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Thursday, 4 September 2014

Professional Photographer Column May 2014


Pretty much since touching down from South Africa I have been giving talks and running training sessions – sharing my thoughts and experiences about the lifestyle photography market.  A word that I have repeatedly heard is ‘confidence’: generally in terms of this being a vital and lacking component for many photographers.

Many of you have talked to me about your lack of confidence with light, posing, expression, composition, metering – it’s different things for different people but the sentiment is the same.  I have worked exceptionally hard over the last 4 years to keep my learning curve steep – continually adding another jigsaw piece to the puzzle that is photography. As each piece slotted in to place I gained confidence and as a result each shoot became easier until I reached my current state – never over confident about my abilities but able to walk into any scenario and produce consistently, strong, images. 

I have learnt to shoot natural light in three different ways – whether outside or indoors on location – and I can make decisions very quickly on what is the most appropriate option for the concept or mood of the shoot.   When I have beautiful light I am almost dancing as I work – inspired and animated by what is possible.  Of course natural light is completely governed by chance on location so for every shoot where I feel like this there may be many others when I am quietly disappointed.  And will probably end up having to add light to improve what has has been offered up.

Rightly so then, light is my number one.  But the other element that will fight for my affections is location.  God yes.  You see I find the blank space of a studio deeply uninspiring.  It reminds me of years past - sitting with a new canvas in front of me, brushes to hand and the glossy swirls of the oil paint waiting to be disturbed.  I found it daunting.  Which, I have discovered, is how many photographers feel when they are out on location – faced with a canvas already full of sky, trees, buildings and a million other potentially distracting elements. 

I clearly remember when photography became an obsession – when I carried my camera everywhere and took pictures at every opportunity.  I loved every minute of it but it was in my BL phase.  ‘Before Light.  By which I mean I didn’t see light at all – I just saw people and nice backdrops.  I would seek out interesting backgrounds – peeling walls, accents of colour, quirky architectural elements and I would lead my subjects to them with no real grasp of whether the light was any good or not.  

And then I was taught to see light and so began the ‘After Light’ phase – a wonderful place to be but one that also haunts you as you drive down motorways or sit in cafes or watch films… It changes everything if, like me, you choose to shoot on location and predominately use natural light. Environmental portrait shoots have become something of a lottery that are dictated by what opportunities the light presents.  Every shoot begins with an assessment of the light and this leads me to possible locations.  Light first, location second.

As I walk around making decisions on where to shoot I will see something that I find interesting – that is full of potential – only to quickly discover that today is not the day because the light is just not going to deliver what I want or need it to.  For those of you who use artificial lights to deliver a vision, in the location that you want, this must sound frustrating – and you are right.   But when you have 20 – 30 minutes with a couple on their wedding day you don’t have the luxury of time or lighting assistants.   You make the best of the situation and shoot.

I had a portrait shoot recently that was seriously tough.  It was a 3 hour shoot with 7 people and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky and the only location option was a wood.  I knew it was going to be tough and it took me 15 minutes of walking up and down this wood to make a decision about where to shoot.  Because it was all compromise – harsh, uneven light and distracting trees in every direction.  After 2 hours of working very hard with flash and reflectors we headed back to their house and safe light.

In contrast to this I have just done a boudoir shoot where I had studio flash and continuous lighting systems to hand.  And yet the natural light was so amazing that I was able to use that for most of the shoot – ideas and opportunities presenting themselves as fast as the light was changing. The truth is that I now find overcast light very uninspiring and I know that I need to work locations hard to add the impact that is missing from beautiful light.  This is when location becomes everything and can make the difference between an ordinary shoot and one that will grab your attention.   

Location is on my mind because I’m sat on a plane to New York writing this and whilst I am there I have an engagement shoot.  I am looking forward to it SO much – because I know that I will find inspiration in the location.  It’s the same reason why I am prepared to spend a week with another couple in August who are flying me to Lake Como and Moscow for their wedding.  And the reason why I would never own a studio – because I love the challenge of finding peace amongst the visual noise of a new location. Coupled with light it is the thing that keeps the passion alive when the reality of running a business could easily kill it!

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