Space – Time Continuum

A recent experience reminded me once again of the importance of two particular aspects of a corporate portrait photography session, namely space and time. In fact as these two elements are inextricably linked, we can refer to them as a continuum.

Setting aside the fourth dimension for a moment, on this particular occasion I was shown into a vast board room, which would have been perfect except it was mostly filled with immobile boardroom furniture; massive table and countless chairs. At the same time I was told I could only have the room for half an hour, which is approximately how long it would have taken me to set up the lighting kit even if there had been space to do so.

This would have left no time for any photography to happen, let lone the two hours I was booked for. A continuum conundrum, no less.

Thankfully we were able to find an alternative room which, though smaller, had much more clear floor space. It was also available for two hours, which was just about enough – not perfect, as I was booked for three (and could happily have filled them with the shots listed as required), but better than zero minutes by quite a considerable percentage.

Of course when you’re setting up a photo session, coordinating the schedules of everyone involved is often a headache, but it’s worth thinking of the room and the time required as if they were two more people in the schedule. If a room or the time in that room are unavailable, it’s a no-goer.

The time required will depend on how many people are to be photographed and the brief to which I’ll be working (more varieties of poses etc will obviously require more time) and at least 30 minute’s set-up and break-down time should be factored either side of the session.

How much space is needed will depend on whether it’s close head shots or full-length portraits required (full-length requires a great deal more space), but as a rule of thumb for headshots, you need to allow approximately 2.5 – 3m width x 3m length (length being the distance between where I’ll stand and the next wall or immobile obstacle).

This is approximate, but it is a realistic guide. You can easily add another couple of metres to the length for full-length portraits.

The photo on this article shows an example of where I’ve had more space than I knew what to do with (it was in fact one half of a hotel ballroom!), but seeing the set-up gives you some notion of how that space is used.

So remember, when you’re booking all the executives and colleagues for that all-important photo session, don’t forget to plan the room and ring-fence the time. Without those two elements, the space – time continuum breaks down and everything else becomes academic.

Back to Business

Is it me, or is 2019 already feeling a bit used? a bit secondhand? At least from tomorrow we can officially (because I say so) cease commencing every email with “Happy New Year!” and just get straight to business, polite niceties notwithstanding.

But what should that business be? In my case I’m already seeing the return of clients from last (and previous) years, booking me for repeat events or new corporate photography sessions. I’ve already landed work with new clients and am fielding enquiries from as-yet-unconfirmed new clients, so I can’t complain too much if 2019 already feels a little 2018. That, after all, was a pretty good year for me, so I’m looking forward to more of the same plus some.

If there is a small cloud hovering over the sunny uplands of 2019, it has to be the uncertainty of Brexit. But while businesses work hard to prepare for the unpreparable the one thing they have to avoid is a head-in-the-sand response to marketing.

Oh yes, that ol’ chestnut. Whenever things get tricky, be it recession, austerity, Brexit, bad weather, the season finale of Strictly, you name it, too many businesses batten down the hatches and decide to tighten spending. This isn’t a bad thing in and of itself, but when marketing (which of course includes photography) is often the first victim of pulling the belt in a notch or three, that’s when the harm is done.

Businesses which market through the hard times always come out stronger. Of course the marketing has to be the right type, and photography may not even be what’s needed, but if you need it, you need it. There’s no getting around the fact that sometimes, and quite often, good commerce relies on good communication and good communication relies on really good photography.

An additional risk of suddenly pulling the photography budget (so you’re still marketing, but perhaps you switch to cheaper sources of imagery) is the KERKLUNK sound you hear as your marketing materials go from professional, personal and engaging to ubiquitous, remote and faceless.

I think it’s fair to say that most established businesses with a history, but which don’t want to become history, understand the vital importance of fresh, bespoke, exclusive imagery in their marketing and to suddenly pull the plug when the future looks dicey is the knee-jerk reaction of a business about to find out what free-fall looks and feels like.

