This one’s for all the photographers. I expect it is all of them, incidentally, or at least all the ones who’ve ever tried to take pictures of people.
Well, I can see it’s probably a lovely photograph, but I’m a tiny bit D___
No. It’s just not what I wanted. I can’t use any of them. Honestly, I’m really D___
Seriously? SERIOUSLY??? I’m so D___
Dealing with the portrait shoot that doesn’t end perfectly is something we’ll all have to deal with. The very first one I did for money ended a bit like this. It nearly stopped me doing any more. Ever.
Taking someone’s picture is a very personal thing. A portrait is the deeply subjective product of a recipe with a few ingredients, some of which are in your control, and some of which aren’t.
You have to bring a few things with you: decent equipment, technical knowledge to know how to use it, a sense of creativity, and of course interpersonal rapport. The certainty with which you can bring those decreases as you go along the list. If you’re entirely missing any one of these, then portrait photography isn’t going to be for you. I’ve known superb technical creatives who just don’t have the sort of personality that enjoys a frank conversation with another human about issues of image and confidence (and to their credit, they usually recognise this).
But what you don’t bring is self-esteem, thought-control, or a knowledge of all the associations a person may have built up from 40 years’ experience of having their picture taken.
On that last point, a good test question for an enquirer considering a commission is: “tell me about your favourite picture that’s ever been taken of you?”. If you just get a blank look, or worse: “no, it’s never happened. I hate all pictures of me,” then have a serious think about whether you are going to be the photographer who’ll break that streak.
Of course, the subject who positively enjoys having their picture taken is a rarity. Especially in corporate photography – which can be more of a “distress purchase”. Something that has to be done, rather than something that is wanted, like car insurance. (Sadly, for some people, wedding photography can also fall into this class. “I really don’t want a photographer at all but my mum says we have to” – genuine quote from an enquiry.)
Statistically, I find there’s a small but consistent percentage of whole-company photoshoot subjects who don’t/won’t like their photo. Whatever you do. However you work with them on the day and show them examples as the shoot’s in progress. Even when they’ve said to you they’ll be ok with at least one of them. But when all of the commission is about making one person feel amazing about themselves, and they don’t, then the pain is hugely amplified.
It’s just how humans work. It’s not you. And this is my message to the photographers feeling crushed by one of these conversations. You may well have had room to improve on kit, technique, rapport and so on, but even if you hadn’t, this will still happen.
Crushed, though? Really, Paul?
What is it about that D___ word – disappointment – that is so hard to deal with? For many of us I suspect it’s got very early roots. We can cope with the consequences of doing things wrong – with punishments, or even with anger and shame. But when it comes to falling below expectations (either our own, or ones we perceive others have for us) then it’s the lowest blow possible. It can make you want to sell, or smash, your cameras – never to take a portrait commission again. To feel like you just hurt someone, personally, and hard. Or damaged a friendship. It’s serious stuff. I got unlucky with it happening on my very first one. I was inexperienced, did my best, and ultimately took the set to a mentor who took one look and said “nah, them, not you” – which made things feel a whole lot better.
I thought very long and hard about writing on this topic. It’s the great unsayable in any professional service. “Has it ever gone completely wrong?”
Yes. Yes it has. And in all cases I did everything I could to make good, whether that involved reshooting, or refunding (or both). But looking at the hard numbers, I can count 4 out of about 2,000 shoots where this happened. I don’t even have to try hard to count them; they burn hard in my mind as soon as I close my eyes. I’ve got a file where I have all the positive feedback from others – hundreds and hundreds of happy messages.
And yet I let those 4 carry a weight that sometimes feels like it exceeds 400.
Maybe that’s what we need to work on dealing with.
It has to be one of the most ambitious, and successful, mass portrait photography projects of all time. You see them everywhere – the portraits of MPs and Lords, produced by a Parliament team led by Carrie Kleiner, and shot by accomplished portrait photographer Chris McAndrew.
I know a little bit about the workings of Parliament from my previous career, and it’s a place like no other. It’s not government, for one thing. Nor is it “a company”. Instead it’s a collection of members, with some responsibilities to their political parties, answerable to their electors.
