Christmas came early!

My film foray continues, and with it new ideas about how I want to work and the personal projects I want to use it for.

For a few years now I’ve had a hankering for a camera which had no reliance on batteries. Unbelievably, in all my 30 years as a photographer, every camera I’ve ever owned has needed at least a couple of LR44 button cells to make the shutter work.

It was never a problem, but when looking at secondhand film cameras now (s/h being the only option since nobody makes a 35mm SLR or rangefinder film camera any more), we’re talking about cameras between 20 and 40 years old which all have electronics in them, and circuit boards being rather delicate, specialist parts, it’s less likely they’ll be repairable in years to come.

My very electronic Canon EOS 1N cameras are going well and I’m confident they’ll keep going for several years to come, but an all-mechanical camera, albeit an old one, is still more serviceable than one packed with fine ribbon circuit boards, motors and silicon chips.

Which is why when a Nikon F2 popped up in my Facebook Marketplace, I stopped in my tracks and took a good look.

The Nikon F2 is something of a legend, but I won’t bore you with the full history of this model right now. Suffice to say, it was ‘the’ camera of choice of photojournalists from the early 1970s to the 1980s (when the battery-reliant F3 came out) and finding one in good condition now is getting tricky; they’re actually becoming collectible (aka stupidly expensive). It takes a couple of button cells, but they only work the meter. The shutter is completely mechanical, so if the batteries die, I still have a working camera in my hands.

The particular one which popped up in my Facebook feed looked to be in fantastic condition and even better, it wasn’t a million miles away from me. So I dropped a tentative line to the seller about having a look at it, while assuming I’d never hear back.

Far from it, the seller called me almost immediately and we got chatting. Long story short, we met an hour later and I bought the camera (with 50mm lens). An early Christmas present to myself then, albeit one with some serious intent.

Even though it’s had little use since it was bought in 1973, the camera will need a service. The slower shutter speeds are a little dodgy and it’ll do it no harm to have the original lubricants cleaned off and replaced along with any decayed foam seals (though the film door and mirror box foams look incredibly good).

The camera is already booked in to be serviced by the one person in the UK who specialises exclusively in servicing and repairing Nikon F2s, Sover Wong. Sadly his waiting list is over a year, but he’s assured me I should be fine to use the camera while I await my slot.

The downside of it being a Nikon is that I can’t use any of my Canon lenses on it, but that would have been the same if I’d bought Canon’s last mechanical camera because Canon changed their lens mount system for the EOS autofocus cameras, so my EOS lenses don’t fit older Canons. Complicated, ain’t it?!

Thankfully, I’m only interested in using a very limited set of lenses with the Nikon and I can build these up over time.

In the meantime, I’ve put a couple of rolls of Kodak Tri-X through this amazing machine and I’m happy to say it seems to be working just fine. Even the meter is accurate, which isn’t bad for a 45-year-old camera. Yes, it’s only 7 years younger than me, but it looks prettier and less wrinkly.

In time I’ll be using it for personal projects and personal work where the scream of my Canon’s built-in motor-drives are perhaps less appropriate. Keep watching for updates!

Zombie Down!

Well there you go. I wrote back in 2014 about how Johnston Press was a zombie company ‘living’ on borrowed time. It seems this particular zombie has finally succumbed to the self-inflicted blows it started raining down on its own head a couple of decades ago.

I don’t expect sympathy for the effect this will have on my JP pension because I was only there for about six years, but I do feel for those journalists and photographers who have had decades of working for local, regional or national who will have all their pensions in one pot and who may yet lose their jobs.

The story isn’t over yet, which of course means continued instability and unease for staff and pension-holders, as the majority shareholder, Christen Ager-Hanssen, has vowed to unwind the deal Johnston Press has signed with a group of investors.

Johnston Press’ chief executive David King claims “our business is profitable with good margins,” but this misses the point that it was the margins sought in previous decades are partly the cause of JP’s woes now. Not only were they too high, they were sought through asset-stripping as opposed to making high quality publications that readers would be loyal to.

Perhaps what is more troubling is that this is the same business model pursued by other publishers, so is this an isolated case? Were JP management just especially inept?

The Cairncross Review was set up to examine the current state of the UK news publishing industry and to look at how it can be protected and helped to thrive, but I fear by the time the review comes to publish its findings, there won’t be any news publishers left to save.

