Film isn’t dead, it’s just resting its eyes

Getting rambly and nostalgic in my middle (going-on-old) age…

Remember film? I do. I remember hand-processing black and white film in the Bath Chronicle dark room. I remember chemicals that stained my clothes and made them disintegrate. I remember the beautiful, shiny strips of cellulose hanging in the drying cabinet, fluttering ribbons of potential Pulitzer prize-winning images awaiting the lightbox, the loupe and the enlarger.

And now I’m getting all nostalgic again because for some strange reason I went from preparing to sell my last film camera (a Canon EOS 1N) on Ebay to buying black and white film and shooting some photos with it the other week.

This change of heart/mind came about partly because having seen some of the feeble prices the 1N commands on Ebay I knew I’d get more than 90 quids’ worth of fun from using it again.

I hadn’t used the camera since the year 2000 when I went digital, but it still works perfectly, and going back to film has re-informed how I shoot digital.

As an example, because I was shooting film that I didn’t want to waste I decided to be extra careful with the metering, so I used a hand-held light meter instead of relying on the built-in one. Seeing the consistency in exposure across the negatives, and thinking of all the times I’ve had to override the metering on my digital cameras, I think I’ll use a hand-held meter a lot more often when shooting digitally.

Now as tempting as it is to go back to processing my own films, and I do still have the tank, bag and reels for doing that, I don’t think I’m going to go that far. At least not yet.

For my first outing with film in 12 years I opted for Kodak BW400CN, which is black and white film you can process in a colour lab, which means that having shot my film I was able to drop it into Boots and have it processed and printed in an hour.

The next stage was to choose a couple of negatives and have them scanned by the lovely folk at click2scan who by amazing coincidence have just expanded into a premises in Frome. The photo here is my favourite from the roll of 36, which was mainly test shots for metering, contrast and the like.

Catering staff on cigarette break in Frome, Somersey

Smokers, Apple Alley, Frome

I’ve put another roll of the 400CN in the camera and might shoot colour after that. If I do, I’m sure I’ll keep you updated here.

In the meantime, why not dig out your old film camera and try some shots (instead of taking snaps on your iPhone and trying to make them look like old timey Polaroids, Kodachromes or sepia prints) But be prepared for something that took me by surprise; at first, every time I shot a frame, I’d find myself looking at the back of the camera where the digital preview would be. A slightly embarrassing tic I need to deal with.

Tips for Top Shots

Photography, like ventriloquism, has a slightly uneasy relationship with radio, but when I heard John Wilson was going to be interviewing Terry O’Neill (celebrity photographer), Don McCullin (war/conflict, now landscapes), Harry Benson (politics) and David Bailey (fashion) for Radio 4’s Front Row, I knew it was going to be a treat.

These four were chosen for their roles as a new wave of photographers who shot and helped shape the 1960s, although I found it slightly incongruous that they were being asked for their top tips on how more of us could get perfect “snaps.” And yet, this premise did illicit some interesting answers.

O’Neill, for example, apparently hates cameras, “I only have a little Leica and a Hasselblad,” he says. Is that ALL you have, Terry? I’ll dream on…

What was also interesting about O’Neill though is that he, like Don, never takes pictures at family events, and I have to sympathise there. Terry says it’s because when he takes a photo he wants the lighting and everything to be just right, and he’d hold everything up if he tried to take pictures at parties or on holiday.

Like Terry O’Neill, Don McCullin also rarely takes any kind of family photo. His wife complains that he never takes pictures of her. His reason (excuse?) is that since his cameras have been used to photograph conflict, his gear is somehow contaminated, and he just wants to shut it all away in its cupboard until he needs it again. Of course at 76 years of age Don isn’t shooting conflict any more, but look at his Somerset landscapes and you’ll see the work of a man who is clearly at conflict with himself. Of the four photographers interviewed, it would seem Don is the one most haunted by what he’s witnessed.

