Guest blog: Land Pirate

February 16, 2017  •  Leave a Comment

Jen approached me for a highwaywoman ('Land Pirate') themed shoot a while ago. I suggested that she might like to write about the experience; Jen kindly obliged.

For the last few years I have treated myself to a photoshoot for my birthday (because I totally deserve it). I’d had boudoir style shoots done – which were fine at the time, but were very middle of the road. This year I wanted something more interesting, more dramatic and focused on being a Highway woman (my ultimate career choice)! I also really wanted to go topless – simply because I hadn’t before – but I wanted the shoot to be about power and strength, to say ‘this is me, I’m a mum, I’m nearly 40 and I’m happy’. I didn't want it to be about being topless in a naff way. So there was going to be an element of glamour – but hopefully not tackiness. That was the line I didn’t want to cross – and that Simon had to try and achieve.

JenJen

I knew of Simon’s work through his photographer of circus performers and so approached him. Happily he agreed to work with me. This was the first time I'd done something collaborative and it involved a lot of thought and discussion. 

Long before the shoot we had many exchanges about the costume - sharing things on Pinterest for us both to give our opinions. This part took longer than I thought as, even though we didn't feel the need to go for a particular historic angle, we both wanted it to look vaguely convincing and not fancy dress. Eventually it came together and I had several versions of an outfit to take to the shoot - although at the shoot, we further refined this and stuck to one choice.

In terms of location, Simon suggested the WindmillArt Studio at Linton. It was useful because we were able to do inside and outside shots - and I really wanted to have outdoor, woodland based shots which was more in keeping with the idea, and a nice contrast to studio-only shoots I'd done before. We also made the decision to get a make-up artist (because I know my limitations) and Simon sourced that for me too - Becky Purple. 

We met in person briefly but I felt like I knew Simon really well already – and that I already trusted him implicitly. I had no qualms about getting topless in front of him – he’s a true professional & gent.

We both came with lots of ideas for the shoot itself - Simon probably had more than me. Simon booked the venue for 6 hours. I assumed that we'd probably be done 4 hours in but in fact, we were still going until the very end and could have done with another 2 hours. I was so surprised by this. Apart from the make-up being done at the start, and a 10 minute break for lunch, we worked right through. Some poses we'd decided before but others were done on the day, utilising the location or particular poses that came to mind (mainly Simon's mind).

We started the day with some headshots which I wasn't particularly interested in as they are 'fashiony' and that wasn't what I was focused on that day. But actually, I really love them - and lots of female friends like them because I look strong in them. I also think it shows you what having a good make-up artist, photographer and lighting can do! The images are very removed from me, but they still are me.

We did several different sessions in the windmill, with different types of poses. Some were all about the defiant law-breaker I'd imagined but that would have been quite dull to have throughout. I hadn't really thought beyond that though so Simon had to draw out other expressions - more vulnerable, reflective ones - and they do make for a better mix. 

Then the boobs. This was tricky as, like the costume, it was difficult to get right. It was important for me to be photographed like that but neither of us wanted it to look tacky, as if I was attempting to be a glamour model. For me it was still about strength and (somehow) subtlety. Again, Simon had to get me to go beyond the mono-tough expression I'd spent weeks perfecting in the mirror. The contrast between what I represent - being above the law, independent, tough - and a vulnerable expression, whilst being topless.

Simon also took some full length shots using only natural light. It was hard to achieve a successful pose but we did manage one particularly dramatic pose. It is very different to the other topless images and very striking (I think).

Outdoors, Simon had so many ideas - some thought of before the shoot and some conceived while we were there. The sun was a bit of a challenge as it kept disappearing but even though it was a cold spring day, it did shine when we needed it - for the most part. The setting was perfect - so much more convincing than just in a studio. There were shots done in the woodland, then among the hedges. We could have utilised the setting so much more if we'd had more time.

When we were in the woodland, after some static 'Stand and deliver' poses, Simon came up with the idea of me throwing my cloak open to get an action shot. It took as a while to get a shot with my expression working with the cloak being open at the right time, but we did achieve something effective (I say we - mostly it was Simon!).

