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

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.

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!

Paws for Thought

Sourcing photos for a local charity fundraiser is the kind of thing which all too easily falls into the “an iPhone snap will do” category, but when you’re aiming to gain PR exposure across a range of publications, there’s no point wasting good public relations effort with poor imagery.

That’s also the view of Jennie Wood of Avalanche PR, so I was delighted when she came to me for this particular project.

On Friday June 10th 2016, the fifth annual Kennel Break Challenge will be hosted at the Bath Cats and Dogs Home and Jennie was tasked with getting the word out to local business people encouraging them to get involved.

The idea is that participants get locked in a kennel with nothing but a laptop and mobile phone, which they use to raise pledges from their contacts. Once they reach £1,000 in donations they get released, ideally in under an hour, but up to a maximum of three.

For the press release photo session at Bath Cats and Dogs Home, ambassador for the home and former Olympic swimmer Sharron Davies MBE, came to the Claverton Down centre so we could get a series of photos of her in kennels with rescue dogs.

Jennie and I arrived ahead of schedule so we could work out the best angles and options for the photos. I also wanted to ensure we had a choice of larger and smaller dogs to work with, so I liaised with senior fundraiser at the home Zena Jones who checked which dogs would be suitable.

Sharron arrived promptly and after introductions, and a few moments discussing what I was after in terms of photos, we got on with the task in hand.

In true April style the weather was a mixture of sunshine and heavy showers and bitingly cold, so I had to work fairly fast to ensure Sharron didn’t leave with hyperthermia. Even so, within half an hour we’d generated a selection of upright and landscape-oriented photos, with and without dogs and with a choice of large and smaller dogs (which created a choice of tighter and looser compositions). Job done!

This week’s gallery includes one of the cutest photos I’ve taken in a long time as well as some of the cuttings showing how the photos got used in both local and national publications, helping to raise the profile of this great cause.

Anyone for Tea?

In February this year I received an enquiry from a completely new venture. So new, in fact, that it hadn’t actually launched yet, which is always interesting because it often means I have even more opportunity than usual to add some of my creative input into the project.

The client, Tea for Three marketing and communications, consists of three directors, Helen Rimmer, Debbie Clifford and Michelle Gordon-Coles, and together they make a very dynamic team with backgrounds in journalism, public relations, charities, corporate communications and education.

It also has to be said, I’ve rarely worked with a team so completely on the same wavelength as each other. It’s obvious their personalities just mesh perfectly and I think this will feed their undoubted future success.

I gleaned all this from the pre-shoot planning meeting I had with Helen and the few hours I spent taking photos with the trio.

We started in a beautiful stone-walled meeting room at Glove Factory Studios where, having arranged Debbie, Helen and Michelle around a table in such a way as to keep the composition tight, I just left them to chat, smile, laugh and drink tea while I captured a series of moments from different angles until there was a good selection of images to draw on.

They had also arranged a trip up the road to Merkin’s Farm cafe for more tea (clearly their fuel of choice) so I could take more individual shots as well as a couple of more posed groups with a less “officey” look, aka outside with some nice countryside in the background.

During both sessions I was keen to not only fulfil the brief, but also to look out for angles and details that would give them those extra shots which are so necessary on a website; you know, those photos nobody knows they need until it comes to actually building it and realising they don’t have quite enough!

The end result is a set of photos which really show the coherence of this vibrant team as well as their very relaxed, friendly (while still utterly professional) approach to marketing. And judging from the testimonial Helen sent through (shamelessly requested by myself), I think Tea for Three were either very happy with the results or had got slightly tipsy on Darjeeling.

We had a very specific brief for Tim to follow, we didn’t want to come across as too corporate or stuffy and wanted our photos for our website to show us as friendly and down to earth. We were a little bit nervous but Tim soon put us at ease. He was great fun to work with and very patient when we laughed too much!

“Tim has a great eye for detail and came up with lots of ideas we hadn’t thought of. We were really pleased with the end results and would definitely recommend Tim.”

Helen Rimmer, Tea for Three Ltd.

A Wee Bit of PR Goes A Long Way

At the start of last week I was asked by University of Bath to come into the Department of Chemical Engineering for a photoshoot with a difference. They needed pictures to accompany a press release for their research into urine-powered fuel cells (see what I did in the headline? So droll…) So, forget rechargeable batteries, these new cells take a trickle charge!

It’s not easy working in gown and goggles (a prerequisite of being in the lab) and there was some time pressure and not a huge amount of space to work in, it being a working lab, but by the end of the session I’d captured a range of shots suitable for different outlets.

What I perhaps hadn’t appreciated was just how far and wide the images would go. I knew they were being distributed by the university press office and Press Association, and they appeared on the BBC and Sky News websites, many newspaper sites (as well as in print) and on industry and tech-oriented websites.

So next time urine the need for some PR, why not give me a call? Sorry, I couldn’t resist.

Below is a selection of hits from around the web. Click to enlarge.

Case Study: PR Agency Website

Following on from my earlier post about the joy of seeing my corporate communications photography used well in a print publication, this week I’m highlighting another client using photos well, this time online.

