A Blackmagical Weekend

I received a slightly vague phone call recently. 

To be fair I was in a bus full of noisy crew on the way to a location scout, so I was struggling to hear, but from what I could make out, a company with whom I was fairly familiar, called Blackmagic Design, had identified a number of photographers, who also practiced the dark arts of videography. The friendly guy on the other end of the line told me that they liked our respective work, and that they wanted to take us away for a weekend to the Lake District.

No arm twisting required there.

So mid last week I received a nice parcel with first class train tickets and, joy of joys, some free gear.

So, come Sunday lunchtime, I boarded Virgin's high speed Train bound for the Lake District. As we sped up the spine of the country, with all four seasons raging outside the windows, I have to admit to wondering what this was all really about, and was still wondering as we pulled into a snow covered Oxenholme Station.

Why were they spending money on us like this? Why the free stuff? Why the fancy weekend away? Why take so much time out of their schedules?

I unpacked in a very comfortable room and made my way down for drinks in the bar to discover that they had selected 9 of us in total, and brought along 11 of their staff to give us maximum individual attention, and be able to answer any questions we may have over the coming days, whether it be about their cameras, their software, or even just if we wanted to nerd out about photography and filming in general. 

I find this sort of interaction so invigorating. Being a photographer is often quite a solitary job and it's great to feel part of a broader community, even just for a few days.

The basic outline of our time spent together was as follows:

1st Session: Introductions, with each of the nine of us invitees being given the opportunity to talk a bit about what we do. This included sharing one of our images which had some sort of story behind it, presumably to give a feel for our work and our specific passions.

2nd Session: Film Theory, with tips on how to use camera movement and story telling devices to add a more professional cinematic feel to your shots. We spent some time analysing footage from some of the best films of our generation as well as talking about how to make the transition from photographer to cinematographer.

3rd Session: Technical, with a complete overview of the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera, which we received in the post. I'll will get to my thoughts on it specifically in a mo.

4th Session: Shooting, where we were split into two groups, with each group being given two actors. We then took it in turns within the group to shoot and direct scenes, which we had to devise on the spot. Here are a few shots taken by the Blackmagic guys of us 'hard at work':

5th Session: Editing, with an overview of basic editing techniques, and how they can be used to create drama and mood, as well as moving your story along.

6th Session: Grading, which was a run down of Da Vinci Resolve; Blackmagic Design's impressive colour grading software. This program is used on numerous blockbuster movies and gives you incredible control when colouring and finishing your footage.

This weekend was a gift in so many ways. There is obviously no space here to share all the things I learnt, but let me quickly tell you about the camera, the software, and the company:

The Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera is an odd one for me.

Let me give you the positives up front.

It's incredibly simple to use, and for such a diminutive device, at a reasonable price, it gives you some similarly incredible footage. They boast 13 stops of dynamic range (which I've explained on this blog before is the amount of information the sensor can hold between the brightest highlights and darkest shadows before blowing to pure white or black respectively). 13 stops is very impressive and having used the camera I can report that it's all there. This also means however that this is a professional camera and not for consumers. If you simply picked one of these cameras up off the shelf and shot footage, you would likely be disappointed by the flat, washed out, grey look of your shots. You HAVE to colour grade this footage. It's not an optional extra as with other cameras, but this has to be the process in order to give you all that latitude. 

Take a look at this example:

The footage also feels 'soft'. Not really sure what other word to use here but it has a filmic feel to it. Digital works very hard to be pin sharp, but in doing so can often feel clinical, whereas the BMPCC takes the hard edge off your images, whilst somehow managing keep all the detail you need. I find this trait a hard one to describe, so maybe the best thing to do is to watch this little test video I made with my patient wife and see if you can pick up the same thing:

On the negative side, the sensor is a super 16mm, which means it is a whole lot smaller than the full frame I'm used to. This means that I have to work very hard to get the depth of field in the shots which I'm looking for. That said, this may be a welcome hamstring for me at the moment as I am trying to move away from shallow DOF shots, because they can become a fall back for a lack of content. By that I mean if I don't have anything that great to point the camera at, I just open the aperture up and show lots of creamy bokeh and people are automatically impressed. That said, I still want the option. 

The micro 4/3 mount also means in my case that I would have to invest in all new glass. Even if I got an adapter to use my Canon lenses, the small sensor size means a 3 times crop factor, which would turn my 50mm into a 150mm effectively, and render it almost useless. We were kindly provided with a Lumix 12-35mm f2.8 to use with the camera, but I would need a whole lot more lens options to get the shots I'm used to getting.

The other obvious niggle is the battery life. It's terrible. You will need an arsenal of spares as you won't get much more than an hour of filming time on a full charge, even if you're as fastidious as I am about powering your camera down between shots.

Overall though it's an amazing little camera. I would love to be able to invest in glass for this little one as I think it would make for an incredible travel camera with it's small size being both convenient, as well as stealthy in situations where you want to get great shots without drawing huge attention to yourself.

Let's move on to the software.

