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.

Film to Film

One week I’m banging on about the joys of shooting old-school (skool) film, this week I’m talking about this frightfully modern video fandango.

In November 2020 I blogged about my video progress and things have, well, progressed! I now have a couple of small projects under my belt, one delivered and one still ongoing, and more in the pipeline. It’s been a massive learning curve, but I’m enjoying the challenge and the new creative direction.

The Backstory

For many years I held off getting into video because I had no personal need for it and enquiries from clients asking if I did it numbered single digits per year.

Then towards the end of 2019 enquiries seemed to grow. Mostly from clients who were already working with me for their stills as they wanted to add video to their marketing toolkit.

Lockdown

And then 2020 happened, and we all know what that meant. So during the first lockdown I investigated, cogitated and decided to learn the basics and see where it took me.

Of course as a stills photographer I already had many of the basics, but video is obviously a lot more than just pictures which move, and I’m not just talking about the addition of sound here either.

A New Energy

I’m glad I got the ball rolling because as we’ve emerged from the latest lockdown, client work has really sprung back to life and it’s including a lot of video.

While I’m keeping it fairly simple at this stage (sit-down interviews, testimonials and informational clips), as my abilities and capabilities grow I’ll be able to cover a wider variety of briefs.

In the meantime I’m cramming to learn editing as I know that will make me a better camera operator, just as learning to picture edit made me a better photographer when I was starting out in stills.

As ever, keep watching this space for further updates on this new direction and if you’re a business looking to step up from iPad videos to something more polished, drop me a line and let’s talk.

Staying Sharp

If you think staying sharp is kind of essential for a photographer, you’re right. And not just in the sense of getting pictures in focus, though that’s important too.

Staying sharp is what all professionals must do, regardless of their field. However with a year-long (on and off) lockdown drawing to a close, I’d come to realise I wasn’t as sharp as I needed to be.

First glimmers of work

Back in March I was aware that client enquiries were just starting to pick up again. Hooray! Except that against all my best efforts, I’d really not been shooting as much as I needed in order to keep my skills honed. So I got in touch with my son-in-law (honorary title, but it’s how I consider him) to ask if I could come over and make some pictures of him at work. He’s a car mechanic – a very good car mechanic – and I needed a subject that would give me a challenge – poor/changeable lighting, moving subject, having to be aware of my surroundings.

Film, of course!

Jake very kindly agreed, so I ended up shooting a couple of sessions on different days at his lockup just outside Frome. Oh and just to give myself an additional challenge, I shot a mixture of 35mm and medium format film. Ok, so I did that for the fun factor too, but also I knew it would really suit the aesthetics of Jake’s work place, with all the grime and textures inevitable in a working mechanic’s workshop.

The images here are a small selection of those I ended up posting to Instagram (@takeagander) so you can check out more of them there.

By the way, picking up on the motoring metaphor, work in the last few weeks has gone from 0 – 60 in record time. I’m glad I took the opportunity to re-sharpen my skills, but I miss the relative tranquility of pleasing myself with nothing more than a couple of cameras and a bag load of film.

 

Continuing Landscapes

Photographically speaking, this latest lockdown has been pretty tough. Commissions and personal projects alike have taken a hit, but there are glimmers of hope on both fronts. This post is about the personal work.

An Alternative Plan.

As a result of the travel ban I’ve been unable to continue with the Salisbury Plain project, but that hasn’t stopped me making new work.

It’s definitely slowed me down because I’m having to learn a new landscape; the one nearer to home.

I could have chosen to ignore landscapes for now, but it’s an area I need to keep working on and improving so I don’t get rusty. When I do return to Salisbury Plain, I need to make sure I’m on my game.

Closer To Home.

I’m describing Closer To Home as an interim project. I nearly called it Treading Water, because that’s what it feels like. I’m treading water while I wait for lockdown to lift, and I’m often literally treading water as I hike through rain-soaked fields. But Closer to Home describes my (temporary) withdrawal from the Salisbury Plain project to concentrate on more local landscapes.

What I really wanted to find out was whether I could transfer the Salisbury Plain approach to another landscape. To an extent I can, but there’s a definite shift in tone when there’s no military layer to the project. Because the local landscape is quieter, I need to reflect this.

My Response.

What both types of landscape have in common is something I’ve always felt about the English countryside, that it isn’t as benign as we’d like to think it is.

Our countryside is industrialised, it is someone else’s business. It’s also constantly under threat from poor management, fly-tippers and development, which makes its existence more precarious and precious.