We had been working together for half a day at this point and this part of the day - when we were just playing - was the most fun. The sunlight really brought out a warmth to the colour of my hair and the costume and the shots are much more lively and full of action - and some of my character I think.  For me, this is when I felt most authentic - as a fantasy Highway Woman - and also, Simon and I had got used to working with each other.

Land PirateLand Pirate

We really could have done so much more (though perhaps it would have helped if we'd had a horse-drawn coach for me to hold up). My narrow focus - a topless portrait in costume - had been massively expanded through our conversations and Simon's input on the day and the result is different sets of images, all inter-linked but each set is standalone too. And actually the being topless thing became almost irrelevant as the purpose of the shots - to be seen as strong and powerful - was achieved without that being done. 

I learnt a huge amount during the shoot - mainly that you do need to come to a shoot with more than one expression! - and it was very different, and much better, to have a properly collaborative relationship. Having two perspectives meant that ideas were challenged or fought for, or adapted and altered in unexpected ways. This worked both ways too, as during the selection process afterwards (which took a long time!) I championed images that Simon had initially dismissed but appreciated at second glance. Creatively, it was a really fun and engaging process, and definitely worth the end result :)
 


Winter Magic

December 02, 2016  •  Leave a Comment

I’ve mentioned Lily La Mer before – she’s a circus performer, mermaid, model and costumier. Lily does walkabout performances and creates performance installations and sets for all sorts of events. Her latest costume – an astonishingly detailed mermaid tail christened Dave – took something like 15 people a total of 7 months to create.  

Lily La Mer & CompanyLily La Mer & CompanyA promo photo for Lily La Mer's winter performance company. She makes all the costumes herself; they take months.

Blog post
here

Lily needed some suitably epic promotional photos for the tail and acts she can create around it.. and that’s where the planning started.We have a habit of egging each other on. Lily will suggest something and I’ll add another detail e.g. ‘why don’t we add an aerialist into the mix?’ – which will inspire another idea from her, and so on.

The original idea was to create a magical wintery scene to show what her clients could get over the Christmas season. It needed to be dramatic without being too moody and glum – Lily’s challenging brief was ‘light shadows and dark light’.

The first challenge was working out how to integrate the blue tail into a wintery scene – lots of blue fabric of different shades and some blue gelled lights mix seemed like a good idea.

The second challenge was working out how to decorate the floor – we didn’t want it to be flat, and it needed to look snowy. Lily found some large rolls of fake snow but it wasn’t terribly convincing. Combined with some extra fake glittery snowflakes and a specialist fog machine designed to create a low-lying layer of fog I thought we might just make something work.

Several of the costumes have fairy lights in them. We needed to ensure that those showed up – adding lots more seemed a good idea.

Then there were the extra details of set dressing – using multiple layers of fabric to create texture and depth, taping & decorating the aerial hoop, creating some wintery trees – and a way to make them stand up - and so on.

While Lily & team were beavering away creating set and costumes I was thinking about the logistics and lighting. It was clearly going to be easiest to use the studio I share – I know it well and it’s fairly straightforward to rig aerial equipment. The detailed planning went down to the level of working out where we were going to get bags of ice – for the fog machine - on a Sunday afternoon, as well as who was collecting who from the station when. In addition to the 5 performers we had 3 assistants at various points during the day.

This is what we started with - the ladder is under the hoop rigging point. The first job was to dismantle a partition wall. Please excuse the low-grade iPhone behind the scenes pics :) Lots of tea was consumed..

Blank slate

While I was doing that Lily & co unloaded the van they’d hired. Only to realise that they’d left a key component of the set in Kent; Alex was despatched on a 4 hour round trip to go and fetch it while we rejigged the shooting schedule.

Sorting out the costumes took a while:

Costumes The view from above the set:

Just getting the fabric up took a while. Some of it was incredibly creased – so we dampened it to get the worst out. Unfortunately we over did the dampening and then had to use some hot lights to dry it out again.

Technical gubbins

I was using a Nikon D750 and Tamron f2.8 24-70 lens on a Manfrotto tripod for the shoot.