When you shoot a set of portraits in the corporate world, you usually have in mind some overarching theme that you want the project to convey. This might be one of “warm engagement”, it could be “quirky mavericks”, “responsibly sombre” or perhaps – as with one of my regular clients – the no-nonsense faces of criminal barristers.
With parliamentarians, though, you don’t just have a vast cast list of wildly differing personalities, you’re also dealing with some who will mainly be thought of as constituency figures, others with ministerial responsibilities, and some who run parties, or even parties-within-parties.
In short it’s as wide and tough a brief as one could imagine. And they’re not employees. They won’t be told what to do. If they don’t want to have their photo taken, they don’t have to.
So I can only imagine the work needed to get this to happen at all, and the team did an amazing job to get as many of them included as they did. Carrie has written some good stuff here about how they approached it. (They did it efficiently too, at a cost of less than £20 per portrait [excluding internal Parliamentary staff time]. There’s a whole other post to be written here about the commercial aspects of a job like this.)
I’ve thought a lot about this project. Although on a smaller scale, the issues involved are those of my working world too. These are a few of the thoughts and lessons it’s inspired in me:
If you’ve got a monster portrait project, and little time to do it in, keep it simple. It looks like this was done with a single studio light – up and to the right of the frame, with the subject set against a plain background. There are more interesting compositions, sure, but they’d all take more time, and have many more ways for things to go wrong.
This has advantages and disadvantages, and is a useful point to think about if you ever have to commission your own set of company portraits. While the same aesthetic will bring consistency across the set, and helps to brand them as all being part of the same endeavour, individual appearances vary hugely. It’s not always easy to find one aesthetic that will suit every single person. Differences in size, shape, skin pigment, texture… all of these have a bearing on the final result. Some subjects will definitely come out of the process better than others.
What do I mean here? Well, you’ve probably experienced this with your own image. Did you ever look at a black and white version of your face and think – “oh, that’s so much nicer!”? There are a few reasons why this can happen, but one of them is that black and white is a quick way to create a distance from reality. Given the, er, complex relationship most of us have with our own image, having a bit of room to see ourselves abstracted can often help us accept, or even enjoy, the result. With this portrait set, I think there’s been a deliberate choice to ‘cool down’ the images – shifting the colour palette down to the blue end of the spectrum. It’s what makes these pictures look a little ‘blue’ or ‘cold’ overall. It really helps to give them a distinctive look, but it also helps to make them just a little bit unreal – at least in tone.
They are, however, ruthlessly real in other aspects. They are, as far as I can judge, unretouched. We’re in really interesting territory here in terms of what we mean by the ‘truth’ of a portrait. Whether Cromwell actually used the words “warts and all” to his portrait artist Sir Peter Lely, is unknown. But we all recognise the sentiment. The role of the portrait painter was to convey an artistic impression – very possibly a flattering one – of the subject. But the role of the photographer? Well, within the world of PR photography, not all that different. But in the world of journalism? Very. A little adjustment of colour, brightness and contrast, maybe, but no retouching as such. So are these photos to be seen as PR work, or journalism? In a sense they fall between the two stools. They are not a “news story” (although they did become one) nor are they an exercise in image management. The project team have come down firmly on the side of the journalists – unairbrushed reality. If the subject has a bit of a sweat on, it’s in. A pimple or a wart? Same. A few flakes of dandruff or a stray hair on their collar? You get the picture. It’s really easy to see the sort of problems a project like this might run into if it were seen to have manipulated the photos to flatter. But it shows the weight of the decisions that were involved.
While there’s a whole lot of work involved in planning and shooting a picture set like this, once the lights are packed up there’s still more to be done. Carrie’s post talks about 15,000 photos taken – that’s bang on what I would expect – about 25 clicks for each subject. Discounting blinks, grimaces and the odd flash failure or lighting quirk, that leaves with you a few good options that are all technically ‘usable’. And from there you have to make a choice: which is the ‘best’? And having made that choice, to what extent do you seek your subject’s agreement? I’ve got no knowledge of how the process worked in this case, but I know from my own experience that there’s an enormous amount of judgement and negotiation required to get from the end of the shoot to final publication. (And a bit of digging into some of the history recorded in Wikipedia points to the fact that not every subject in this project liked what they got. That’s another inevitability of big portrait projects in the real world.)
