Thursday, October 23, 2014

Photography and the Art of Saxophone Playing

 Dear Stephen

I think I'll stop studying photography. It's far too technical, and all I really want to do is make nice photographs that I can show to my family and friends. 

I don't see the point of all that stuff about white balance, ISO settings, aperture and shutter speeds etc, etc. 

They are not what I wanted to hear about and it all seems pointless and something I'll never get my head around.

Dear (whoever feels the same)

I'm learning to play the saxophone at the moment, and I started last year when I was 58 - and I am concentrating on a jazz style. I had played other musical instruments previously, so I thought how hard could it be? it certainly looks easy enough when you hear a good player do it.

Well, it's very hard. I first of all had learn how use the mouthpiece - getting the "embouchure" right (and there are whole books just on that topic). Then, I had find the right mouthpiece (another endless task that some people apparently never get right), choose the right reeds to suit me (I have spent a  LOT just on bits of thin cane so far), and eventually get a sound out of it. It took several months before I could practice without worrying who was hearing me.

Oh, practice, that's another point. I have (without a word of a lie) practiced every single day since 1st August 2013 for not less than one hour. Actually it probably averages 3 hours a day. I've often done it very late at night - sometimes in the early hours of the morning - after my day's work (luckily, we have no near neighbours).

As for playing great jazz tunes all the time, my main practice has been based around learning scales, arpeggios, chords (major, minor, harmonic minors, chromatic scales, blues scales) and really boring technical exercises to get them into my head.

I have the exercises in books, on printed sheet music, in Kindle books and even in apps on my iPad. It's been like learning another language. It's the most mind-numbing, technically challenging thing I've ever done. My partner says that some of jargon I quote now sounds like I'm speaking another language.

She also says (now) that I really seem to understand it. Also, when I first played her a tune, she couldn't work out the name of it. When I played her the same tune recently, she said - "wow, will you play that at the Christmas party, it sounds great!".

She told me I sounded like one of my hero sax players - Courtney Pine - who plays at lightening speed. She was probably being nice to me, but actually I know that I now play quite fast and with a good tone.

And my point is...

Photography, like anything else worth doing - but which looks easy when you see it done well - is extremely technical.

But unless you do the homework, understand the jargon and practice (a lot) you'll never get to the point where it all just makes sense, and the technical side allows you to do what you wanted to do in the first place - take good photographs.

The technical side is the "engine room" that sits there in the background, but is really driving the thing along and without it, you'll get nowhere.

It's boring and not glamorous, but when you put it all together, with a good idea for a photograph - and a creative eye for composition (that's also a very technical aspect that needs to be learned) you get great photographs.

But you can't just have a good eye. If you don't understand exposure and white balance, and ISO and focus, the photos just don't work.

But when you do, and then "play" the camera your way, it will suddenly produce great photographs. 

Sunday, March 2, 2014

PI Module 3 - Greyscale Test Setup

Assignment 3 of the Diploma in Professional Photography course, from The Photography Institute, seems to get a lot of students feeling frustrated and it's got a reputation for being difficult.  

I teach on that course, and while I agree it's technical - photography itself is a lot more technical that some new photographers care to admit. 

But, I don't agree that it's an impossible assignment, and not even one that is as difficult as it may first appear. All of the answers in are in the module, they may just take a bit of reading. 

I have offered many of my own students some additional guidelines in terms of photographing the grey cards - and I thought I would share them below. 

I guarantee that if you follow them to the letter you will be through that part of the assignment in no time. 

It's not really anything you won't find in the module and it's not a "cheat sheet". But it may help some students clarify this aspect of the assignment. 

Oh, about the zone V position and whether it favours highlights or shadows....

This is much easier than it seems.  You just need to know if your zone V numbers are lower or higher than the exact middle of the zone ruler range (the module tells you what that number is). 

If your zone is lower than the middle the sensor favours the shadows, meaning that it may under exposure average tones. If they are higher than the middle values, than it favours highlights, and the sensor may over exposure average tones - very practical information to have at your disposal.