Harry Benson made his name, rather like Terry O’Neill, photographing the likes of The Beatles, but where Terry majored in celebrity portraiture, Harry developed his career in politics. Among his most famous photos being the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy in 1968, and he talks about the experience of getting the shots (if that’s not too cruel a juxtaposition) of the presidential candidate as he lay dying, or already dead, in the arms of his wife. Harry says, “I didn’t even bother going to the hospital. I knew it was over. Anyway I felt I’d done my work for the night.” That was an incredibly telling line.

If you were to ask people on the street to name a famous photographer, David Bailey’s name would probably crop up most often. Famous for his style of fashion photography, where he moved the whole genre away from the static studio to the street, his approach has always seemed less reverential, and in interviews where he compares his career to the likes of Don McCullin, you can sense the relief he didn’t go to conflict zones to make his name. Maybe this explains why in this interview he delves back into his school days to find conflict and discomfort. Doesn’t seem to have done him any harm…

In terms of ‘tricks from the professionals’, Bailey does impart useful knowledge. Something I’ve seen photographers fail to do, and I’ve failed to do once or twice myself, is engage with the person you’re photographing. Talk to them, find out what makes them tick. You’ll always get a better portrait that way.

From Terry O’Neill we learn to always fill the frame with what you want to say. That’s a lesson I learned from my first picture editor, who used to scream FILL THE F*****G FRAME! at me (only for my first two assignments, after which I learned).

I like Don’s advice, that if you’re likely to get killed taking a picture, you better make damn sure the exposure is correct. He would leap up, take an exposure reading, then set and frame the pictures before pressing the shutter button. All this under heavy fire.

Harry’s advice, to always stay at the centre of the story for as long as possible, is also good advice. Not to get distracted by peripheral things.

Finally, David Bailey’s advice, apart from remembering to talk to your subject, is to shoot against a plain backdrop and shoot black and white. As he says, “With colour you look at the colour before you look at the message. With black and white you go straight to the message.” Of course shooting black and white isn’t a luxury we have for every assignment, but that quote is a useful one for making the distinction between colour and monochrome photography.

Photographer Don McCullin

Don McCullin in typically down-beat mood during a presentation at the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television, circa 1991

Hear the full interview here, I highly recommend it.

Head Above the Parapet

I just want to say (smiles coyly to camera) what an honour it’s been (wipes tear from eye) to be (voice cracks) Freshly Pressed by (fans face with hands).

No, this article isn’t going to read like an Oscar acceptance speech, but of course I’m really pleased with all the attention my blog received as a result of being Freshly Pressed. I’d seen the Freshly Pressed feature of WordPress when I very first signed up and presumed it was just something that happened to other people’s blogs, never mine. So I was somewhat taken aback by the sudden spike in views and comments on my last post, and at first didn’t twig what had happened.

LEGO figure with huge camera

Since becoming a full-time LEGO photographer, I find the equipment heavier than ever.

And now I need to thank a lot of people for reading, liking, commenting and subscribing to my blog. However much emotion is removed from text on a screen, believe me I’m quite humbled by all the attention my blog has received by being “Pressed”. Thank you to everyone, and of course thank you to the human/and/or computer algorithm that chose my blog to be featured.*

The nature of the post that got featured was, perhaps even more so than previously for me, Ranty with a capital “R”. I’d seen a link to the article and accompanying photo about wild horses in Peterborough, the red mist descended and I was off. I probably wrote the “LEGO photo” article more quickly than any since my very first blog article.

But whenever I write about issues surrounding photography about which I feel strongly, I worry. Am I going too far? I know some of my clients also read my articles and I’m mindful of how I come across (just cross?) to them. By airing issues that are important to the future of professional photography, am I risking alienation from those who give me my living? I sincerely hope not. The clients who use me probably know me better than to confuse the professional photographer with the amateur blogger, and of course I know the difference between tackling issues that matter in a mature way, and ranting in a “life ain’t fair” sort of a way about how the World owes me a living.

It’s clear though that while I’m willing to stick my head above the parapet on issues I feel strongly about, other photographers stick firmly to the cuddly corporate line; their blogs being purely geared to Google rankings, crammed with keywords designed to get them up the search tables.