So hard Brexit, soft Brexit, don’t make Brexit your exit. If you want to keep doing business, you need to keep marketing because if things do get tough, you need to be seen as the business that’s above it all; still focussed, still professional, still friendly and approachable and above all, still in it for the long-run.

Happy February everyone!

Work Experience Advice

Perhaps the best piece of advice I can offer any student of photography when seeking work experience is let the application itself be part of the experience. I should preface by saying that I rarely offer work experience placements for a multitude of reasons I won’t go into here, but follow a few simple rules and your application will stand a better chance of finding success.

 

  • Get the photographer’s name right and use it. Just saying “Hi” suggests you’re sending a round-robin email.
  • Don’t send a round-robin email and NEVER use the CC or even BCC functions to send out mass communications.
  • If you cut and paste an email text, make sure you tailor it to each individual recipient.
  • Do your research. Look at the photographer’s website to establish whether they’re working in the specific field you’re interested in.
  • Talk about the kind of photography career you’re interested in, but more in terms of the business than the style. Saying you like to photograph people isn’t the same as saying you want to shoot pictures for businesses (what I call corporate communications photography).
  • When looking at a photographer’s site, look at the kind of work they’re doing and establish from that whether they’re studio-based, work only on location or a mixture of the two. Students often ask to join me in my studio, but it’s possible to work out from my website that I don’t have one.
  • Make sure your contact details are correct, including mobile number and email address.
  • Check your spelling, punctuation and grammar and get someone else to check it for you – this should be someone who is really good at checking these things, so ask a teacher, lecturer or other competent person.
  • Be sure to include your ability to travel – do you have your own transport?

I could go on, but hitting these main points should get your toe in the door at least.

Although I can’t often offer work experience, a competent application will at least get a response from me. Usually I’ll make an offer to have a phone conversation about what the applicant wants to do in the industry, the opportunities and where else to get advice, but I’m astonished how often my email reply goes unanswered. Which of course makes it harder for the next student to get a response from me.

Work experience can be invaluable, it’s how I started out as a press photographer, but the industry structures for training, nurturing and furthering a career have either changed or disappeared since I set out on my journey. Students today will need to find their own tracks into their chosen career, but get these basics right and you never know, you could find yourself ahead of the game and on your way to doing probably the best job in the world.

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.

 

A Helpful Guide

How many public relations and corporate communications photographers do you know who publish their rates online? I bet you often have to dig around on their websites, discover there is no fees information there, then have to email them and wait for a reply before you can even start to get a feel for their rates. And since you’re going to get a few estimates in, this process can really slow you down.

Several years ago I made the decision to simplify life for my clients and myself.

My fees guide is based on the fees I tend to charge for the services I tend to be asked to undertake. Before this I was often spending time putting estimates together only to discover that around 90% of the time they were the same as I’d quoted another client for a near-identical job. So why not save myself the trouble and save my clients’ time and just publish what I pretty much know I’ll charge for any given time frame for the work I typically do?

Of course not every client needs exactly the same thing, but the fees I set are a guide and as such are adaptable to most scenarios. It’s often not much more than a tweak here or there to get to a final fee. What this also means is that by having guide fees published online my clients are happier knowing that I’ve based my final fees on a foundation which they’ve already seen.

This instils confidence that I’m not just plucking figures out of the air depending on what I think I can shake out of a client’s purse. Also, the client who doesn’t want to budget for the quality and service I offer can save themselves the time of contacting me when really they want someone who’ll do a much cheaper job (it’s true! such clients exist!)

So next time you’re scouting for a photographer to undertake some PR or corporate work for you, if you’re lucky enough to need someone in the Bristol/Bath/ area, at least you know of one photographer who’s open and up-front about their rates. I’ll be happy to hear from you!

Gimme Some Room!

Much of my business photography consists of taking portraits of, rather predictably, business people. So far so good.

This pretty much always happens at their place of work because that means less disruption to their busy schedule and I can create a set of portraits covering all the colleagues that happen to be in the building that day. Still so far so good.

Where “so far so good” becomes “ummm” is when I’m shown into a meeting room/stationery cupboard which is so crammed with immobile tables and heavy chairs/stationery that I have no space to actually take pictures.

