Shooting events from a bike (and not getting your innards squashed by swinging cameras...)

I shoot lots of events and races, and a lot of the time I jump on a bike to get around so that I can cover more ground than I would on foot.  I've been using a pair of Black Rapid straps for years to support my 2 bodies, but when I'm on a bike they have a massive tendency to swing around, smash into each other, as well as smashing into me all the time.  After a few uncomfortable shoots, I settled on the solution below:

This system is also really handy when I'm shooting events like Survival of the Fittest, as it means I can attach the cameras to my body as I clamber up and over obstacles and have both my hands free.

I'm getting the hang of these quick videos - helped slightly by the fact that I finally own a decent phone - so expect more of them going forward!


Bidding Farewell to a beloved hire studio

Being based in Central London, and not being born into the aristocracy means I don't own a studio, I rent them when I need to.  I've rented many over the years, but the one I've used most often is the Lemonade Factory in Battersea.  I first worked there in 1998 when I was still an assistant, and was renting it myself by 1999, and since then I've usually shot there about once a month.

In about 6 weeks the whole block they're based in is being demolished to make way for a 17 storey block of flats, and they're relocating further into South London.  Before the wrecking balls start, I recorded this little video after my shoot there on Wednesday:

The new place will be kitted out to order, so I'm quite looking forward to shooting there, but I'll definitely miss the old, slightly rough round the edges place in Battersea!


Shooting Sailing with a rented 400mm f2.8

Very enjoyable day on Tuesday, spent mostly out on a RIB in Cardiff Bay following an extreme sailing Catamaran, and getting a serious T-shirt tan!

Having shot sailing a handful of times I've learnt that if you're tasked with getting shots of someone on the yacht in action, even if you're in a RIB that can be piloted around the place, you'll still need much more lens than you might think - hence hiring a Nikon 400mm f2.8 from Calumet in Bristol.

It's not all straightforward though, as this little film will show:


Shooting 12 models in one day for Multipower

About 10 days ago I had a fairly taxing day shooting 12 social influencers (that's guys who have a large following on social media, in case you're not down with the kids like what I am) for Multipower.  I still managed to shoot a quick behind the scenes video of the day though, to try and get across how organised you need to be to get through this sort of workload:

The key thing from the day was pre-planning.  Right from knowing when people were arriving, through to how long I'd got with each person, to designing 2 different lighting setups that I could switch between without causing too many headaches.  To get posed shots, hero shots, and at least one exercise circuit with 12 people is quite a tall order, and it amounted to something like 1600+ shots even after an edit.  It's not the sort of shoot where I can afford to muck about or experiment much!

In future, as I switch to a full Profoto Air system, this sort of thing will be even simpler, as I'll just switch channels on the remote and have to move maybe one head, rather than turning some heads on or off.  I'll also be more careful about people coming and going whilst I'm filming a piece to camera!


The Importance of Shooting Boring Photos, or why your first shoot straight out of college won't be the cover of Vogue.

One of the problems facing professional and potentially professional photographers today is that pretty much anyone with a half decent digital camera can now take a well-exposed, sharp and high-resolution photo. It might not be perfectly framed, and it might not be the most creative shot ever taken, but it's so easy these days to produce images that have at least an air of professionalism about them that if you ever plan to earn any money you'd better make sure that your work is at the very least up to this standard, and ideally a hell of a lot better.

A conference room eagerly awaiting it's delegates.  It's not sexy, but this sort of thing used to pay my bills!
 If you've just spent years studying hard at college to discover your true vision, and your artistic voice, you'll probably have little interest on leaving in shooting what you will term "Boring Photos". By this I mean "grip and grins", headshots, straightforward group shots, product shots, simple interiors, events, awards ceremonies, and so on.  I tend to lump these sorts of jobs together into “boring” jobs, and in truth I hardly ever do them anymore (I shot my last awards do nearly 10 years ago!)

I can appreciate to those studying on courses that are very technical in nature (ND's, HND's, and probably many American ones) will scoff at everything I've just written. Excellent, I'm assuming that your education has provided you with a good broad understanding of your craft as well as a sound technical backing. However, for those studying at degree level the technical instruction can be, in both my first and second hand experience, sadly lacking. Many of the assistants who ask me for work and are graduates of degree courses have a shocking lack of technical skills, and coupled with some horror stories from art director friends of mine, it's given me the impetus to write this post.