Da Vinci Resolve is just about the best and most accessible colour grading software out there. Full stop.

It is an incredibly powerful platform which lets you make the kind of fine tuned corrections to your footage you've always dreamed of. If you're a Final Cut Pro user like myself, you will be used to it's ham-fisted bludgeoning of your detail and dynamic range when attempting to create any kind of look for your footage. Now admittedly my fledgling experience with Resolve this week has been solely editing the 13 stops footage pushed out by the BMPCC, but I think I can already see it will be leaps and bounds ahead of FCPX in it's ability to grade flat DSLR footage as well.

And here's the best part: it's bloody free!!

Well the full version of Resolve isn't, but Resolve Lite is, and it packs all the punch of it's big brother with most of the features available to you. I almost dropped £50 on a colour grading plugin a couple of weeks ago and I'm so glad I didn't, because now I have the industry standard for colour grading sitting on my machine for free.

If you grade, and don't have this software, go grab it, and learn how to use it. 

Round tripping from Final Cut Pro has been a bit of a challenge in my testing, but I'm sure that will get better with experience. The software itself though, is stunningly good.

Lastly, the company.

Blackmagic Design are very clever.

From what I can see they have given up time, energy and resources to provide a weekend away for a few photographers whose work they appreciate. They are investing in us by giving us gear, and knowledge, and the offer of assistance as we shoot.

Why?

Because now we know their brand. We understand their gear and what makes it so good. We will unconsciously compare any kit we get in the future to their '13 stops of dynamic range' and ability to 'shoot in DNG RAW'. They haven't asked for a thing from us but they know we will go on to tell others about the weekend (I'm doing it now, unbidden) and we will likely end up using their gear in our workflow. They are not only creating future customers, but also partners.

I admire companies like this who understand that generosity is the way to build relationships. Coercing email addresses out of large crowds and spamming their inboxes is, in my mind, a sure fire way to sour your brand in the minds of many; but this kind of targeted giving is certain to yield firm followers, and even friends in the right places.

I was so impressed with the hours of time the staff put in to answer my slew of stupid questions, not to mention the being spoiled rotten for three days on the shores of Lake Windermere.

This is how you build partnerships with creatives.

A lot of generosity, and the little bit of flattery didn't hurt either. 

Tech companies take note, because from this photographers point of view Blackmagic Design have their boot squarely up your proverbial.

To Share or Not to Share?

Over the last three weeks I have released a pretty comprehensive video series teaching you how to shoot large products. I did it because I saw a gap. When I began shooting large products I struggled to find anything online which gave much information on shooting and editing things like sofas and beds, so I decided that I would fill said gap.

How to Photograph Big Products4.JPG

My reasoning was two-fold:

  1. I genuinely wanted to contribute some knowledge to the pool which I have drawn from in so many other areas.
  2. I thought it would bring some nice exposure for me as a photographer, which it certainly has.

But I remember a moment in the planning stage asking myself, 'Am I giving away too much?' It was only a moment, but I did have that doubt. I wondered if I should be a good little Capitalist and charge, or if I should tuck my little bag of tricks back in my pocket and forget the idea altogether.

Anyway, I went ahead and shot them anyway, and they ended up on blogs like SLRLounge, Fstoppers, ISO1200 and Petapixel. The response was gratifying. And then the inevitable comments rolled in. Most were very kind, but one conversation popped up suggesting my earlier doubts may have been founded. 

I'm going to reproduce it here for you because I think the debate is an interesting one. You'll see at the bottom where I landed on this issues of 'sharing vs not sharing' but there are some good comments made on both sides.

It started with:

As a Marketing Director of a furniture company I was going to hire professional photographers and pay them to do all my product photography, but now it is much easier thanks to this tutorial!

This free tuorial will save me thousands of dollars! Thank you PetaPixel and Sean Tucker for posting this!

P.S.: why do photographers do these tutorials and potentially ruin their own (and everybody else’s) business? I would NEVER show how to make my furniture, what tools and machinery I use, etc. Thanks anyways but really... you should think twice before posting this sort of stuff... “likes” and “tweets” normally don’t pay the bills.

This guy agreed:

I hate to admit it but this guy’s right.

TV chefs teach us how to cook at home and make their living as TV “stars”... the REAL chefs keep their techniques to themselves and make their living AS CHEFS.

Photographers should do the same... just saying...

Some people came to my defense and said:

*Start sarcasm* Yeah, a few more years and everybody can cook delicious meals at home and all the restaurants will be out of business... *End sarcasm*

Hate to tell you (not really), but both you and Jeff are wrong. Even if you magically mangage to get as much experience and craft as a seasoned photographer solely from this tutorial, I still doubt your time would be best spend photographing. As a furniture craftsman, if you have the time to photograph and edit images this way instead of making furniture, business musn’t be going that great :/

So, if you sell one chair a week and have spare time, feel free to try out this new craft with Sean’s great tutorial. If you are good at what you do - making furniture - stick to that, and leave the part of photographing your work to someone who can do this better, faster and more consistently than you.

