Sunday, August 31, 2008

The Grass is NOT Always Greener...

on the other side of the show-jumping fence.

I just had another chat with an old friend who is in a rehabilitation unit up in Dublin, after falling from her horse at show-jumping event, about a month ago. She broke her neck and seriously damaged her spinal cord. She is left paralysed from the chest downwards, and the doctors and physiotherapists are telling her to be prepared for the idea that she will never walk again.

Prior to her accident, she was the most active and determined person I knew. She stands 4 foot 9 inches tall, has never had a live-in partner and runs a successful horse-riding school with a stable of 8 horses single-handedly. I get tired just thinking about the hard-slog she puts in - often up to 18 hours a day - just to make her living!

It was sad to hear her sobbing on the phone - telling me that the State, the banks, and even some of her family seem to have left her in the lurch without any concrete offers of support - financial or material. She has no idea how she will fend for herself, after she is discharged from rehab in November.

Next time I moan about a tight deadline, a late-night call to take a shot for the paper or don't feel up to a long day visiting pretty Irish villages taking photographs or asking a beautiful model to "let me have that big smile again", all I need to do is think of my friend, and my tiny concerns will be put into BIG perspective!!

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Quick Studio Set Up

I needed to take some shots in a hurry, of a model wearing jewelery, for a client's website. The studio I usually use is closed for summer vacations. So, I used the room I type up this Blog in - my study at home - and the equipment I have for location shoots, and what was in my garden shed.

I called my favourite model - Carol O'Mahoney - and while she was driving over, I taped two bamboo poles to lighting stands (so that the backcloth could go higher) and hung a doubled-up piece of black fabric I got from a garden store (which is used to protect seedlings and plants). I secured the cloth the poles with plastic clothes pegs and tape.

I thought that a strong side light would work best, so I used a small studio head, with a heavily layered soft-box attached to the front of it, directly at right angles to the model (as if she was being shot with soft window light). I propped up a large circular reflector on the tripod legs, directly under the camera (which is straight on to the model) and I used my secret weapon - the model's younger sister (Eimer), who stood in the cramped, corner of the room, with another reflector, aimed back at Carol, which light up the jewelery on her wrist and neck.

A very simple, cheap and quick set up - but (I hope you agree) a classy and expensive-looking result!

Friday, August 29, 2008

Perfection Puzzle

Limerick. 9pm. Text message from a female friend.

"Jst lukd at ur website. Why al women gorjus an al men hunks?"

My reply.

"Duno. Is jst the compny I keep, suppose. Am lucky bstd. C u l8ter."

(Incidentally, this shot was taken at the Fleadh by the Feale, Abbeyfeale, County Limerick, Ireland in May 2008. More of this work is on my website - see the link to the left.)

Contract Conflict (1)

(see: 'Be Careful What You Wish For...(2)
' for back-story)


Dear Stephen

I have requested a revised contract from our contracts department to reflect the change in the commission. You can invoice for the advance, but I would really like to see images for one drive if you can submit that asap. The contract should be raised and available to send to you as a doc. early next week.


Dear (Editor)

Thank you for your email.

I have to say, at this stage, that I feel very disheartened by the slow progress of the contract – and by the lack of response to my emails and phone calls.

I was asking ****** for a contract (and a start date) in late June, and have subsequently asked the same of ****** and ******* all to no avail. However, I started the work, against my better judgment and in good faith, at *****'s request in late July encouraged by her promise that the contract would be with me in less than 1 week. I also noted ****'s assurance that the contract would be with me at the beginning of this week.

Now over 1 month since I started the work without a contract, I note your assurance that the contract will be with me in less than 1 week.

At this stage, I will not be continuing with any work until the contract is signed, nor will I be forwarding any work to you until the contract is signed and in place. Also, all images taken so far (about 1600 photographs) are not, as far I am concerned, covered by the terms and conditions of the contract - particularly your demand that I grant copyright of all images taken to your publishing company. I will therefore be retaining the copyright of those images, although I will agree to their use for the duration of the book’s life.

