First Shoots of Recovery?

“Ok, here’s the future – everything is going to be fantastic. Business will pick up again” is what I wrote only last week.

Now I don’t wish to jinx what is clearly a very tentative, timid signal, but I am starting to get more bookings again, which is just fantastic!

Of course it’s early days and there will be tough times ahead. I think things will continue to be difficult and unpredictable for at least the next 12 months. I also think that the businesses which want to survive and thrive will keep on top of their marketing and this will involve fresh photography.

That businesses are starting to re-focus on the future is particularly encouraging, so let’s keep this week’s post brief and positive.

If you’re thinking in terms of getting your website bang-up-to-date or looking for an opportunity to get some PR going, drop me a line.

We can do this together.

A Welcome Review

A new review into the future of UK press journalism was announced today and although I fear it may be too late, it’s welcome to finally see the issue being tackled at government level.

The independent review into the future of high-quality journalism in the UK, chaired by Dame Frances Cairncross, has issued a call for evidence from organisations and individuals and will look at the causes of the startling decline hitting the industry.

The review will look at issues such as the decline in advertising revenue, the effect of social media, the consequences for the press from a national to a local level and what might be done to ensure a vibrant press for the future.

I happen to believe, and have said for many years, that what has happened to the press (in particular the regional and local newspapers) over the last two decades has become a threat to open justice and democracy, with court proceedings and local government council meetings being seen as too expensive to cover.

The subject is huge and the solutions not entirely clear. Of course I would love to see a return to high-quality local and regional journalism, with good quality news photography being part of that mix.

I may sound like a broken record when I talk about photography again, but it’s incredible that in an age where images (and especially high quality pictures) are the bedrock of the popularity of some of the biggest social media platforms, local news outlets have forsaken the model of using creative, informative (but paid-for) photography in favour of boring, badly executed free content.

On the odd occasion I find myself in Germany or Austria I make a point of picking up the local papers and am astonished at the difference. Beautifully-produced broadsheets on high-quality paper with professional photography appear to be doing just fine and they’re packed with classified ads too! This may be because the internet is English, or perhaps it’s a cultural pride thing. Perhaps this review will look at Europe for ideas.

Of course the internet has had a massive impact on journalism in this country, but the foundations of this decline were put firmly in place by the short-sighted and often greedy management teams which bought up smaller publishers like they were on a supermarket trolley-dash, then asset-stripped stripped them to make their money back. I won’t bang on, it’s a subject I’ve tackled before and I won’t bore you with it again today.

Hopefully, as readers of my blog (isn’t blogging part of the problem?), you’ll be keen to put your own views to the committee via their call for evidence. I certainly shall because I think it’s high time this issue was tackled seriously and not just treated as a victim of “progress”.

For more information, take a look at the announcement page, but it’s all summarised on the call for evidence page too.

 

Dairy Diary Date

Saturday 12th September was blessed with surprisingly kind weather, even more surprising because I had an assignment which very much relied on being outdoors, which of course normally means torrential rain has been predetermined.

On this particular day though, I arrived at Littlewood Farm in the village of Frampton, near Dorchester, in brilliant sunshine to cover a sort of open farm event. I say sort of because this was open farm by invitation. Dairy farmer, George Holmes, invited suppliers, retailers, fellow farmers and politicians to see the operation at his farm so they could gain a broader understanding of how a modern dairy farm works, the products its milk goes into and to air the issues faced by farmers as milk prices come under pressure from falling world prices.

My task was to document the event for pictures to be featured on twitter as well as to capture a PR image for local press which would show George, the local MP Simon Hoare and Minette Batters of the National Farmers Union with a cow.

The cow part of the brief troubled me a little because they’re big beasts and not always easy to arrange for a photo, but when I saw the pens of young calves in the calving shed, I knew we had an opportunity for a picture that would jump right into the local press, carrying the story with it – which is the point of a PR piece after all.

I was on-site for a couple of hours, and in that time I built up a collection of images featuring people enjoying the tractor trailer tour of the farm, watching the cows being milked and interacting with the calves as well as getting a few stock images of cows for the client to use later.

The PR picture worked and made its way into the Dorset Echo as well as a good range of industry publications, which goes to show that a well-considered photo really can get useful coverage and exposure for an event and the brand behind it.

 

 

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

 

 

Case Study: The Awards Event Photography

Innovator of the Year glass panel in the main hall, Horticultural Halls, London as delegates gather

This shot was created by firing a remote flash behind the glass panel to highlight the event title and add light to the delegates as they started to gather

Last Thursday I was in London covering the Fostering Innovation awards event for Biotechnology and Biosciences Research Council (BBSRC), an annual event which recognises those whose research is truly innovative and which will have real impact on society. It’s probably explained better here.

My challenge in covering this event is that every year it’s held in a different venue. This year it was the Royal Horticultural Halls, a very splendid setting, but the lighting was definitely on the lower side of low. This is often the case with large venues, and while some photographers make a big deal of working solely with natural light, they would have come spectacularly un-stuck in this situation.

Whenever I cover an event which involves a stage, a podium and a mixture of general shots and individuals either with their exhibits or receiving awards, if natural light isn’t abundant and of a good enough quality, I get to working out how to use flash without destroying all of the ambience or style of the event.

For this venue I decided to set one flash to cover the stage with a view to making it look as if there were a powerful stage light on the speaker (the light set by the AV guys was too weak and too strongly coloured for still images, even if it looked great from an audience point of view) , and the rest I shot with a hand-held flash held a little way away from the camera and using my favourite technique for softening the light to keep it as flattering as possible – direct, camera-top flash is unremittingly harsh and tends not to cover the subject as reliably as I like.