Whether I can express these themes through my images is down to me to keep working at them, which is why I haven’t let lockdown stop me.

So far I haven’t offered these images as fine art prints, but drop me a line if you’re interested. You can see many more on my Instagram account.

Take a Butchers At This

After all these years, I still get a buzz from sniffing out a good little story.

This one came out of a chance conversation with my local butcher, Nigel.

A few days before Valentine’s Day I’d popped along to pick up some eggs, ham… the usual, when Nigel asked if I’d be willing and able to help with something. Being the top bloke Nigel is, of course I said yes.

A year previously, Nigel’s premises had been destroyed by fire when an arsonist set light to a car parked outside the shop front. He wanted to know if there was some way of getting the remains of the shop clock framed for posterity.

 

The Dalí-esque clock.

He showed me the half-melted clock (which had stopped when the fireball ripped through the shop) and said although he felt it was a silly thing to keep, it was a reminder of the tough year he’d had – this of course in addition to the pandemic.

The best I could do was to recommend contacting local framers to see if someone could make a box frame for it. But before I left, I had an idea.

I asked if I could pop back later and take a photo of him with the clock to mark the anniversary of the fire. And though I could sense his surprise at the idea, he agreed.

And so on the Friday before Valentine’s Day I returned when the shop was quieter and Nigel posed outside for me.

Happy Valentine’s!

That Sunday, which was Valentines Day and the actual anniversary of the fire, I posted the photo with some copy to the Frome Facebook page.

I know there’s a lot of affection in the town for Nigel and his business, but I didn’t expect the reaction my post got. Hundreds of Likes and not a single negative comment.

As a result, Nigel was contacted by customers who hadn’t realised he’d re-opened and someone got in touch to ask if he could make a box frame for the clock, so there were some real-world results to this exercise.

The PR takeaway.

What this also demonstrates is that there are very accessible PR opportunities out there, and with an intelligently crafted photo and copy, the reach can be surprising, the results heartwarming.

It’s well known that well-taken photos and well-written words will reach far more people than an advert (or badly executed photo and copy), and will be far cheaper than equivalent advertising to reach the same audience.

The trick is, knowing when you have a good little story.

I make PR pictures for clients who want to get their message noticed. Drop me a line to discuss your next PR or branding project.

Video Progress

Actually I made this film several weeks ago now, but I’ve had so much else on that I haven’t had a chance to talk about it until now.

Frome-based IT solutions company Netitude, in particular MD Adam Harling, were very generous in giving me time to come in and make a short film about their experience through (the first) lockdown.

The result (which you can see here) is a huge step up from where I was when I first tried the video function of my DSLR. I’m far more confident now that I can make and edit short interview films and I’ve done more video since which I hope to share in due course.

What I’m aiming to offer clients is affordable access to simple video production, but at a quality they cannot achieve by sticking an iPhone on a stand. I also believe my photographer’s experience and skills bring an added level of style and quality to the work.

For the time being I’m pegging my video rates to my stills rates, with post-production being the only additional cost. This makes professional video far more accessible to a much wider range of clients.

If you have a video project in mind, drop me a line and we can discuss it in more depth.

Because History Matters

Last Sunday there was a Black Lives Matter rally in my home town and I felt a strange compulsion to cover it as a photographer. Strange because I normally shy away from large gatherings for personal work.

However I support the aims of the BLM cause, and I also felt that since this movement had resonated all the way to the relatively small, rural town of Frome in Somerset, the local story should be told too.

Because no one was paying me to go I decided I would shoot black and white film. There was another motivation for this – given that in 100 years’ time it’s possible that digital images of today will be inaccessible, perhaps shooting on film would present an insurance against digital degradation. Future generations would be able to see us, in protest, working to change the future.

I approached the rally as if I had been commissioned by my local paper, creating a mini series of images suitable for a double page spread. That would give me a structure to work to beyond just taking a random set of pictures, so I prepared my kit, loaded film and set off.

At first I didn’t think many people would be there. The weather was cold and wet, social distancing is still in place, and I hadn’t seen much publicity for the event. However as the start time approached, people arrived in reassuringly high numbers.

There was one particular shot I knew I needed to get to justify my un-commissioned intrusion and it’s the photo I had in mind from the moment I decided to attend. It’s the final shot in this gallery and I was the only photographer with the foresight to capture it.

