Assistant Training Courses at Calumet

Back by popular demand (sort of) I'm teaching another Assistant training course at Calumet Drummond St.  If you've just left college, are considering a change in career, or just starting work as an assistant this course can give you a head start.

The course covers the following topics:
  • An overall description of the Assistant's job - as well as the different types of assistant
  • Lots of basic do's and dont's as well as what could be considered "Assistant Etiquette"
  • Key Assistant skills
  • Stacks of hands on technical and equipment instruction.  We've got access to lots of hire equipment from Calumet, and I'll be showing you how to rig things safely, what things are called, how you can use magic arms to impress photographers, and how to not electrocute everyone on set.  All good stuff
  • Current advice on shooting video and being a digital operator
  • Suggestions on what to carry in your own assisting kit
  • Advice on how to get work as an assistant, including the perfect CV
  • Brand new for this year - lots of info about making the move from assistant to photographer.
  • And last, but definitely not least, some basic business studies stuff that will help you set up as self-employed, and ideally keep you in business for as long as possible!
You can book your place here, and the date for the course the 4th December, and it's taking place at Calumet Drummond Street for the bargain price of £36 for the day.


Logbooks - A quick Video Guide.

So, after promising to talk about them countless times over previous years, I've finally got my act together and produced some info about my fabled Logbooks.  Here's the video I've just made:

I've tried as much as possible to keep it short and sweet, but bearing in mind I've been working with these things for 19 years now, and have struggled with them, stopped using them, then in recent years fallen back in love with them, and you'll perhaps understand why it's taken so long to produce this post, and why it's so hard to summarise them!

As briefly as I can, here's a quick round up of what logbooks are, why they're useful, and how to use them:

  • First off, you need to get your head around the idea that creativity is a process, and a methodology that can be followed, nurtured and developed, rather than simply some mythical artistic inspiration over which you have no control.
  • Now, in my experience the best way to develop this creative methodology is to record your ideas, methods, techniques, and thoughts in a logbook.  I was first required to do this as part of my college degree back in 1995-98, and it formed a key part of how they assessed and marked the photographic part of our course.  During college I actually found them very hard work, and didn't use them much immediately after I left.  About 8 years ago however, I started turning to them again, and I can say with hand on heart that they've been hugely influential in the improvement I've made in my work in recent years.
  • Exactly how you use them is completely up to you, but for me, the first thing is always a brief - whether this is client lead - "I need to shoot some images for a social media campaign", or personal - "I want to shoot some sexy fitness shots in the studio".  Without some sort of direction your work is unlikely to go anywhere - creativity needs a framework, even a loose one, to operate in.
  • Now lay down your initial ideas, as well as your inspiration.  These images can be previous images you've shot, or other people's work.  When referring to other people's work, always credit them - it's professional courtesy, and you'll probably want to look them up again at a later date.  You should also draw different things from these images - some will be references for lighting, some for mood, pose, styling, location, photoshop treatment, and so on.  Just slapping some in, and then copying them is basically plagiarism, and rather pointless.
  • At this point you may want to record any essential production details for the shoot - shots of the subject/model, shots of the location, notes you'll need to bear in mind for shooting, and so on.  Go into as much or as little detail as you like here.
  • By now you've got all you need to go out on the shoot, so off you go, referring to the logbook as and when you need to.
  • Once you've shot everything, stick in any finished images you feel are relevant, or out takes you think make a salient point.  Grab any setup shots you took, or draw lighting diagrams if you'd prefer. 
  • And finally comes one of the most important reasons for using a logbook - assessing the shoot after the event.  This was a key part of being marked at college, and in the real world it's even more vital, as the conclusions you draw after a shoot are what enable you to grow and move on as a photographer.  You should always be as honest as possible with yourself at this stage - if the shoot didn't work for some reason, you need to ascertain why, not just shrug your shoulders and put it down to bad luck!  Draw as many positives and negatives from the shoot at you can, and next time you'll be better prepared.
So why go to all this trouble?  Well the logbook serves several very useful purposes:

  • Initially, it serves as a technical resource - a "recipe book" if you like, for how you created your images.  This is invaluable when you want to recreate a certain look or image in future.  The more detail you put in when shooting, the more useful it will be in future.
  • If you ever find yourself losing your way in your photography, trawling back through your logbooks can often flag up where you should be going.  Your (hopefully) insightful assessments and conclusions after each shoot will serve a signposts along the way, and guide you in the right direction.
  • Lastly, but by no means least, Clients LOVE it.  They love looking into your creative thought process, they love using it as a resource to get ideas for shoots, locations and treatments from, and they love seeing their own work crop up in it further down the line.  I take it on as many shoots as possible when I know the client will be around, and I've even been specifically asked to bring it sometimes.
 There you go, a rather quick intro to using logbooks, I hope I've sold you on the concept, as they've been hugely useful to me over the years, and have become more and more relevant as time has passed and my career has developed.  They are well worth the time and effort it takes to put them together - get started on one now!


Shooting Male Cover Models - a How To Video

Made myself another video, this one with the help of Richard Scrivener.  It's a quick guide to shooting male models for things like magazine covers, and there's lots of info on lighting, posing and all the obvious stuff.  Here you go:


Behind the Scenes on a Men's Fitness Studio Shoot

Just finished putting together this behind the scenes video from a shoot back in May for my good friends at Men's Fitness.  The main challenge in this shoot was in mixing the light from Fluorescent tubes with flash to freeze motion, although hopefully I've gone into enough detail in the video to explain what we did.

I'm getting the hang of putting these together, so hopefully there'll be some more on the way.  I'd like to do them when there's something particular to be learnt from a shoot, rather than just a video that shows what my camera looks like, and some flashes going off!


101 Uses for the Humble Polyboard

I don't often talk technical on this blog, but just the other day it occurred to me that some very essential bits of professional kit get overlooked, simply because they're not high tech, sexy, or expensive.  Nothing could be less high tech, sexy or expensive than the staple of hire studios across the world - the Polyboard.
Easily mistaken for the Monoliths from 2001 - A Space Odyssey, polyboards are very useful, but less likely to lead to the advancement of humanity as a species.  Stanley Kubrick joke there folks - not something you see every day!  

Anyone who's ever shot in a studio will recognise these large polystyrene boards, and anyone with a brain and a basic understanding of physics will recognise that their main role is to act as reflectors, and to bounce light back onto things.  However, this wouldn't be much of a blog post if all I did was point that out, and I'd like to spend a little time highlighting other things they can be used for, since I've been working with them for about 20 years.

The most basic use of polyboards - white side towards subject to bounce light back.  The setup shot on the left was taken just before the costume change, but I can assure you it's the same setup as the shot on the right.
The same setup, viewed from reverse.  It's easy to see from this angle how much light will be bounced around the subject by the white polyboards.

So, first use - bouncing light from the white side of the polyboard.  That's what they were invented for, and probably what they spend most of their time being used for.  It's pretty simple really, place the polyboard where you want to lift the shadows, and away you go.  No need for batteries, cables, wifi, or any maintenance, although they can easily get knocked over by clumsy members of the crew.  

To place them you'll need polyboard stands, and although there are many varieties of these (many studios make their own) they all do the same job - provide a "foot" for the polyboard so it can stand on it's own without needing someone to hold onto it.  You can also get polyboard holders, which are simple claws that attach to a stand at one end, and then grip the polyboard at the other.  

Polyboard stand on the left, polyboard holder on the right.
That brings me neatly onto the next stage of polyboard usage - moving beyond the vertical!  Using polyboard holders, or burly assistants, polyboards can of course be angled to bounce light in from below, or above.  I've also used them on several occasions to create a false ceiling above a subject, and then bounced light off that to create a top light - although I've not got any setup shots to prove it.

Sorry - I couldn't find any setup shots of a polyboard being angled, so you'll have to make do with one of my reflector panels - serves the same purpose, and you get the idea!
Don't limit yourself to just thinking of polyboards as bounce tools either - if you somehow forgot to bring a softbox, brolly or similar diffuser for your light and you need a large soft source, well, just take the light and twat it off the white side of the polyboard.  Job done, one very large soft light.