This might seem a bit of a niche point, but it’s worth some exploration. Normally when you do corporate portraiture, the aim is to make it available for the needs of the organisation (published on a website, for example) and possibly also for use by individual subjects. Here though, the ambition was much wider – to create a collection of photos to be available for use by anyone. The press, the subjects themselves, and indeed Wikipedia. So that means using an ‘open licence’ – allowing others to use the images. The licence they used – a “Creative Commons” licence – requires anyone using the images to credit the copyright holder. Other than Wikipedia, nobody’s done that as far as I’ve seen, which does make a bit of a mockery of the whole concept. Technically, most uses of these images are in breach of the licence and users could theoretically be chased up for money. (Not likely to happen in this case, I think.)
But here’s the nerdy bit which got me thinking – Creative Commons licences come in a variety of different flavours. Some put a “non-commercial” restriction on how images can be used, though what this means is often difficult to define in practice. Others say that “no derivatives” can be made of the image – so no tweaking, or making into collages, or memes, or whatever (though a copyright exception does exist which can help in the latter case). There are other more baroque variants, and you can read your fill here, but it’s notable that Wikipedia requires a pretty simple flavour, with very little restriction on reuse.
(Maybe, given the lack of likelihood of anybody bothering to attribute the images, combined with the lack of interest in enforcing a licence, a CC0 “public domain” designation would have been more appropriate. There’s definitely a good argument for it.)
So let’s take those points about authenticity and licensing and have a bit of fun. Because anyone can take those images and modify them, I can take those images and modify them. (Do I feel entirely comfortable doing this? No. Taking and editing someone else’s work is always weird. Especially when it features a living subject with whom I have no connection. But that’s the nature of this type of licensing and usage, so please forgive me. I should stress that there’s nothing ‘wrong’ with the original images, and I’ve described some of the context and thinking that’s likely to have been involved.)
What if I treated them as I might treat a PR photography shoot? I might undo that decision on colour balance, for instance. And might I then fix a few blemishes, the odd mark on a suit, a stray hair, or perhaps a few pounds around the jowls? You see where this goes, obviously – but where does it end? (In truth, I have pretty strict ethical rules about what I will and won’t do in terms of retouching. Every photographer should. Anything that could be done with better lighting or in a make-up artist’s chair, I’m generally ok with. Reshaping bodies is pretty much always a no-no, other than for a few exceptions such as very closed eyes. I have bent my rules a little in this post, as the images are purely for illustration.)
I sometimes have to work from less than ideal starting images, but still get the job done. By way of illustration, consider Diane Abbott as she appears in the official set, how I might rework her in a PR edit, and the image she uses for her own Twitter bio.
Diane Abbott – UK Parliament official portraits 2017 (L); edited version (R) – see attribution line below
So enjoy a few more example “PR edits”. I’ve not described in detail the changes I’ve made, to spare any blushes of the subjects, but see if you can spot the differences. I’ve already seen one published example out there of an edited version from this original project, and we may well see more. Keep your eyes open!
Mark Francois – UK Parliament official portraits 2017 (L); edited version (R) – see attribution line above
Penelope Mordaunt – UK Parliament official portraits 2017 (L); edited version (R) – see attribution line above
Kenneth Clarke – UK Parliament official portraits 2017 (L); edited version (R) – see attribution line above
Rupa Huq – UK Parliament official portraits 2017 (L); edited version (R) – see attribution line above
Ask any professional event photographer, and they’ll be able to tell you about the times they’ve heard this:
“Please can you shoot our event for free? It’s for a good cause.”
For bonus points they add: “it’ll be really good for your portfolio!”
In my experience, these requests fall into two broad categories: big organisations (usually charities) who know exactly what they’re doing, and smaller, often individual-led events, where it just seems like a pragmatic way of avoiding spending money.
What both types have in common are some assumptions about event photography that are pretty misguided:
1. Photographers just love taking photos of interesting things. You do it anyway, whether you’re paid or not. This will be a chance to have fun with your hobby, AND do good!
2. Our event is so cool that it will substantially enhance the portfolio of anyone who takes the photos. You’re lucky we aren’t charging YOU!
