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…

It was 20 years ago today (well, two weeks ago and more like 30 years, but now I’ve ruined the headline)

Good grief! It’s official! As of May 31st I’ve been a freelance photographer for 20 years!

If I’m honest, the anniversary rather passed me by as I was in the middle of various projects and assignments from which I have only this week started to emerge, blinking into the daylight. Hence it taking me two weeks to acknowledge the milestone at all.

So, gosh, what does one say at such a momentous time? And don’t forget, I was a staff photographer before that (and freelance before that again) and have been a professional photographer for 30 years now, so even I have to admit that’s some kind of achievement.

Rather than celebrating with a cake, I marked the occasion by doing my VAT return and accounts. I mean, what could be more rock ‘n roll than that?

What this anniversary does beg me to do is look back and expand on the lessons I’ve learned over the years. Well alrighty then.

Any photographer who has been going more than a decade will tell you they’ve had to weather a lot of storms and I have to say I’m sometimes amazed (and not a little grateful) that I’ve not only weathered them, but by many standards done pretty well.

Plenty of photographers have fallen by the wayside in the face of everything that’s been thrown at us, starting with news publishers making early (and often fateful) decisions to cut back the expensive parts of their businesses – journalism and photography.

Then came THE INTERNET and everything got turned on its head, not all of it especially constructive it has to be said, but increasingly I’m finding that there’s a return to basic principles which the internet and digital photography cannot change.

Indeed I’ve been feeling increasingly positive since the darkest days of the global recession when it looked like lack of client budget, the rise of micro-payment stock image sites and a general willingness to abuse copyright would conspire to terminate my industry altogether. There were certainly plenty of voices proclaiming the death of photography, yet I feel we’re at the start of a resurgence now.

A new respect for high quality, creative, original, unique photography means that simply by having stuck to my principles, not only do I find new clients regularly searching me out, but regular clients repeatedly returning for more work.

All this means I also have the capacity to feed my other passions; personal projects, documentary, working with film and exploring new ideas. The biggest lesson is, I believe, that sticking to my principles and passions has been what’s kept me going.

And then comes the inevitable question, “what about the next 20 years, Tim?”

I have no crystal ball, but I’m positive I’ll still be working hard as a photographer right up until ill health or the ultimate full stop mean I can no longer hold a camera. Who knows? That could be 30 or even 40 years from now, but it’s possible I’ll not be blogging by then. Perhaps you’ll hear about that milestone through some other medium yet to be invented, maybe through the cerebral implant we’ll all be fitted with by then.

Inspiration from a Skip

Unbeknownst to all but my inner circle of close advisers, friends, family, the guy on the checkout at my local Lidl and some random strangers in the street, I’ve been working on a top secret photo project which I can now reveal to you.

Skip Art is the title of a new series of pictures created as an appetiser to a major new exhibition, The Chemistry of Bronze, starting on Saturday 26th May (preview evening on Friday 25th – open to all!) and running until July 15th at Black Swan Arts gallery in Frome.

The Chemistry of Bronze will feature pieces by established UK artists as well as tools, illustrations and demonstrations explaining the bronze casting process by local foundry Art of a Fine Nature.

My involvement in the project came about when I was approached by the the exhibition curator and ceramic artist Hans Borgonjon to see if I’d be interested in creating a set of images to be displayed in the areas leading to the main exhibition hall which would be an appetiser to the main exhibition.

The idea intrigued me, so off I went to the foundry to have a look around and see what pictures I could make. My brief was wide open except for one caveat; I couldn’t directly illustrate the process of bronze casting as this would be thoroughly explained inside the main gallery.

Foundry owner Jon showed me the various areas of the workshop; the racks of rubber moulds, the workshop where the wax models are readied for encasing, the room where ceramic powder is built up over the wax models and the furnace in which the models are cast.

All the while I was having a mild panic inside, thinking this is all very lovely, but whatever I photograph will just look like an illustration of the process of making a bronze and I can’t show that!

Then Jon showed me the skip into which all the pieces of ceramic casing are swept once they’ve been broken from the cast bronze objects. He reached in and picked out a fragment to show me, and there was the impression of a gecko’s foot. I thought it was cute, but didn’t think much more about it until the middle of the night when I was lying in bed trying to come up with an angle on the project.