That isn’t to say I don’t use my blog to promote my work too. I sometimes publish case studies, which are my way of highlighting some of the work I do at the same time as giving those clients I feature a little added publicity, however modest.

Even with case studies I hope I give business owners and marketing managers ideas on how to use photography more effectively. Oh, and of course I need the added Google juice the blog brings. It’s the only way I can get my site listed higher than all the social photographers who pretend to do commercial photography, but who pay lots of money to get higher listings for work they don’t specialise in… but that’s another rant, which I’ve already had.

Perhaps it’s unfortunate that an article which is more strident than my norm should have got the “star” treatment, but I hope all my new subscribers (as well as my dedicated clients) will stick around because through these articles, in between flogging my wares and airing my views, I’ll still be writing about issues which have a great impact on the Profession and its future viability, because I don’t believe in pretending the issues don’t exist.

Gosh, I got a bit serious for a moment there. So I’m just going to say thank you again and please pass on my link to anyone else you think would value what I have to say, and I look forward to writing many more articles. From the ranty to the corporatey to the downright silly.

Thank you (runs off-stage, sobbing and clutching huge bouquet of flowers).

*Erica Johnson, Editorial Producer for assures me the featured blogs are chosen by human beings, not algorithms. Thank you Erica!

New Standards in Photojournalism

Which would you like first; the good news, or the bad?

I’ll give you the good news first. This article is shorter than usual. The bad is, it’s a bit of a rant.

I’d love to be sitting here writing about the amazingly high standards in photojournalism as a result of newspapers fighting to retain readership in the face of competition from the web.

Instead, I’m looking, open-mouthed, at the depressingly low standards to which local newspapers at least (nationals may follow suit) have sunk. In short, I’m looking at a photo which is of such a poor standard that it looks like it isn’t so much a photo, as a children’s mosaic made from the leftover bits of LEGO left over after all the fun stuff has been built.


screen grab from peterborough evening telegraph

Honestly, that's as good as the photo gets.

The picture is meant to show horses running wild on the streets of Peterborough (see original article here). It’s a reader’s snap, but as you can see from the quality of the photo, it could be panto horses on a dimly lit stage. It could be a tapestry. What it is, is a travesty.

Have picture editors become so enamored of new technology that they can’t see when a photo is utterly unusable? Or have newspapers done such a thorough job of destroying the old training and career structures that there is no one left to say “that’s crap, let’s get our own shot from the late-shift staffer/next available freelance”? Or have budgets been cut to the point that any smudge, no matter how poor, will do provided it’s free of any cost to the editorial department? Do newspaper editorial departments now have such contempt for their readers (and advertisers) that frankly, any old s**t will do so long as a thicker wedge can be driven between the ad revenue and editorial costs?


lego scene of horses

Perhaps LEGO representations of news events are the way ahead.

Normally I hate ranty blog articles, and while I do my share of moaning I tend to avoid the full-blown slagging off that is the stock-in-trade of other bloggers, but I have to say this isn’t the first time I’ve seen this level of citizen journalism foisted on local newspaper readers. There must be many more examples I never see, but The Portsmouth News also ran a pointlessly low-quality photo when a local landmark caught fire. Their only saving grace was that there was something to photograph the next morning.

I hope the Pereborough example is the worst we’ll ever see, but I won’t hold my breath.

If you’ve seen something as bad (or worse!) in your local paper, feel free to comment and leave a link. We could start a competition. Not so much “The worst photo in a paper” award, as “can you make out what this is meant to be?” kind of competition.

UPDATE: There is now a camera which is perfectly designed for exactly this kind of scenario: Remember though, it’s not a toy!

Need a press photographer?

children carrying yellow pages

Names (left to right) and reason for the photo are essential IPTC information.

Don’t go looking through the plumbers section of the Yellow Pages then.

Well, that’s an easy lesson to remember, but where it gets trickier is when you search for a press photographer and you come across dozens of on-line listings for photographers who claim to do press work, but have no experience or training in the field whatsoever.