Another person said:

Just because someone shows you the gear that’s used, it doesn’t mean you know exactly how to use it properly. Go ahead and post how you make your furniture and what equipment you use… 99.9% of people watching will still not be able to replicate what you do.

The tools don’t make the carpenter, just like the camera does’t make the photographer.

Finally my response was:

Hi Jeff. Sean here. The guy from the video.

Let me be the first to welcome you to the photography community. We’re a generous bunch with our knowledge, by and large. Sites like this, and many others besides, are rammed full of enough information to get you started in any field of photography you chose. I for one didn’t study photography in a formal institution. Instead I had to reboot my career years ago, and so I embarked on a journey as a professional photographer and videographer; a feat made possible because I was able to learn from other generous photographers who went before me and were willing to share their skills with me online and in person.

I made a promise to myself way back then that I would endeavour to model the same generosity.

Secondly, if I am able to impart enough knowledge for you to shoot and edit as well as me, in one hour, then I’m not really a photographer worth very much anyway. You may find that this process is a little more tricky than I make it look on camera, and you may just end up giving me a call when you are completely stuck because it doesn’t work as neatly for you as it does for me. That’s the difference between a brief tutorial and years of experience: consistency, problem solving and ease. You will know well that if you give me a quick one hour lesson and show me the tools of your trade, and then let me loose in your workshop to build furniture, you will be having a quiet giggle to yourself in the corner watching my bumbling efforts. I may even find myself throwing in the towel, calling you over to rescue me, and appreciating the skill it takes to do what you do. I said at the start of this video, ‘these are (only) basic tips and tricks’. You may find yourself shooting much better images than you did in the past and ‘saving yourself thousands of dollars’; in which case ‘you’re welcome’. That would make me genuinely happy. But more than likely you’ll be picking up the phone and asking a professional to help you out, because now you realise how difficult this process is. Not my intent, but certainly a reality in my experience.

Maybe this makes me a useless Capitalist, but if success for me means never sharing what I know with others, guarding my ‘secrets’ and bowing to the all-powerful dollar above building into the community which has given me so much, then I’m happy to be a failure; because it’s only due to the willingness-to-share of other generous ‘failures’ that I am where I am today.

Thanks genuinely for your comments. They really made me think.

Any thoughts of your own on this issue?

Confessions of a Digital Lover

I'm whatever the opposite of a hipster is because, and I understand this is heresy, I don't really get film photography.

Minolta X700, Tri-x 400

Minolta X700, Tri-x 400

Of course it's stupid to say because it's where photography came from, but in today's day and age I don't see it as a viable option for me, and I'll outline why.

Minolta X-700

Minolta X-700

Last year I bought myself a Minolta X-700 35mm SLR, and this year I purchased a TLR Medium Format Mamiya C330.

The idea was to revisit film and hopefully it would slow me down and inject some new inspiration into my work. You hear so many photographers talk about how shooting film turns them into these 'floating, contemplative world-ramblers' with new eyes to see, as if being spiritually awakened to the 'now' which digital had perviously blinded them to.

I'm a complete hypocrite I know because about 18 months ago I wrote a post about how much I was enjoying film and named the things it was teaching. Let me give them here, because they are all still true:

  • Shooting film does force you to slow down. You have to plan your shots and know your exposure triangle because it takes a second to dial things in, and each shutter click is costing you money in film and development. This means you are forced to pre-visualise your shots and it's a good reminder that shooting digital, chimping your screen, and moving incrementally towards the shot you intend is likely the lazy way to get there. Film won't let you get away with this, if only because of the lack of a digital screen. That first shutter click should be your final shot.
  • Film does give you some advantages in increased dynamic rangeFor the uninitiated "Dynamic Range" is how much information your sensor or film can hold in the darkest shadows and brightest highlights before they just disappear to pure black or white with no hope of recovery. I have heard it said that digital can only hold one stop of light in either direction from your exposure, where as film can hold up to three stops, which if true is a huge difference, and means you can hold your shadows and highlights in some tricky lighting situations.
  • There is something attractive about shooting with a machine which is mechanical. It feels robust and timeless, so I do understand the romance of it all, and see why film cameras are catnip for hipsters. The objects themselves are something special. I felt more excitement walking home on the first day with my Mamiya C330 than with my Canon 5DmkII for example. I do get it.
Mamiya C330

Mamiya C330

But for me that's where it ends. I have shot a few rolls on each camera now and as I went through the process of shooting and developing I had the epiphany that maybe most of my love for these things is because I know I'm 'supposed' to love them. Maybe shooting with these beauties is actually a royal pain in the ass. This post may serve little more than to betray the fact that I am a massive control freak but these are my frustrations with shooting film (and it's goodbye to some dear photography friends at this point I would imagine):