Briscoe French is a public relations, copywriting and media relations company based on the South Coast of England, but with a client list which is rapidly expanding into international territories they needed to refresh their website.

With this in mind, they came to me to see what I could do to bring their imagery in line with their aim of attracting larger clients both in the UK and Europe. The beauty of this project for me was that the photos were going to be prominent and would set the tone of the site.

While director Kevin Briscoe normally expects a detailed brief from his clients before the agency starts work, he had to admit to me that rather than handing me a brief, he wanted to hear my ideas. As much as I like working to a tight brief, I also enjoy being involved in the creative process, so I knew this project was going to be fun.

Having spent some time getting an understanding of the areas of the business which needed to be illustrated, the obvious starting point was to get the team corporate portraiture and group photos done. Because I did this during a team meeting session I could also get started on all those useful detail shots and action pictures which help illustrate a business in a less formal way.

Once the portraits, team shots and detail photos were in place, it was time to think about what other images were required to illustrate BF’s areas of expertise and their aspirations. A trip to London gave us a wealth of locations with a business feel to them and I was able to explore ideas that would help convey the notion of Briscoe French being a get-up-and-go agency, always there for their clients.

One example is the portrait of Kevin taken on Millennium Bridge with St Paul’s Cathedral in the background, a shot which risked being a cliché.

I wanted to create an image which would make him stand out from the background and also give a sense of him being steady while everyone else swirls past (it’s also helpful if members of the public aren’t identifiable in a corporate website). For my own professional pride this needed to be achieved in-camera, not with Photoshop tricks.

After three photo sessions in three locations we had everything needed to illustrate all the services Briscoe French offer, and stock images designed to communicate their style of doing business – professional, approachable, friendly and always there for their clients.

The only main photos on the site I didn’t take are the traffic control one and the one taken from space (maybe next time I’ll get to go into orbit for a client).

Now the project is complete, Briscoe French has an online library of nearly 300 media-ready images which they can use on their website, in their blog, social media, press releases and client pitch documents.

To read what Kevin and many of my other clients have to say about me and my work, why not take a look at my Testimonials page?

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.

 

 

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?

Goodwill Hunting

I’m thinking it would be too easy to write yet another tale of woe about a small business getting caught with unauthorised images on their website, and if you read my blog regularly you won’t need me banging on about copyright yet again so I won’t. Of course if you want to know more about this, read The Guardian consumer column which will enlighten you further.

Instead I’m going to tell you a new and surprising fact; Photography is more crucial to the promotion of business than it has ever been.

That I’m saying this isn’t perhaps all that surprising. What IS surprising is that it’s been said by John Owens in PR Week. If you’re a photographer, you might be peeling your eyebrows off the ceiling after reading that. Yes, an organ of the public relations industry is extolling the virtues of photography in brand awareness. I utterly commend the article as essential reading to all PRs who either don’t know, or who might need a reminder of the importance of good quality, engaging imagery for their campaigns.

Richard Noble of Bloodhound SSC project on the phone

Behind the scenes, un-staged photos (such as this one of Richard Noble of the Bloodhound SSC project) are championed by the PR Week article.

The piece even concludes with an immensely useful check list written by Matthew fearn, picture editor of The Daily Telegraph, for PRs wishing to get exposure in national newspapers, but which is also a perfect outline of good practice for PRs sending images to trade and local press too.

There are one or two points in the article where I would advise caution, as you would expect me to (knowing what a cynic I can be), but I think they’re worth a little extra consideration.

The author sites a couple of examples where big name brands have engaged the goodwill of their customers to help with social media campaigns on Facebook and Twitter. In one case Lego asked customers to send in creative images of their models for use in what was a highly successful Facebook campaign. Lego’s head of social media Lars Silberbauer says, “At Lego, we are at a stage where we would rather build a stage around our customers’ content than a campaign using fixed assets.”

I say, “Yuhuh I bet you would.” Fixed assets are expensive and customer-supplied content is free. I’m not actually saying brands shouldn’t do this, but it must be done in good faith and brands need to be aware that crowdsourcing can backfire.

In the case of Lego, where customers knew exactly how their images would be used, the campaign was a success. In the case where Instagram wanted to grab rights from its users for unspecified use, the exercise blew up in their face. I wonder how many times a brand loved even as much as Lego could use this exercise. People are increasingly aware of the commercialisation of their non-commercial photos, and while I don’t condemn crowd participation per se, I would urge brands to ensure their use of freely-offered images is circumscribed and boundaries are clear.

You might conclude I’m worried about the public taking PR work away from me, but that isn’t such a concern. As long as the public aren’t being taken for fools and brands play fair, I’m comfortable with this. Any business doing PR properly will have a range of different avenues for exposure, including social media and low-end imagery alongside higher-end imagery, press PR and advertising. It shouldn’t be treated as a one-or-the-other equation.

PR is vital to any business of any size. It’s bad PR to use other people’s images without permission, it can be good PR to ask for pictures if the deal is fair, and a good photographer with real newspaper training and experience can help you get exposure at a fraction of the cost of advertising. So go hunt goodwill, just don’t shoot Bambi’s mother in the process.