Some will be primarily wedding photographers, others will be studio and portrait photographers, but the question to ask is, “do they have a press background?” This is easily checked because they should be able to tell you where they trained and which paper or agency trained them.

You might just want a photographer to cover an event for you for PR or to set up some one-off PR images, but unless the photographer actually knows what local, regional, national or even trade press want, you could be wasting your time and money.

It isn’t just about style either. Many wedding photographers talk of offering “reportage style” photography in their wedding packages, but that’s not the same as newspaper or reportage coverage of an event destined for a journalist’s in-box.

One common error amongst the un-trained photographers doing press work is to forget to take suitable captions to go with the photo, so the desk won’t know who is in the photo, which names belong to which faces, where the event happened, why it happened… everything the desk needs to be able to use the photo.

Non-press photographers aren’t au fait with things like technical requirements either. File size is a big bugbear of many journalists as they’re either sent files which are far too small to be publishable, or the files are so huge they crash the paper’s entire email system. Not a good way to win positive press coverage.

Sometimes using someone not familiar with press best practices or even trained in relevant areas of law (as all trained photo-journalists are) can be downright foolhardy. Sometimes photographers need to know the law in order to be able to stand their ground and get the job done in the face of a belligerent jobsworth, and other times they need to know what the limits of legality are in order to avoid committing an offence. You don’t want your PR job to miss deadline because the photographer has stepped out of line and ended up in the back of a police van. You equally don’t want your published PR photo to land you in trouble over some inadvertent defamation. This too could backfire into very negative PR.

It’s a simple message this week. Press photography is a distinct and separate discipline, and not best carried out by just anyone with a camera. You’re spending money on PR, so spend it wisely and get great results, safely.

When is photo manipulation too much?

I’ll start by apologizing that this subject is so dry, it makes a very dry thing look wetter than a very wet thing. I never was much good at similes. Which brings me not very smoothly to the follow up article on post production (see here) with a few words on photo manipulation.

The question is, when it comes to images shot for your business, when does post production become photo manipulation? At what point does it become unacceptable?

To make better sense of this, I had better define the terms “photo manipulation” and “post production”.

Post production is generally accepted as the process of making an image taken straight from the camera suitable for reproduction in whatever medium it is destined for, as outlined in that previous article.

Carried out within acceptable boundaries, post production won’t change the meaning or intention of the original photo. It’s much the same as the good old days when you had a photo negative printed at the local lab. They would make sure your negative was clean, and they would also make adjustments for exposure, colour cast etc.

It goes without saying, though I’ll say it anyway, that image manipulation in any news, sport or feature photo is unacceptable. For businesses issuing press releases, the simple rule is don’t manipulate. You can damage your reputation and attract negative press and blog comment (remember this?), which will never go away and will take a long time to repair.

photo of Mells Iron Works at night

Made up of 8 image layers, this was a personal project not destined for commercial or press use.

Photo manipulation would cover things like adding to, or removing elements from an image, distorting people to make them look slimmer, taking an ugly sign or street furniture out of a background, adding a logo which wasn’t in the original.

A clear example of over-manipulation would be if I changed a self portrait to make it look as though I had humanoid ears. That would just be ridiculous, and those who know me would never stop laughing.

As wonderful as digital is, and for all Photoshop can do, it’s still extremely important to get the shot right in the camera. Not take any old snap, and hope for a technical fix later.

I do think the rules can shift a little when it comes to a corporate photo for a web site, but I still advise caution. For example, I will happily remove pimples or other non-permanent blemishes, but permanent ones stay. The person in the photo needs to be recognisable.

Dropping people or objects into a commercial image, or removing them from a scene, could cause problems of misrepresentation. If done sensitively and with appropriate captioning, it may not cause a major problem, though it’s important to take context into account, and that’s too much to cover here.

Maybe the best way to avoid disasters is to ask yourself the question: Is this a dishonest representation? What would my mother think? That last question alone should put you on the straight and narrow.

Article and photo © Tim Gander. All rights reserved. The articles in this blog may only be reproduced for non-commercial purposes.