  • I don't know what I've just shot. It may slow me down but there is nothing more frustrating than shooting a portrait only to develop the shot and find that the subject blinked at the crucial moment. On my digital screen I can see that and shoot some more frames, but with film I have missed what could have been a great opportunity with someone which I may never have again.
  • I can edit the shot the way I want with digital. Often the film I have chosen to use has made some key decisions for me. The beauty of RAW is that the files come out very flat with a lot of detail. They may not be very appealing to look at sometimes, but they provide a beautiful canvas from which to dial in the colour and contrast which you like. The Fuji Superior 400 I shot with for a bit gave everything a green tint which drove me a bit nuts. Pulling the scans into Lightroom and correcting from there was ok, but I found the image quickly broke down because the contrast was baked into the shot. I had little say as to how the final shot felt. Chemicals had irreversibly made a lot of those decisions for me.
  • The lack of ability to change ISO drives me up the wall. The beauty of our digital cameras is that we don't need to wait till we've finished our roll of film to be abel to shoot in a different light. We just crank up the ISO. I found myself in a number of situations where we were walking around the streets and then went into a dark room with 400 speed film, and I could no longer shoot really. I instantly appreciated the progress we've made with digital cameras. In fact I pulled out my iPhone and carried on shooting.
  • It's not sharp enough! I know this is a weird one and I am likely on my own here, but I find film too soft. My wife, pictured below, thinks I'm a soulless cyborg for saying this. To be fair, I remember first seeing digital shots and thinking that it was too sharp and clinical, but I've since changed, and it's now how I want to see my shots. I spent years working with lenses and settings to get my images razor sharp, and shooting with film now just frustrates me when I zoom in and see the 'creamy goodness' which everyone else but me seems to appreciate as something magical. I know that makes me an unfeeling robot, but I can't help it. It's now how I see.
Shooting with my Mamiya C330. (Shots by Bayek Photography)

Shooting with my Mamiya C330. (Shots by Bayek Photography)

Don't get me wrong, I understand the appeal of film. I hugely respect those who shoot film as part of their work. I've recently stumbled across some who shoot whole weddings on Medium Format film, which means changing rolls every 12 shots! That's hardcore. (For a great example of this check out Ann-Kathrin Kock) But for me personally, I appreciate the technological advances we've made in photography, and I think I'll be sticking to my digital-work-horse 5DmkII's, at least for now.

My Mamiya C330 sadly gave up the ghost after only 3 rolls of film with a mechanical failure.

My Minolta X-700 has gone to my celluloid-loving wife who is getting a great deal of joy out of it.

Here are some more film shots I took during my brief love affair:

Mamiya C330, Kodak Portra 400

Mamiya C330, Kodak Portra 400

Minolt  a X700, Tri-x 400

Minolta X700, Tri-x 400

Minolt  a X700, Tri-x 400

Minolta X700, Tri-x 400

Mamiya C330, Kodak Portra 400

Mamiya C330, Kodak Portra 400

Minolt  a X700, Tri-x 400

Minolta X700, Tri-x 400

Minolt  a X700, Tri-x 400

Minolta X700, Tri-x 400

Minolt  a X700, Tri-x 400

Minolta X700, Tri-x 400

Bending Light

Last weekend Sarah and I headed into the woods to play with strobes and practice balancing them with ambient light. While we were scouting out the location and testing the ambient light, I got this shot of Sarah with a 50mm and a handheld reflector to give a nice catch light in the eyes:

Ruislip Portrait 01 - Version 2.jpg

Then we pulled out my Alien B800 and Vagabond battery pack. The main reason I was keen to do some testing was that I had recently bought a 1.8m softlighter. A softlighter is a large umbrella with a silver inlay which you shoot the light into for shape, but it also has a white diffusion panel over the front to soften the light up on the return journey. Being 1.8m big I assumed that this was going to give me a huge, soft, wrap around light source. The general rule with lighting is that the larger the light source relative to your subject, the softer the light. The sun for example, while bright, is only a tiny point in the sky relative to us, which is why it gives such harsh shadows. A big light source held close to the subject though will fill in shadows and give a soft, pleasing light. 

So what I thought this big 1.8m light source would do was this:

wide lighter.jpg

But when I took a test shot what I actually got was this:

Ruislip Portrait 032.jpg

The light was soft, but it wasn't a big light source. In fact it barely covered head and shoulders. I was really confused for a while because this was breaking the rule I had learnt. It took me a few minutes but from what I could tell, this was what was happening:

narrow beam.jpg

Due to the fact that the umbrella is so shallow the light source was only bouncing off the centre and so creating a small light coming back through the diffusion panel. That diffusion panel may have been almost two meters big, but the light was only bouncing back through the very centre of it. The small reflection size, and the concave shape of the umbrella meant that I was left with a shot which looked like it had been lit with a snoot and a bit of ambient back lighting. I think it's actually a flaw with this particular product (Walimex 180cm Reflex Umbrella). Ideally the umbrella should have a deeper concave shape, so the light can sit further away from the inside surface, and so spread light over the whole surface and come back through the diffusion panel as large a source as possible.

Don't get me wrong, I actually like the shot. It was a happy accident and I stayed there shooting for a few minutes and got some great shots with that set up. But it wasn't what I had planned. I still wanted a bright ambient hair light from the sun, filled with a big soft light from the front.

