an event they couldn’t get to and would happily have paid for them. Times have changed so very much though.

Fire crews attend a fire at Gorehedge residential home for the elderly in Keyford, Frome.

A general view gives some idea of the scale of the operation

I don’t often find myself covering this kind of story any more. Most of what I do for publications is press release work, which of course doesn’t include things like un-planned fires. I had to pause and ask myself if it was still valid for me to take pictures at an incident if I don’t have an immediate client for the shots. I don’t even carry a National Union of Journalists card any more, having let my membership lapse some years ago.

I honestly don’t think any of that matters though. Whether or not a newspaper wants to use my photos is entirely their call. As a trained, experienced news photographer I still feel I have a duty to record events if I am able. I can’t know at the time of taking a photo whether I will have captured something banal, tragic or incredibly newsworthy. All I can do is call on all my training and experience and get on with taking pictures.

Now that local newspapers no longer cover local stories and events with anything approaching enthusiasm perhaps it’s more important than ever that photographers with the right training and skills create quality visual records of what they witness.

Firefighters work through the building to ensure there are no pockets of fire left

Firefighters work through the building to ensure there are no pockets of fire left

Looking at the paltry photographic coverage the Bath Chronicle gave the Tour of Britain last week, and The Frome Standard’s belated attempt at photographing a major news event on their own doorstep (their photos were taken over three hours after the event), it’s possible that historians of the future will look back on the stories of our time and wonder why the photos from the early 2000s are worse than the ones taken a century before on far more primitive equipment.

Crews start to wind-down as the incident de-escalates

Crews start to wind-down as the incident de-escalates

 

 

Blast from the Past – Frome Pine Range Fire

Sometimes I like to pull something from my archive and share it with you, so here’s a photo from February 1991 showing the Pine Range furniture factory in Frome being attended by fire crews as it’s gutted by fire. I apologise for the quality of the reproduction here, it’s an old newspaper cutting and I no longer have access to the original negative – a common occurrence of my very early work which is held by The Bath Chronicle (more likely the negatives no longer exist).

Fire crews attend the fire at Pine Range, Frome, February 1991

Fire crews attend the fire at Pine Range, Frome, February 1991

I vaguely recall the circumstances surrounding this call-out. I was a freelance at “The Chron” at the time and I was probably working late, printing the day’s shoots ready for the next day’s paper, when a reporter came into the photography department to see if a photographer might be around to attend a breaking story. Luckily for them, I was.

The story had come through of a big fire in Frome, so we headed out in my car (to be pedantic, probably my then-girlfriend’s car) to see what was up. I know it was late at night, might even have been around midnight, when we got there to find a few fire crews in attendance at the building which was billowing smoke.

It was such a bitterly cold night that the run-off water from the fire hoses was freezing to the road, and I recall struggling to walk up the incline to the scene because of all the ice under foot.

There wasn’t a huge amount to photograph, I just had to make sure I got the building and fire engines to fill the frame. After taking a few different angles, I was pretty much finished. There wasn’t much light about, and I recall using my large hammerhead Metz flashgun to illuminate the entire scene.

It was hardly a moment for great art, but I would have headed back to the Chronicle offices straight after to process my film and make some prints so the picture desk could choose one for the paper the next morning. I probably rolled into bed in the early hours and would have been back on duty about half eight the next day.

One small coincidence of this job is that from where I currently live my living room window overlooks the site of the Pine Range building, which was subsequently demolished and is now a block of flats. Hardly Circle of Life stuff, but curious all the same.

Photography should tell a story

I’m tempted to write about the launch of the Fuji X30 this week, but not so tempted by the prospect that I will tackle the task head on.

The X30 is the predictably-titled update to the X20, which I own and enjoy using very much when I’m not taking photos for clients.

Now don’t get me wrong, given the chance to play with an X30 and possibly review it I’ll jump at it, but reading reactions to the specifications and design of this new camera on forums and it’s just a bit depressing how much some (too many) people fuss over what is essentially a new toy.

Why do people get so vexed about new cameras? I can’t shake the feeling that new cameras now get more comment and discussion than pictures do. Even more crucially, more discussion than pictures which actually tell a story get. Photojournalism struggles to get seen and when it does it’s often accompanied with “these amazing pictures were taken with an iPhone/compact camera/blah blah” as if the device on which the story is being recorded is more important than the story itself.

a block wall with the shadow of a tree cast onto it

The X20 is a fun camera and a good compact, but we need more real stories and less emphasis on equipment

I fear this is often because the story isn’t strong enough to stand on its own legs and has to be puffed with details about what gear the photographer used. This may or may not be because the story is paid for via advertising from the manufacturer, which gets in the way of the story.

This isn’t healthy.

Of course it isn’t entirely honest to compare today’s photographer with those whose careers started when newspaper photography was respected and dominant in our news media, but you rarely hear the likes of Don McCullin talk about which camera he used in Vietnam or Uganda, apart from the one which caught a bullet in Cambodia and saved his life, but I think we can forgive that particular piece of gear-talk.

The fact is though that when the likes of McCullin talk about their work, they’re not gear-obsessed. They’re obsessed with photography, with telling stories and communicating. They’re not obsessed with the equipment they use, whether it’s the latest thing or how many megapixels it has. In fact there’s an article here in which McCullin says he doesn’t trust digital cameras because “they’re full of connivance” so he’s still shooting film and producing outstanding work without any of the “connivance” of the latest digital equipment.

The fact is this obsession with gear is leading us away from real photography. The camera has become more important than the image and the message has been buried in technical specifications and comparisons with this make and model or that one.

I’m looking forward to a time when the technology settles down and photography can once again be about photographs, when cameras are just a means to an end. Right now photography seems to be about the means when it should be about the story.

Holiday Schnapps

Even though I’m on holiday with my son Joe this week, I thought I’d drop you all a line and share some photographic impressions of my time in the Tyrol, Austria. I’ve banged on before about how I enjoy taking photos for myself and how even though photography is my job, I enjoy the freedom of taking photos just to please myself.

The funny thing is though, when I’m in such a pretty part of the world as this, I’m not so keen on the “chocolate box” images which can be so hard to avoid. I want to take photos you wouldn’t find on Google Images – during a trip to Paris earlier this year, it struck me how many people walk up to The Eiffel Tower, take some snaps, then walk away. Shooting as if all they wanted was a frame or two to prove they were there, when they could always see much better photos on the internet any time they wanted.

Of course I have taken some of the bog-standard kitsch photos, which will have been taken by countless others and many probably better than my efforts, but I salve my conscience by not spending too much time on those, but looking for the unusual too. Images which while not literal, will also remind me of moments in my holiday without entirely overwriting my inner memories of it. I’m sure some people spend so much time peering at a camera screen and have so many stills and videos of their excursions, they must struggle to remember anything fun about where they went and what they did. My photos are meant to be those impressions which sit at the edge of the experience. I’m not photographing the main experience, but the little moments around it, leaving me to relax and enjoy the bulk of my trip without a camera glued to my face.

And so here, half-way through my trip, are a few of those peripheral moments. Don’t worry, I promise not to post every last photo I take. Some might pop up in future blogs and others will remain private. A couple have already surfaced on my personal Facebook page, but I wanted these to illustrate this weeks point. I hope you enjoy them.

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