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.

IT’S BACK!

After all the grief and uncertainty of the past 15 months, it was a genuine pleasure to be back photographing the SOE Skills Challenge at S&B Automotive Academy in Bristol last week.

There were all manner of Covid securities in place, including testing of all participants and support colleagues (myself included), mask-wearing, cleaning and social distancing.

My Role

Regular readers will have seen me write about this before, but of course last year’s event was cancelled. This year was my 6th Skills Challenge and while it’s become familiar photographic territory for me, each year I try to bring something new to the coverage.

One of my tasks during testing week is to supply “rush” images for the PR team to use for social media posts and updates during the event. I’ll usually choose a selection of the morning’s images and supply these ready-formatted for easy upload to Twitter, Facebook and so on.

Bringing Something New

This year, in addition to those rushes, I decided to deploy my 360 camera so people could get a better sense of the environment and context of the event even while it was happening.

As a result of the interactive 360 panoramas, SOE’s Facebook posts achieved far greater engagement than had been seen previously. For Twitter, the regular still images were perfect (Twitter can’t display 360s properly unless there’s something I’ve missed!)

I don’t have access to SOE’s social media statistics, but my contact was astonished to see how much more widely the posts were liked, shared and commented on compared with previous years. Much of this will have been down to the more immersive 360 images like this one:

As I say, I also supplied regular stills to support the social media posts and of course I’ve since edited and supplied the high-resolution files for SOE’s web and print publications. The images will also be used at the awards ceremony in September, which I’m looking forward to covering too.

Shining A Light on Vital Workers

What I love about this event is how it brings a focus to skilled technicians whose work is vital, yet rarely seen or acknowledged. Next time you’re on a bus or coach, or see one going about its duties on Britain’s roads, you know it’s there and working because of the skills and dedication of engineers, many of whom work unsociable hours to keep our public transport running smoothly.

Next Year?

So now I have a little under 12 months to think about what I will bring next year to keep my coverage fresh and evolving. It might be a change of approach or technique, but I already have a couple of ideas. I guess you’ll just have to watch this space to find out!

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.

PR Photography in Lockdown

In my recent article Measured Success I described how a couple of simple items, a tape measure and chalk, allowed me to work a public relations photoshoot and still keep everyone safe.

This week I thought I’d share a bit more about that job with you.

The client was Seko Logistics, who had undertaken to deliver free personal protective equipment (PPE), supplied by Alexandra Workwear, to all 69 care homes in The Order of St John Care Trust group, starting with their home in Thornbury, Bristol.

Now this was never going to make the tight group shot I would normally aim to produce, but given the circumstances I felt the distancing between the people in the photo would not only keep everyone safe, but would also help make the picture visually interesting.

The light was difficult (when isn’t it?), so I had to put up a couple of high powered studio flash units. Without them the people’s faces would have been silhouetted and I also wanted to pick out some detail of the building too. The only giveaway is the shadow of the care nurse which runs contra to the shadows cast by the sun behind the people and building.

That’s ok though. I’d rather ensure the people were sufficiently lit than have to spend ages trying to wrestle with the exposure levels in post production, which would never have looked as good or had the crisp, colourful impact this image has.

The result is a photo which the client has been able to use not only in their own social media feeds, but which has gone around their various industry publications too. I’m always pleased to see my pictures working hard for a client and I know the client is also pleased with how everything went and the result at the end.

So while organisations will be struggling to balance many conflicting requirements right now, it’s wise to keep an eye out for any stories which your business could put out as a press release. With professional care and execution, it’s still possible to get good PR coverage and raise your business profile with something positive.

Could the fair be more fun?

Every few years I’ll give in to temptation and pay a visit to the biannual Frome Wessex Camera Club camera fair held at the Cheese and Grain in Frome (you know, that place the Foo Fighters did a surprise gig in once; you must know where I mean).

I’m not a natural fan of camera fairs; I think I got over the thrill of standing in a room full of expensive gear I couldn’t afford as a shop assistant some time around 1989.