Nicholas Parsons presenting the award for best-mac-user-something-or-other at the Mac User awards about 10 years ago.  By this time in the evening neither me nor Nicholas could care very much either way ;)
 Why Shoot “boring” shots:

  • Really useful pocket money.  Decent money (£100’s of pounds) for quick, simple work.  I’ve done as many as 3 of these sort of jobs in a day, and at £200-£300 per job, that’s not a bad day rate.
  • Can be a useful stepping stone to other work.  You’ve no idea who you’ll meet on jobs like these, and you’re meeting them in the context of you working as a professional photographer.  They don’t need to know it’s your first gig, or that you’re working at Starbucks during the day.  My entire career in poker is based on shooting the opening night party for a magazine called Inside Edge - from that I went on to shoot dozens of covers, for them, as well as other Poker magazines, sponsors, and PR companies.  That one party probably ended up earning me between 40 and 50 thousand pounds over the following 10 years.
  • You’ll be surprised how much your skill base will develop shooting jobs like this.  I’m talking here about both your technical skills, and your “soft” skills, like how to handle people and organise a shoot.  Even with the sort of work I do nowadays, where we have clear briefs, and things are pretty well organised and scripted, it’s not uncommon to suddenly be asked half way through a shoot “oh, can you just get a quick product shot of that bag?”  My broad technical background that I honed on “boring” jobs means I know a few quick and dirty ways to get shots that are outside my normal range.

    From the Inside Edge launch party.  People are actually smiling whilst playing Poker, rather than looking sullen, which is the norm.
    You’ll also be pleased to hear that whilst you have to deliver a professional product at the end of the day if you want to charge half decent money, you perhaps don’t need as much equipment as you might think.  Here are the basics:

  • 2 bodies.  A basic professional requirement in case one goes South, but also very useful, as you can have one rigged with a standard zoom and a flashgun, and the other with a long zoom, or a fast prime, allowing you to get ambient/candid shots.  Both bodies don’t need to be the same spec - as long as they’re part of the same system you can easily have one main, expensive one, and a much cheaper backup.
  • A decent flashgun.  Doesn’t have to be a top of the range marque gun from Nikon or Cannon, but anything with a guide number over 40 will do a decent job.  Essentially, the more features it has, the less time you’ll spend buggering about with it, but I managed for years and years with a Metz 45 CL-4!
  • 2 decent zooms.  I’d suggest a 24-70, and a 70-200, and if you can afford it, constant f2.8’s, you’ll really appreciate it when shooting in dark locations.  
  • Spare batteries and memory cards.  Obvious, but I’ve known more than one snapper run out on a job.
  • Comfy straps - you’ll be on your feet for hours - I love the Black Rapid system, and can’t imagine shooting without them.  Also, something decent to carry everything in, and again, I can highly recommend the LowePro vertex - I’ve had mine for 7 years, and it’s still going strong.  I can honestly say I’ve never owned a better camera bag.
  • A smart tie - stuffed carefully into your camera bag, so you never get caught out at the entrance to some hotel ballroom or other.
  • A laptop - being able to deliver stuff on the day can be a godsend.  Not only will clients love you for it, but it speeds up your workflow and means that you’re not working on stuff for days afterwards.  I’d also shove in a handful of memory sticks that you’re prepared to hand over at the end of the job.  Expect to get about 50% of them posted back, a good chunk of people simply forget about them and you’ll never see them again.
  • Business cards.  You never know who you’ll meet.  Needless to say, everything backing this business card up should be in place - website, social media feeds etc.  Make sure that when they look you up they like what they see, and it matches your professional behaviour on the shoot.
  • If you want to take things further, look at building up a location lighting kit.  You may want to start down the Strobist route, or go for mains powered units.  Personally I use both all the time, but for things like corporate headshots, mains stuff is that bit more useful.

A business conference for PriceWaterhouseCoopers.  I can't for the life of me remember what the subject matter was, but it probably involved tax......

One important caveat, whilst these sort of jobs can be very useful indeed for getting started, earning money from photography, and getting your face known, there is always the catch that you might get trapped in this sort of work, as it becomes what you’re known for.  We all know there’s quite a difference between shooting the awards do or Christmas Party for some massive company, and shooting their worldwide advertising campaign.  If you’re shooting the former, and eventually want to shoot the latter, then at some point you’ll have to make a conscious choice to stop doing this sort of work.  I’ve written about this sort of thing before, and I’m sure I’ll be writing about it again in future.


Packing equipment for a multi-day shoot

Some shots from last week's road trip - location portrait on a vineyard, a lovely spot for lunch on my 15 mile hike, teaching a lighting demo for the Royal Navy, and 1 of hundreds of physio shots in a studio in Bournemouth.
A few times a year I end up having mini road trips, multi-day jobs where I’m out on the move for several days at a time.  Usually what happens is a few jobs have come in, spread out around the country, and it makes more sense to keep moving like the littlest hobo, rather than come back to London every night.  Often these jobs are also varying in nature - one might be a studio style shoot, with the next being a location portrait, or a race event, and as such I need to think very carefully about what gear to pack, and how to pack it.  I did one of these trips just last week, and here was the basic outline:

  • Wednesday AM - Location portrait at a Vineyard in Sussex for Runner’s World
  • Thursday all day - teaching at the Royal Navy Photography Symposium in Portsmouth
  • Thursday evening - black tie dinner with Royal Navy
  • Friday all day - Exercise instruction shoot in Bournemouth for YourPhysioPlan

So, mostly South Coast based, and Nikon (who I’m teaching for on Thursday with the Royal Navy) were generous enough to shout for a Hotel in Portsmouth on Wednesday and Thursday evening.  This makes the logistics much simpler - I don’t fancy the early starts required if I had to head back to London every night.  Knowing whereabouts I was going to be during Wednesday, and aware that the Runner’s World portrait would only take a couple of hours, I planned to spend the afternoon hiking round one of my favourite parts of the world, down near Liphook, so hiking boots, packed lunch, and a rucsac have to figure into the mix as well.  Here’s the gear I took for 3 days to do 2 shoots, teach for a whole day, and go for a wonderful 15 mile hike:

The gear for last week.  Clockwise from bottom left: Travelpak battery and cables, personal rucsac (hiking, plus overnight gear), stand bag (3 x stands, plus long extension cable), suit bag inc tie, shoes etc, small stand bag - actually for teaching demo purposes, but handy to have anyway, main camera bag, laptop bag inc all extras like hard drives and teaching materials, tripod bag with small tripod and 2 x softboxes, small flash bag - again for teaching purposes, but useful to have, and finally Lowepro rolling case with 2 x Bowens 750 pro's and all associated bits.
And here are some general suggestions for these sorts of multi-day trips:

  • As with any job, always find out as much as you can in advance.  Obviously I always do this with shoots as a matter of course, and choose the appropriate equipment, but there may be less obvious bits to look out for.  In this case, the “black tie” dinner bit rather threw me a curve ball.  I don’t own a dinner jacket, and would like to get through my entire life never having worn one, as I think they look stupid.  I do however, own a Savile Row tailored suit, and after a quick word with the Royal Navy, I found this was perfectly acceptable.  If I’d turned up in my usual work gear, I may well have been refused dinner, or at the very least faced a hefty port fine!
  • Choose gear that can do more than one job.  I’ve already talked about this in terms of clothing, but clearly it’s equally if not more important with photographic equipment.  Having a piece of kit that’s fantastic in the studio, but no use on location (or vice versa) would be a bit of a bind on a trip like this, as I’ve got to do both.  It’s one of the many reasons I love my Bowens Pro monoblocs, they function exactly the same with either mains or battery power - all I need to do if I want to use them on location is remember to pack the Travelpak battery.
  • Be self-sufficient - by which I mean take all the chargers you think you’ll need, hard drives to back work up to each night, and in my case I had copies of the presentation I was giving on memory sticks on the off-chance my laptop refused to work with the Royal Navy’s gear.

    A fairly complicated road trip from June 2013 - golfers at Stoke Park in Berkshire, Leeds Rhinos (in Leeds, obviously) for Multipower, Runner's World portrait in Stoke, then later that evening in Morpeth, overnight in Scotch Corner before heading to Northampton for the last shot on the right.

  • One golden rule for trips like this, where you’ll be moving around a lot and parking in lots of different places - make every effort to keep your gear self-contained in the boot where it’s not visible.  It would be tempting to take the kitchen sink on a shoot like this, but I’d then be very wary about where I left the car.  This ties into choosing gear that can do more than one job - essentially pack as little as you think you can get away with!
  • Something I do as a matter of course for any trip, but particularly ones like this, is start packing in advance.  At least the night before, but where possible the day, or even days before.  I can guarantee you that if you leave things until the morning you’re leaving, you will forget stuff.  
  • Check the weather forecast.  It’s never 100% accurate, but at least you’ll have a rough idea of whether you need to pack for Arctic conditions or sweltering heat.
  • Don’t overlook the personal, practical stuff as well as the professional - where are you going to be sleeping each night - hotel, hostel , B+B, mate’s sofa, campsite, a shelter built in the woods?  I’ve done all of these (some more than others) and obviously, the requirements are different for each.
  • Keep your cases of gear self-contained and as self-sufficient as possible (there’s a post coming about this soon, promise) so that you always know what’s in each case.  If you juggle things around whilst out and about, reset them as soon as possible.  Picking up a case and expecting x, y, or z to be in there, and then realising when you get on the job that you swapped it out for something else can be very inconvenient indeed!
  • And last, but not least, be prepared to improvise.  On a multi day job last year I was hoping to spend one night in a tent, only to confirm what I had long suspected, which is that my lightweight one-man tent really is too small to sleep in, and I’m not even 6ft!  Cue emptying out the boot of the car, loading the gear into the tent, then flattening out the luggage shelf in the boot, and setting my sleeping mat and bag up in the boot of the car.  It’s a very glamorous life being a location photographer!