1. Before taking a shot, pin or tape the grey card to a wall and try to make sure that the light is soft, but not too dull (maybe a thin cloud cover if outside but inside in a room with daylight is probably best). It's best not to use a wall with bright colours that may reflect onto the card. A white or grey wall is best (also the same for the ceiling if you are inside).

2. Make sure that you set the camera to "spot" (or "partial") metering and ensure that you fill the frame of the camera with the grey card - look through the viewfinder and not the screen to do this as it gives more accuracy, and meter from the centre of the card. Keep the camera on a tripod if possible.

Turn off "auto ISO" and set it quite low to 100 or 200 ISO. If your numbers are too high at the darker end of the zone, this could actually be causing a lot of the over exposure problems.

Set a custom white balance - your camera manual will explain how to do it if you're not sure.

3. To set up the first exposure, set the camera to manual and then set the aperture to f8. Then, while looking through the viewfinder, move the shutter speed dial - probably DOWN - until the exposure meter (a scale in the viewfinder) is at zero (usually in the middle of the scale.)

4. This is your first "correct" exposure reading. Take a note of these settings (f8 for the aperture - and whatever shutter speed is showing when you half depress the shutter button). Take the first shot of the grey card at these settings.

5. Then turn the shutter speed dial (not the aperture dial) UP - slower speeds - by 3 clicks (one full stop) and take another shot of the grey card. Do this for 6 shots and then go to step 15.

6. Then reset the aperture and shutter speed to the numbers you wrote down.

7. Then click the shutter speed DOWN - faster speeds - for 3 clicks (one full stop) and take another shot of the grey card. Do this for 6 shots in total. 

You should now be at step 18.

If zone 0 is still too high (above 0) go back to step 3 and set the aperture to f11 - or f16 and try again.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Random Acts of Kindness Re-Visited

 On this blog, in 2008, I wrote about my first year of blogging and tied it in with something that happened in my first professional year of photography 30 years ago. So, to start off 2013 and celebrate a full 30 years of carrying around a serious camera, I'm recalling that post and adding some additional paragraphs to update it - it at the end.

.....Way back in 1982, I was sent, by a picture agency, to cover the launch of a British TV 'soap' called "Brookside", at the modern, Liverpool housing estate in which it was set and filmed. I was, in every sense of the phrase, a "fledgling" freelance photographer and felt totally out of my depth, surrounded, as I was, by photographers from almost all of the British national daily papers and large circulation magazines.

At one point, during the day, I turned up a bit late, to photograph actors Ricky Tomlinson and Sue Johnston (who, incidentally was brought up in the small town - Prescot - in which I was born and raised) who were posing as "man and wife" outside the house their characters "owned" on Brookside Close. I was fumbling with my camera so much that all of the other photographers in the press pack had finished shooting Ricky and Sue, before I had even taken my first photograph. I stood there, forlornly watching the stars walk away from the set, when (I'm not sure how) Ricky Tomlinson noticed me, and called across to his co-star "hey Sue, this lad hasn't got his pictures, come back and pose again for him, please" which she did, most graciously.

I've never forgotten that small, random act of kindness from Ricky Tomlinson. I didn't really thank him properly at the time, but I do make sure I mention it to friends, whenever I see him on TV - usually in the hit show The Royle Family (which also features Sue Johnston)......

(additional notes).....I was recently visiting my father at Christmas time, when we decided to go to a local pub for lunch - with my son and my partner. We arrived in the middle of a jam-packed pub, to discover that a Christmas party was being held for a local old-age pensioners group, and the place was in full-swing.

At first, we thought that there would be no tables available for us, and left the pub, heading for the car. We were called back by a waitress, who was outside on her break, and who suggested that we should go back inside as a table would be found for us (another small random act of kindness). We went back into the pub and a table was quickly found for us. My partner and I went to the bar to order food, and I was studying the menu when she almost shouted...LOOK WHO'S HERE!