Women in Business

Have you ever noticed how male-dominated a lot of business imagery is? And then if there is diversity, it tends to be a rainbow nation of ethnicities and all genders in a slightly bizarre “aren’t we all just so happy to be here with our lattes and iPhones pointing and laughing into the middle distance” sort of a way.

My advice always is to avoid the cliché by featuring your own business and your own colleagues in the images for your website. That way, you’ll represent a natural cross-section of your team.

However there is one area of my own website where I will always favour an image of a female business person over that of a male. The reasons aren’t purely for promoting women in business, but that too is a factor in my policy when deciding which photo should be on the home page.

The thing is, my work consists mostly of corporate portraits, with editorial-style business pictures, conference photography and various other forms of corporate communications photography following in behind, so it makes sense to make my main image a portrait.

Following on from that, for the most part people looking to book me for the work I do will find my website through Google (other search engines are available, but nobody ever uses them) and more often than not it’s marketing managers, office managers and personal assistants who find me. And they’re overwhelmingly female.

So yes, perhaps cynically, I want to make sure that landing on my home page is a comfortable experience for those most often given the responsibility of booking me. Certainly I see no reason why the “hero/ine image” needs to be male, and there’s something to be said for offering a main image to which my core clients can relate.

There is also the practical consideration that if someone landing on my home page sees a male face, there’s a risk they’ll think they’re looking at a photo of me, which if not necessarily upsetting, might at the very least appear conceited. I save my site visitors that particular pleasure for the About page, which when you see it you’ll understand why vanity is probably one of the few vices I don’t suffer from. The reason I feature my face at all is because I believe in practicing what I preach.

This post was inspired by the person who is the latest to be featured on my home page, Hazel, who works for a firm in Bristol. The other week I asked Hazel if she’d mind being featured, and the points outlined above are pretty much how I framed my request. Hazel completely understood and had no qualms about being featured on my home page, which is great because not all headshots necessarily fit, but her company’s portrait requirements work well within the space.

So thanks Hazel! And to anyone out there I photograph in future, especially women, don’t be surprised if I ask you too – I do like to update that page whenever I can. Equally I’ll understand if you’d rather not be featured, but at least if you’ve read this article you’ll understand why I’ve asked in the first place.

 

So, what I said before…

Only the post before last I posed the question of whether or not I ever stop. Thinking about photography, that is, and the answer surely is confirmed as a resounding NO.

At the end of that post I mentioned the rolls of film I was waiting to process from my holiday in South West Brittany, France, and just writing that line gave me the uncontrollable urge to get those rolls processed. So I processed them and here are the results.

Looking at these photos you might assume I had a rather peculiar holiday, but I actually really enjoyed it. But when I take pictures in my down time, I’m still working on approaches and processes. It’s a constant exercise in “how about” and “what if I”. I’m also developing a new method of digitising film, which will be useful when it comes to putting the Saxonvale book together, so a definite research angle too.

On this occasion I was working with basic kit, with a single stock of film, and exploiting the properties of the film to get a very graphic look from what I shot. This in turn influenced what I photographed and here’s a gallery of some of the results.

For those with the technical interest, these were all taken on a Canon EOS 1N camera with a 40mm lens, using Kodak Tri-X 400 rated at 800iso and push processed in Rodinol. A classic combination of film and developer which yields beautiful results.

Holiday over, back to work.

Learning to Assist, Assisting to Learn

The work of a business or corporate communications photographer (which is what I do) is rather different from that of a truly commercial one, by which I mean a photographer who shoots commercial images for advertising campaigns.

Most of what I do is pictures for business communications (website, brochures, press releases and so on), which while it’s commercial in the sense that I make money from my work, it’s not commercial in the strict photography business sense of being for commercials/adverts.

That may seem like a rather fine, specific point to open an article with, but it’s pertinent here because a few weeks ago I found myself assisting a commercial (as in advertising) photographer.

Now the other stand-out point of this article is that I was assisting another photographer at all. In 30 years of being a professional photographer I have never assisted, but when I was asked if I’d be interested in helping with a series of shoots I didn’t have to think too hard about whether or not to dive in.

The thing is, assisting is one of the best ways to learn and evolve as a photographer. I never did it because I trained as a press photographer and cut my teeth with news photography at college and local papers. This was a typical career path for many newspaper photographers.

For commercial and studio photographers, assisting was the way to learn the ropes, develop techniques and evolve your own style.

