Lens Love

It may surprise you to know this, but I have little time to get sentimental about camera equipment. I do enjoy working with my old film cameras, but my digital gear is just tools for the job.

The exception to this is one lens which I’ve been using a lot lately. It’s one of those little gems that just seems to quietly help you get the job done.

The Joy of 40mm

I’ve long favoured fixed 40mm lenses. I discovered the joys of a 40mm lens when I bought Canon’s dinky 40mm f/2.8 STM lens, which I use on my Canon film bodies. This prompted me to buy a Voigtländer 40mm f/2 lens for my 1973 Nikon F2. However for my new digital gear I only had zooms.

That is until I picked up the Sigma 45mm f/2.8 Contemporary lens. Yes, 45mm is close enough to 40mm for me.

Reading forums, this lens divides opinions. Some write it off for being too “slow” (as in, the maximum aperture isn’t nearer f/1.4). It’s claimed not to be sharp, but my God is this lens ever sharp! It is light, quick to use, engaging and I just love the results it can deliver.

I’ve used it on quite a few jobs recently, and almost exclusively on the recent Covid vaccination jobs I’ve shot for NHS BANES, Swindon and Wiltshire CCG. Its unobtrusive size, speed of use and quality were perfect for the fly-on-the-wall images I needed.

Practice Practice Practice

Between commissions I’ve been trying this lens out extensively. As I’m sure I’ve said many times before, using a commission to get familiar with kit is not a great idea. It’s best done in down time, not at a client’s expense.

So this morning I spent more time with the Sigma lens working on some tests shots with a new flash unit, another piece of kit recently acquired as I transform my equipment line-up to better serve my clients’ needs.

One of my favourite test subjects at home is our dining table, which we bought via Facebook from an artist. We were going to strip and re-varnish it, but decided we love the paint splashes and gouges so much we’ve left it as-is. It makes a great backdrop to still life images, which are perfect for controlled equipment tests.

This image might become part of my Home Front series, which I started during the first lockdown of 2020. At the very least it was a good exercise in testing this new lens/flash combination, but the more I worked on the picture, the more I liked what it said as a photo, above and beyond mere test subject.

A Busy Quiet Day

Some days look quiet on the diary, but in practice are anything but restful.

Take yesterday as an example; I had no commissioned work on, so I decided to make a trip to Salisbury Plain to work on my much-postponed project.

That required a 5am alarm call (I had forgotten what a punch in the face that feels like!) This was my first trip to the Plain in many weeks, and the plan was to retry a shot I’d done before, but wasn’t entirely satisfied with.

Unfortunately, after such an early start and a three-mile walk (no, it’s not a great hike, but with medium format camera, lenses and tripod it feels a bit longer), the weather decided to be too dull to make the picture I was after.

Ok, so the six-mile round walk wasn’t a killer, but the early start was giving me a bit of a kicking. Time to head home.

On the way back I swung by my local picture framer to pick up a couple of pieces of non-reflecting glass. This is part of my master plan to keep improving how I digitise my negatives, squeezing every last drop of quality I can from the process. I didn’t stay long, he was busy with framing work for London galleries.

Back home, I tried a bit of admin, but by now my brain was aching for a little sleep, so I took a power nap (ok, 90 mins) to recover before lunch.

Then it was back on the admin, handling client enquiries, a bit of social media work and planning next week.

I did manage a bit of R&R in the evening, but then the lure of photography drew me back again. I’d recently updated some flash equipment, so had a bit of an experimental session with that. Focusing on areas around the home, I looked at how I could use the new gear to create different effects. Call it play, call it fooling around if you will, but a photographer who only works with their new gear once they’re commissioned to use it is a fool.

By the time I’d quit trying things out, it was 10:30pm and I was finally ready to stop, but not until I’d transferred my test flash images to my computer and had a look through the results. So ok, it was nearer 11pm when I finally shut the laptop.

I sometimes beat myself up that I’m not dedicated enough to what I do, but then when I sit back and look at it properly, I don’t think I’m any kind of slouch; I just need to remind myself that even a day which doesn’t produce solid results isn’t a day wasted, it’s a day invested in something yet to happen.

