… And the living is easy

Guy Garvey of Elbow at Kendal Calling 2015

Guy Garvey of Elbow at Kendal Calling 2015

Summer 2015 has been a weird time. In any other year, summer would be the time I’d do the most work. Fine weather and long days make for an ideal season to work out on location and shoot challenging ideas. I had great plans for my Celtic Gods project; plans that required summertime. They didn’t come to pass, and I’m sad about that.

Instead I’ve found myself in limbo. Summer, which once felt like the longest season, felt this year like it lasted but an eyeblink. In June — or was it July? I forget — I shot the first block of subject|object portraits. The first weekend of August I shot for Gigwise at Kendal Calling. All great, but in the intervening time between Kendal Calling and now I’ve made nothing. That rankles.

Winter’s just over the horizon. It’s a season that I usually find hard work to get through. It’s beautiful, of course, once it gets crisp and cold. But it’s hard to want to go out and shoot in the freezing weather; harder still to ask other people to join you at it.

I need to make plans for the long winter (I feel in my bones that it will be long). I need to make sure I stay energised and challenged, and I need make images even when I don’t feel I have the energy. In short, I need to build myself some discipline.

Consider this post proof of life, with more, one hopes, to come.

From the archive: A bit tribal

Model: Alice Bol; Makeup: Donna Graham; Wardrobe styling: Helen Waugh

Model: Alice Bol; Makeup: Donna Graham; Wardrobe styling: Helen Waugh

Shot at Velocity Studios, Chorley, early 2012 (if memory serves). This was one of those shoots that teetered on the brink of utter disaster, whilst somehow managing to work out alright in the end. There are other images from it that I’m going to share some other time, too, because I shot a lot of decent frames on this shoot, and it’s a shame never to show them.

The main problem I had with this shoot was a failure of people-management on my part. I really needed a producer, but I thought that I could manage the 8-strong group of models, makeup artist, body painter, wardrobe stylist and assistant by myself. I could – but not whilst trying to concentrate on shooting what was in front of me, and that’s why things nearly fell apart.

Still, in the end, and despite some considerable hiccups, we shot some cool stuff. One of the best outcomes was getting to work with Alice Bol, pictured above, who is one of the most focused and professional models I’ve ever had in front of my lens.

Sitting by the side of the road


I wrote a post some time back now that talked about the feelings that sometimes overwhelm me – the feeling that I’ll never be able to achieve much as an artist, or that others are going to beat me to it. I never posted it because it was very bleak and I couldn’t seem to make it sound not whiny without stripping out much of the content. Some day I may come back to it, but whilst I’m in a pretty good place emotionally it’s staying in my drafts folder, unread.

But when I was coming to put this post together, and I was looking through my WordPress media library to see what images I hadn’t blogged about yet, I came across the screen capped quotes from a portfolio website that rejected me a couple of years ago, and a little bit of those I’m-not-a-photographer feelings came rushing back. Only a bit, and not for long – the sun is shining in my office window this morning and for a change the skies are blue, and this weekend I’m going to be doing something cool that I’m looking forward to (more on that later).

But for a minute, just for a minute, it all came screaming back. Other people’s voices:

“You’re not a photographer, you’re just a Nikon owner.

~ Random photographer

There’s no life in your pictures; they’re flat and boring.

~ Portfolio site rejection

You’ll never make more than a crust at photography anyway.

~ Well-meaning friend.

So I took a minute to look out of the window at the green of the trees and the early morning summer sun, and I thought thus:

Photography – or indeed making any art – is a journey. You start not knowing what you’re doing and where you’re going, and you only learn what you’re doing by doing it. The really scary part is that at any point on your journey you still don’t really know when you’re going, and you’ve only really learned what you’re doing enough to get you up to this point.

Here’s the headline then: If you feel you don’t know what you’re doing, the only way to get to the point where you do know what you’re doing is to pretend you know and fudge it as you go.

Otherwise known as “fake it ’til you make it.”

I’m not sure why I never really thought of it that way before. I’d like to have it hacked in stone over my front door (though I suspect my landlord might disagree about the worthiness of that).

It’s a long road. Better keep on walking.

Yorkshire Dales National Park

From the archive: Light and Luck

Katy Pickles, Arnside Knott

Katy Pickles, Arnside Knott

I’ve blogged about his image before, I think, but since I still love it I’m sure no-one will mind if I blog about it again.

Sometimes when you’re shooting you have a specific idea for a look – be it lighting, pose or general feel — and if you know what you’re doing you’ll get it. In this image, I was looking for what people seem to like to call a “painterly” feel (or, if you’re David Hobby, the “painters are lying cheating liars” feel). I call it Leibowitzian, but that’s mostly because that makes it sound grandiose and also because it annoys people.

Roughly translated, I wanted obviously directional light, but with gentle fall-off and shadows that weren’t too pronounced. The only light I had available was a Bowens Gemini 400 through a 4′ octa. Flown just in front of Katy this actually lit both sides of her face, but with enough fall off to be nicely directional.

The rest of the scene was courtesy of Lancashire’s natural beauty. Say what you like about it, it’s a county that gives you stuff to work with in spades.

Here’s another image from the same set:

Katy Pickles, Arnside Knott

From the archive: Studio beauty

Rachel by Lynn Docherty

Rachel by Lynn Docherty

Continuing Lynn Docherty week here on the blog…

I love working with Lynn. She’s a brilliant artist and a lovely person to be around. Shooting with her is always fun and relaxed — even when we’re doing mad things — and she never seems to lose her energy.

