Could the fair be more fun?

Every few years I’ll give in to temptation and pay a visit to the biannual Frome Wessex Camera Club camera fair held at the Cheese and Grain in Frome (you know, that place the Foo Fighters did a surprise gig in once; you must know where I mean).

I’m not a natural fan of camera fairs; I think I got over the thrill of standing in a room full of expensive gear I couldn’t afford as a shop assistant some time around 1989.

However the evening before the fair was on, a friend called and asked if I fancied meeting him there. The peculiar thing was, up to the point of that phone call I was oblivious the event was on.

At first I was reticent, but he’d only recently asked if I wanted to meet at another camera fair and I’d turned him down for that one. To avoid looking like a curmudgeonly hermit, I sad yes this time.

I think the last time I’d been to the FWCC fair was 2017, and 2013 before that, so I knew this was a risky place for me and my wallet to be.

So rather than having gear acquisition as my primary plan, I decided to use it as an excuse not only to see my friend, but also to test out and shoot some Ilford Delta 400 film rated at 1600. I’d shot some during my recent trip to Bologna, rated at 400, but I wanted to find the parameters of what this film can do and the flat, poor lighting in the Cheese and Grain is the perfect scenario for this. I thought I might get some interesting photos too.

Well the exercise was a useful one, even if the resulting images aren’t exactly dynamite. At least I know now this is a brilliantly versatile film, but for some reason I couldn’t ‘get my eye in’ so the photos are what they are. I’m posting them here to shame myself into doing better next time.

Of course you can go in with a wedge of cash and blow the lot on some very lovely gear – my friend did exactly that. In fact he picked up some genuine, if pricey, bargains alongside some very cheap non-pricey bargains, and the fair usually has something for any budget.

Even I picked up a fun little camera, thanks to my friend having loads of cash on him and me paying him back after. I know, I cheated.

My bargain was a red Konica C35 EF3 for £15, flash not working. It turned out that when the seller said the flash didn’t work, what he meant was that you could switch the flash on IF you wanted the camera to get fantastically hot/ you wanted the smell of burning electronics up your nose.

No problem though, I can use the camera without flash and it’ll allow me to play more in my ‘down time’. Or on a really cold day I can turn the flash on and warm my hands by the resulting electrical fire.

Now what I’ve been building up to very gingerly in this article is my impression that the fair was a lot quieter this time around than I’ve seen it in previous years. Fewer dealers, fewer visitors. I’m sure there used to be more of both and a lot more gear to tempt the canny bargain-hunter. It just felt a little hollowed-out.

Perhaps I got there too late in the morning for the real rush, but I got the impression it had been a little on the quiet side from the start.

In the past there were people selling historical prints, but none this time around. By way of compensation there was a table laid out with beautiful prints and cards for sale by contemporary photographers Roy Hunt and Martin Wade, who both work in traditional film (thumbs up from me), but again I got the impression they’d not been overwhelmed with sales that morning.

It would have been good to have seen more in the way of photo books on offer, or film and film processing equipment as this is enjoying such a resurgence amongst younger photographers. I did spot some film, but it was tucked out of site under a dealer’s table.

The one issue the fair does suffer is the almost exclusively older white male patronage. Yes, I fall into that category, but neither gender nor age balance would have been improved by my absence.

Another challenge the fair must be facing is that where film cameras used to take up a lot of table space, they’re becoming harder to source at a reasonable price. Some have reached collectible status and prices have gone through the roof. It’s also inevitable that as years pass, more of the old mechanical and electronic film cameras will simply die of old age.

The risk with the fair is that unless it attracts a younger and more diverse crowd, its dealers and visitors will also die of old age.

Perhaps a help stall where someone starting out could get free impartial advice about which kit to go for, and even guidance as to which dealer has what they need. More books, contemporary prints, an exhibition or perhaps a competition or other promotional events would help get people through the door.

For the fair to continue and thrive, Frome Wessex Camera Club will to have find ways of improving their reach. There needs to be better marketing to younger people, and better marketing over all since I was blissfully ignorant of the event until my friend called me. In fact as I exited the event via the cafe I bumped into a couple of friends who’d cycled in for breakfast. Even sitting in the room right next to the fair, they were oblivious to what was on in the main hall.

I’ve had a bit of a flurry of requests for work experience from Frome College students doing photography courses, so I assume the interest is there, but I didn’t see anyone of college age and I was there for a good couple of hours.

Photography is all about imagination, and this event definitely needs an injection of that to stop it becoming, like a broken old Zenith E camera, beyond worth saving.

Note: The next fair is 19th April 2020.

Going Underground

Last week I was commissioned to take pictures in one of the most challenging locations I think I have ever had to work; Wookey Hole caves. Bear in mind, I’ve worked within the Arctic Circle, at the top of a 100ft hospital incineration chimney and from the deck of a helicopter over The Solent, but in terms of technical challenge I think this takes the prize.