3. The only real cost to anyone doing this is their time. You already have the kit, and it’s not like you need to spend any money on film, do you?
4. As long as you’ve got a nice camera, you’ll do a good enough job for what we need.
These hardly need unpicking, really. But let’s just set them straight:
1. Yes. We do. All the time. But the critical factor here is that it’s our choice to decide what we want to shoot, and how we want to shoot it. There’s a world of difference between grabbing a few frames of an amazing act, or building, or crowd – and delivering the 100+ high-quality finished images that are required to do an event job properly from beginning to end.
2. This one is more challenging. We all started somewhere. Did I charge full rates for my first events? Of course not. I did lots of cheap, and indeed, free, stuff. But it wasn’t always that great. I was learning. Maybe that’s all that they’re after when they ask for pro bono work: key words you sometimes see are “budding”, “student” or “up-and-coming”. These are often code for: “we just want someone cheap” – and if that’s the case, be really clear that you’re not expecting a full-blown professional job (and that you might have to bite your tongue if the results aren’t everything you dreamed of). And do remember that if someone’s already got a great portfolio (go on, check, it’s easy) you really don’t have the negotiating position you think you have.
3. No. No. No. What about insurance? What about kit that gets broken on the job? And it does wear out eventually. Then there’s opportunity cost. Try this in the peak season months of March-June or September-November and if you can find a good professional that’s available, they’d very likely also be able to pick up a paid booking in that slot. Hence the sad refrain I keep hearing “well, we did have someone, but they let us down the week before.” Yes. Because they got offered actual money that would feed and house them.
4. A. Nice. Camera. There’s a world of difference between a £1,000 prosumer dSLR with a kit lens and the multiply-resilient bag of tricks that a professional will bring. If something goes wrong with any of my stuff on the job, I’ve got an immediate replacement to hand. If the lighting is a disaster, I’ve got low-light equipment that will keep the show running. If there’s a sudden request for an immediate press image, I’ve got the editing kit with me. And honestly, it’s really not so much about the equipment… It’s knowing what to shoot, when to shoot, when NOT to shoot, how people will react, behave, vanish after they’ve collected their award… The thousand subtleties that set a real event photographer apart from the herd.
So let’s take a look at the first of the types I mentioned above. The charity that’s booked the Grosvenor House Hotel for a celebrity gala. It’s a cheap shot to observe that their CEO earns £250k. I mean, big complex organisations need experienced and skilled leaders. But yeah. 250k. On the ground, they’ll have a budget for this event. And very likely a big budget. Yes, they might get a favourable rate from the venue, and some of the suppliers. But dig into the real work that’s being put in to make this happen… Did the lighting riggers all decided to forgo half their hourly rate? The bouncers? The sound operators? The caterers? The cleaners? The bar staff? Did the philanthropic drinks industry decide to take a huge loss on the booze for this one? NO.
And yet. The one thing you are left with when all the branding has been taken down and the guests have gone home are the photos. A three figure cost (in general) in an overall budget that may well have six figures. And you placed that responsibility in the hands of someone who might well not even turn up, and if they do, not have the first clue what they’re doing?
Yeah, and you put out a request on your channels for a photographer, all the same. And maybe the professional photography community noticed, and you started to get publicly fried. (And the bigger you are, the more oil we like to pour into the pan. We talk to each other all the time, in forums and groups. If you approach half a dozen of us, you’re almost guaranteeing to start a conversation you probably don’t want to be happening.) You might have to start deleting some of your posts, and getting drawn into reputation defence (good luck with that) which is only going to eat up even more of your resources and social capital.
So don’t. It makes absolutely no sense.
But what if you’re just doing a small event – and there really is no money to speak of associated with it? I am inclined to be more, er, charitable to these. I’d expect a lot of transparency about the other costs for the event, and a frank discussion about expectations. But if I walk in and see cases of free champagne or – and this did happen – a photo booth in the corner that had been paid for with actual cash, I will be out of that door in an instant.
So you’ve read all this, and you’ve cottoned on to the underlying issue: the fundamental undervaluing of creative work. We can all take “a photo” with our phones. We can all write a line of copy, by which I mean we all know some words. Most of us can get on a stage and say some words, which chisels away at the value of those who speak or perform for a living. (Whether our efforts are any good or not is an entirely different matter.)