So when one or the other of us suggested another beauty shoot, this time in a proper studio rather than my living room, it seemed like a fab idea from the beginning.

Once again I was using a traditional beauty light here – an on-axis beauty dish. For this look we took away the reflector under Rachel’s chin, because we wanted the contrast and the deep shadows. The rest is all Lynn and Rachel. I think one of the joys of beauty work is that once you’ve got everything dialled in and the model has found their groove it really all flows very quickly. Mostly the work is about having the confidence to know you’ve got each look in the can before moving on to the next one.

Goofing off

Adam Thistlethwaite of Massive Wagons

Adam Thistlethwaite of Massive Wagons

I often think that a photographer’s job is mostly to just make the people on the other side of the lens feel as comfortable as possible. If I’m goofing around, my thinking goes, then it makes life easier for the folk on the other side of the lens.

It’s easier when you’re working with bands because most bands, being groups of people often in close proximity to one another for long periods of time, know exactly how to entertain themselves. And usually, that means mucking about behind me whilst I’m shooting. And that is usually guaranteed to get some sort of reaction from the subject in front of me.

It doesn’t always work the way you’d expect. Sometimes they’ll make their friend laugh at exactly the wrong moment and it will ruin the shot. Sometimes, however, they’ll make them react at just the right time and the shot will be amazing.

Portrait photography is like baking a cake* – sometimes the cake sinks and is tasteless and sometimes it is better than you could ever have expected.

*With apologies to Neil Gaiman, who said this about writing.

From the archive: Beauty in the living room

Cipriana by Lynn Docherty

Cipriano by Lynn Docherty

Sometimes you don’t have a studio available. Sometimes you’re working for the first time with an amazing makeup artist and a brilliant model, but you’re just trying things out and you don’t know what will stick. Sometimes you just need a space to work.

Your living room will do just fine. As mine did for me, here.

As I recall it was Lynn who had put out a casting call for a photographer, and I’d responded. She’d already found our model, Cipriana, and was ready to shoot, so all I needed was a space. Luckily, I had a living room that, once you moved the furniture around a bit, would do nicely.

Although the room wasn’t exactly tall — the 8′ ceiling posed some problems — it was enough to fit a backdrop and a traditional clamshell beauty setup — beauty dish on axis at a 45 degree angle above the model; gold reflector at a 45 degree angle below her.

The rest was all Lynn and Cipriana. Once the picture was set up I was largely just waiting for the next beautiful image and then clicking the shutter. Some days it works well like that.

From the archive: Up close and personal

Nick Latham

Nick Latham

I love a good portrait lens. The thing is, though, that we’re told that “a good portrait lens” is 85mm or over — longer still for Medium format. The shorter focal-length lenses add distortion when up close, and do odd things to faces.

But there’s an immediacy to the short focal length, a closeness and a reach-out-and-touchability that I don’t think you get with longer lenses, which leave the photographer — and so the viewer — further removed from the subject. Look at the portrait work of, say, Rankin, and you’ll see a tonne of images shot close up with a relatively wide lens. The distortion doesn’t matter all that much because of the connection that we get with the subject.

Here’s my friend Nick, bassist extraordinaire, shot up-close with a 35mm lens. Sure, there’s some distortion, but it’s a hell of a lot more personable an image than it would have been if shot with an 85 or a 105.

Sunnies, sharp suits and shitty rigs: Lighting Massive Wagons

Massive Wagons / Last Support - We started out with everyone quite serious…

Massive Wagons / Last Support – We started out with everyone quite serious…

“So here’s the deal guys,” I said. “This is the Last Supper. Except that Barry is Jesus and he’s cheating at cards.”

That was the setup for one of my favourite group portrait shots, making promo material for Massive Wagons some time last year.

I’d had the image of the Last Supper as a card game in my head (and notebooks) for a while, and when the Wagons boys came to me and asked me to shoot some promo images for them it was one of the first ideas I reached for.

We shot in the basement of The Whiskey Jar — Manchester’s finest* drinking establishment in my opinion — and after a round of fairly normal shots against white seamless we moved on to shoot the big set-piece — lead singer Barry in the position of a card-sharp Christ. How hard could it be?

… presumably this is the point at which the Disciples started to notice something weird…

… presumably this is the point at which the Disciples started to notice something weird…

To light the scene, my assistant Ben and I rigged two lights: a large strip box key over the top of the table, just slightly in front of the band, and a 4 foot octabank behind me, two stops lower in power than the strip light, adding fill.

The hard part was keeping the strip light in place. With only a short boom arm available, and no c-stands to take the weight of the light + strip box at the boom’s full extension, we ended up gaffer taping two light stands together (to add rigidity) and taping the strip box to the ceiling (to… well, I’d love to say to prevent it falling, but mostly it was to give us and the band a sense of security). I wish I’d photographed it at the time, because it was a truly shitty rig.

Massive Wagons

… Five Aces rather gave the game away, though.

I don’t think we actually shot a huge number of frames. The first two in this post were certainly within the first ten or so that we made. The final one, inspired more than slightly by da Vinci’s Last Supper took a bit of arranging — with a photo of the original up on my laptop so that people could get their poses right.

So, not the most artistically accurate bit of imitation — but still one of my favourite shots to date.

*Sinclair’s is good, but they can’t make you a Boulevardier.