Week Seven Reflections – My Practice

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This week my reflections are about my practice, after a multi day event/documentary gig in London.

Whilst I have shot events before, this week’s project was different in that it stretched over several days. I was asked to spend 4 days documenting Andrew Mlangeni’s visit to London. He was a close friend and ANC comrade of Nelson Mandela, and spent 18 years in jail alongside him on Robben Island, 26 years in jail all together. Andrew is 93, and was in UK to receive the Freedom of the City of London. 

Gem suggested that I write up how I tackled the project, so I am writing this on the plane to Singapore, en route to Phnom Penh.

I was engaged via a mutual acquaintance of Andrew’s, who I had worked with ‘in another life’. I saw the schedule, agreed the deliverables and the terms (I hold the copyright and can use any images as I wish) and all was set.

We discussed what the images were going to be used for, and exactly who was the client. Whilst there were many kinds of event to be covered, with different sponsors, in my head it was clear that the focus of continuity should be on covering Andrew’s personal story – he was as my ‘main’ client, rather than the folks that engaged me. They agreed.

As this was both a public and personal program, I started by researching the man. 

We then met (informally, in a pub) to get to know each other and some of the people travelling with him, including his granddaughter, Mpumie Mlangeni. Andrew uses a wheelchair, or a walking stick, although it was great to hear that he plays golf 3 times a week. We agreed a few simple ground rules – no public pictures of him smoking (!) or enjoying his scotch, and minimise the wheelchair. This first meeting was also a great opportunity to take some personal portraits, to kick off the work.

Amongst the events we covered as well as the Freedom ceremony were interviews by the BBC and CNN, Christiane Amanpour. One evening there was a gala supporting the launch of Robert Kennedy Human Rights in the UK, at Coutts, which Princess Eugenie was attending. There were also fundraising dinners.

So, my process. 

During the week, I was able to scope out the venues at least a little bit before shooting time, which helped my technical decisions. I had settled on using the Leica’s, without flash. I much prefer available light to capture character.

I almost always shoot events on Aperture Priority, single shot for events. I also tend to run my cameras on Auto-ISO and Auto-WB in daylight, as I have found the Leica’s to behave superbly well. Given it was mostly well lit venues during the day, there was little problem with colour balance. I always shoot RAW, and even for quickly needed shots, I prefer to transfer images to my phone for light processing and framing, rather than use out-of-camera JPGs.

Whilst shooting, once I have the basic setup on the camera, I use the EV +/- to manage specific light situations. If anything, I opt to underexpose. I have found Leica files to have excellent lattitude, though they can occasionally burn out highlights.

The M Rangefinders with Summicrons are lovely, environmental portrait tools, and I actually enjoy manual focusing. Usually I shoot F4 or wider. This can be a tough strategy, getting the wrong eye in focus, for example. And I definitely got a few wrong. But when it does work, it makes for lovely soft bokeh and backgrounds.

The SL mirrorless is a high speed camera with intuitive and minimalist controls. It has a nicely bright viewfinder, and its sensor delivers images very similar to the  M10. The zooms are the only ones I have ever used on any brand which, to my eye, are indistinguishable from prime optics.

Whilst shooting, once I have the basic settings on the camera, I use EV +/- to manage specific light situations. If anything, I opt to underexpose. I have found that the Leicas have excellent exposure lattitude for subsequent work in Lightroom, though if overexposed I can loose some highlights.

I have to make a special note about Christiane Amanpour. CNN had restrictions on photographing any news screens, not surprisingly, but were very open in the studio. During introductions, Christiane readily agreed to have pictures with Andrew. She was pre-recording a 15 minute slot for that night’s show, and we agreed to do a group photo after the interview. 

I think Christiane was a bit of a fan of Andrew, which helped. I had been able to gauge the light, and between us, Christiane and I lined up Andrew, herself and Peter Hain, also being interviewed, in very good light and with a picture of Mandela on the big screen in the background. We agreed my images would be the ones that her team tweeted, with credit.  A couple of hours later, Christiane was good to her word and we got a lot of Twitter coverage.

The evening event, at Coutts, brought a few restrictions – no face shots of clients, no general, wide shots of Coutts facilities and so on. There were a couple of freelancers there, mainly to get pictures of the Princess – both using high speed Nikon’s with flash, which was not my choice. 

I was able to set up an appropriate area for the pictures with the Princess, featuring a photograph of Mandela, Andrew and two comrades, which was for charity auction. It was impossible to eliminate all reflections on the photograph, so I knew some minor Photoshop was going to be required. We did however set up a nice clean environment which wasn’t going to overpower the pictures. I took some tests shots for the light and the shooting angles (for the reflections) with various volunteers. There was no shortage of people wanting pictures with Andrew!