I turned around, to see non other than Ricky Tomlinson standing right next to our table. He was the invited guest of honour at the party.

I went over and introduced myself and told the subject of my long-told story, the long-told story of his own random act of kindness to me. We had a chat, he thanked me for remembering his own kind actions, and he aksed me if I was still a photographer. unfortunately, I had moved too far away from Liverpool to be of any real assistance to this now very famous actor. He said hello to my family and  called me "kid" as we talked (which is a real term of endearment in Liverpool) and wished me well with my future work, before he left.

That chance meeting has brought my own encounter with him full circle and I'm delighted and amazed that it happened.

I hope 2013 will bring you lots of good things, both in your professional and personal lives and if you do encounter a random act of kindness - remember it. You never know when you'll get a chance to repay it - or just thank someone for it - and it could take 30 years!

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Cameracraft - Revival of the 'Real' Photo Magazine

Click here to go the the Cameracraft page
 I was taking a short weekend break with my partner Marj, at her hideaway in County Kerry, Ireland, recently, when I realised that I had forgotten to pack my Kindle.

Now, if you're me, and you've just finished a long photography commission and the light  isn't good enough to snap a few potential stock library images; then you'll need something to read. And, not just anything to read, either. I'm not the sort of person who can while away an hour or two catching up on what trials and tribulations Katie and Peter are suffering right now or finding out how I can lose 10 kilograms in 3 weeks by only eating tofu and baked beans (with some great recipe ideas thrown in).

It had been a while since I'd read a good photography magazine, so I headed for a well-stocked newsagents to get one. But I was out of luck. Oh, there were several titles on the shelf - and some I remembered from the days when I was buying three or four photo mags a month, plus a well known weekly one too (which I admired greatly back in the day). But there wasn't one that I wanted to really read. They were full of "how to" hints and tips (many of which seemed to have been recycled from from last year, and probably the year before that.) "How to take great landscape photographs"; "How to take great portraits"; "How to take great shots of your cat" (I swear that I actually saw that article - or was it just a bad dream?) I came away without a camera magazine and still nothing to read. I don't like the idea of spending good money on recycled, dumbed-down step-by-step guides on things that I knew 20 years ago, and which were not offering me (or most readers, I reckon) anything new. And, more importantly, I think a camera magazine should challenge my view of what photography is all about - and encourage me to get a new persepctive on what is happening in the world of photography, today.

Then I heard about Cameracraft. It's a new subscription only, glossy, high quality quarterly photography magazine published by Icon Publications and Edited by David Kilpatrick in Scotland and associate editor Gary Friedman in Los Angeles. The publishers make the claim that Cameracraft returns to the foundations of good photography. They also claim that their "...invited retrospectives and working project portfolios will set a new standard." And that the "...visual content will open your photographic eyes, our view of photographic technology and history will absorb you, our practical advice and experience will help you." 

Then they make another big statement - which reminded me of the array of dumbed-down "how to" mags currently on the newsagaents shelves". We promise this will not be just another photo magazine and the work we print will not be a repetition of popular themes.

Well, I got a copy the other day and you know what - they have kept all of their promises, and then some.

OK, a small proportion of my own work is in the first issue but, even if it wasn't, I'd still be feeling and saying the same things about this important and very welcome new edition to the photography publishing world. It is a serious, well written, intelligent magazine with a top class selection of imagery, beautifully printed and presented on high quality paper. It's a joy to hold and read - and yes you have to hold a photography magazine in your hands, in my view, electronic versions just don't "cut it".

The publishers have gone to great lengths to make sure that the images are presented to the highest possible standard. David Kilpatrick (who has worked on my many top photography titles, including some of my favourites from way-back-when) told me: "...we...use a very faint blue, almost impossible to see, which makes b/w images appear to separate from the page better. Using these very pale tints let the white of the photo appear brighter, without apparently colouring the page." And the difference is there for all to see.

One thing I tell all of my online photography students is that in order to make good photography, you have to look at great photography. Sadly, the opportunities to do that are becoming less frequent, certainly via the medium of the photo magazine. But in my view, Cameracraft provides a welcome revivial of serious photography publishing and a magazine to read with satisfaction and to keep with pride.