But you do want someone to take your pictures. And you’ve got no budget to speak of.
Well, if you’re a big charity, you have. Go away and come back when you’ve thought it through a bit more.
And if you’re not? Ask your network, by all means. But better to ask them directly. If you have a patient/supporter/related industry/personal network, use that first. Charity is generally better offered than sought, and there may be some predisposition to giving this several-hundred-quids-worth-of-services as a charitable donation.
Try to avoid big public appeals for help. You may not get the response you hoped for. And if you do ask, publicly or to your own network, avoid weasel words like “budding”. We know what you mean.
Say something about how you’ve set up the event, what you’re spending money on and what you’re not, and what you need in terms of basic coverage. If you really just need award winner photos for press releases, say that, and don’t expect someone to be there two hours in advance to do all the set-up and networking pictures. Be honest about how much you’ll value what you do get, and that you recognise the importance of having this done well. If it doesn’t need to be ‘perfect’, say so.
And my door is open – if you are thinking about doing this, get in touch – I will happily offer advice on how to frame and pitch it, for free, in the interests of seeing my profession valued as it should be. Email email@example.com, any time.
When I ordered my Canon 1DX Mk2s a few months ago, I hadn’t spotted that I was also entering a competition run by Wex Photographic. First I knew was that I’d won it, and I’d landed a day’s workshop with top sports snapper (and all round excellent man) Eddie Keogh. We headed to Holme Pierrepont near Nottingham to get up close with white water kayaking.
One of the lesser known things about digital photography is that the camera often sees more than it’s letting on. Generally speaking, cameras can produce two types of digital image: “RAW” and “JPG” (or JPEG, jpeg or .jpg but let’s not get hung up on that…)
It’s only mid-January, and surely one of the year’s most memorable events is already done and dusted. I was honoured to get an invitation from Zoe Margolis to come and make pictures as 11 incredibly talented acts gave their time in a comedy benefit to raise money for Brook, the sexual health charity for young people.
And what the legendary event showman – and many other things – Matt Desmier (pictured below) did with it really blew me away. I don’t think I’ve seen a better use of a set of event pictures I’ve taken.
As I did a year ago, I’ve picked out a few favourites from the year just gone – as much to remind myself of all that flew past as for anything else.
Some I’ve published before in one place or another; most I haven’t – they’re taken on a mix of cameras, from DSLR to phone, some as commissioned commercial work, others as personal projects for my own enjoyment. I hope you enjoy looking through them – they all bring back special memories for me. Hectic (probably 25% too hectic at times if I’m honest), but fun, year.
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about costs and pricing for photography. Unsurprisingly, really – I send out a bunch of quotes every day for photography work, big and small. Making the right call is vital to putting food on my table.
1980. Sharp suits. Wraparound shades. Pork pie hats. The days when we had proper fashion tribes, and a row of button badges down the (narrow) lapel – or on the inside of it in the case of a school blazer – was enough to indicate allegiance and provide that little inner glow of belonging.
Maybe it’s unprofessional to admit that things go wrong sometimes. Maybe it’s more unprofessional to conceal that they do, and not to talk about ways that even an abject disaster might not be as bad as it first seems.
Under my nose this morning landed a competition promotion from British Airways that at first glanced looked to be worth a bit of my attention. Send in a travel pic, win some travel. Okay… well, I have some nice travel pics. And I like a good travel.
[NB: 16 March update now added at the foot of this post]
As I did on NYE last year, I sat down a couple of hours ago to pick out the photos that I remembered most from the year just gone.
With these reviews, there’s a tendency to put in some showy-off “good stuff”, and perhaps also a few that haven’t been seen publicly before but have something special about them, but this year I’ve also picked a few that are personal, rather than for work. It’s been a busy year of jobs – scarily so at times – but there’s been a life going on there as well. That’s made the selection a bit bigger than I intended…
It’s been fascinating to watch what’s been going on in the taxi industry over the last few months. There’s always been a (healthy?) tension between black cabs and private hire licensed cars, but that’s been nothing compared to the storms caused by technology startups coming in to disrupt things.
I’ve had a few requests to say a bit more about the technical aspects of event photography, so this post digs into the settings a little, and also says something about how and when I bring flash into play.