Although your may feel that my position is disagreeable, I feel that the contract has been ignored, or delayed, despite my constant requests and assertions that time was running out, to your colleagues. As a consequence I really do feel undermined and unappreciated at this stage.

On a more practical point, the weather here has been appalling through August – grey skies and rain most days – and I am not as happy with the images as I might have been given a much earlier start date. I am therefore also concerned that I will be held responsible for any images that do not meet your (justifiably) very high standards, and that I may soon run out of time to return to some areas. I feel that a much earlier start date would have given me more time – but as it stands, I feel that a later deadline may also be required to re-take shots with better light in some areas already completed.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Be Careful What you Wish For...(2)

Dreaming about being a professional photographer, is one thing - doing it, is something else entirely.

I remember, at the tender age of 16 walking past a house in a very posh part of my home town, where a snazzily dressed man was opening the boot of his snazzy car, and depositing a large, clear plastic bag chocker-block full of rolls of Kodachrome 64 transparency film. I knew enough, at the time, to conclude (rightly or wrongly - I'll never know) that he was a professional photographer, setting off on a well paid and glamorous assignment. Within a nano-second of concluding that, I also concluding that I wanted to do exactly the same thing, when I grew up!

I grew up last year, over 30 years later. Insomuch that I was, at that point, for the first time in my life able to load my car with camera gear (and now CF cards, rather than Kodachrome) and know that I did nothing else for a living. It was a remarkably powerful feeling. A life-time's ambition fulfilled. A dream realised.

Reality Check!

(At this point, I need you, for best dramatic effect, to imagine that nerve-jangling zzzzzuuupppppkkkkk noise that is made when a gramophone needle gets dragged across a vinyl record).

I got the biggest commission of my full-time photographic life in June, this year. A major, internationally renowned travel book publisher offered me at least half of my projected income for this year, to travel around Ireland (where I live) photographing the people and places of the country for a new book. What could be better?

Well, that was in June. And, I didn't actually get the commission, because I still haven't actually got the contract!

Two months later and I'm just less than halfway through the job. 1600 images downloaded, 2000km travelled, €600 expended on fuel, accommodation, food and other sundries, several weeks away from home, at least 6 emails, and as many phone calls made asking for the blasted contract - most of them blatantly ignored, three changes of liaison personnel at the publishers and nothing, absolutely nothing in writing to show that I have a contract at all!

One thing I've noticed about publishers - some at least. They have it their way. If I won't do this job - give them outright copyright of everything I shoot when I'm on the road, meet their deadlines, go back two or three times to the same place to get the right shot, and agree to every other demand they may want to throw at me - they will quickly find someone else who will do it.

My publisher proved this recently when, because I didn't start as quickly as they wanted me to (I was foolishly waiting for the contract) they cut down my agreed work schedule by nearly 25 per cent - because they were worried that I wouldn't meet their extremely tight deadline.

Well, the worm has turned. Watch this space - because I've reach ultimatum stage!

Win a Competition and Lose Your Photograph

It has become an ugly feature of some photography competitions, that the authors of winning entries will be made to forfeit the copyright of the image in exchange for a (sometimes paltry) prize.

This can mean that the organisers of the competition, and/or their sponsors get free, often unlimited, worldwide use of the photo in advertising campaigns for as long as they want. Had they had to pay the photographer, or an agent, to license the use of that image - the cost could have outweighed the value of the prize, many times over.

And, more importantly, (something that many aspiring prize-winners do not appreciate) your wonderful image now belongs to the competition sponsor - you won't be allowed to enter it in another competition, sell it to anyone, and you may even have to ask for permission to send a copy to your Auntie Mabel as a Christmas present!

It's bad enough that these conditions apply a lot of photographs that win competitions. Even more worryingly, some competitions have been known to impose these rules on all of the photographs that are entered!