So how did I get there?

Well first I had to slow down my shutter speed to let in more ambient light. The rule is, when balancing ambient light with strobes, that shutter speed controls your constant ambient light, and your aperture controls your strobes. Slowing down my shutter speed, means keeping the shutter open for longer and allowing more constant light in to the sensor. It doesn't effect the strobe though because it only fires momentarily within that shutter duration anyway. 

I still had the same problem with the softlighter though. So I decided to pull the diffusion panel off the front and hang it spread out in the tree branches off to camera right. I then took my light and pulled it back so that the light would fall full across the surface of the diffusion panel without spilling past the edge:

Tree.jpg

This now meant that I had my large soft light from the front to fill. As a trade off I lost the shape of the light somewhat because Sarah was now only being lit by a bare strobe firing through a flat diffusion panel instead of being shaped by light returning from a concave umbrella, but it gave me the balance that I needed to get the shot I wanted. Which was this one:

Portrait 062.jpg

So I used the sun coming in through the trees as a hair light, or rim light, and just balanced the strobe to fill in the front of Sarah's face. The trick with this kind of photography for me is to keep it looking as natural as possible, and I like the result of this one.

There are million ways to light. Once you get a sense for how it moves and behaves you can get a vision for what you want, and then work out how to get it. There are a slew of modifiers to help you get there too, from snoots to softboxes, umbrellas to beauty dishes, even just a white wall, or in my case, a diffusion panel hung from a tree. The point is to experiment and learn to bend the light through your lens and onto your sensor to get the shot you want.

My Most-Used Camera

tumblr_mohuulROFT1r6phlfo1_500.jpg

No surprises: it's my phone.

I don't think I'm over stating it when I say that my phone has contributed more to building a photographic style than any other camera I've ever owned, and there are two big reasons for that.

Firstly, it gives me permission to shoot more 'carelessly'.

When I'm taking shots on my phone I'm not shooting for a client but just for the sheer joy of shooting, and if it doesn't come out that well I can always delete it; or post it anyway and just blame the short falls on the phone. I am giving myself the freedom to be less anal, which as a perfectionist I need, and It opens my eye to the ‘happy accident’, which isn't something I have the luxury to spend time experimenting with on a shoot. I also find that once I have tried out braver shots on my phone, and seen that they are working, I then have the confidence to incorporate those ideas into pro shoots.

tumblr_mtst6wjcHF1r6phlfo1_500.jpg

I know many photographers will look down on the use of ‘automatic settings’ and the often ‘over edited’ finish of mobile phone images, but this isn’t meant to be ‘perfect photography’ in my view, but rather catching the moments we often miss trying to set up our DSLR’s and lighting, if we even brought them with that day. This isn't about planned shots with the best gear, it's reactive photography.

I think phone photography today is similar to the Lomography revolution of the early 80’s. People began picking up inexpensive, plastic film cameras with light leeks and crappy exposure because they were small, cheap and fun to shoot with. The idea was to shoot often, and ‘from the hip’, almost in antithesis to pro photography. In fact I think many of the top 10 rules of Lomography relate directly to iPhoneography. Check them out:

1. Take your camera everywhere you go
2. Use it any time – day and night
3. Lomography is not an interference in your life, but part of it
4. Try the shot from the hip
5. Approach the objects of your Lomographic desire as close as possible
6. Don't think
7. Be fast
8. You don't have to know beforehand what you captured on film
9. Afterwards either
10. Don't worry about any rules

tumblr_mcrp05g89d1r6phlfo1_500.jpg

The spirit seems the same to me. This is organic, reactive, even viral photography.

The second reason is that my phone is the camera which is always with me.

It's a way to live, photographically, in the now. My phone burns a hole in my pocket all day, every day, reminding me to keep my eyes open for the next shot, and knowing this in the back of my mind I am more conscious of my surroundings at all times. It means I am constantly training my eye, and I'm always on the lookout for an interesting scene, or light, or subject. This kind of photo-awareness stands me in good stead for the days I do pick up my DSLR’s to shoot more deliberately. I find I notice more, and have a whole host of new angles and creative ideas on tap.

It's no secret that the image quality isn't great on any mobile phone (no not even your 41 mega pixel Nokia). The dynamic range is wafer thin, depth of field is always as deep as the ocean unless your subject is pressed up against the lens, and overall the shots make the pixel peepers physically cringe. No one is suggesting that a mobile phone camera can compete with a pro camera for quality, but if I have the option to take a good photo on a bad camera, or take no photo at all, I would rather take the shot.

seantuck_on_Instagram.jpg

I suppose this comes down to the old battle between kit vs content. Which is more important?

I have this discussion with photographers regularly, and it often turns into a heated debate.