Keynote speaker addresses the Fostering Innovation Awards 2014 audience at Royal Horticultural Halls, London

Setting up a remote flash to cover the stage meant I could illuminate the speaker while audience heads finish the frame nicely

Portrait of Innovator of the Year 2014 Luke Alphey of The Pirbright Institute with his award trophy

Innovator of the Year Luke Alphey of The Pirbright Institute whose work investigates the genetic control of pests, including the dengue fever-carrying mosquito

The other difficulty of the low light was that sometimes this made it tricky to focus on subjects, but using fast, professional lenses certainly helps with this. It often strikes me that as camera technology has developed, I often find myself taking pictures in scenarios I might once have written off as impossible a decade or more ago.

But that’s what keeps this job interesting; giving the client creative coverage of their event in spite of all the challenges. I enjoy problem solving with each new event, venue and lighting challenge this presents. In fact I’m hoping next year’s awards ceremony is held in the darkest cavern imaginable just so I can really test my mettle*

*Please ignore that last statement, BBSRC, I didn’t mean it!

Where JP fail, others choose to follow

I had promised myself I wouldn’t re-visit the subject of Johnson Press or anything else quite as depressing for a while. The reaction to that article was incredible, receiving over 360 hits in two days which, for a modest blog such as mine is quite a big deal.

Indeed I had every intention of keeping things upbeat for a while, but then I got one more reaction to the article which I just couldn’t ignore; an email from someone whose situation perfectly illustrates the insanity which has overtaken newspaper publishing in this country. The victim of another publisher taking a short-term view and discarding both staff and reader loyalty in the hope of bigger margins.

There’s really nothing I can add to what this photojournalist says, so I’ll let their email speak for itself. Reproduced with permission…

Great to read your blog about Johnston Press.

Days after their announcement the publisher that I work for as a retained photo journalist also announced that it was going down the free content route and will no longer require my services!

The new model is to copy and paste press releases, and the associated pictures, thus removing my position.

I gather that everything is now geared towards ad revenue and pleasing PR people and press officers in the hope that they will advertise with said publishing group. As a result, all critical reporting has been banned in case it upsets said PR departments and everything will now be portrayed as sunny, regardless of the reality.

On the odd occasion a picture is needed from an event the ad man or webmaster will go along with their tablet, iphone etc and take a picture that is “good enough”. The parting shot was “with digital photography nowadays, we don’t need a retained photo journalist”

An editorial policy where PR people dictate content, as that’s what will happen, is an odd policy to adopt for a news publication. But hey, got to keep those PR people happy!

I was retained for 10 years and they just cut me adrift as if I never mattered. Over that decade the publisher would constantly apologise for not being able to pay me more (1k a month), but when they abolished my position this figure suddenly became a “considerable amount” . Loyalty, what ever happened to it?

Case Study: Conference Photography

Conference venues have had a rough time in recent years. Events can be expensive to run, and sometimes they’re expensive to attend, so where businesses have dared spend the money at all, they’ve often seen photography as a luxury bolt-on.

In my role as conference photographer I noticed a decline in appetite for this particular service in 2008/2009, but looking back over 2010 I’d say demand has increased again.

Getting quality photography at a conference has often been pretty low on organisers’ lists of priorities – that is until the conference is over and someone wants to “PR” the event. At which point they discover that all they have are some iPhone snaps which aren’t much use for anything at all except maybe viewing on an iPhone.

scientist delivering conference presentation

Balancing lighting on the speaker and their presentation takes some effort.

I can tell a client hasn’t given too much thought to photography prior to the event when I get the call the week before it’s due to happen to ask if I’m available and what the cost would be. They booked the venue about a year in advance. They booked the speakers, sound, lighting, video, staging, caterers, cleaners door staff etc etc. And (relatively speaking) at 5 minutes to midnight, somebody thought: “Oh! I think we might want some pictures from this event!”

Now I applaud these people for thinking so far in advance because as I said, some don’t think of it until the event is over, by which time it’s a bit too late to go back in time to shoot what should have been shot in the first place.

So if your organisation is considering a conference, which after all can reap great benefits in public relations, client relations and exchange of ideas with partners and clients, I would urge you to consider the benefits of getting coverage, and of getting that coverage done professionally.

Conferences can be very useful in that unlike most other events or times of the working year, they tend to be the one time when a significant number of staff and executives are in one place at the same time. So think about getting fresh headshots done – a small setup in a side-room or quiet corner is ideal for this.

Regen SW conference debate in Bath

More obscure shots can be useful later on.

A conference with industry-wide or even public interest, has scope for extensive PR. Pictures of key speakers talking passionately at the lectern, or as a panel of experts can add spontaneity to what might otherwise be a dull PR shot. For other PR uses it’s handy to get a relaxed portrait of key speakers at the venue, perhaps with relevant props visible in the shot.

Employing a professional (like wot I is) means not only will you get the vital shots you need, but you’ll get quick turnaround and you’ll also get the shots you never even realised you needed. Those little details that others would walk past, but which come in handy for future uses such as brochures, annual reports etc.

Of course you might find you have a keen photographer amongst your staff, but do they know how to handle the difficult lighting at these events? Balancing light on the speaker with the slide behind them isn’t always easy. They’ll also tend to miss the details I mentioned, and they often can’t turn the work around quickly. Finally, using a member of staff is all very well, but shouldn’t they be paying attention to the conference rather than the settings on their camera?

I cover conferences of all sizes, taking pictures which clients can then use for internal and external communications, press releases, websites, brochures, future presentations; the list is limited only by one’s imagination. In terms of cost, the photography has to be one of the better value ingredients of a good conference. The food can only be eaten once, while the photography can be used again and again, long after the taste of plastic ham sandwiches and greasy tea has passed.