Ironically, I’ve long shied away from photographing juggling – despite, or perhaps because – it’s the circus skill I know most about. I was recently taken outside my comfort zone when Sean Gandini asked me to photograph the premiere of their latest show Spring.
Here’s how it came about..
Once upon a time all I wanted to do was be a mathematician. As a young & thrusting chap it seemed obvious to me that the best place to do that kind of thing was Cambridge University.
So off I toddled.. and when I got there I discovered that (a) I wasn’t quite as good at maths as I thought I was and (b) there are more interesting things in life. One of those things was hot air ballooning. Cambridge was one of a small number of universities to have a hot-air ballooning society. Not because it was a place of wealth and privilege; it just happened to have a ballooning-obsessed mature student with his own balloon. I steadily got drawn in to the wonderful world of unpowered flight, only to find that balloons only fly when it is really quite still. That tends to mean first thing in the morning and last thing before sundown. Consequently there’s not much to do all day; a few of the pilots I knew juggled to pass the time.
Fast forward a few years..
Juggling and circus had become a major part of my life, a complete obsession. I got reasonably good and started to get interested in those who were doing interesting things with the skill. Sean Gandini was foremost amongst those – one of the most skilled jugglers in the world, he’d seemingly got bored with pure juggling and wanted to see what else he could do with it – particularly involving contemporary dance. That led to a collaboration with the renowned choreographer Gill Clarke and a quirky piece called nEither Either botH and. Some jugglers struggled to understand and appreciate what they’d seen; I’m not sure what dancers made of it. It included segments generated at random, counting, awkward disassembled patterns, hypnotic solos where objects were manipulated around the body and a certain amount of rolling around on the floor.
Moving on a little further..
Chloë & I were introduced to Sean & Kati via a mutual friend and we spent a day playing / auditioning with them. It was at a transitional point in our performing career – the opportunity was amazing but it was kind of clear that we weren’t quite right for each other at that time.
After numerous years performing, teaching and directing acrobalance, stilts & juggling a number of things started to get in the way. Children, time, motivation and injuries all became issues. After a particularly nasty wrist injury I picked up a camera for the first time in 20 years – and found that I enjoyed photographing circus skills nearly as much as doing them. I’d always shied away from juggling, though. It’s a fascinating thing to do and can be amazing to watch but to reduce it to a still image seems to me to lose much of the essence. It is possible to do interesting things with motion blur but then you lose the juggler’s perspective; jugglers don’t see things as a blur, they see each object in turn in a precise position & orientation in space.
Sean had seen some of my photos and so when the premiere of their new show was in Cambridge he invited me to point my camera at it. I was initially reluctant – I’m comfier in the studio where I have much more control – but I’m so pleased I did it.
The show itself really harked back to the Gandini Juggling company’s roots. Spring had a lot in common with nEither Either botH and. Juggling patterns disassembled and reassembled in unusual ways, awkward synchronised and/or syncopated movements, long quiet or quirky sections laden with humour, all combined with a thoroughly abstract mathematician’s sense of spaces and how they relate to one another. I suspect it is one of their most challenging performances to date – it’s not the most accessible but it is certainly rewarding to watch and to be a small part of.
Photographing the show was a major technical challenge, too. It’s very fast moving, often rather dark and the broken movement phrases are exceedingly difficult to anticipate. Most of the images were taken at ISOs of 6400 or higher; just a few years they wouldn’t have been possible.
The images are largely lightly processed, as befits the nature of the performance. I hope you like them as much as I enjoyed making them. Please click here for the full gallery.
I’ve been thinking about the nature of photoshoots for a while now, particularly with regard to how both subject and photographer experience them and feel about them. I’m slowly developing an insight into my process; it seems common to many photographers and models.
Photoshoots come with challenges for both subject and photographer. If you’re a subject it’s perfectly normal to feel nervous or apprehensive, to worry about how you look and whether you’ll be able to relax in front of the camera. Photoshoots are a strangely solitary business unless you have a team of assistants and hair & makeup artists: typically just 2 people locked in a darkened room with strange lights and other equipment.
For the photographer there’s the challenge of getting all the technical stuff right – camera operation & lighting – while developing a rapport with the subject. Only then can we start to create and record those special moments. That’s the case whether the photoshoot is a technical aerial acrobatics shoot or a superficially simple headshot session.
The photographer is essentially directing and choreographing a private show, somewhat like a dress rehearsal. Eliciting responses, suggesting shapes & positions, improvising ways to create those shapes and extract those emotions. A professional model or performer will usually get straight in with making their own suggestions and require less in the way of direction – but it’s the photographers job to turn any subject into a performer, to give them the confidence to let go and give of themselves. Different photographers do it in different ways but they all contribute to the creative process and energy in the room. The ‘40s Hollywood glamour photographer George Hurrell was known for making a complete clown of himself, dashing about, singing, doing pratfalls – whatever it would take. Child portraitists tend to be highly skilled at this, providing huge amounts of energy for their subjects to draw on. Some folk can be a bit more measured; I tend to alternate between quiet technical stuff and bouncing up and down ladders like there’s no tomorrow.
Positivity and enthusiasm is infectious. If the photographer is enthusing about what they’re seeing through the lens then the subject will be much happier and more confident – and more likely to give more.
Self-consciousness and lack of confidence is similarly infectious. If the photographer is going ‘Hmm, no, not working’ and going very quiet between light and camera twiddling sessions then any model is likely to feel neglected. All models are beautiful; that beauty comes from within, from a willingness and the confidence to play and perform. Photographers need to give models room to build that confidence.
I feel a particular responsibility when shooting nudes. Most folk will feel extremely vulnerable when unclothed. It’s my job to make sure that they feel safe and just as willing to express themselves and tell the story we’re creating as if they were fully clothed. Other than that the subject’s state of undress is entirely irrelevant to me; I’ve got enough to be thinking about.
Shoots tend to have a rhythm; photographers break that rhythm at their peril. I keep taking shots even if it isn’t working, knowing that I am working towards something – hopefully – special. It’s one of the ways I contribute my energy to the process. My shoots tend to start slowly, building the lights, finding the angles and the mood – and then we’re off! There’ll be a few minutes of intense activity where both actors forget themselves and just get on with being creative – before starting to chill out, reflect briefly on the last few minutes, and beginning again.
When a photoshoot goes well both contributors share a real buzz in the creative endeavour. That buzz is quite unlike anything most folk will encounter in everyday life; it’s very much like the post-show high I used to get from my performing days.
If you'd like to be part of that endeavour then please do get in touch.
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.
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.
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 :)
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 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..
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:
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.
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:
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
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.