Don't get me wrong; gear helps. I can usually tell whether a shot has been taken with a point and shoot, a cropped sensored DSLR, a full frame DSLR, or even a Medium Format. But the fact still remains that a great camera in the hands of a bad photographer will be useless. It takes a talented photographer to see and capture the moment with good skill and composition. I for one, would rather look at an image shot by a great photographer on a bad camera, than an image shot by an amateur using the best gear in the world.

Photographers have gone on about it since Henri Cartier-Bresson was banging on about “The Decisive Moment” in 1952. If you point your camera at disinteresting things, even if you know your settings and rules of composition, you will have a disinteresting photograph. You have to become a student of ‘life’ and ‘light’ in order to catch the moments which matter, and which say something. We see mountains of photography everyday through our friends on Facebook, but much of it says nothing. Great photography shows you a moment, a look, a scene which surprises you with a response.

tumblr_mqt8y3PXMD1r6phlfo1_500.jpg

So I would say work on your 'eye' first, and there are few ways better to do that than shoot, shoot, shoot. Start getting your 10, 000 hours under your belt. Get out there and look for ‘the moment’ and use whatever you have on you to catch it. If you're not happy with it, delete it, but the mere act of shooting it will build photographic muscle reflex in learning both to see and capture.

And the tool to help you learn how to see, and which gives you permission to capture 'carelessly' and often, is likely sitting in your pocket right now.

For those who I know will be interested, I shoot on an iPhone 4 and my go-to editing apps are:

Snapseed and PicsPlay Pro for more controlled editing.

Camera+ but only really the amazing ‘Clarity’ function.

Facetune for basic retouching.

VSCO Cam to add some vintage film tones.

Mextures for light leaks and destressed effects. 

seantuck_on_Instagram 2.jpg

Perfect B&W if I am going the Black and White route.

Big Lens occasionally to fake some depth of field.

Over Text + Photo to add text over the image.

Photosynth for panoramas.

Instagram, but only to post and rarely to edit.

PicFrame and Phoster for some fun presentation options.

If you want to take a look through my iPhoneography visit www.seantuckiphone.tumblr.com or follow me on Instagram: @seantuck.

Shooting Photo Narratives

Note: This post also includes a review of Exposure.so, but I haven't been asked to do the review or paid in anyway for it.

What is a Photo Narrative?

Well, it seems the definition varies a little, but for me it's taking your camera out and catching frames throughout a day, or an event, which communicate the story, and visually represent what went on. A good Photo Narrative, for me, requires very little, if any words, because the images are strong enough that they give you the sense of that 'happening', even if you don't have all the details. I suppose it's documentary photography in essence but has an emphasis on sequential events over a deliberate space of time.

I have always been a fan of this sort of photography.

I used to do it more actually but the 'more pro' I got the less I shot like this, and I think it's because I became too precious with my shots and prohibitively selective about which shots I shared with the world.

At some point I realised that if you spend enough time on each image, and only post your prime shots for others to see, people will think this is what you shoot like all the time. It makes sense too, and definitely strengthens your image to the world and your brand in general, but aren't you losing something in the process? 

I have a skill; and can choose to use it to take people along with me to see the things I see. It's a more generous approach to photography, and might mean I will end up posting some images which aren't my strongest in order to construct a Photo Narrative, but I really like the idea of building something out of many pieces which tells a story.

A couple I know back in Cape Town do this very well, turning their holiday shots into beautiful Photo Narratives (check out their wedding photography too which also has a great documentary feel):

http://lovemadevisible.co.za/travel/ 

I know many photographers who don't like this sort of shooting because they prefer to maintain the illusion of a high 'hit rate' by only posting one, crafted shot at a time. The fact is that if you head out to shoot and commit to posting a Photo Narrative by the end of the day, there will be some shots which are stronger than others. You also won't have the time to do deep edits on these images if you want be timeous about the things you're covering. In that way it's more akin to photo journalism than the crafted photography of the portraiture and art world. Personally I like the challenge though. I doubt anyone will be printing any of these images off as canvases for their walls, but that's not really what they're for, and I'm ok with that.

Recently I signed up to exposure.so, which is a new platform designed to display your Photo Narratives. Here is a link to a Narrative I posted showing my walk around London this Saturday morning past, visiting Mandela Memorial sites, and bumping into a Hoard of Santas:

https://seantuck.exposure.so/sadness-and-celebration

A little bit on Exposure:

First off, I'm sure you'll agree that it looks beautiful. I am sucker for the clean, white look and they have done a great job of providing a stylish and simply layout. It is also very user friendly. It only took me 15 minutes to put this Photo Narrative together and it was a fun process which felt less like work and more like effortless creativity.

Great use of fonts, good design aesthetics, and some useful control over which order photos are displayed in, as well as an attractive light box solution mean that they have nailed the look and functionality for me.

The negatives are that you only get 3 free Photo Narrative posts before you need to pay for a subscription. It's not a huge amount of money, and it's definitely worth the price if you are into this sort of 'shoot and sharing', but for someone like me who doesn't get to do this often enough it feels like just another platform I would have to give a bunch of time to, to ensure I got my moneys worth.