The client was Somerset Art Works (SAW), organisers of Somerset Art Weeks Festival, a fortnight of open studios and events across Somerset. My job was to get photos of the launch event, but due to restrictions imposed by Wookey Hole I couldn’t use flash (it would disturb the bats) and by the artist (I couldn’t release my shutter during the live audio recording of the art work), I had to get everything I could during set-up and rehearsal.

There were some lights which the team had set up, but there was really only one that was usable for me, so I made the most of it and concentrated on getting shots of the choir as they rehearsed. I also had to get shots of guests and speeches, and there was a lot of help from mobile phone torches to make that even remotely possible.

For this gallery I’ve chosen a few of the choir photos because they’re the strongest standalone images from the set.

For full details, see the SAW Facebook page, from which I’m quoting their post:

Somerset Art Weeks Festival launched last Friday (20 September) evening at Wookey Hole Caves with new work by Ben Rivers, with the opening speech by Arts Council England Chief Executive, Darren Henley. Thanks to Somerset Film at The Engine RoomArts Council England Wookey Hole Caves team for making this possible, and to everyone at the event for supporting us.

Somerset Art Weeks until 6 October. Celebrating 25th year. https://somersetartworks.org.uk/artweeks

Slave to the Algorithm

Photographing events doesn’t get more funner (new word) than when I’m left to get on and be a fly on the wall, and the NWERC is a fine example of an event packed with opportunities for any keen-eyed, camera-toting fly.

Now, rather than me trying to specify the essence of the event, and getting it horribly mangled, how about I let the event speak for itself. From the NWERC website,

“The Northwestern Europe Regional Contest (NWERC) is a contest in which teams from universities all over the Northwestern part of Europe are served a series of algorithmic problems. The goal of each team is to solve as many problems as possible within the 5 hour time limit.”

Got it? Good, but what’s my role in the event? Well obviously to generate photos which can be used by the event organisers, host and participating universities in order to generate publicity for future years’ events.

My main task is to capture the runners-up and winning team as they take to the stage once all the scores are in, which is all good fun in and of itself, but the bit I really enjoy is when I’m roaming the hall during the last hour or so of the coding time.

That’s when the teams are either at their most ecstatic or at their wits end. Last November’s event was the second year running I got the commission, so I knew what to expect and where to go for the best images.

Starting with a fairly spectacular scene showing the sports hall packed with aching brains, I then made my way to ground level to get in amongst the coders and record the triumphs and tragedies as they waged war with algorithmic problems.

And if you’re wondering what’s with all the balloons, a team would receive one each time the automated scoring system detected they’d cracked a problem. You can imagine the pressure of seeing other teams amassing more balloonage (another new word) than yours. I thought some of the teams were ready to float off!

Sadly for me the event isn’t happening in Bath this year, but it may return another year. If it does, I’ll be ready and waiting to get my wings buzzing and my segmented eyes trained back on the subject. As long as I don’t go completely Geoff Golblum, I’ll enjoy being a fly on the wall once again.

Two Decades and a World Away

Yes, I was there too. Another press photographer who covered Diana’s funeral and because my words will be lost in the blizzard of articles and analysis on this the 20th anniversary of her death, I’ll point you towards this excellent article by Fleet Street photographer Brian Harris before offering a few brief thoughts of my own.

For myself, I was a lowly local news photographer at the time and was astonished to be assigned an official pass to cover the funeral from a position directly opposite the main door of Westminster Abbey.

Like Brian, I remember being hissed at by the crowd as I made my way to the position. I remember the weird atmosphere as people cheered the stars of music, TV and film as they arrived for the service. I also remember seeing the shot of the card on the coffin which just read “Mummy” and yes it was a cracking shot, but Brian’s was more graceful.

As for my effort, well it wasn’t the strongest image of the day, but I found myself focusing on the expressions of the pallbearers, members of the Welsh Guards who were clearly struggling to hold their emotions together. The shot summed up the occasion and emotions of the day in a fairly tight frame.

So considering it’s not a shot I had never wanted to have to take, I’ll live with it and leave it here as part of a much larger record of a sad day which changed all who were involved at least a little and for ever.

 

It’s SOE Challenging!

Last month I was asked, for the second year running, to take pictures of the Institute of Road Transport Engineers (IRTE) Skills Challenge which takes place in Bristol.

This is a three-day event during which teams of individuals are put forward by various bus and coach operators to test their skills in, amongst other things, vehicle electronics, braking systems, fabricating, testing and diagnostics.

The photos are used by the Society of Operation Engineers (SOE) to help promote the event through their website, printed material and for the first time this year I was also sending “rush” pictures to the PR team for live use in social media.