It's great to be rewarded with a prize for your talent - but make sure that you read the fine print before sending in your entries.

For those living in the London (UK) area, a seminar called "Great Picture and Small Print - Don't Lose Rights in Competitions" is being held on the 9th September 2008 6pm - 9pm
at: The October Gallery, 24 Old Gloucester St, London, WC1N 3AL.

Own-it and Pro-Imaging have invited four experts in their field, a solicitor, an award-winning photographer and two competition organisers, who will give you an overview of the legal framework, and how to avoid pitfalls when entering competitions.

More information can be got from the Own-it website - see my links list.

Thursday Put-Down

Try this when showing your latest snaps to a friend after dinner at his/her house.

Friend: They are are lovely photographs - you must have a very good camera.

You: Thank you. By the way, that was a lovely dinner - you must have very good pots and pans.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Newton's Law of Motion

Kilkenny, Ormonde Hotel. Got in late, after a fairly fruitless day shooting. It has been a miserable week, weather-wise.

Strike's been a miserable August in Ireland, as far as the weather goes (see It never Rains..., below) and I was getting fed up of seeing a perfectly formed ancient monument or historical site surrounded by flat, grey skies. But, the sun came through at about 6pm - doesn't it always - and lit up gloriously the glorious ruins of
Kells Priory, one of the largest and most magnificent medieval monuments in Ireland. Situated on the bank of the King's River, in County Kilkenny, it comprises a collection of medieval tower houses spaced at intervals along and within walls which enclose a site of some three acres.

Canon EOS 1Ds II in hand, I braved the flock of grazing sheep, to take a series of shots that almost had me in a good mood, after the verbal lashing I got a few miles down the road, in Thomastown (see I Get Jerpoint, below). Back in the RAV, I came to a fork in the road, only to be stopped by a very large herd of dairy cows, being herded from one field to another. I grabbed the camera, only to find that both cards in it were full - and hastily chose and deleted 2 shots I decided were not going to make the final cut - and grabbed the cows in mid jaunt.

Feeling better still, I got back in the car, and waited for the herd to pass by. At their tail end (pun intended) the farmer called to me "hey, can I have a word" he shouted. I clambered out of the RAV, camera in hand and quick retort forming in head - thinking, oh not again, surely!

"I was just wondering",
the farmer said, "if you are free to take some shots at my son's stag night on Friday in Kilkenny - you looked so professional there with yer camera! We'd pay yer whatever you needed?"

Slightly shell-shocked, and very relieved - not to say flattered - I thanked the man for his kind words and offer, but declined, on the grounds that by Friday I'd probably be 400km away in Donegal.

On entering the Ormonde Hotel, I'm called across to the reception desk to be told that, on instructions of the General Manager (an old acquaintance) I have been upgraded to a junior suite - complete with complimentary chocolates!

Funny how the day can change as dramatically as the weather. Newton's Law of Motion comes to mind...

For every action, there is an equal but opposite reaction

Better Read than Dead

I've been reading books on photography techniques since 1977. Basically (in the words of Clifford T Ward's "Home thoughts from Abroad" they all seem to say the same thing to me! Nevertheless, I love reading about photography.

Having stumbled into the world of professional travel photography, I thought I'd look for a good book on the subject that really told me what it was like to do it - warts and all. Initially, I was very disappointed. Even a recent publication (well, 2nd edition) of a travel photography book published by Lonely Planet, left me feeling cold. In my view, it's yet another photography technique book, with the word travel scattered liberally throughout - albeit with some top-class travel shots.

No, I wanted something, harder, grittier, something that almost let me smell the sweat of the camel - not to mention the feet of the tired snapper themselves.

I eventually found it on Amazon (UK) and it's called (wait for it) Travel Photography: How to Research, Produce and Sell Great Travel Pictures, by Roger Hicks and Frances Schultz - and it does exactly what it says on the cover. It tells it like it is - and if anything, probably goes out of its way to paint the most unglamorous picture (pun intended) of travel photography possible. The way Hicks and Schultz write, travel photography is underpaid, hard slog, demanding and stressful. They also manage to make it sound like the most fascinating occupation imaginable.