I mean this subscription is also on top of the other subscriptions which I have to pay monthly like Photoshop CC, Squarespace for website, 500px Awesome account and other sundry accounts for little things like Wetransfer for client file transfers. You can quickly rack up a bunch of these 'little' subscriptions for things you 'need', until you get to the point where you wonder where your money is bleeding off to every month, and I'm trying to be more careful about this sort of thing myself. Can I afford another platform which only serves one very specific purpose, even if it does it very well?

And that brings me to another negative. This would be an entirely new platform to maintain and draw visitors too. I am having enough trouble trying to draw traffic to my main website without confusing the brand I'm trying to build with yet another URL. I have only just moved everything together in one space. Until recently I was running my photography portfolio off 500px, my videography portfolio off Wordpress, my photography blog off Blogger, and my iPhoneography blog off Tumblr. It's too much. So I moved everything onto Squarespace and have been really happy that I finally have a combined home for everything, so I'm not going to shoot myself in the foot by letting a bunch of new Sean Tucker Photography content spring up elsewhere on the web.

If there was a way to have this platform integrate and display within Squarespace (like embedding the Photo Narrative onto a page or post) and a way to display on social media platforms other than just sharing a link, then perhaps it would be more worthwhile for me personally.

There also don't seem to be options to leave comments and interact as yet, but I'm sure this functionality will appear with updates?

That said, head along and check it out because it really is a slick interface providing an eye catching Photo Narrative layout. I know it sounds like I just dumped all over them but they really have built a beautiful platform which will do exactly what many photographers want. I think my rant has more to do with 'too many platforms and subscriptions' in general.

Check them out here (you may need to request an invite):

https://exposure.so/ 

I'll leave you with some shots of Santas from my last Photo Narrative:

IMG_8232 web.jpg
IMG_8215 web.jpg
IMG_8212 web.jpg
IMG_97436 - Version 2 web.jpg
IMG_97486 - Version 2 web.jpg
IMG_8260 web.jpg

Finding Your Vibe

A few weeks ago I was asked by good friends of mine to do a "Bump Shoot", or "Maternity Shoot".

Leanne BP1 927.jpg

I've never done one before so I agreed, albeit with a bit of trepidation. After all, I'm a single dude with no family of my own, so would I have the emotional involvement to be able to capture this important life stage for this couple?

I think at the end of the day I did ok.

We ran through a series of shots indoors, working off my iPad and a Pinterest Board which we had compiled together as a reference. I tried a few light set ups and attempted to replicate some of the shots with the limited space we had available, but I didn't really feel like things were clicking. I knew I had enough to go on, but I was keeping an eye out for golden hour because I knew they had beatific surroundings which would really offer us some gems if the light would only play ball.

And it did. 

For those not familiar with the term, Golden Hour is a photography term for the first and last hour of sunlight in a day. Obviously it's often not strictly an hour, but the point is that at sunrise and sunset the quality of light is softer, with less harsh shadows being cast, which makes for more diffuse light and flattering pictures.  

photo.PNG

I use a great little app called "Sol", which tells me the exact times for golden hour each day based on my location and time of year. It really comes in handy with planning shoots. 

For example this screen grab is telling me the best time to shoot today, here in South West England is between 15:06 and 16:29.

The evening in question we had a beautifully rich, orange sunset which played so well in the golden fields behind their house. 

We walked around for a good 2 hours, well into 'Civil Dusk' and got some really great light. Leanne and Conan were both troopers, being willing to trudge some distance to search for good locations, not to mention Leanne being willing to lie down in some very uncomfortable stubbly grass to get some beautiful shots in the newly manicured fields.

So all in all I was happy with the results at the end of the day, but I did end up driving home in my car wondering, "Did I just do my first maternity shoot, or did I just do another model shoot with someone who happens to be pregnant?"

I suppose I was questioning whether I shot on brief or not. Did I get the vibe right? As I played the shots back through in my head they didn't feel like other maternity shoots I had seen fellow photographers post. Had I messed up? 

I suppose this is the tricky part. Was what I had produced a 'maternity shoot in my style', or a missed mark by unprepared portrait photographer falling back on tried techniques? I think there is a fine line between deliberate stylistic choices, and a lazy reliance on your usual bag of tricks.

A very good photographer friend of mine did make the comment, after seeing the photos, that they 'weren't smiling', and this was supposed to be a 'happy event'. I suppose the insinuation was that I should have been getting them to smile and laugh throughout to give the sense of 'joy' which comes with birth. Did he say that because those are his stylistic choices, or because I had done it wrong somehow?

That got me thinking some more: I'm not really a 'smiley' photographer. Everyone knows how mother's feel about their imminent children arriving. I don't believe that we need to go through painful hours of me cracking lame jokes until one lands and I can catch that moment of 'genuine' joy. Maybe it's a personality thing, and I am an introvert so I prefer a more contemplative style of photography. I think even if I went to the shoot with this advice in mind I still would have aimed for the same vibe.