It’s fair to say the three days are quite a challenge photographically too. I have to ensure I get good pictures of each entrant because the photos will be used at the subsequent awards event to accompany the prize presentations to winners.

As the challenges are live and timed I have to ensure I get my shots with as little disruption to the participants as possible. At the same time, because of the nature of the challenges, it would be all too easy to just run around getting nothing more than pictures of the tops of peoples’ heads as they concentrate on what they’re doing when what I really want to see are their faces and expressions.

The lighting can also be quite tricky. Sometimes it’s relatively easy as the event takes place in a large engineering hangar with some daylight coming in through skylights in the roof, but this isn’t always ideal, especially when there’s not much sunshine outside or where a contestant is working in a tight corner with little light on their face. I like my lighting to be clean, with as little colour cast as possible.

So I work fast with a small set-up; usually with a wide zoom lens for flexibility and a single flash on a stand, firing into an umbrella for portability and to reduce the influence of the indoor lighting. The umbrella also keeps the light looking natural and soft.

The greatest challenge is always in the machine shop where contestants will be working with metal cutters, grinders and welding equipment. It’s hot, noisy and there are all kinds of health and safety issues to consider.

Photographing welding is an especially tricky art because I have to wear a welding mask to protect my eyes which means I can’t see so well to compose and focus my shots, but the results are often the most interesting, with sparks flying and the intense glow from the welding torch.

Of course a shot of someone welding doesn’t show their face, so I’ll always ensure I get a shot of them doing something else as well, such as inspecting a weld or measuring for a cut.

What’s really great though is that tomorrow I’ll see the entrants again as they go to a prize-giving at the Jaguar Experience in Birmingham. I’ll be taking pictures of the prize presentations and of the overall event for industry public relations and again to promote the event for next year.

As I’ve never been to the Jaguar Experience and don’t know what the venue will be like for photographs, it’ll be a whole new challenge!

Pink Elephants at Open Farm Sunday

The cliché of all clichés states that you should never work with children and animals, but I disagree. They can make excellent subjects and on Sunday 7th June I got to work with both as it was Open Farm Sunday, a national event and an opportunity for families to see the inner workings of farms all over the country.

I was booked to attend Meadowlea Farm in Somerset to capture a flavour of the day for sponsors ABP. The images were destined for press release and ABPs website and internal communications, so I needed to get a good variety of shots showing interactions between families, children, the farmers and animals.

I think my favourite shots of the day show a delightful young lad, Tom, doing some colouring in with one of ABP’s representatives, Robyn. The table was set up in one of the farm sheds, I just had it pulled forward enough to get the best of the daylight on them, then let them get going with pencils and crayons. After a few action shots I wanted them looking into my lens, so I told Tom if he looked carefully and smiled nicely, he might see the pink elephant that lives in my camera. It did the trick and Tom gave me a whole bunch of brilliant smiles, it was one of those moments you can’t help smiling at yourself. And of course Tom could see the pink elephant, children always can.

Biology.. we need more of it

Here’s a sneaky look at the challenges sometimes facing a photographer in what might otherwise be a fairly standard assignment.

Last week was Biology Week, but you knew that already. You’ll also know the purpose of Biology Week was to raise awareness of the role of biology in the 21st Century with debates and events catering to all ages.

TV presenter Chris Packham speaks at Biology Week event, London

Chris Packham talks about his passion for biological research

I was commissioned by the Society of Biology and Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council to cover an event at the House of Commons designed to celebrate the week and spread the word of the importance of biological study to understanding our environment and the opportunities for innovation from new discoveries. My pictures would be used for press release material and the Society of Biology website news page (see link above).

The event was held in the Churchill Room where the great and the good of the biological sciences community mingled with MPs, peers and Chris Packham (BBCs Springwatch and Autumnwatch presenter).

My task was to cover the speakers giving their addresses, people networking and enjoying the evening and anything else that presented itself. It wasn’t an easy task as the room was packed to bursting, which made moving around quite tricky and often made it difficult to get clear shots of specific people.

Guests gather for Biology Week event at Churchill Rooms, House of Commons

The Churchill Room was packed for the event

The lighting was pretty poor too. Very warm colour tone, which when added to people’s hot faces made orange something of a theme for the evening. My best bet was to use a mixture of flash and slow shutter speed to try to have people properly lit without it looking like I’d blatted them with flash, then cool down the warm cast in post-processing to get skin tones looking more human.

Despite the tricky shooting conditions and the extra post-processing involved, as it was my first shoot inside the Parliament building I was thrilled to be there. I highly recommend a tour if you’re ever in London because it really is a fascinating building.

Big Ben tower mis-shapen by iPhone panorama mode

I couldn’t resist having some fun with the iPhone panorama mode while I was there