Flash In A Box

I used to get requests for “technique” pages based on images that I had posted when I did monthly updates. This one received a record number of requests!

Jacqueline Wilson is one of the world’s best selling childrens’ authors. I had to take pictures of her twice in ten days and the first set of pictures (including the left had one below) were taken at a press launch for the UK’s National Fostering Fortnight – a charity of which she is a supporter. A few days later I went to her home in Surrey to take some different pictures and amongst them was this one of her looking through one of the many boxes of childrens’ letters that she gets every month.

I did some evenly lit pictures of the author looking through the letters, some close ups of her hands wearing her trade mark rings sorting through papers and then I had the idea of getting her to look into the box and to make it “magical” in the same way that her books grab the imagination of children. After a few frames of evenly lit pictures I decided to place a second flash unit inside the box, mainly to give her face better highlights. Balancing the Lumedyne flash that I had been using on it’s own with the Canon 550ex speedlight placed inside the box was a relatively simple task and with both flash units attached to Pocket Wizard receivers everything went pretty easily. (more…)


Kick Lights

One of the classic lines that you’ll read in most lighting manuals is that “there’s only one sun in the sky”. You cannot argue with that but there are often times when a second light source used with subtlety can really boost an otherwise OK image. This technique example is a bit of a recap on a couple of earlier ones, but I thought that it would make the point about adding a bit of a “kick light” very well. It was a simple and straight forward enough job – ten minute portrait of somebody not very well known outside her own field of expertise and not used to having her picture taken. The room was less than inspiring but had a couple of plants and some windows and so was a more than adequate venue to make a decent portrait.

The top picture was taken first without any lighting other than that on the subject. She was lit with a Lumedyne 200 w/s kit using a shoot through umbrella, triggered by a pair of Pocket Wizard Plus units. There was very little light in the room – the ambient reading was 1/20th of a second at f2.8 on 100 ISO and the light was flat and slightly green.

With the Lumedyne positioned at about sixty degrees from the axis of the lens and two metres (80 inches) on it’s 50 w/s setting the subject needed f5.6 on 100 ISO to expose her accurately. With almost no ambient light figuring on the subject I was able to shoot with the shutter speed at 1/15th of a second just to get some light into the window behind the plant on a dull London winter’s day. (more…)


Two Minute Still Life

As a working news photographer, the one job that I dread is the “quick product shot” that I am often asked to do without access to a properly equipped studio. For most of the year it only happens once a month or so, but very occasionally I’ll get a run of requests. It helps to have a few standard tactics up your sleeve.

These two shots ere booth for a special “e-supplement” that we did. A special edition about the use of technology in higher education and the feel of the supplement was magazine orientated rather than the usual newspaper style that we are all used to working with.

The two pictures were taken a few days apart and that made having a reasonably consistent approach more important. The first to come up was the iPod picture and the brief was blazingly simple – a nice upright picture of an iPod that wasn’t a catalogue product shot and that didn’t scream APPLE at you. I was handed the iPod in the office and told that I couldn’t take it away, which was unfortunate because I often do these small still life pictures at home where there is a lot more room to play around. (more…)


Unusual Surroundings

Sometimes you have too persuade people to have their photograph taken in places that they would never have chosen for themselves. This can sometimes be because you, as the photographer, are being awkward or it can be because you are trying to say something about the subject in tricky surroundings.

The subject of these portraits is a conservation scientist and university lecturer who does his field work thousands of miles away from the concrete buildings in which he has his teaching rooms. The pictures needed an element of the natural, but his environment was pretty much devoid of nature. I get bore of laboratory shots and the paper avoids them (and computer shots) whenever possible.

My subject me in reception and we started to walk to his office when we passed under a concrete walkway with foliage growing nearby. I suggested that we try to shoot the portrait here and he eventually agreed. It did mean that his colleagues would be continually passing by and passing comment, but that’s all part of the compromise that makes being a newspaper photographer interesting. My first thought was to make use of the brilliant green colour of the foliage to somehow frame him, but this didn’t work for me with the concrete block work of the walkway. It was a sunny day and I wanted to avoid having my subject in direct sunlight and so I had decided to stay in the shade of the walkway. (more…)


A Morning In The Park

The newspapers and magazines that I work for have a number of regular “slots” – sections with a strict formula to the photographs. The “My Best Teacher” slot is probably the longest running, most strictly controlled and, oddly, the best to work for. The formula is very simple; it’s a large image, always landscape format, running across a double page with the gutter about 1/3 of the way from the left.