1. Could you just pop in for a few minutes? – we only need a few shots.
Usually the tuning notes that precede a full symphony of requirements – as models, costumes and props descend as if from the Covent Garden Opera House ceiling. The “few minutes” inevitably harks back to (and magnifies) the amount of time the client has spent thinking about this. The “few shots” are what you wish you could administer to the back of their head in a quiet alleyway. (Or that some photographers pour down their neck to dull the pain.)
I’m not a big one for competitions. This is something of an understatement. I put one picture forward for one, once, and heard no more. I’m generally a bit more focused on doing the work than on chasing trophies around. Plus, it’s a lot harder than you might think. Picking a tiny handful out of vast swathes of work – declaring those to be your best – and then being…judged. Publicly. Against brilliant people. Yeah.
Lots of my work involves capturing people, organisations or events associated with technology. Sometimes it’s to feature the founders of a shiny startup, and quite a few times it’s been the subject of this post: a hack event.
The Scandinavian leg is hard to describe. Hundreds and hundreds of lakes, thousands and thousands of miles, millions and millions of trees, and a few answers to the question: “what’s the difference between Norway and Sweden?”
You might have seen pictures from this twitter feed sweeping socialmedialand over the last few days <1>. Crowd-sourcing at its finest. People take photos of other people while they are asleep on public transport. They tweet them to @sleepycommuters. This account scrapes the picture, and tweets it from their own account, sometimes citing the originating tweeter <2>.
A few weeks back I was in the middle of a portrait shoot when I spotted one of those chance frames that really stopped me in my tracks. Not for the first time, it involved one of London’s bridges. These three red buses, set against a diabolical, stormy City backdrop, became a very popular image of the weird weather of Summer 2012. Pre-Olympics, at least.
One of the very first bits of advice I was given as I clutched a Kodak Instamatic back in the 70s, was to make sure I had the sun behind me when taking family snaps. Well-meant advice, of course, but as I’ve written before, light shining straight into the face of a subject is a mixed blessing. Yes, you can see them well enough – but you see them as they screw their eyes up against the glare, with any hope of casting interesting shadows lost to the flat, boring, frontal (and often intense) lighting.
LeWeb comes to London! Today was the first of two days of a little bit of Paris in England (well, quite a lot it seemed, with the whole crew from bouncers to videographers shipped in by the debonair Loic Le Meur). I’m doing photo coverage for a couple of tech publications, and having a fine old time of it.
Such a powerful thing. It can demonstrate bare, unpalatable truths. It can lead to a swift journey to the courtroom. It can certainly frighten the hell out of people, especially those in authority. And even more so when there are children involved.
The World Naked Bike Ride is exactly what it sounds like. In dozens of cities around the world, cyclists take to the streets for a couple of hours, wearing nothing – or not very much – to highlight a range of issues from cyclist safety to greener living.
A regular part of an event coverage job is making sure there are strong images of the main speakers. Maybe these are captured as they’re out there in the bright lights, perhaps in action doing their piece, perhaps in a relaxed moment. But sometimes the portraiture is more formal.
Last June, on an event shoot for Channel 4, we went for the latter.
Yeah, you’ve heard it before, I’m sure. The best camera isn’t a Nikon, or a Canon, or a Leica. It’s the one you have with you.
That big thing with the boats last Sunday – I was steering one of them, at the very front of the flotilla, with an exceptional vantage point to snap a few frames from as we went along. Of course, steering and safety were my first priority. Of course.
A once in a lifetime chance to explore an extraordinary boat.
There I was last weekend, polishing a boat by the river at Richmond, when the Queen’s new Royal Rowbarge, Gloriana, pulled up alongside. Impossibly gleaming and shiny, brand spanking new, undergoing its final preparations for the Diamond Jubilee River Pageant on 3rd June.
Spotted a Steve Lawson update the other day pointing me in the direction of a few tracks on SoundCloud from a fine, fine singer/songwriter called Luke Sital-Singh. I was bowled over, really. Hadn’t heard anything quite so intense and powerful in years. This was the track that blew me away. This, from a guy of 24. Steve, I’ve said this before, but you have amazing taste in music, and your generosity in sharing it is legendary.