The book is 10 years old, and out of print. I had to buy it via a reseller. There is nothing about digital photography in it at all, and the chapters on equipment (including film) are pretty much redundant. But it's a little gem and well worth the effort of finding even if you have the slightest inclination towards working as a travel photographer. This is as close as it gets to actually running out of petrol in the middle of nowhere, and not being able to phone for help because the battery has run flat on the mobile!

I get Jerpoint!

Thomastown, County Kilkenny, Ireland. On a scouting mission for good shots and interesting places to visit along the back-roads of Ireland, for a new travel guide book. Having photographed the only obvious tourist attraction, Jerpoint Abbey, further down the road, I circumnavigated the tiny and heavily trafficked town three times before squeezing the RAV into the only available parking spot, to look for suitable accommodations (so that I can note it for the book). I go into the aptly, but not over-imaginatively, named pub "The Jerpoint Hotel" to ask if they have rooms available.

Three men are sitting at the bar and the place is abandoned other than for them and the female bar person. "No, we don't do accommodation", she politely informs me, but there is a good B&B around the corner."

"Thank you, that's very helpful", I offer, and make to leave".

"And, don't worry", the man in the middle of the line of three says to my back. "they serve the English".

"excuse me?", Says I, "what does that mean?"

"Oh, it's only a joke, says he".

I leave. I count to ten. I walk around the town again. I fume some more. I go back into the Jerpoint hotel. The man in the middle, is holding his hand out to shake mine, and saying "I was only joking, just now".

"I checked at the B&B" I tell him, without shaking his hand", and they confirmed that they do, indeed, serve the English. But, I am told they draw the line at narrow-minded, racist locals."

I start to make my exit, to wide-mouthed silence. And then I turn and smile, before saying "I was only joking, just now, of course".

In 10 years of living very happily in rural Ireland, I have never, before, been subjected to racial abuse. I know it exists, but I have no idea what valuable purpose it serves. I know about jokes, I know about the importance of a good sense of humour. I also know about veiled insults disgracefully disguised as humour. I also know that it's about time some people came into the real (or at least modern) world and grew up.

I didn't look for other lodgings in Thomastown, and I certainly won't be including it in the travel book. I am happy to recommend small Irish towns to everyone - but I will recommend small-minded people to no one.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

It Never Rains...But, It Pours

The other day, I was listening to "The Last Word", a current affairs radio show broadcast from Dublin, on which someone was debunking the notion of "Global Warming" and, in particular, Al Gore's ideas. "Nice slide show Al", he said "but total rubbish - none of it makes any sense".

I beg to differ. This is wettest August in Ireland I can remember in the 10 years that I have lived here. The skies are constantly grey and there have been more flash floods, rivers overflowing their banks, people being rescued by helicopters and businesses and homes ruined beyond repair than ever before. Thankfully (as far as I know) no one has lost their lives - yet.

I had been moaning to a friend that the rain and flat, dull skies were playing havoc with my attempts to take photographs for a new travel book on Ireland. The deadline was tight enough, but I could hardly find a good couple of hours to take a shot of a monument, street, ancient ruin or pub without it having a low flat contrast and a plain, washed out (pun intended) sky.

Then, one man I met, while I was photographing a story of a flash flood in a town close to where I live, for the local newspaper, put my niggles into perspective. He told me that at 3am the other Friday morning, he was watching a large white van being swept down the street towards the front window of his downstairs apartment - at a rate of knots (literally). "I have been in a few scrapes in my time with my back up against the wall" he told me "but I have never been so scared as I was while standing in my font room, up to my knees in dirty river water, watching that huge vehicle hurling towards my font window - and with nowhere to go other than on top of the kitchen table!" Luckily, when only a few feet from smashing through his window, the current turned the van away from the house.