This set of portraits were made of a journalist, broadcaster and author who is hero to children throughout the United Kingdom and scar’s the world. I had photographed him before and so I was determined to shoot a fun portrait. He was determined not be photographed in his home and I was delighted when it was suggested that we went to a local park. (more…)


Rapid Set Up and Shoot

Having failed to post any new technique pages for a few months now I hope to catch up with a series of new ones. This picture was taken at a delegate conference, on a wild and wet day when my lights were busy in the main auditorium. The subject of the portrait was only available for a few minutes.

The journalist that I was working with came to me and said that we needed a portrait of a woman who had been physically bullied in her job and who had managed to obtain a financial settlement with her trades union’s help. There were three photographers waiting to shoot her picture and I was the last to arrive and so had to go third.

The sky was calling out to be used as a background in the same way that I have outlined many times before. The difficulty this time was that I only had a Canon Speedlight to hand and not my usual Lumedyne heads and packs. My bag always contains a Canon ST-E2 transmitter so I used that to trigger my slightly off camera 550ex. (more…)


Working Silhouette

One of the very first technique pages that I posted on this site was about silhouettes. I mentioned that they were great for keeping people anonymous where there were child protection issues and legal issues over indentifying people. On rare occasions you go to shoot a story and nobody is willing to have their picture taken – they don’t want to be in the newspaper!

This was one of those occasions. The story was about a college where unemployed people were learning skills that culd not only get them back into work but help fill certain skills gaps in the workforce. This particular student was on a property conservation and restoration course and he was doing some brickwork in an old building. I used the LCD on my camera with a “test shot” of one of the PR people to prove to hime that I could do a decent silhouette and so he agreed to do a bit of work for the camera.

Pocket Wizards (other flash trigger systems are available) are wondeful things. They allow you to place flash units almost anywhere and trigger them effectively. (more…)


Big Glass Box

The previous technique example mentioned the fact that I get to shoot portraits in the most amazing places and just to emphasise that point here is another on.

The subject of this photograph has been recently appointed by The Mayor of London’s office to oversee education in the capital city and so we decided to shoot his picture in one of London’s most recognisable places.

The British Airways London Eye is that huge Ferris wheel on the south bank of the River Thames featuring a whole series of glass “pods” which rotate at a speed of just over two revolutions per hour. I had taken pictures in these pods a few times before and they present a real lighting challenge, no matter what the weather is like. In bright sunshine you get glare and odd shadows from the ambient light that you need to fill with flash. On overcast days or at night you get glare and odd shadows from within the pod.

The journalist and I had a private pod donated to us by British Airways and we had around half an our to board the eye, get the bare bones of the interview and shoot the portrait. (more…)


Amazing Backdrop

I am very lucky to work for newspapers that have the trust of their readers and this trust often leads to being allowed to make portraits in some amazing locations. This portrait of the new Rector of King’s College, Cambridge was taken in the amazing chapel of the College and more particularity in the Rector’s private pews.

I’m pretty sure that the tourists looking around the Chapel that morning were more than a little surprised when I blatantly ignored the “no flash photography” signs when I set up my Lumedyne kit to photograph the lady who is in charge of the whole College.

The big advantage of sitting Dame Judith in her private pew was that there was very little ambient light on her compared to the amount of light on the walls and windows of the Chapel. The problem of the private pew, however was that it is raised by about 1 metre (40 inches) from the level of the floor. Getting the flash up to the height required wasn’t going to be easy and I had to make use of a rubberised cord to strap the shaft of the lightstand to one of the fixtures on the front of the pew. (more…)


Losing Bad Backgrounds

When you have to walk through one of the most impressive buildings in central London, out of the back door to where they keep the broken furniture and litter bins to shoot your picture… you feel a little hard done by!

Royal Navy, Army, Royal Air Force and Metropolitan Police explosive ordnance disposal teams gathered at the National Army Museum to show off their toys and to announce to the world that there is now a formal educational qualification on offer for bomb disposal. The outside yard set aside for them was not a photographer’s idea of a great location so I instantly started to go through the range of “tricks” that you pick up through a career for getting rid of awful or unhelpful backgrounds.

My first idea was to frame so tightly on a young disposal officer that there would be no real background at all. Secondly I tried using the ground as my backdrop by looking down at another kevlar clad soldier working on a practice mine.

My third stab at it was to use a very long lens (70-200 f2.8 with a 1.4x converter) wide open to throw the background out of focus on a shot of a Royal Naval diver in his dry suit and underwater breathing apparatus. Each of these images worked, but I wanted drama so I settled on shooting an Engineer with his remote controlled robot from below using a winter sky as my backdrop. (more…)