I very often need to shoot stuff against a white or similar backdrop to be cut out and comped into something else.  Unless I've got lots of flash heads spare to light the background evenly, the easiest way to light a large area smoothly is to employ a pair of polyboards as a "V" board:

A "V" board. 
Aim the open end of the V across your background, and place one at each side.  Bingo, a nice evenly lit background, that also doesn't spill forwards onto your subject.  Using these I can pretty much light a large area very evenly with just 2 heads.  If, for some reason I've got 4 lights handy, I'll put 2 in each side - one high and one low.  

Polyboards can just as easily be used to control the spill of light as they can be to bounce it about the place.  It's been a while (check the film rebates on the photo below!) but I used to use what I called a "Triangle" light from time to time:

Shot sometime in the late 90's.  Be grateful there's no setup shot showing my hairstyle.
With this it's easy to create a full length, directional, soft light - simply open or close the aperture to control how much light you want to spill out.

Now, the sharp eyed amongst you will have noticed that like all objects in the physical world, polyboards have two sides.  Amazing.  If you go to a crap studio, you'll only find double-sided white ones, but any studio worth the hire price will have polyboards that are white one side, and black the other.  The black side is every bit as important as the white one, and on some shoots more so.  I'll state the obvious, but the black side helps to accentuate any shadows, and control the spill of light.

From a recent Men's Fitness shoot.  Note that the studio is all white, so without the placement of black polyboards next to the model, the shadows on his body would be significantly less harsh.
Shooting lots of chiseled blokes like I do, I use the black side very often indeed - if you took a hugely muscular bloke, but then put him in a totally white studio - even a hard light source would still not do a great job of showing off his guns.  Careful placement of the black side can sculpt your models as much as weeks in the gym!

So, white side - more light, black side - less light.  Controlling the spill of light, bouncing high, low, from either side and so on.  That's the obvious side to polyboards, and hopefully it's been useful.  To wrap up, I want to cover a few more esoteric uses for them that either I've used myself, or encountered down the years.

I've used polyboards as mobile pin boards/mood boards:

Behind the scenes on a Men's Health Cover model competition.
I've used them to block light falling in from a window, or to stop up a draught from a door.  I've used half a polyboard to waft smoke from a smoke machine across a set (be careful, waving something 3ft by 3ft can create quite a gust of wind - you may well knock other polyboards over.....).  I've made countless marks on them with either gaffer tape or marker pen to give the subject an imaginary eyeline.  I once cut a hole in one, and stuck my lens through to cut down on the reflections on a shiny subject.  Quite frequently, in my assisting days, we used to create a small stage out of them a few feet from the backdrop, roll out the huge roll of 12ft background paper, seat the model on the staging, and then light from on top with a big softbox like an Octabank.  The effect was often quite subtle, but it would create a horizon line behind the model, and separate the background from them better:

Polyboards used to create staging.  The effect is quite subtle in the ancient scan, but it's more pronounced in the original polaroid.

So, don't neglect such humble, inexpensive tools.  Personally, I've no idea how I'd work in the studio without them, and I often find myself lamenting their absence on location - portable fabric panels are all very well, but they usually need someone to "man" them.  Just look how excited Bertrand got when he found there was a huge stack of polyboards in the studio we were shooting in:

I can't for the life of me remember why we had to get him swinging from the rafters, but he seems very happy to be there.


Non-Linear Learning

 As promised a few days ago, here are some thoughts I recently had about how we learn about photography (in fact most things) and perhaps how we can get a bit better at learning full stop.

Being the navel-gazing, introspective type that I am, I'm always disappearing up my own backside and wallowing in my back catalogue rather than going out and shooting something new.  I had a huge opportunity to do this a few weeks ago when I reclaimed my entire archive of negs and contacts from my parent's loft, and, as I was sorting them out and filing them away, inevitably got tempted to have a good trip down memory lane.

From my first roll of film.  Good Skills.