If I have one gripe about those starting out as photographers now (ok, I may have more than one gripe, but let’s keep this brief), it’s that too many of them think that to be a commercial photographer, all you need to do is read the camera manual and start taking pictures. If a friend or your mum tells you your pictures are nice, you launch a website and hey presto you’re a fully-fledged commercial pro. Believe me, without a few years of assisting, training and a baptism or two by fire, this just isn’t going to cut it.

Anyway, back to the plot. In my case, the call came from friend, fellow photographer and all-round-good-egg Jon Raine whose work you really should take a look at.

Jon’s background is very much in the commercial sphere, shooting pictures for big brands, and one of his regular gigs has been to take portraits of TalkSport presenters which is what he was asking me to assist him with on this occasion.

The obvious benefit of this gig for me was to work alongside someone who has deep experience as both a photographer and a commercial art director. Seeing how Jon plans and executes his work was a great insight, as was seeing the similarities between his methods and mine. It helped reinforce some of my practices for me, which is also useful.

The benefit for Jon was not only that he got to listen to my jokes all day, but there were also one or two small tips I was able to offer back.

Also, being a photographer myself meant I knew what to look out for as his images came through to the laptop – an errant hair, a badly placed crease in a shirt or white fluff on a dark top (not always easy to spot until flash hits it).

Another advantage for Jon was that I could take behind the scenes photos while he worked, which he could then use for a record of his work and social media if he wished. Of course that was a mutual advantage because now I’m using one of the photos for this blog post, a BTS shot of Olympic champion and Tour de France winner Sir Bradley Wiggins.

So everyone’s a winner! Including the subject.

Don’t I Ever Stop?!

Even when I’m not taking business photos for clients or shooting a personal project, when I go away on a break I take yet more photos. Which would be fine except that I obsess about not taking the kind of holiday photos I ought really to be taking.

If I tell someone I’m going for a break in wherever, the common reaction is for them to suggest things I should take pictures of while I’m there. It might be the pretty houses, the beautiful landscapes, the amazing night lights by the river or whatever. The problem is, most of these photos can already be seen on Google, so why would I just repeat what someone else has already done?

I’m not entirely sure it’s a healthy state of affairs, but whenever I go away I end up treating it like some kind of mini assignment. A good recent example is when my wife Helen and I went to Kent for a music festival she was performing in. We decided to make it a weekend as the weather was glorious and we were very close to Dymchurch Beach.

So instead of a snap of a sunny beach and blue skies, I zeroed in on the detectorist who was kind enough to chat and be photographed.

And during the festival, instead of photographing the beautiful little church where the music was being performed, I honed in on the side details of the event. Which would be fine if that just meant drinking the tea and eating the biscuits, but I came over all Martin Parr and took wry, dry observational shots of tea cups, trays of mugs and helpers in the cake tent.

Just to make it even more of an inconvenience for myself, I took all my photos on expired film (yes, I still have some from my Saxonvale project).

Now you may ask what the heck’s wrong with me, but the thing is a break is about enjoying yourself and having freedom to do what you want. It just happens I enjoy shooting film (expired or not) but with the freedom to explore a subject however I want.

It might not be everyone’s idea of a break, but I fid it liberating even though there’s still a background static of wishing not to fail to get good shots.

Am I weird? Probably. Perhaps I need a break. Which reminds me, I’ve got four rolls of black and white film from my holiday in France to process.

What Happened Here

I’ve settled on this as the title for my Saxonvale series because it sums up the nature of the project; a semi matter-of-fact record, with touches of humour, drama and sadness. The title hints at the disappointment that land which should have been developed decades ago was left to ruin, but perhaps I should be thankful it wasn’t or the project would never have existed.

Things are definitely winding down in terms of new pictures and the site has now been almost completely boarded out. I’m seeking a final few closing images to round out the project, but I really have to get the next stage (a book) moving.

What has struck me is the incredible timing with which I came to start the project. Early on I wasn’t sure I had a project, but once it became obvious it was happening I knew I had enough expired film to get me through about a year of shooting it. Sixteen months later and I’m down to one last roll of the original batch of film (I did find a second source, just in case it overran) and the site has been bought, boarded and awaits demolition and reconstruction.

Unless Saxonvale is about to enter another extended period of neglect, I think my timing has been incredibly serendipitous.

So while I’ll try not to bang on about it too much on my Instagram account (@takeagander) or here, do watch this space and I hope to bring occasional updates regarding the progress towards a book. When the time comes, I hope you’ll be able to support it!