I just wish it had been published before I got to Kerry that wet weekend!

Thursday, July 26, 2012

How to Get New Photography Clients

You may lose the Sale - but you should Never Lose the Client!

  All you need to be successful as a photographer is a good camera and a good understanding of how to use it, right? Wrong. You need to find potential clients -and when you have found them, you need to turn them into new clients - or at least good contacts for future sales. I've become a bit concerned by seeing how some photographers operate with new clients and even with each other, sometimes. 

Giving a sense of professionalism and going the extra mile for a client can make all the difference to winning or losing new business. Even just using a person's name in a message - I frequently get "hey there" or "_______" (nothing) as the greeting line in messages to me - can give a new client a good or bad first impression of how professional or "experienced" the photographer is likely to be, and if they should continue the business process.

Very late last night, just as I was stopping work and heading for the TV, I got an email from the CEO of a well known specialist record / CD label that I recognised, but with whom I hadn't ever worked or been in contact with, previously. In fact, I had always thought, due to its name, that the company was based in Ireland (as I am) and it struck me that they were working over-time in the office. On Googling them, I discovered that they are actually based in the USA, and so the time difference suddenly made sense.

The email outlined the fact that the label was urgently looking for an image to feature on the cover of new compilation CD that they were launching, and they had seen one of my images that "had the right vibe" but which didn't quite meet the criteria they were working with. Did I have any other images from the same shoot? Was I able to let them have some samples to view, as soon as possible?

The fact is that the image they saw had been taken over 6 years ago, and it, and all the other shots taken at the same time, had long since been archived. I wasn't even sure which hard drive they were on - I have several stored away. 

The first thing I did was immediately email the CEO back, thank him for contacting me and tell him that I was aware of the company, and that I had even bought some of their albums in the past (which was true). This set up a rapport with the (now) potential client who came straight back, thanked me for my prompt response and gave me more information about precisiely what they were hoping to see in my images.  

The next thing I did was start looking for the image they had seen. I found it in about an hour, and a few others with it. I then re-processed the images (it's amazing how Lightroom 4 can really make an older processed image look completly transformed) and then went on another search. Within 2 hours I had found 16 images that fitted the brief from the potential client. It was now after midnight in my part of the world.

Then I contacted the CEO again and told him that I had found the images and I would build a web gallery and send him the link by the next morning (his time) so he could preview them.

I then built the web gallery and sent him the link - sooner than he was expecting it: making a promise, then going a bit further for the client always gives a good impression of your ability to provide a top class service. And then I went to bed (close to 2.30am my time).

The next morning (today), there was an email waiting for me, part of which read..."Thanks for your quick action. I am going to show the photos to others involved in the project…great photos in any case..." 

Between then and an hour ago, there were other emails in which I established more connections between myself and the CEO - telling him that I had a new book out on music photography and that I had actually photographed some of the label's artists. He asked about the book and I sent him a link to information about it and samples from it. 

An hour or so ago, the word came that my images did not meet the criteria that they were looking for (and photography is so subjective that unless you shoot to a specific brief, it's unlikely that everyone involved in a selection process will find what they need from 16 images, so I was never that hopeful, really. But, I am extremely pleased with the outcome. The final email from the CEO said: 
...but we really appreciate your response to our query and we'll keep you in mind for future needs! Best regards...PS: will check out the book!

Remember, this is the CEO of a major record label, whom I did not know of until late last night, saying he will keep me in mind for future work and that he will look at my book. 

Would you say I lost a sale? Or that I made an important new contact? And, which is more important? 

Both are obviously important, but in the long term esptablishing good professional contacts and giving new clients a good impression of yourself is vital to professional photography. I'm actually very happy with the way it turned out and I will be sure to make another contact (without being too pushy) in weeks to come. 

OK, my image may not be adorning the new CD cover...but I am now in with a chance of getting the next one!