    Anyone want to buy a tent?  Would suit munchkin or oompa-loompa.
    In practical terms, multi-day, multi-shoot jobs are just an extension of the same sort of logistics you should already be doing.  I find they just require that bit more forethought, but I usually find they also offer lots of opportunities to squeeze in a few pleasant stops along the way.


Professionals Vs Amateurs

(Warning - this article contains some traces of sarcasm, tread carefully.)

I remember with great fondness (read, a sickening sense of familiarity and fear of internet trolls) some of the discussions that would crop up every few months on various photography forums as to the validity of the labels amateur and professional. These discussions would circle round and round as people argued about how much money they did or didn’t make from photography, whether they’d been published or not, whether it was just an attitude, or simply what cameras they owned. In doing so they improved the world of photography immeasurably, and have helped us all move up to the sun lit uplands of enlightenment which those of us who wield a camera on a daily basis now inhabit. 

STOP!  Before replying to that post about why only amateurs use Sony cameras, think - could those bytes of data you are about to use up be employed more usefully elsewhere?  Such as in a video of a Kitten playing in a box?

Personally, I think amateur and professional are simply different ways of behaving, but more than that, I don’t believe there’s a perfect linear progression from amateur to professional with no slipping back or feedback between the two. There’s a very determinist notion that this progression is what everyone aspires to, and that professionals must by default be better than amateurs. You can probably guess by the fact I’m writing this post, that I don’t agree with this one bit!

Many amateurs look up to professionals - they’ve usually got more toys to play with, and above all it appears (superficially at least) that they’re getting paid money to do something that the amateur enjoys. Of course, many amateurs don’t see how much hard work, and how much tedious admin, marketing, and the rest makes up the actual working life of the average pro. Some pro’s I know spend about 10% of their time actually taking pictures, which is probably less than a few amateurs!

My progression from amateur to professional seems to have involved getting muddy, and losing hair.

It’s not all one way though, and in recent years I’ve found it very useful to assume what you could call an “amateur” mindset. By this I simply mean coming to my subjects and jobs with as fresh a set of eyes as I can, in order to generate new ideas. Being familiar with your subject matter as a professional can be a big advantage. In my case more than 300 shoots for Men’s Fitness magazine, and more than 300 shoots for Golf Monthly has meant that I know a fair bit about those 2 areas, and as such I can produce work very easily and quickly, without needing to have everything explained to me several times. This familiarity makes it easy to slip into autopilot though, defaulting to the same lighting setups, the same sort of shots, and always working with the same people. Coming up with new ideas becomes a challenge, and one trick that can really help is to try and walk into shoots and imagine I’ve never shot anything like this before - in some ways how an amateur would. What interests me about this situation, this person, this location, or this activity? Now, try and come up with some images that express that, rather than resorting to the usual tried and tested shots.

Just as tired and jaded pro’s like me can benefit from a more open-minded, “amateur” mindset, amateurs could benefit from a few professional habits. I don’t mean they should start charging for everything they do, just that they could adopt a few working methods and reap the benefits:

  • First off, stop using “picture modes”. No professional camera has them (this should be a clue), and no professional I know ever uses them. Use manual, or if you're really in trouble, aperture priority, and actually start to learn about the relationship between aperture, shutter speed and ISO, rather than letting the camera make the decisions.
  • Tighten up some of your kit basics - make sure you always carry spare batteries, spare memory cards, some basic tools like a blower brush and a multi-tool, and invest in decent gear that will last years - such as a proper tripod - rather than making a false economy.
  • It is never too early in your career to develop a proper workflow, as you’ll only regret it when work goes missing, or cards get corrupted. You don’t need to go to the same lengths that pro’s go to, with RAID drives, and multiple redundant backups, but since portable hard drives and cloud storage are now so cheap, there’s really no excuse not to back your stuff up properly.
  • Buy gear that’s either called “professional”, or has got the word “professional” printed on it. This makes your shots 37% better immediately, and makes people respect you more. *

I am clearly a professional, as more than 56% of my equipment has "professional" written on it.  So there. 

  • Rather than always just going out on a shoot, and seeing what happens, spend a little time planning the sort of thing you want to shoot in advance. Professionals don’t go out on a job with no idea of what they’re doing - at least, not if they want to stay employed for long - and to increase your chances of getting impressive results you’ll do well to think things through up front. 
  • Start using a logbook Go on, you know you want to!

* May not be 100% true - your mileage may vary.

Right, that’s that eternal argument sorted. Coming next, Nikon vs Canon, to be followed by film vs digital and primes vs zooms, and black coffee vs the milky kind.

(Black obviously - what are you, some kind of pervert? Who in their right mind puts milk in coffee?)