The image of the gecko’s foot kept swimming into my mind and it suddenly struck me that this was my angle.

So a day or two later I went back to the skip. Jon issued me with rubber gloves and a mug of tea and I spent the next couple of hours skip diving for interesting looking fragments in amongst the ceramic dust and rubble, picking out anything which had an interesting impression left on its surface. I was silently cursing myself that I hadn’t already kept the gekko foot and assumed it was lost forever in the bottom of the skip.

I’d pulled quite a few interesting pieces from the skip and was thinking of calling it a day when I decided to have one more look in an un-promising corner of the skip. That’s when I found the gecko’s foot Jon had shown me as well as the second, smaller foot you see in the photo. I was happy now and could go and make the photos.

The next few blog posts will reveal more about the project and the exhibition and keep you informed of progress as we head to towards the launch evening, so do watch this space.


A Frightfully Good Adventure!

It’s pretty exciting when friends launch into a new adventure. Even more exciting when they ask you to get involved!

I’ve known Neil and Suzy Howlett for quite a few years now, but was totally unaware they were writing a book together until they got in touch to ask if I was interested in taking their author photos for Return to Kirrin, an affectionate pastiche of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five books.

Return to Kirrin imagines the Five as adults in 1979, a period of punk and political turmoil, and brings them together for new adventures on Kirrin Island.

My brief for this project was to create a set of images which could be used for a range of promotional purposes. Neil and Suzy wanted a look which was neither too staid, nor too whacky. A fine line to tread indeed.

I decided their garden would be perfect, in particular the little covered bench structure which was a usefully muted colour and had some mystery and a certain wistful charm about it.

We needed to achieve shots of Neil and Suzy together as well as a couple of individual portraits so that whatever they needed, wherever they needed it, there would be an image to fit the use. They also needed to look good and legible at smaller sizes. Landscape and vertical formats had to be catered for too, so as well as the wide shots you see in the gallery, I also made sure there was a good selection of upright shots in the set.

You can already see one of the images in use on the book’s Amazon page, where of course you can also buy your own copy.

The morning of the photo session was blessedly dry – rain would have been pretty unhelpful, and there was some lovely soft sunlight filtering into the garden. I still used a supplementary portable studio light to lift the shadows and to create a slightly ‘hyper real’ look and feel.

For the individual portraits I continued with the portable light, but matched it more closely to the daylight so it became less noticeable, more natural, but the test shots without it left the colours a little flat.

Now the book is out and available to buy, it’ll be fascinating to see how the images get used. For Neil and Suzy, I sincerely hope the sales go wild and I hope my photos help achieve the coverage they so richly deserve. In the meantime, you can follow the book’s adventures on the Return to Kirrin Facebook page.

The Film Fad

When I started shooting film again I thought it might just be an itch that needed to be scratched, but Im enjoying it so much that the current project on the Saxonvale area of Frome really is building into something interesting.

If you’d like to see all the images so far you’ll need an Instagram account where you’ll find me as @takeagander, but in the meantime here’s a selection of recent posts. All shot on expired film, all the flaws and colour-shifts are a result of the age of the film used.

And no, this isn’t just a hipster fad for me; I love shooting film and the way it makes me slow down and think. Wherever possible it’ll be my medium of choice for all my personal projects from now on, so sorry if I keep banging on about it.

How Soon Is Now?

Well that’s got The Smiths fans reading. Hello, both of you.*

What that slightly odd headline is nodding towards, in a painfully contorted way like Morrissey performing William, It Was Really Nothing, is that while a photo might be taken for quick social media use, bear in mind you may wish to use it later for other things.

So, what difference does it make if you approach the task with only Twitter or Facebook in mind? You might want to ask yourself if it matters there’s only half a person in the frame, or the resolution is poor.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but your photos and your brand should work hand in glove across many media. The quality shouldn’t oscillate wildly from one media to another otherwise your message is going nowhere fast.

The point of photography is to communicate your message; get it wrong and the world won’t listen.

I hope this post has per suedehead you that such a little thing makes such a big difference.

*The more astute amongst you will have spotted a few familiar references and one rather painful pun.