Being a Bit Flash

This blog isn’t a “tricks of the trade” kind of a deal, but sometimes there’s no harm in demonstrating that I work in a particular way not because I want to show off what I can do, but because the client ends up with appealing images and the “look” they’re after. I’ll keep the technical stuff to a minimum, but hopefully you’ll get the point just by looking at the differences between the top and bottom photos.

University of Bath student Noel Kwan poses for a prospectus shoot on the Claverton Down campus.

This is the frame I submitted to the client. Flash was used to fill in the shadows on Noel’s face

You may recall this image from my round-up of 2014, a prospectus brochure shot for University of Bath. It’s taken outdoors, but with flash used carefully to brighten Noel’s face. It’s got a slightly surreal look to it because it does look a bit like a studio-lit portrait, and I wouldn’t always use this look for outside portraits, but it does make the shot quite eye-catching.

This technique helps to isolate the model from the background, but leaves the background clear enough to add some context.

The photo below shows how this image looks when flash hasn’t fired (I probably clicked the shutter before the flash was ready). I’ve done some processing to make it a more acceptable shot, and it’s not a “bad” photo, just not the finish I was hoping to achieve.

University of Bath student Noel Kwan poses for a prospectus shoot on the Claverton Down campus.

In this frame the flash didn’t fire, and the difference is obvious

One problem with it is that without flash it’s harder to keep the highlights in the background from going completely white and losing all detail as I bring up the exposure for Noel’s face. The lighter background also has the effect of pulling attention away from Noel.

The other thing you’ll notice is the catch-light in Noel’s eyes, lacking in this version, which adds another bit of sparkle to the final image.

Of course you might prefer the image where flash didn’t fire, but remember this was shot to the requirements of the client. My job is to create what they want and often this means matching the style to that used by their in-house photographer. Personally I like the extra layer of polish which the appropriate use of flash gives, and other clients seem to like it too, so you might spot it as you look around my website.

Go on, have a look, see if you can detect where else I’ve used this technique.

 

A Lawson Unto Himself

Two things I enjoyed on this assignment; a challenge and a good debate.

This commission took me to University of Bath where the Institute for Sustainable Energy and the Environment (I-SEE) hosted a talk on climate change by Nigel Lawson. Lord Lawson being a bit of a climate change sceptic (just a tad), I was looking forward to not only taking the pictures needed by I-SEE, but also hearing his point of view on the subject.

Lord Nigel Lawson delivers his views on climate change at University of Bath

Shooting through the audience brings a sense of the speaker/listener interaction

The problem with photographing a talk of this kind is that mentally I can only dip in and out because I’m concentrating fairly hard on getting the exposure, focus and composition right, and this particular venue (a dimly-lit, tightly packed lecture theatre) was quite a challenging space to work in.

But while I couldn’t quite concentrate on everything Lord Lawson said, I did catch the gist of his argument and I definitely detected the mood of some of the audience members who clearly didn’t agree with his views.

Of course I wasn’t there as a member of the audience, but whenever I cover something like this I do need to be aware of what’s being said and what the mood and reactions from the audience are. Likewise I had to ensure my technical set-up would allow me to get photos of Lord Lawson speaking as well as reactions and questions from the audience. Not an easy task when you really only have room for one flash on a stand, but with a bit of jiggery-pokery I think I pulled it off with reasonable success.

A man in the audience asks Lord Lawson a question

A packed auditorium means a busy picture, just trickier lighting

While the resulting images might not win any prizes or plaudits, I always work hard to make sure that even under difficult lighting and in tight spaces my images don’t suffer the ghastly effects of direct flash or extreme digital noise caused by high ISO settings, either of which would detract from the subject matter and would have made the photos less usable.

As for climate change, that’s really a debate for another place.

 

Flash of Inspiration

It’s not often you’ll see me writing about kit because the main intention of this blog is to give an inside peek at my work, air issues surrounding the photographic industry and waffle on a bit about things which interest me. One thing this blog isn’t obsessed with is kit because I’m not obsessed with it.