Lighting was always going to be a challenge. The main thing was ensuring that the fairy lights in the set and costumes weren't drowned out by the flash but that the image wasn't too dark. The approach I took was to give each performer or detail their own snooted, gridded or flagged flash - or in some cases all 3. For instance the stilt walkers had a single gridded dish, masked with some cinefoil. The eagle-eyed will spot a speedlite snooted with a Pringles tube – this is providing an accent light on the tail. I like Pringles tubes modifiers – the silver interior gives a really nice soft edged spot, or if you need a harder edge then sliding a piece of black craft foam inside does the job.

I needed f8 to get enough depth of field and 1/50s at ISO 400 to get the LEDs to register as I wanted. Then the flashes were tweaked individually using a Sekonic L558 light meter and checking the results by shooting tethered to my Windows laptop using smartshooter and Lightroom via a Tethertools cable secured with reusable cable ties.

Ideally I would have liked a deeper depth of field but focusing into the middle of the scene got everything sufficiently sharp.

The 8 lights are a mixture of Yongnuo speedlites and studio units from Elinchrom and Lencarta; the fairy lights were selected so that they were all the same colour.

Here’s a dodgy lighting diagram – I’ve omitted a couple of the handheld reflectors which were used to lift some of the shadows. You’ll see that all the key lights come from approximately the same direction – I did try with spots from both sides of the set but the shadows were horrible. I might have got away with having all the lights perpendicular to the performers but it would have had less depth.

Here’s a snap of some of the lights:



Another shot of the lights, though this wasn't the final arrangement. You can just see one of the rolls of fake snow, too:

The difficult parts were idiotic things like arranging the fake snow in a way which was safe for the stilt walkers, anchoring the trees, stopping the hoop from spinning and finding a relaxed looking pose for the mermaid - it takes an aerialist's muscles to hold the tail fin up like that. Not to mention cleaning up confetti. I thought confetti might look like snow falling so Lily bought a huge box of confetti cannon. Unfortunately it just looked like jumbo confetti – and cleaning up the results of just cannon shot took ages.

The final image is actually a composite but all the performers were in place for all the shots; we just selected the best expressions from 4 different images and merged them in. I did a little bit of cloning to fill in gaps in the floor and fabric and burnt down a couple of bright spots. Then the image was slightly desaturated and the local contrast given a little boost using Topaz Clarity.

With thanks to

  • Lily La Mer aka Frankie Dubery & her many costume students (mermaid & shiny-addict)
  • Alex Stephenson (van & stilts)
  • Eloise Ford (set creation)
  • Erin Cunningham (stilts)
  • Daisy Russell (aerial hoop)
  • Bendy Bendini (contact juggler)
  • Dawn Drewett (lighting assistant)
  • Chloe Carter (lighting assistant & hugely supportive wife)

The Process

November 07, 2016  •  Leave a Comment

I prefer to let my photos speak for themselves but I’m sometimes asked how I work.

I’m not a full time photographer. I’m still entirely professional and have my own studio but I don’t have time to do high volume work. I don’t often do family portraits or corporate headshots and I rarely shoot weddings. I’m interested in conveying theatricality, drama and emotion, or the unique qualities of the human body and what it can do.

I share a studio in Duxford but I'm quite happy to shoot on location or use a different studio with different facilities as a shoot dictates.

I treat each photoshoot as a unique collaboration. Sometimes shoots can be entirely straightforward while others can involve a lot of planning and discussion to nail all the details – styling, location, hair, makeup, props and so on – needed to produce something really special. 

Sometimes my lighting is very simple, using natural light where it’s appropriate. On other occasions the lighting can be deeply technical and precise. 

A photoshoot is a lot like a private performance. I’ll direct my subject, seeking to draw out the character we’ve discussed, or create the perfect shapes. A shoot is an energetic & fun experience. They can be vary from fluid and playful to highly exacting; with some lighting styles the smallest change in the position of a light or a hand can change the whole atmosphere of a shot.

I may take a lot of shots during a shoot – or only a few – but I don’t produce dozens of similar photos from each shoot. Typically I’ll retouch a couple to a high standard and narrow down the remainder to my favourites. I’ll then ask the subject to choose a few from the best of the rest for further retouching.