I was talking to that man in the street, standing by his (sodden) mattress and the shattered remains of his few belongings, which were thrown into a nearby skip. He pointed to the building next door to his apartment, a furniture shop, and said, poignantly "you know, that guy has lost over 1 million euros in stock because of that flood. But, he's insured. I'm not insured, and I didn't have two euros to rub together - and I've lost everything".

If you hear me moaning about the weather spoiling my plans for a shoot again - shoot me!!

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Be Careful What you Wish For...(1)

I'm convinced that when some people say "I would like to write a book", what they really mean is "I would like to have written a book". There's a world of difference in those two sentences, although they may look very similar, at first glance.

The desire to write a book, has to - by definition - include the wish to be engrossed in the more unpleasant aspects of the craft - writer's block, late nights stuck at the computer screen, rejection by publishers and being dumped by neglected partners - as well as the pleasant aspects of the craft. And, let's face it, there are few of those outside being able to say "I have written a book" or "would you like me to sign my book" or "oh, look, there's a copy of my book on this shelf here in Borders - how strange!" (do you see where I'm going with this?) And, trust me, I know. I have written a book!

But, to the matter in hand - professional photography. I've nursed a burning desire to be a full-time professional photographer since I was 16. That was a time before the decimalization of currency in the UK and well before the Presidency of Ronald Reagan in the US - so it's a very long time ago (and for those of you who don't know what decimalization is or who RR was - take my word for it, it's virtually antediluvian).

My wish came true about 2 years ago. I was in a financially secure position, after 30 years or so in a well-paid public sector job (working as a lecturer in the Mental Health field, not that it matters) and I decided to finally give up the day job and pursue my dream of getting paid enough to pay the rent, eat as well as I usually did and drive a decent car by doing nothing other than taking and selling photographs. Now, it has to be said that for the 30 years I was doing my "proper" job, I was also taking and selling photographs. I sold my first black and white print (I made it myself) to a magazine in 1980 - aged 23 and I haven't stopped since. In those 28 years, my work has been published in almost every conceivable media (including TV) and worldwide. So, how hard could making that transition be?

In a word...very.

For a start, the world and his significant other are now photographers. Just look at the forum posts of large photo "portals" like Alamy. At least once a week a budding Ansel Adams, who can buy (or at least has a high enough credit rating to go into debt for) a quality digital camera, wants to know why their four 10 megapixel images, which got through QC (Quality Control) have yet to sell and make them richer than Croesus.

Not only is the stock market dangerously over-crowded, the same can be said for the professional arena, too. There are just too many photographers and not enough jobs. Add to that, something called a global recession and the situation becomes increasingly precarious. I shall divulge, getting the work doesn't necessarily change things for the better....


Taking a quality Photograph has become far too easy. Autofocus this, Stabilizing that, USM, ETTL, Lightroom, Photoshop, Aperture (and I don't mean the one in the lens) are just a few of the accouterments of the modern digital photographer.

Of, course, technology is wonderful. Images are more consistently sharper, and accurately exposed than ever before and image manipulation is now within the grasp of anyone with a few hours to spare watching a few online videos from organizations that want to teach us all to be graphic geniuses - while (in some cases, alledgedely) generating multimillion dollar annual incomes, in the process.

But where's the skill element? Who's reading about - let alone using - hyperfocal distance, or the rule of thirds, or depth of field or leading lines - any more? Who needs (or wants) to know what to do if they turn the autofocus thingy button off?

In a recent digital imagery forum I counted 4 posts in 1 month asking, basically, the same question - about how to turn the sharpening off in their cameras. It's a fair question - but it's one that could have been answered by turning to page (whatever) in the beautifully printed manual that came with their very expensive camera.

As cameras become more sophisticated, photographers get lazier. Manual get read less - but more worringly, creativity becomes a thing of the past.

It's time for getting "back to basics". Turn the auto buttons to OFF. RTFM (Read The - bleeping Manual) and get out there and get creative!