However the evening before the fair was on, a friend called and asked if I fancied meeting him there. The peculiar thing was, up to the point of that phone call I was oblivious the event was on.

At first I was reticent, but he’d only recently asked if I wanted to meet at another camera fair and I’d turned him down for that one. To avoid looking like a curmudgeonly hermit, I sad yes this time.

I think the last time I’d been to the FWCC fair was 2017, and 2013 before that, so I knew this was a risky place for me and my wallet to be.

So rather than having gear acquisition as my primary plan, I decided to use it as an excuse not only to see my friend, but also to test out and shoot some Ilford Delta 400 film rated at 1600. I’d shot some during my recent trip to Bologna, rated at 400, but I wanted to find the parameters of what this film can do and the flat, poor lighting in the Cheese and Grain is the perfect scenario for this. I thought I might get some interesting photos too.

Well the exercise was a useful one, even if the resulting images aren’t exactly dynamite. At least I know now this is a brilliantly versatile film, but for some reason I couldn’t ‘get my eye in’ so the photos are what they are. I’m posting them here to shame myself into doing better next time.

Of course you can go in with a wedge of cash and blow the lot on some very lovely gear – my friend did exactly that. In fact he picked up some genuine, if pricey, bargains alongside some very cheap non-pricey bargains, and the fair usually has something for any budget.

Even I picked up a fun little camera, thanks to my friend having loads of cash on him and me paying him back after. I know, I cheated.

My bargain was a red Konica C35 EF3 for £15, flash not working. It turned out that when the seller said the flash didn’t work, what he meant was that you could switch the flash on IF you wanted the camera to get fantastically hot/ you wanted the smell of burning electronics up your nose.

No problem though, I can use the camera without flash and it’ll allow me to play more in my ‘down time’. Or on a really cold day I can turn the flash on and warm my hands by the resulting electrical fire.

Now what I’ve been building up to very gingerly in this article is my impression that the fair was a lot quieter this time around than I’ve seen it in previous years. Fewer dealers, fewer visitors. I’m sure there used to be more of both and a lot more gear to tempt the canny bargain-hunter. It just felt a little hollowed-out.

Perhaps I got there too late in the morning for the real rush, but I got the impression it had been a little on the quiet side from the start.

In the past there were people selling historical prints, but none this time around. By way of compensation there was a table laid out with beautiful prints and cards for sale by contemporary photographers Roy Hunt and Martin Wade, who both work in traditional film (thumbs up from me), but again I got the impression they’d not been overwhelmed with sales that morning.

It would have been good to have seen more in the way of photo books on offer, or film and film processing equipment as this is enjoying such a resurgence amongst younger photographers. I did spot some film, but it was tucked out of site under a dealer’s table.

The one issue the fair does suffer is the almost exclusively older white male patronage. Yes, I fall into that category, but neither gender nor age balance would have been improved by my absence.

Another challenge the fair must be facing is that where film cameras used to take up a lot of table space, they’re becoming harder to source at a reasonable price. Some have reached collectible status and prices have gone through the roof. It’s also inevitable that as years pass, more of the old mechanical and electronic film cameras will simply die of old age.

The risk with the fair is that unless it attracts a younger and more diverse crowd, its dealers and visitors will also die of old age.

Perhaps a help stall where someone starting out could get free impartial advice about which kit to go for, and even guidance as to which dealer has what they need. More books, contemporary prints, an exhibition or perhaps a competition or other promotional events would help get people through the door.

For the fair to continue and thrive, Frome Wessex Camera Club will to have find ways of improving their reach. There needs to be better marketing to younger people, and better marketing over all since I was blissfully ignorant of the event until my friend called me. In fact as I exited the event via the cafe I bumped into a couple of friends who’d cycled in for breakfast. Even sitting in the room right next to the fair, they were oblivious to what was on in the main hall.