Just like the vintage Hollywood glamour portraitists of yesteryear I often perform extensive retouching, normally aiming for a meticulously processed but largely undetectable result. I don’t often rely on filters, toning and effects though I will use them when appropriate.

A photo isn’t really finished until it’s printed, framed and hung on a wall. I use the highest quality processes and papers I can find. I can make recommendations from frames, mattes and so on - I've even researched different glass types. After extensive testing I’ve found that proper photographic prints – also called C-Types or Lambda prints – usually suit my work better than more common inkjet or Giclée prints. They don’t last quite so long – more like 50 years rather than 100 before they can start to show some degradation – but the depth of colour and shadow detail is nearly always superior.

If you’ve got an interesting project in mind then I’d love to hear from you – do get in touch.

Hollywood GlamourHollywood Glamour


Moving from Mirrorless (or: why I'm going against the tide)

April 22, 2016  •  Leave a Comment

In the last few years camera technology has undergone a significant period of development. For a long time digital SLR cameras were exactly that; essentially the same construction as film SLRs but with a digital sensor in place of the film carrier.

Olympus, Panasonic, Fuji and more recently Sony have challenged the core design, doing away with the flappy mirror at the heart of the camera and replacing the optical viewfinder with a full time live view screen. Coupled with improvements in sensor technology it has allowed for much smaller and lighter systems which are still capable of producing high quality results. Consequently many serious photographers are ditching their SLR setups in favour of these new mirrorless systems.

I’m going the other way. I’ve used a mirrorless Olympus OM-D E-M5 for the last couple of years but I’ve recently swapped to a Nikon D750. I love my Olympus but I needed to scratch that full frame itch.

Handstand counterbalanceHandstand counterbalance

There were a number of reasons for thinking a change of system would be a good idea:

  • The small sensor in the Olympus means softening due to diffraction is highly noticeable at relatively wide apertures. Combined with a base ISO of 200 it’s a particular irritation in the studio. Studio lights don’t always go that dim and increasing the shutter speed makes no difference with flash. Consequently I’m often pfaffing around with neutral density filters.
  • The E-M5 doesn’t shoot tethered (i.e. directly to a laptop). EyeFi cards would appear to offer a workaround but my experience of them has been poor.
  • Hugely greater dynamic range and bit depth should mean more room to manipulate images before degradation sets in.
  • More pixels offer greater cropping options or the ability to print larger sizes.
  • Regardless of the number of pixels, images from a full frame sensor will be sharper - all other things being equal.
  • An autofocus system which can actually track moving subjects would be very welcome.
  • The minimum depth of field on a small sensor camera will always be limited. To get truly blurry backgrounds you need a bigger sensor or some rather exotic lenses.
  • Dual memory card slots – for instant backup – would be a bonus.
  • Better support for 3rd party lighting accessories would be very welcome. For instance, there are no good wireless HSS or TTL triggers for the Olympus & Panasonic micro 4/3 system.
  • More buttons on the body so it takes fewer presses to change settings, e.g. focus point or ISO.

There are a few features of mirrorless cameras I really like:

  • I’m a big fan of electronic viewfinders. They’re not to everyone’s taste but I like the instant live view & histogram.
  • The in-body image stabilisation is amazing, allowing me to handhold ridiculously low shutter speeds.
  • The bulb mode which updates as long exposure images are captured is a really neat trick.
  • High grade lenses tend to be cheaper than their DSLR equivalents. Still expensive but not quite so ridiculous.
  • Focus peaking – though not available on the EM-5 – which shows exactly which areas of an image are in focus in the viewfinder has the potential to be very useful, especially with manual focus lenses or when using the ‘focus & recompose’ technique.

There were a few other items on the wish list for a new camera:

  • Base ISO of 100 or better
  • Max shutter speed of 1/8000 or better
  • Choice of 1st or 2nd curtain sync flash
  • Back button focusing
  • The ability to shoot at 5 frames per second or better

Having decided to change system the next question was whether to go for a APS-C (crop) sensor or a full-frame (35mm) equivalent. This was a no brainer – if I was going to change I didn’t want to find myself wanting to do it all again in a year or so. Full frame it was.