If I invest in equipment it has to be for a particular, business-related reason. I choose kit carefully and with a sensible head because there is so much lovely gear out there I could squander my cash on with no real benefit either to my clients or myself.

Once in a while though I review what I have, and kit does eventually wear out naturally so I need to see what might need replacing or updating. I have no problem with using old kit provided it works and isn’t letting me down on assignments. Sometimes investment is required for a particular project and that’s another time I look to see if buying the kit will have benefits beyond the single project, or whether I can rent the kit I need without committing to buy.

A few months ago I was commissioned to shoot a couple of hundred portraits at various locations, and while I have portable studio lighting it is quite heavy and unwieldy to transport. At the same time I knew my Canon flashes were coming to the end of their natural lives, being several years old and a few models older than the current ones. I took the plunge and decided it was time to invest in new flashguns and, due to changes in the technology, adjust the way I worked.

What I hadn’t appreciated is just how much the investment would help when dealing with often very awkward situations. Such as having to shoot business portraits in a tiny hotel lounge, crowded with furniture and with limited scope for backdrops. Or helping me create more interesting light when covering a business studies workshop event where I was moving about a lot, in poor ambient light and didn’t want to use direct flash.

One reacent situation in which the new flash kit impressed a great deal was where I was in a very dark lecture theatre at a business seminar with not a lot of space to set up any kind of lighting and had to shoot both the lectern speakers and the audience. I had a single flash on a stand at the back of the auditorium to light the speakers, but it was also enough to bounce light off the projector screen and illuminate the audience (albeit with higher ISO). Taking photos of the audience at a talk where the house lights are turned right down generally results in images which are either grainy, weird colour balance or are downright unusable. I’ve included one here so you can see what my new setup got, and this is just one of several images I was pleased with.

 

Business people laughing in a lecture theatre setting

The flash is behind the audience, but the projector screen made a great reflector to light the faces.

business students working on a project

Catching unposed images can be difficult, and straight-on flash kills the atmosphere. I liked the “random light” look of this with the flash off to the side.

Portrait of a business man.

Adding softboxes to a flashgun setup allows me to work in much tighter spaces than before.

 

 

When ‘specialist’ isn’t special.

“I specialize in natural light photography” is a statement you’ll see on some photographers’ websites, but what does it mean? What is ‘natural light’ and does it make these photographers special?

Let’s get any pretense out of the way first; I’m rarely convinced by such statements. To me the subtext of what they’re saying is, “I don’t know how to use flash, flash scares me so I’ll pretend I don’t need it. I’ll just say I’m a specialist at not using it.”

In essence natural light is any light which isn’t man-made. Sun and moonlight is about it, but looking at some of the ‘natural light’ photographers, they’ll happily pull electric light into their lighting armoury, regardless of the strange colour casts you’ll get on people’s faces under this lighting.

Sometimes the photographer will fix this by turning their pictures to black and white. Which is fine if the client wants black and white. Not so clever if the images are for a colour project.

There are very few photographers around who can genuinely limit themselves to only taking pictures using natural light and nothing else. William Eggleston springs to mind, but I’m not sure you can hire him for your wedding or commercial shoot.

Brian Harris is a working English photojournalist who very rarely uses flash, but can get away with it because of his talent combined with the kinds of commissions he takes on.

Location studio lit portrait of student

Photo taken in a lecture theatre, where light was so low the only option was a portable studio light

As for myself, I often have to work in difficult lighting conditions but make the pictures have a particular style and look. This might mean daylight is sufficient, but often means I have to supplement the daylight (or even replace it entirely) with portable, battery-powered studio flash.

This may not be as simple as pointing and shooting using whatever light there is, but for me the results are worth the extra effort.

If you’re looking at hiring a corporate photographer who “only uses natural light” or “never uses flash”, chances are they just don’t know how to use flash. This isn’t a skill or specialism, it just means they haven’t learned the basic requirements to do the job. It’s always best to check their website first, look out for a dominance of black and white, or strange and inconsistent skin tones. For your projects it’s often important to get a consistent style across all your imagery, and that’s where portable studio flash can help. Oh, and someone who knows how to use it!