Besides stirring some amusing memories, looking at lots of my old work really made one thing stand out - my progress as a photographer has been extremely patchy over the 21 plus years I've been doing it seriously.  Some of my early work looks great - it's technically competent, and there's some very strong ideas there.  By comparison, some of the stuff I shot once I was down in London - both during my time as an assistant, and immediately after - is utter, unmitigated rubbish.  Now, you can make the argument that in my assisting days I had very little money, and was trying to shoot my own stuff whilst working as a freelance assistant, but of course the same sort of excuse could easily apply to when I was a complete beginner.  Back then I had very little money, and not a huge amount of time, since I was a full time A-levels student, and yet I still produced some great stuff.

Dunstanburgh Castle, from, I think, 1992 - aged 15

Even worse, some of the stuff I've shot since starting out truly on my own in 2001 has been rank.  It almost seems like I was at times unable to learn certain basic lessons, or that I seemed obsessed with making the same mistakes over and over again.  This bothered me slightly, as, if nothing else, it doesn't bode well for the future!

I've been reading a lot of popular science/psychology stuff lately - think Malcolm Gladwell, Daniel Kahneman, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and the like, and thankfully some of it is sticking.  The simple reason I seemed to make some progress and then stagger back again is because THAT'S ACTUALLY HOW WE LEARN.

We seem to think that our learning develops like this:

Put very simply - as time passes we get measurably and irreversibly better at things.  A nice linear progression from ignorance to mastery.  If, somehow, you're able to actually achieve this is in your life, could you please let us know how you do it?

In my experience, learning a skill is actually much more like this:

 Excuse the crap freehand drawing, but you get the idea! 

We tend to surge forwards at times, make leaps and bounds in one area of our work, but then stumble over other areas.  Or, we seemingly forget basic lessons we should have learnt - shooting stuff that would result in the above featured "quality control" sticker.  Either because we think we're beyond such basics, or that we'll get away with it, or we're in a hurry - the excuse doesn't really matter.

From the start of my final year at college, 1997, during a good "run" of work.
As far as I can tell, being human we'll never truly escape from this bumpy learning curve, despite all the frustrations it may cause us.  I do feel though, that in the past couple of years I've managed to smooth it out somewhat, and not slip back so often.  In convenient list form, here's what I think has helped me:

  1. Above all, accept the fact that you'll make mistakes.  This is only a bad thing if you then proceed to repeat them.  There's the famous saying, attributed to Albert Einstein, that Insanity is: "doing the same thing and expecting different results".  If you keep making mistakes, that's the universe's feedback mechanism telling you you need to change your methods.
  2. Don't let those little setbacks put you off and discourage you from trying again.  You've probably got a huge library of knowledge backing you up, and you simply failed to recall one little bit on this occasion.  I can think of countless times when I was studying at college when I would look at the work of some master photographer or other, go out and try and mimic it, fall very short indeed, and think "what am I doing wrong?"  The reason I'm still going now, is that each time that happened I first of all didn't just give in and pack up for good, but that I tried to work out WHERE I was going wrong, and correct it.
  3. Take a small creative pause when you make a mistake or get stuck on a shoot.  If something's going wrong accept that a photoshoot can contain a lot of very complicated moving parts, any one of which might be misfiring.  Before you throw your hands up in despair, stop and look around you.  The solution to your "mistake" might be very obvious indeed, but in your angst you may not be able to see the wood for the trees.
  4. Spend as much time as you can working on your skillset, your craft skills, your creativity, and looking at the work of those around you whom you admire and want to emulate.  Personally speaking, this has been what's made the biggest difference over the past couple of years.  Perhaps the most useful resource has been starting to use my logbook again after barely touching it since college.  I know I've been promising to shed more light on the way I use logbooks for some time now, but I promise I will get stuff written up in the next month.  As a device for improving your photography they're absolutely critical.
So, next time you look at results you're not happy with, and start cursing yourself for being so stupid, ignorant, what-was-I-thinking-I'm-a-moron, accept that there will be something you can learn from this experience.  Then make sure you learn it.  

Personal Test shoot from the end of 2013


The Four Stages of Photographic Learning

This year I’ve been doing quite a lot of thinking around the subject of learning.  Partly this is because I’m getting old(er), and have now been doing this job for quite some time, which gives me lots of material for introspection and navel gazing. It’s also because I’ve been reading lots of books on psychology, creativity and learning.  Lastly it’s probably because in the first few months of the year I did a bit more teaching than usual, which always prompts me to think about how best people learn, the acquisition of knowledge and so on.