At first sight it appeared that the Sony A7 series would fit the bill nicely. In case you’re not familiar, they’re mirrorless full frame cameras.  Not the A7RII – I have no need for 42 mega pixel images nor the desire to store them or upgrade my computer so I can process them. The A7II looked to be an ideal candidate, though, with all the features I liked about my Olympus and all the benefits of a professional full frame system.

I didn’t give Canon much thought – they haven’t updated the 5D MkIII in ages and their other recent cameras have been low light or high pixel count specialist jobs.

The only other serious candidate was the Nikon D750.

I really wanted to love the Sony A7II but I just couldn’t. It had too many problems:

  • It’s deeply uncomfortable to hold, especially in one hand, without an expensive grip. I spend a lot of time clutching a camera in one hand while chatting to my subjects in the studio.
  • Tethering seems a bit half baked & unreliable, especially wirelessly – though there are people who make it work.
  • The range of lenses is limited – though getting better. Good lenses are very expensive and there are few of the high quality bargains which have evolved for the older systems. 
  • It took too many button presses to change focus points or ISO. This isn’t so much a consequence of being smaller and having fewer buttons as the fact that the UI is slightly odd.
  • The A7II is  sluggish. It’s slow to start and the EVF goes black for an awfully long time between shots.
  • I didn’t like the EVF all that much; it seemed very flickery compared to the Olympus models.
  • Battery life is woeful.
  • Support for exotic flash setups is better than Oly but still limited.
  • A curious hotshoe design seems to cause reliability problems for a good number of people.
  • Focus tracking is still way behind what the Nikon can do.
  • The automatic sensor cleaning system doesn’t work as well as Olympus’s and the mirrorless design makes it more of an issue.
  • The body may be small but lenses aren’t really any smaller than Nikon FF jobbies.
  • Sony’s history makes me nervous that they’ll do something completely different again in the future. Is this format a long term one?
  • Sony’s customer service reputation is terrible.

If I really wanted the amazing sensor from the A7RII then I could probably live with all of these issues but I just don’t need that many megapixels.

After using the D750 for a few weeks I’m getting on well with it. 

  • I still miss the EVF and stabilisation – though some lenses have their own vibration reduction features.
  • I’ve had a few issues with my old flash triggers not working reliably but upgrading those seems to have solved my problems. 
  • I’m not yet totally familiar with the user interface and I’m not yet getting the best out of the focusing system. 
  • It’s also taking me a while to get used to the super-shallow depth of field and learn not to abuse it.
  • It took me a while to get tethering working reliably – Nikon’s own software is very expensive. I highly recommend SmartShooter.
  • The maximum shutter speed is 1/4000, not 1/8000.
  • I usually prefer the 4:3 aspect ratio of the Olympus to the 3:2 of the Nikon

Otherwise there’s no looking back. I don’t even notice the increased size or weight. I’ll hang on to the Olympus for everyday out-and-about photography but for everything else the Nikon fits the bill nicely.

 


Behind the scenes with the Snow Queen

March 11, 2016  •  Leave a Comment

Lily La Mer & I have collaborated on all sorts of shoots. We seem to inspire ever more intricate ideas in each other; this Snow Queen shoot was no exception. It’s from a while ago now but there’s been some interest in how it came about so I’ve finally got around to writing it up.

Snow QueenSnow QueenLily La Mer in her guise as The Snow Queen

Blog post here.


Lily makes beautiful elaborate costumes and wanted to create some promotional material for her newest stilt outfit – an elaborate long white dress with LED lights sewn into the skirt, shoulder ruffs and crown.  She uses Durastilts normally intended for use by plasterers. They differ from Chinese ‘peg’ stilts in that it is much easier to stand still on them – even if they don’t afford the same range of acrobatics. They’re still decidedly dangerous to use in long grass, though.

The costume is intended for night ‘walkabout’ use at balls and similar events  so we wanted to portray it in a dark setting. I could have lit the costume to show the white dress but then the effect of the LEDs would have been lost; we decided to let the skirt go dark and expose for the LEDs.