Expired Film Teaches Me A Lesson

I’m meant to use this blog to talk about nothing but corporate photography, hitting those all-important keywords, shoehorning them into sentences until Google says “I get it, you’re a corporate photographer shooting portraits and other corporate communications images for businesses who care about the quality of their image and the values it conveys, so we’ll put you at the top of the listings whenever we think you’re what the client is looking for.”

Thanks Google, you’re doing a grand job and I should apologise that I don’t always make it easy for you by writing instead about magazines I like, exhibitions I’ve launched (actually, singular exhibition, but hey I’ll keep working on that), or my return to shooting film as a way of working out new ideas and pursuing my passion for telling the stories of ordinary people.

And this week I’m not making it any easier as once again I’m on the subject of film.

My return to film has been a bit stop/start but it continues. More recently I’ve been working with expired film, that is stock which is well past its use-by date. Yes, film has a use-by date because the light-sensitive chemicals which react to light start to break down.

However, I managed to source a large, mixed bag of film; 35mm, medium format, colour and black and white and I’ve been working my way through it with various trial projects and one project which has been fairly fruitful, that of a series of photos documenting the derelict site in Frome known as Saxonvale.

Saxonvale is an area of the town which has been left partially cleared for many years now while the various landowners and interested parties take their time working out how to make the most money from its redevelopment. You might say I’ve used derelict film to record a derelict site, recording not just the waste discarded there, but also sometimes the people who pass through or visit for their own reasons.

Some of the film stock I’ve used has been in such a poor state it barely rendered an image. One trip was wasted because the film was so utterly degraded it was blank when I processed it. All part of the project and a useful reminder to me that the film is the boss on this one.

In due course I’ll be updating my main website with some of these images, but in the meantime here’s a mini gallery to give you a flavour of the Saxonvale project. If you want to see more of it and some of the other film images I’ve shot lately, head over to my Instagram account where you’ll find me as @takeagander.

Listen Up!

In April I had the absolute pleasure of working with a group of young people in Wiltshire to help promote the Healthwatch Wiltshire “Young Listeners” project.

This project involves young volunteers canvassing the thoughts and views of their peers and reporting their findings back to Wiltshire’s Health and Wellbeing Board.The findings are then used to help improve health provision for young people in the county.

My job was to generate a set of images for use across Healthwatch Wiltshire’s Youthwatch web pages and literature as well as for use in press releases and case studies for social media.

They were a lively bunch, full of character and great fun to work with. Two of them stoically posed outside for a press photo in spite of the rain which was coming in sideways, but they were utterly professional about it.

I also shot a short series of portraits, two of which you can see here, to accompany case studies (luckily it wasn’t raining at this point). The client, citing my recent skateboarders project, wanted a similarly gritty and dramatic feel to the photos. I couldn’t reproduce exactly what I’d done with that project so I chose the side of an industrial unit as an out-of-focus backdrop and lit the faces in a dramatic and eye-catching way.

The results have appeared multiple times in local media and have given the client material for their Facebook page and website. It’s a great start to their photo library which they can draw on and build up over time.



Keeping Photography Real

Recurrent controversies over the doctoring of photojournalistic images might seem of distant interest to businesses and organisations which only use commercial images, but there is an important crossover area wherein danger lies for every business.

Most businesses using photographs in their corporate communications are in the main either buying stock photos or commissioning them from a photographer like myself. As these pictures are being used to illustrate or promote a commercial venture in some sales capacity (website, brochure, catalogue etc), they don’t have to conform to the standards of photojournalism. Assuming they observe normal laws, their purpose is to illustrate a concept, or the values of the organisation, not some higher truth.

But occasionally businesses will engage a photographer to take press and PR pictures. These of course are destined for use in newspapers, magazines, trade journals perhaps and almost certainly online in social media and so on. The medium really doesn’t matter; such pictures are taken as a matter of record and should be treated as seriously as if they were showing history unfolding.

It doesn’t matter if the photos show a cheque being presented, a ribbon being cut or a visit by an MP or Royalty, the intention of these photos is to illustrate something which has happened in the life of the organisation and should be treated as historical records.