I’ve had a bit of a flurry of requests for work experience from Frome College students doing photography courses, so I assume the interest is there, but I didn’t see anyone of college age and I was there for a good couple of hours.

Photography is all about imagination, and this event definitely needs an injection of that to stop it becoming, like a broken old Zenith E camera, beyond worth saving.

Note: The next fair is 19th April 2020.

Slave to the Algorithm

Photographing events doesn’t get more funner (new word) than when I’m left to get on and be a fly on the wall, and the NWERC is a fine example of an event packed with opportunities for any keen-eyed, camera-toting fly.

Now, rather than me trying to specify the essence of the event, and getting it horribly mangled, how about I let the event speak for itself. From the NWERC website,

“The Northwestern Europe Regional Contest (NWERC) is a contest in which teams from universities all over the Northwestern part of Europe are served a series of algorithmic problems. The goal of each team is to solve as many problems as possible within the 5 hour time limit.”

Got it? Good, but what’s my role in the event? Well obviously to generate photos which can be used by the event organisers, host and participating universities in order to generate publicity for future years’ events.

My main task is to capture the runners-up and winning team as they take to the stage once all the scores are in, which is all good fun in and of itself, but the bit I really enjoy is when I’m roaming the hall during the last hour or so of the coding time.

That’s when the teams are either at their most ecstatic or at their wits end. Last November’s event was the second year running I got the commission, so I knew what to expect and where to go for the best images.

Starting with a fairly spectacular scene showing the sports hall packed with aching brains, I then made my way to ground level to get in amongst the coders and record the triumphs and tragedies as they waged war with algorithmic problems.

And if you’re wondering what’s with all the balloons, a team would receive one each time the automated scoring system detected they’d cracked a problem. You can imagine the pressure of seeing other teams amassing more balloonage (another new word) than yours. I thought some of the teams were ready to float off!

Sadly for me the event isn’t happening in Bath this year, but it may return another year. If it does, I’ll be ready and waiting to get my wings buzzing and my segmented eyes trained back on the subject. As long as I don’t go completely Geoff Golblum, I’ll enjoy being a fly on the wall once again.

Gimme Some Room!

Much of my business photography consists of taking portraits of, rather predictably, business people. So far so good.

This pretty much always happens at their place of work because that means less disruption to their busy schedule and I can create a set of portraits covering all the colleagues that happen to be in the building that day. Still so far so good.

Where “so far so good” becomes “ummm” is when I’m shown into a meeting room/stationery cupboard which is so crammed with immobile tables and heavy chairs/stationery that I have no space to actually take pictures.

I do make a point of requesting a space roughly 10 foot square, but sometimes the message gets lost or it’s assumed the boardroom table can be moved when I get there. More commonly now, tables are cabled to the floor with telephone and computer wires, which will only stretch so far before they go PING! and the IT department has to be called in.

So to say I was utterly delighted with the space I was given this week is an understatement – half a ballroom in a hotel. All to myself, with nothing, and I mean absolutely nothing taking up floor space. In fact I had to pull a small table into the room so I could check off peoples’ names as I went without having to squat on the floor.

A photographer's backdrop and studio flash equipment are set up in a large empty room in the Hilton, Walcot Street, Bath, UK

A great space for portraits

I thoroughly enjoyed setting up my backdrop and lights slap bang in the middle of the space. It gave the whole thing a slightly surreal air and the people who came in to have their photos taken were astonished that the room they’d been assigned for their meeting was so much smaller than the one reserved for me.

Of course the ballroom wouldn’t have worked for them because they needed AV and a projector for their presentations which the ballroom didn’t have, but it did make me feel very special and it also meant I had bags of room to control how the lights lit the backdrop and the sitters. It meant I could work towards a very particular look without too much difficulty.

Ok, not the most exciting tale in the world, and it’s not as if I’ll be dining out on that one ever, but it’s a fine illustration of how giving the photographer ample space to work will not only make their life easier, it’ll also mean they can work to achieve more accurate results in-camera and ensure that so far so good endures right through to “that’s a wrap”.