I remember when I shot for a company a few years ago as their in house photographer I was constantly criticised for not getting people smiling and laughing in shots. They wanted me to paint this picture that around the office everyone was always joking and laughing, which they obviously weren't, and to be honest those weren't the shots that interested me. It took me ages to own that that just wasn't my vibe, and it doesn't make me wrong, or a bad photographer, it just meant I had to work against my natural grain to meet the brief.

Now I understand that my more sober, thoughtful vibe may not be everyone's cup of tea, but at some point, with my own work, I either have to own it and make it the best it can be, or spend my career pretending to shoot like other people.

So this is my journey at the mo: to define what my vibe is and move away from the generic feel of my shots to give them more character. I may lose business that way because it doesn't appeal to everyone's taste, but I have to hope that those who latch on to my ever-defining style will be loyal followers and effective evangelists in helping me get the word out about my work.  

NOTE: Thanks to the amazing Sarah Howse for an awesome job retouching images 1, 2, 3, 4 and 6. Check out her stuff here, and hire her: http://sarahjhowse.wix.com/sarah-howse-editing ... and I'm not just saying that because she's my partner. She's bloody good. You can also read more about her under the 'retouching' menu link above. 

Here are more shots from the day:

Leanne field 2 Final 930.jpg
Leanne 12 Final 938 web.jpg
Leanne Bedroom 3 final 928.jpg
Diptych 1 Leanne.jpg
Leanne sun 1 Final 931.jpg

Balancing Colours

 I recently shot for Moonika, who is building a portfolio to put herself out there for modelling.

Moonika BP C.jpg

She has the most striking red hair, and so early in the planning process I had to consider how to deal with, and compliment, such a strong colour.

Confession time: I am slightly colour blind, especially when it comes to reds and greens ironically. I often confuse them, particularly when they have similar tonal values. I actually have this constant insecurity that the colour balance in my edited shots isn't very good and no one is telling me I'm messing it up; like maybe everything I shoot has a slight green tinge for example and, best-case-scenario, people think it's a deliberate stylistic choice.

To compensate I have a few photography friends who I bounce my portfolio off to get some honest feedback and see if I'm off track. This is a really good idea by the way, especially while you're learning to colour correct your images. Source some trusted, honest, brutal opinion. 

When shooting though, I try and keep the colour wheel in mind to plan out some sort of balance, because it really is as important as spatial composition.

I found this great graphic on visual.ly, which explains many aspects of colour theory and gives a really helpful overview: 

color-theory_502910ba33eff.jpeg

Obviously I'm not thinking about all of this when shooting, although I do try and bring some of this knowledge into my compositions. At least knowing this stuff in the back of my mind often helps me to work out when something just 'looks wrong' and I can't figure out why. So it may look very complicated, but let me break down just two of the things I try and stay aware of:

Analogous Colours can add thematic interest. These are colours which sit close to each other on the colour wheel (Pink/Red). If you place these sort of colours together, especially in styling, you can create depth and interest while still playing on a theme. 

Opposite Colours provide separation.  In colour theory they are called 'Complimentary Colours' (Red/Cyan). They will give you the greatest separation from fore-background, whilst playing nicely together.

Let's take the next two shots of Moonika to demonstrate.

I used Analogous Colours in the styling. I say "I", but she brought along this pink scarf for the shoot deliberately, and as a costume designer herself, she understood that the combination of the pinks and reds works well together in colour theory. So the pink of the scarf and red of her hair give us an Analogous Colour theme, but now I have to separate her from the background.

The Complimentary Colour for red on the Colour Wheel is cyan, but there was no cyan to hand to use as a backdrop so I tried the next two best options: green and blue (which strictly speaking is triad theory in the graphic above, but I think you'll get the idea).

First I lined her up with a rich green background to make the red of her hair pop and it worked quite well. Fortunately she also had this great green coat which helped me frame the bottom edge of the image too and draw the focus into the middle of the frame. The green also helped to accent the deep green of her eyes and the colours played well together. The point was that I was getting the separation I wanted. 

Gloves Finalweb.jpg

But I also really wanted to try the blue because I had a feeling it would work well and give a very different feel. 

On the day, I was shooting with a photographer friend of mine, Radek (Check him out at Bayek Photography). While we were walking around he noticed a bush with very light green leaves, which when blurred out in the bokeh made her dark-toned hair really pop, so we decided to use it as a backdrop for a while. Even when taking the shot I knew what I was going to do with this image in the edit. I wanted to give the impression of a cold, icy background and let the cool desaturated texture give her hair that extra punch and separation, so when I got the image onto the computer I isolated the leaves in the background and turned them a chilly blue/grey. The final image makes me think of the White Witch in the Narnia Chronicles for some reason, but the point is the separation works really well.

Ice Queen Final web.jpg

I can't pretend that I'm always this deliberate, and admittedly the strong colour of Moonika's hair forced me to think more than I normally may have about this stuff, but I am always working hard to keep colour balance in mind when shooting portraits. It really can make the difference between a flat and uninteresting shot, and one that really pops.

Umbrella final.jpg