After the event I decided to turn the pictures around as fast as I could and I posted that last frame to the Frome Facebook page. To say the reaction was intense is an understatement. I don’t think I’ve ever had an image be so widely liked and shared online ever.

Perhaps it is a shame I wasn’t commissioned to go, but I’m glad I did because if such big stories are left to random photos on individuals’ iPhones, there is a risk no permanent record will exist for future historians and generations to refer back to.

In fact I bought this week’s local paper to see how they covered the story.

They didn’t.

Catch it while you can!

Of course I’m not talking about coronavirus here, which I wouldn’t wish on anyone. What I’m referring to is my interview on BBC Somerset, which is only available until some time on the 15th March, so the link I’m posting below won’t work after that date.

The interview by BBC Somerset Radio’s evening presenter Charlie Taylor came about as a result of the launch of my outdoor exhibition in Frome which features 13 images from What Happened Here, my long-term art/photo-documentary project on the Saxonvale site.

I went along to talk about my work, the origins of What Happened Here and about how Mendip District Council came to sponsor the public exhibition of the work.

You can listen via this link and I kick in about 15 minutes from the show’s start.

So yes, enjoy it while you can and feel free to drop any comments or contact me with any questions.

Say CHEESE!

Finding a photographer is as easy as finding cheddar cheese in Cheddar, and in case you were unaware; Cheddar is an actual place and it’s where cheddar cheese originally came from before everyone from the Irish to the Azerbaijanis decided to make “cheddar cheese” themselves and flood the market with their filth. Even so, there is an awful lot of cheddar in Cheddar and it’s easy to find, trust me.

Sorry, I digress. It’s just that living in Somerset, about 30 minutes from Cheddar, I’m a little fussy about where my cheddar comes from. Although, at the risk of prolonging this needless digression further, there’s an excellent Somerset brie which I highly recommend. Apologies to Brieland.

Right, back to my point… which was? Oh yes, photographers are easy to find (yes, I said that already, get on with it Tim!) But actually, like cheddar, not all photographers are the same. Just like Canadian cheddar, there’s a lot of rubbish out there (sorry Canadaland, but your cheddar is pants*). And even amongst the really excellent cheddars, not every cheddar will suit your pallet, just as not every excellent photographer will suit your requirements.

Some cheddars are creamy, smooth and mild. Others are crumbly, borderline gritty with a bite that gives you that weird stinging sensation at the back of your jaw. I actually love a strong cheddar, but it’s not to everyone’s taste and it doesn’t suit all occasions.

So what I’m saying is, yes it’s easy to find a photographer, but make sure they shoot what you need in the style you need it. There is rarely any merit in hiring a wedding photographer to shoot your corporate website (I accept a few exceptions to this rule, but only very few). Likewise, I really don’t ‘do’ food. For that you need a food photographer, who will have all the tools, both mentally and in terms of equipment, to make your dishes look mouthwatering. Hire me to photograph your food and I’ll probably just eat it. It’s also well known I don’t do weddings. Why would I when there are some superb wedding specialists out there?

When hunting out the best photographer for your job, you’ll probably start with a search using the terms for the kind of photographer you’re after, eg: business, portrait, photographer, Bristol, or whatever. This will return MANY sites to consider and you’ll probably want to start by quickly dismissing the part-time photographers, the wedding photographers and the “I have a camera and will literally point it at anything you want me to” photographers.

This is no easy task, but usually a few moments spent looking through their online portfolios will tell you whether or not they do what you need AND are competent at it. Also if a portfolio is a scattergun of different genres, subjects and styles, you might want to move on as this can suggest either that the photographer is not consistent in their field, or that they’ve been stealing other peoples’ photos to build their own portfolio. Perhaps shocking in the age of the internet, but yes this does happen.

It’s taken me years to find the right cheddar for my tastes. I like Wyke Farm Extra Mature for everyday eating and for recipes, while I’ve yet to find a cheddar which quite matches the joy of Westcombe Dairy’s prize-winning offering. So having found my favourites, I stick with them. The same can go for your photographer if it’s a case of shooting the same subject or genre of photography and the photographer shoots to the style and quality which matches your standards.

Just as you can constantly chop, change and shop around for your cheddar cheese, you can constantly chop and change your choice of photographer. However, if your corporate communications end up looking like a ragtag of styles and qualities, well that’s just hard cheese.

*I’m using the UK definition of ‘pants’ as in ‘underwear’. Yes, Canada, I’m sorry, but your cheddar tastes like grey y-fronts. I love Canadians though, and they make the best maple syrup.