Where a photo is set up, such as for a presentation of an award, a prize, the launch of a new venture or whatever, it’s generally obvious from the way the participants are posed and often looking to camera that the scenario has been choreographed by the photographer, and this is fine because the viewer will understand they’re seeing a staged photo. However, this staging isn’t a licence for elements or people in the picture to be doctored in, out, moved or changed in any way. What happens in front of the camera should be shown in the final result.

Photo purports to show Kim Jong Un standing by a ship's rail at sea pointing to a missile launching from the water. A fake photo.

Some manipulation just draws ridicule, as this North Korean press shot did.

It’s not uncommon for a client to suggest that I can Photoshop something in or out when I’ve taken a photo for press release and often they look at me quizzically when I explain that I cannot do this for ethical reasons. No photographer can because it breaches the editorial code of ethics, and if caught could seriously harm the reputation of the photographer and their hopes of finding future work.

It also does the client no favours when the “internet” gets hold of a story of doctoring or manipulation. The business name may be spread far and wide, but it will be couched in negative terms and with a (possibly) permanent and negative connotation.

And so as tempting as it may be to say “it’s just a group photo,” or “only for the web,” don’t be tempted into breaking ethics for the sake of a “better” image. It could ruin your image.

My Latest Camera

Regular clients will be delighted to learn I haven’t stopped investing in camera equipment, though they may be surprised that my latest Canon purchase cost me exactly two whole British Pounds. Yes, £2.00.

On Sunday I paid a visit to the Frome Wessex Camera Fair at the Cheese and Grain venue (where The Foo Fighters recently and very famously played a surprise gig).

There were no superstars on this occasion, but the entry fee was a mere £3.00 which I happily paid. So let’s pretend a portion of that should be considered part of the cost of the camera, but since I also bought a cable release (£3.00) and a handheld light meter (£4.00), at worst the camera cost me £3.00.

My reason for this particular purchase, a Canon Sureshot Supreme, is that this was a camera which came out in the 1980s when I was working at London Camera Exchange in Bath. It caused quite a stir at the time for its modern styling and fast, accurate automation of focus and exposure settings. There was a huge advertising campaign behind it, and though it wasn’t a budget model of its day, retailing as it did at around £120, we sold bucket loads of them.

I spotted this particular one on a table at the fair, but when I looked at it more closely I thought it might be dead (the battery level showed good, but the shutter wasn’t firing). So I negotiated £2.00 for it, took it home, popped a fresh battery in and BINGO! it worked. Clearly the battery level indicator is a die-hard optimist.

So then I thought, what can I do with this? Would it be possible to shoot a set of pictures which might present an interesting project? Does the camera actually work as a photographic tool, or might some part of the electronics or optical system be so old as to be non-functioning? Only one way to find out.

Loaded with a roll of Kodak Tri-X black and white film and with the help of my son Joe and his friends, I set about making a series of portraits that I hoped would make a mini series on skaters and their boards – battle scars and all (the boards more than the skaters).

I tried using the built-in flash in the outdoor setting to see what effect I could conjure with that, but it was pretty horrible, so I went with the daylight-only images in my selection.

My verdict on the camera is it’s not the sharpest lens in the world, but the exposure is good and the overall effect is quite interesting. Not bad for a 30-year-old pocket camera, the current value of which is quadrupled by the loading of a roll of film and a fresh battery.

The result is a series of portraits of these young lads, each standing confidently as teenage boys do with their skateboards acting as shields – to be fair, I asked them to bring the boards up into the frame. But each has their own way of confronting the lens. A couple look away, one would only be photographed blindfolded with his bandana, but I love the unexpected in a photo and if someone chooses to hide their eyes, avert their gaze, or perform some other unexpected motion which reveals something about them, I’m happy to include this as it says more than a straight portrait.

Whatever I like or don’t about these pictures, your opinion is more important and if you’ve a mind to, I’d love to hear what you see in these pictures.

Whether I’ll shoot much on the Sureshot, or just keep it as a museum piece, I’ve yet to decide, but heck, for £2.00 and a roll of film it’s been an interesting exercise.

Thank you to Finlay, Ben, Christy, Joe, Toby and Danni for your help. It probably seemed a peculiar request on the day, but I hope you like the results.