I do make a point of requesting a space roughly 10 foot square, but sometimes the message gets lost or it’s assumed the boardroom table can be moved when I get there. More commonly now, tables are cabled to the floor with telephone and computer wires, which will only stretch so far before they go PING! and the IT department has to be called in.

So to say I was utterly delighted with the space I was given this week is an understatement – half a ballroom in a hotel. All to myself, with nothing, and I mean absolutely nothing taking up floor space. In fact I had to pull a small table into the room so I could check off peoples’ names as I went without having to squat on the floor.

A photographer's backdrop and studio flash equipment are set up in a large empty room in the Hilton, Walcot Street, Bath, UK

A great space for portraits

I thoroughly enjoyed setting up my backdrop and lights slap bang in the middle of the space. It gave the whole thing a slightly surreal air and the people who came in to have their photos taken were astonished that the room they’d been assigned for their meeting was so much smaller than the one reserved for me.

Of course the ballroom wouldn’t have worked for them because they needed AV and a projector for their presentations which the ballroom didn’t have, but it did make me feel very special and it also meant I had bags of room to control how the lights lit the backdrop and the sitters. It meant I could work towards a very particular look without too much difficulty.

Ok, not the most exciting tale in the world, and it’s not as if I’ll be dining out on that one ever, but it’s a fine illustration of how giving the photographer ample space to work will not only make their life easier, it’ll also mean they can work to achieve more accurate results in-camera and ensure that so far so good endures right through to “that’s a wrap”.

Don’t forget the GV!

The GV, or General View, is one of the easiest images to overlook when putting a photographic brief together, but it can be one of the most useful images on the list.

It’s easy to focus on all the meaty stuff – the people, the event, the presentations and so on, but it’s always worth listing the general view if it adds to the narrative of what you’re trying to convey. It can be a really useful image in the PR pack too, giving print and online publications another option when putting their articles together.

The GV might show the location of a project, the exterior of a building, an overview of project progress, or just add context to a story which can’t necessarily be told entirely in a single photo.

Of course even if you don’t list any specific GVs in the brief, any decent photographer should be on the lookout for opportunities for a good GV.

This is a discipline I learned during my newspaper days and certainly during my training period I was pretty good at earning an ear-bending for forgetting to include a GV in the picture set. Happily that lesson remains with me today.

So now when I go to a job I’m often on the lookout for a GV even when it’s not listed because you just never know when it might come in handy. It might even become the most important shot of the day.

 

Light Reading

I like to end the day with a little light reading (currently John le Carré’s The Pigeon Tunnel), but much of my work involves reading the light. Painful punning aside, what I mean is when I’m out taking pictures I’m studying the light; the quality, the quantity, the colour and so on.

Typically I’ll be in an office getting ready to take photos for my client and what I’ll be considering is the light source (window, overhead strips, or a mixture of the two), how much of it there is and what its qualities are.

Most office lighting is great as far as the client is concerned. To the human eye it will appear bright and white, but the human eye and brain are incredible feats of biological engineering and capable of filtering out all kinds of crazy colours and of seeing details which a camera simply can’t.

These two shots demonstrate a rather extreme, if non-typical, example of what I mean.

I was asked to take photos of a group of scholars for University of Bath at an event hosted at The Roman Baths in Bath (let’s see how many times I can work the word Bath into this blog post shall we?)

One of the shots required was a mass group of all the scholars, not too formal, but arranged along one end of the Great Bath. This was an evening job and being early February there was no daylight left. In fact the only available light was from spot lights pointing at the back wall, and a couple of gas torches either side of the pool.

Given this situation, I knew just from looking at it that whatever I did with the camera settings I wouldn’t get a usable image without the addition of flash. Since camera-top flash (which I hate anyway) wouldn’t be attractive and would probably just illuminate the steam from the water, I set up a pair of flashes on stands at the far end of the bath from me, one each side of the bath pointing towards the students.

The test shot (left) shows what the camera sees without the addition of flash. Obviously the students weren’t there for the test shots as I wanted to make sure they weren’t hanging around while I got the settings right, but my stand-ins Rachel and Chris did a fine job.