One aspect that occurred to me was to do with how we learn any skill - in my case photography - in a very non-linear way.  That is, we don’t make a steady march of progress from ignorance to complete mastery - there are many setbacks on the way.  I’ll go into this in more depth in a later post.  Another aspect is how photography is split into different areas of skill, and that our progress in some areas is often way ahead of that in others, and that all-round perfection is not only very rare, but takes a very long time to achieve.

The three areas of skill in photography I have defined as Technical and Craft Skills, “Soft” Craft skills, and Insight.  To elaborate on what I mean by these:

  • Technical and Craft skills are pretty self-explanatory.  Camera handling, lighting, photoshop - all the nuts and bolts of how to take pictures that look good, and come out how we want them to.  I’d also lump in with these the more esoteric aspects of the craft, such as working well with your subjects.
  • “Soft” Craft skills are a bit more subtle.  By these I mean creativity and visual language - moving your ideas on from the most basic representation of a subject to something that’s more personal to you.  These skills are much harder to teach, and are neglected by a large number of photographers - both professionals and amateurs.  This is the bit where you develop the “you” that will appeal to viewers beyond just your technical expertise.
  • Insight.  This area is also overlooked by a big chunk of photographers.  It’s my coverall term for “where does your work fit in to the wider world?”  It’s the sort of topic that you spend an arts degree discussing in depth, and the sort of thing that is almost completely overlooked by most amateurs.  Learning what’s gone before, how other people have answered the questions you’re asking, and how you can move the whole thing forward is what insight is all about.  It’s the difference between looking at an Ansel Adams picture, assuming that what makes it great is the fact it was shot on a 10x8” camera in black and white, and then wondering why your 10x8” Black and White pictures look and feel nothing like his, and being able to identify in his work (and others) what it is that makes it special.

The way I see it, these areas of skill develop at different speeds, and across four distinct stages:

Stage 1

Technical Craft        “Soft” Craft            Insight
    0/5                         0/5                      0/5

No understanding of technical aspects, no understanding of creativity and visual language, or how to translate any of this into a final image, no understanding of how other people have achieved their results.  Lots of desire to mimic the masters, lots of trial and error, vast gulf between ambition and reality.

A complete beginner.

Stage 2

Technical Craft        “Soft” Craft            Insight
    2-3/5                      1-2/5                   1-2/5

Techniques improves first, and most rapidly, often from reverse engineering/behind the scenes videos/interviews/learning by rote.  Some learning of soft skills, and insight but usually as a by-product, rather than as a conscious choice.  Gulf between ambition/reality shrinking.

Accomplished Amateur.

Stage 3

Technical Craft        “Soft” Craft            Insight
    4-5/5                      2-3/5                   2-3/5

Approaching technical mastery in some areas, and more development of soft skills as a consequence of simply shooting more and hopefully some introspection, as well as critiques from peers.  Increased insight thanks to experience, the recognition that a master’s work is not just about the technical.  

Many professionals exist at this level for a very long time.

Stage 4

Technical Craft        “Soft” Craft            Insight
    4-5/5                      4-5/5                   4-5/5

Mastery of subject.  Technical knowledge enough to execute a massive range of subjects with polish and precision.  Great depth of personal creative vision, and confidence in same.  Ability to marry the two repeatedly to fulfil clients brief.  Insight enough to know what inspiration to draw from others, what to reject, and where your work fits into the broader visual world.

In my opinion, very few photographers ever get to stage 4 - I certainly haven’t!

Now, for professionals there is also a 4th skill, which I will loosely call “business”.  This covers all those aspects of being a professional that are essential, but not directly related to the actual taking of photographs.  So, production and organisation, book-keeping and chasing invoices, marketing, and generally behaving like a professional.  If your concern is with making a living from photography, never neglect these aspects, as you’ll not last long if you do!

There you go, some food for thought.  More ramblings on learning, experience, skill, and creativity to follow in the coming weeks.