Goldfish Ate My Cat

How’s this for a blast from the past? A project from my college days, February 1991 to be precise, which involved mocking up a newspaper front page using pictures and stories I’d covered during the course. Well, two real stories at least; read carefully and you’ll notice some fake news too.

I stumbled across this while having an office clear-out. It’s pasted into the back of my first ever cuttings book, so it’s not been shredded or binned along with the eight-year-old bank statements, receipts, accounts and long-defunct business cards from long-defunct businesses.

The purpose of the exercise was to think about page layout and to get to grips with the newly-emerging technology of desktop publishing. In fact I recall this was done on something like a Mac 1 (or thereabouts). Looking at the caption for Norma Major’s photo you can tell I wasn’t all that impressed with the image quality available at the time.

The lead story about Don McCullin was clearly the one item I was taking seriously in this exercise, given the rather pretentious journalism I employed when writing it. But I still have a proper silver print of that photo I made at the time. It sits inside the cover of my signed copy of McCullin’s Unreasonable Behaviour.

Luckily no one came forward to claim the space shuttle prize and I’m afraid the competition closed in March 1991.

Get Shorty

Even this short blog post is longer than the super small Canon EF 40mm f/2.8 lens, my absolutely favourite lens. It’s tiny, sometimes referred to as a pancake lens, but so sharp you could cut your thumb on the images it produces, yet costs just £200.00 new. I got mine for £90.00 secondhand.

It’s been the most-used lens through my Saxonvale project, but whenever I get the opportunity I use it for corporate photo sessions too, including portraits as well as for fly-on-the-wall work.

And in my experience it’s tough! I once slipped and fell and landed with my camera (40mm mounted) between me and a mud bank. I heard a click which I thought was the lens mechanism breaking. It wasn’t, it was the sound of one of my ribs fracturing! That hurt for a few weeks, but the lens was fine.

I wanted to write this post after seeing Neil Turner’s post about his favourite lens. Go here to find out which one he reaches for most.

So if I’m ever on a job for you and I put this dinky lens on my camera, check out the smile on my face.

 

Skills Challenge Challenge

The lack of recent blog posts is a result of the sheer volume of corporate photography work I’ve had on over the last few weeks, some new clients but also plenty of returning and recurring jobs. I’m sorry if you’ve missed me, but I’m also fairly sure you haven’t.

One of my favourite repeat assignments is the annual Society of Operations Engineers (SOE) Skills Challenge for bus and coach technicians. I blogged about this back in 2016, but to recap SOE is an association bringing together engineers from many sectors with the aim of maintaining and improving standards for the benefit of public safety through training and education of its members, and the skills challenge is a chance for technicians in public transport to test their skills and learn new ones.

The Skills Challenge takes place in June each year at S&B Automotive Academy in Bristol, and this was my fourth year of covering it.

My task is to get action shots of every contestant taking part during the event, which this year ran for an entire week. I can’t miss anyone because the pictures are used at the subsequent awards event to highlight the runners up and winners, so it’d be a bit awkward to miss a shot of someone who’s won a category. With 80 contestants taking part across the week, that’s a challenge within the challenge!

While it’s important that I capture a selection of shots of each participant, I also have to be wary of being too intrusive; many of the challenges are under timed conditions and require a great deal of concentration, so to get through everyone I have to use on-the-spot logistics to work out which challenges I can cover while the participant is in action and which I can set up to look like action when the participant is between challenges.

Further to that I also keep the client fed with “rush” images for their social media channels which they update during each day. Even then I have to be wary of showing anything which might give clues to participants who have yet to undertake the challenges, but who might be seeing the pictures on Twitter or Facebook. Sometimes it feels like I’m juggling with raw eggs, but it’s always a huge amount of fun.

The finished images are not only used for the awards event, but also feature in literature and display materials designed to promote SOE and the Skills Challenge for subsequent years, so I always ensure there’s a good choice of picture shapes for the client including images with space for design considerations.

I shot over 3,000 images over the week this year with a final edit to the client of just under 650, which will see them good for at least another year!

Besides the physical, mental and creative challenge of covering the event, perhaps the greatest pleasure is from working with the teams from SOE and S&B Automotive, who are incredibly good fun to be with, as well as all the contestants who without exception are friendly, accommodating and patient when it comes to having their photos taken.

So to celebrate another successful skills challenge, here’s a selection of images taken over the week. So until (hopefully) next year…