So if I’m coming to your office to shoot a series of “simple” pictures, don’t be surprised if I bring quite a lot of lighting kit even if the light looks fine to you. It’s rare that the available light on a location is already attractive enough to render the best photos, but if I can illuminate 100 students across a steamy pool of water on a chilly night, I can probably make something visually appealing in your office space.

Creative Field

Assuming for a moment that Mark Twain actually said “golf is a good walk spoiled,” I wonder if he would have been happier taking a good walk with a camera?

Last weekend I went for a walk in the countryside just outside Frome and as I returned across a familiar field, the way the evening sunlight glinted off the grass struck me as especially interesting. So I took a photo. Nothing special there of course, but having taken that photo I decided it wasn’t enough just to show the field as I saw it from my (approx 6’1″) stance. I wanted to explore other ways to convey what I was seeing and feeling as I stood there. I was getting dangerously artsy.

And so I used the same technique I employ when working for a client; I stood quietly for a few moments, considering options, looking at the light, the field, the grass and thinking about what other possibilities might present themselves.

I tried a very low angle which emphasised the narrow footpath through the grass as well as the sunlight glinting off the blades and then I tried for one more shot. Far more abstract this time, but still making use of the sunlit highlights, I lowered the shutter speed and rotated the camera as I took the shot. I might have looked a little daft, but no one was around and I wouldn’t have cared if they were. I was having fun! To be honest, I could have spent hours there interpreting that field in different ways, but for this post I just wanted to illustrate what’s possible with something seemingly lacking in options.

It’s all too easy to see what’s in front of you and assume there is either no photo to be had, or that there is only one way to photograph it. Taking time, engaging the brain and having a think about what, if anything, you’re trying to capture or say in a photo is not only an excellent way to explore ideas, it also saves you taking up golf.

Keeping Organised

Any freelance will tell you that there is a great deal of admin involved in keeping things running smoothly. As a photographer one of the more critical elements of my admin, apart from making sure I keep my accounting up to date, is to ensure my photo archive is accessible.

By this I mean that if I need to look up an assignment I shot a decade ago, this shouldn’t be an exercise in rummaging through a suitcase full of random CDs, DVDs and hard drives hoping to find the one I need (and keeping fingers crossed that it hasn’t become damaged and un-readable).

Since I went digital in 2000 I’ve kept a catalogue of every assignment I’ve ever undertaken. It’s a simple piece of software which I use to record each job. It pulls keywords from the captions I’ve written to the image files, so when I go to search I just need a place or person’s name or something relevant to the assignment and the catalogue will return thumbnails of any pictures with matching keywords.

When I click on a thumbnail the software tells me which disk or drive that image (and therefore the rest of the job) is stored on. Since all my storage is kept in strict order it’s easy to find any job pretty fast.

The software, called Media Pro, has changed little over the years; I can’t remember who developed it because it has been owned by various companies including Microsoft. It’s now owned by a company called Phase One and I have to say it’s been brilliant.

The beauty of its simplicity is that even when Phase One took it over I didn’t have to start all over again, re-importing every job from the last 15 years. I just had to buy a new licence to use Media Pro, and the software automatically recognised my catalogue file.

Now you might be wondering why I’d bother to bore you with all this back-story, but the simple fact is that clients occasionally need me to relocate a job from a few years ago (and they’re often on a deadline when they ask me to do this) and my ability to reach back, find older work and resupply the images as needed is a valuable part of my service.

Of course this facility requires admin time, reliable storage and very occasionally a little extra cost in paying for a new licence, but I take these factors into consideration when setting my fees.

When you’re looking to hire a photographer it’s well worth checking what their storage and archive policies are; how long do they store images for? Do they have a system for retrieving long-forgotten jobs at short notice? Is their archive duplicated and held in different locations to protect against loss through flood, fire or theft?

No one can 100% guarantee to keep everything for ever, but I’ve kept my system safe and accessible for over 15 years now. I wonder how many other photographers can say that?