Expired Film Teaches Me A Lesson

I’m meant to use this blog to talk about nothing but corporate photography, hitting those all-important keywords, shoehorning them into sentences until Google says “I get it, you’re a corporate photographer shooting portraits and other corporate communications images for businesses who care about the quality of their image and the values it conveys, so we’ll put you at the top of the listings whenever we think you’re what the client is looking for.”

Thanks Google, you’re doing a grand job and I should apologise that I don’t always make it easy for you by writing instead about magazines I like, exhibitions I’ve launched (actually, singular exhibition, but hey I’ll keep working on that), or my return to shooting film as a way of working out new ideas and pursuing my passion for telling the stories of ordinary people.

And this week I’m not making it any easier as once again I’m on the subject of film.

My return to film has been a bit stop/start but it continues. More recently I’ve been working with expired film, that is stock which is well past its use-by date. Yes, film has a use-by date because the light-sensitive chemicals which react to light start to break down.

However, I managed to source a large, mixed bag of film; 35mm, medium format, colour and black and white and I’ve been working my way through it with various trial projects and one project which has been fairly fruitful, that of a series of photos documenting the derelict site in Frome known as Saxonvale.

Saxonvale is an area of the town which has been left partially cleared for many years now while the various landowners and interested parties take their time working out how to make the most money from its redevelopment. You might say I’ve used derelict film to record a derelict site, recording not just the waste discarded there, but also sometimes the people who pass through or visit for their own reasons.

Some of the film stock I’ve used has been in such a poor state it barely rendered an image. One trip was wasted because the film was so utterly degraded it was blank when I processed it. All part of the project and a useful reminder to me that the film is the boss on this one.

In due course I’ll be updating my main website with some of these images, but in the meantime here’s a mini gallery to give you a flavour of the Saxonvale project. If you want to see more of it and some of the other film images I’ve shot lately, head over to my Instagram account where you’ll find me as @takeagander.

Marketing Smarter

While my lovely Pentax S1a is off for a rebuild, I’ll return my attention to things more corporate photography related.

With doom and gloom headlines about the state and future prospects of the UK economy all over our news channels it might be tempting to think it’s time to tighten belts and hunker down for the long haul.

Often the first casualty of financial difficulty is marketing, and perhaps more specifically photography, but if that’s your plan you might want to hold fire because done right, good marketing and good photography, even on a reduced annual budget, can keep your company name in the frame and help you survive the economic Winter.

This week’s message is simple: If you’re going to market less, you’d better market smarter. What does this mean in practice?

Of course I speak from the perspective of a photographer in this corporate world and what I occasionally see is businesses devoting a lot of resource to cutting corners. Not only is this a waste of their valuable time, it also leads to results which don’t hold the client in the best light, or images which have little real impact. It might look like the cheaper option, but at what cost to the business?

I know I’m not the cheapest photographer in my market, but then I wouldn’t want to be. Because quite apart from the quality I strive for in my photography, when a client approaches me I’m there for them from the word go until well after the project has been delivered.

The difference I offer starts with the helping hand and sounding board at the concept stage. Even corporate portraits or the “humble” press release require a level of creative input and the right photographer will be able to guide the project from the earliest stages, ensuring the end-result has maximum impact.

The other aspect you’ll want to consider when hiring a photographer on the sole parameter of cost is, will they help, guide and assist during and after the photo session?

All this help and input, from concept stage to post-delivery assistance, requires time, knowledge and experience, all of which have a value which should be factored into the cost of hiring. Of course this means a cost above and beyond simply that of producing photographs, but since you’re spending the money anyway (and almost certainly taking up your and your colleagues’ time doing so) you may as well get the best results possible.

And when the job is over, the photos delivered, is your photographer still there to help if you need it? I’m not just talking about up to the point they’ve sent the invoice. I’m often helping clients with follow-up assistance months, even years after the job was shot, delivered and paid for.

So, who’s the smart marketer now?

 

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?