On Assignment: Helen Chapman for Runner’s World

Location: Walton on the Naze, Essex
Shoot Duration: 3/4 day including travel to and from Essex
Personnel: Just myself and the subject
Equipment: Basic camera kit, plus Bowens + Travelpak
Date: 25/7/2014
Fee: Hundreds
Total shots: 111

I always love being given a brief where I’ve got a fair amount of room to manoeuvre, get to work with inspiring people, and get to use good locations too.

This shoot was a monthly feature for Runner’s World – “Human Race” – essentially a human interest feature where someone has overcome adversity and carried on running. In this case the subject is Helen Chapman, an amputee.

Helen Chapman
Helen Chapman

As is usual with these sort of shoots, I’m given the subject’s contact details, a rough idea of what the magazine would like, and when they want it, and then I sort the rest out by myself. This is a very sensible way to work – there aren’t several people in the chain of communication, such as someone’s agent, nor is someone telling me to shoot something a very strict way. As long as I make the person look good, and help to tell the story the magazine will be happy. The fact that I can organise this sort of thing myself is a big plus too, as it means I can work it in around other things in my diary.

Helen lives out in Walton on the Essex coast, and was happy to be photographed on a Friday morning in late July. I did the usual Google Scouting, and discovered that she was about a mile from some impressive cliffs, and a decent beach. I also made sure to check the tide times, as there didn’t seem to be much beach exposed. Happily, there looked to be about a 90 minute window when there would be some sand to use, before it all got covered by the incoming tide. I got to Walton early enough to head up there and have a good look round, and the location looked very versatile. However, I’d slightly underestimated how high the cliffs were, and began to realise that if I wanted to light Helen properly, it was going to be fun getting all the kit down the cliff, and then back up again, even with the steps cut into the cliff face.

Helen Chapman
Helen on the cliff top

Now, at this point, I could elect to simply shoot from the top of the cliff, and not do any shots down by the shore, or not take any lights down to the shore, but to be honest, if a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well. So I strap most of my gear onto my fold-out trolley, and attach a few other bits to one of my rolling cases, and take 2 trips down the stairs, manhandling the kit all the way. At this point I was still using my Bowens Gemini’s, which meant carrying a separate battery for location use, plus the heads themselves were pretty big and heavy. Nowadays with my rather marvellous Profoto B1’s, this job would be slightly easier. However, whichever lighting kit I end up using, I always need to carry ballast, which often seems very taxing – carrying weight just for the sake of it. I’ve learnt my lesson the hard way though, having not weighted down a few lights in my time, and had stuff get smashed, so it’s a case of dig deep and hump the heavy kit up and down the cliff. There’s never a budget for an assistant on jobs like this, and I can hardly ask Helen, I feel this would have been an ideal time to get a work experience person in for the day…..

Helen Chapman
Always shoot a range of crops and options for the art director to play around with.

As is usual when shooting a feature without the art director or anyone from the magazine present, I shoot a range of shots – different poses, different crops, different locations, as well as landscape and portrait options. I’ve gone over why professionals do this before (shooting by remote control), but to quickly recap – I won’t be laying the pages out myself, and as such, although I may have images that I think work best, it’s a very good idea to give the client the choice to lay the pages out in a way they think best. Hence, don’t just shoot the same image several times!

Helen Chapman
A shot crying out for a darker, moodier sky!

Helen was a dream to work with, and very patient with all my mucking about. Despite scouting various locations, and thinking that the beach and the clifftop would make the best spots, my favourite shot came about by accident. Whilst I was dragging all my kit up a set of stairs from the beach, I was briefly at eye level to a concrete path, and saw the shot I wanted. I’ve always liked the low-angle/heroic approach, and I think it suits this shot well. In a perfect world, I’d make this shot the “full Liebovitz” and would have the flash power/shutter speed combo to take the sky way down to a dark and moody backdrop. On this shoot however, the combination of my Bowens lights (which didn’t even want to sync with my Nikons at 1/250s, more like 1/160s) and a very flat sky meant that this wasn’t really an option. Still, not a bad shot, but a few equipment changes would allow me more combinations of flash and shutter speed. You can chalk this up to one of the many reasons I eventually swallowed the cost and invested in the Profoto B1s!


In the dark about any of the technical stuff I mentioned in this post?  I’ve got a course on Technical Fundamentals right here to help you out!

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