The shoulder ruffs were a particular problem – there are so many LEDs in them that they tend to blow out. In retrospect an graduated neutral density filter might have helped but the challenges of focusing and shooting in the dark were already significant.  A concomitant issue was that the shoulder ruffs tend to produce ‘monster lighting’ – i.e. lighting the face from below – exacerbated by the fact that Lily was on stilts and considerably above the shooting position.

I shot from low – to emphasises the height – but on a fairly long focal length, approximately 35mm on a micro 4/3 system which is crudely equivalent to 70mm on a full frame system. Anything wide angle just made her head look miles away. I was using a tripod and remote release so I could prefocus using back-button focus and then concentrate on timing the shot.

The LEDs thus determined the base exposure – ISO 400, f5.6 – and shutter speed of 1/200s, i.e. as fast as I could manage while guaranteeing not to exceed the flash sync speed.

I needed to illuminate Lily’s face separately from the rest of the scene. A snoot was the obvious choice. I also wanted to get the light above her slightly to counteract the uplighting from the dress. The solution was a 1420 VAL spigot as designed by Ian Pack – this is a handy threaded gadget which mounts on a extending painters’ pole and can accept a standard female cold shoe and speedlight.  This was patiently wielded by my trusty assistant – and Lily’s partner – Alex. The snoot was a medium Roguewave Flashbender, rolled into a tube. The white interior of the Flashbender  gives a nice gradual falloff but it does tend to droop, which was a real issue for us especially since the flashgun had no modelling light. It took a few goes of shooting and chimping to get the power level right.

I took this image in the days before I started using a light meter and this experience was one of the reasons I started using one. The problem with chimping – reviewing images on the back of a camera – in the dark is that camera monitors look very bright and can give a false impression of the scene. When there are areas of intentionally blown highlights then even the back-of-camera histogram is of limited use. ‘Blinkies’ help a bit – but only a bit.

We’d decided we wanted to use smoke to create texture and drama. Some research led us to Enola Gaye white smoke bombs, normally used for Airsoft & paintball events. Not quite knowing what to expect we took a lot of precautions – fire extinguisher, fire blanket, metal toolbox to store them, metal bucket for the dead bombs and heatproof gloves to hand-hold them. It’s illegal to set them off in a public place – we worked in the private grounds of a studio – but the printed instructions just say ‘don’t be a d*ck’!

In fact they are very easy to use – after striking they do spark a bit at first but don’t get too hot. They do make a lot of smoke, though, and burn for about 2 minutes. I had a second assistant - an experienced pyrotechnician, as it happens – striking the bombs and running around with them to get the smoke where I wanted (followed by cries of ‘get out of shot... no the other way’).

Smoke needs illuminating from behind for it to show up, and we needed to try to keep it behind Lily or it would have just obscured her completely. I wanted to enhance any texture in the smoke, too. My solution for this was another speedlight in a small 60cm x 60cm softbox lying on the ground with all the diffusers removed. In their place I stretched some extra-wide strips of Velcro to form a cookie (or cuculoris) – this casts some hard edged shadows on the smoke. The flash power was again determined by trial and error.

(An aside: some folk would call this a gobo. My understanding that a gobo ‘goes between’ the light source and the optics, i.e. any lens – though the usage seems largely interchangeable).

Smoke is woefully unpredictable stuff. It goes wherever it wants to and then hangs around for ages. It took about a dozen bombs and perhaps half a dozen frames per bomb – with a considerable wait between each one – to get this shot. We were lucky with the way the smoke frames Lily in this one. Other than this shot we got maybe only 10 worthwhile images from this set.

I always shoot in raw to maximise the processing options – in this case I did the following:

  • lifted the foreground shadows a little
  • a bit of highlight recovery on the dress
  • noise removal
  • slightly desaturated the image
  • added a bit of greenish tone to the shadows
  • evened out harsh shadows on the skin, especially the near hand
  • boosted the local contrast in the smoke and bodice to add drama
  • dodging and burning the smoke to even it out a little
  • output sharpening

It was probably about an hour’s work in Photoshop and Nik’s Color Efex Pro, all told.

With thanks to

  • Lily La Mer: http://www.lilyshowgirl.com
  • Alexander Stephenson (voice activated light stand)
  • Guy Smith (pyrotechnics)
  • Conrad Webb (of Windmill Art studio).
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