I instinctively talk to people as I shoot, trying to make a personal connect, and the response is usually good, allowing me to move people around as needed. My confidence in doing this has built over the years, and this event was a boost. I have photo business cards with a range of different images, which allow me to let people ‘pick a card’ after the shots. I make it clear I will happily let them have the images for their own use or social media. All they have to do is contact me – and it’s amazing how many people do.

The changing entertainment and distances made the SL on Auto Focus, with the medium range zoom, a better choice than the M10. It was still as wide open as I could get it, though I did need a decent shutter speed. There was quite a bit of movement on stage, so whilst the venue was well lit, I opted for fixed 1600 or even 3200 ISO. Noise level is acceptable on both, though I prefer 800 or lower for portraits where possible.

Of course, it was a short window to shoot with Princess Eugenie, though I wanted something natural, some kind of conversation and the artificiality of flash would detract. A dangerous strategy, in hindsight, as my fellow photographers opted for high speed shooting. 

Still, I did get images which seemed to nicely sum up Andrew’s first meeting with Princess Eugenie. She was delightful. Interestingly the photos that were picked up (by the Mail) from one of the other guys were mainly about Eugenie’s dress …

Whilst I did get the shot, in retrospect I think I would have done better to also take a couple of closer-in headshots with the M10, without the photograph in the background.

During the event itself, I knew that RKHR would want branding in some shots, and although Coutts didn’t request it, I covered that too, behind the podium. It was then just a question of working the room, trying to get both close and wide, at each stage of the proceedings. I have learnt that people do understand that the photographer might occasionally be in front on them, blocking the view. But do it quickly, and all is well.

I was prepared to get a few images out straight after the event, for social media. I had the laptop along, but a learning point was that I struggled with the Wi-Fi. I should have set that up as soon as I got to the venue!

Subsequent events included a fund-raising dinner, allowing some less formal images of Andrew in action. By contrast, the ceremony for the Freedom of the City was very formal.

I was able to pre-check the environment and lighting, and also understand any formal requests from the City. Fortunately, other than no pictures in the court room where the ceremony took place, there were none, so we co-opted the Lord Mayor’s chair.

I pre-arranged a setting for what I knew would be an endless succession of people posing with Andrew.  The light was also decent, though I opted to set a reasonably high fixed ISO as I knew that people posing with Andrew would both move around and be at different focal distances. Again, no flash.

It worked well, although in retrospect I wish I had set up two such positions in the Guild Hall’s Great Hall, to ring the changes in the shots. I should also have considered using a reflector.

Also, I think in this situation I could have set up a fixed flash position using the Nikon’s as an option. Much as I love Leicas, Nikon’s native flash system is bulletproof.

After a splendid, photo-free lunch in the Guild Hall, we met Rose Hudson-Wilkin, Chaplain to the Speaker of the House of Commons. Rose was ba delightful, irrepressible guide to both Houses, making sure that all the guards knew who Andrew was, which led to many shaking his hand. Whilst photography is forbidden in the Chambers, we did manage to get a once in a lifetime picture inside the Queen’s Robing Chamber. Sshh – don’t tell!

At each event, I transferred a couple of key images to my iPhone, onto Lightroom Mobile, to show progress to Andrew, the client and others in ‘real time’, and then to post on Social. This included the Chamberlain of the City of London, and other officials, who not only wanted pictures but in one case followed up with an invitation to meet on another project.

I provided daily, sometimes half daily updates with HiRes files via DropBox to my main clients, for them to use as needed. And I created a Gallery on my website, mainly to show pictures as we were going along to Andrew and his family.

My Lightroom process is nothing particularly fancy. For the record it is:

  • Download all files to an external Hard Drive, and backup
  • Import with a simple preset with minor clarity, noise and sharpening adjustments, specifically for each camera type.
  • Set keywords in bulk, then add to specific sequences (e.g. Princess Eugenie, the Freedom ceremony)
  • Start by searching through and processing key images, including fixing verticals if needed (I tend to prefer my walls ‘straight’).
  • This will include checking focus by zooming in
  • Ocassionally, I use a minor reduction in red levels, sometimes I find the M10 runs a bit too warm for my taste.
  • I only use Photoshop for context-specific healing, e.g. the reflections on the photograph of Mandela.
  • I crop at sensor size or totally square. If the client wishes to crop further, up to them.
  • Output is JPGs at a standard 3600 pixels /300 dps (+ WM versions for Social)

So, it was a fun but challenging week. I think I started with a pretty good approach to the shoot, but I do think I learnt how to do better. Certainly, it has built my confidence as well as my understanding of my practice.

A Gallery of Images is here


Addendum – Personal Interactions

After posting this, I was asked if I could write about my approach to ‘personal interactions’ as I take photographs. So, here goes.

Let me say from the outset that I bring to any such interactions the same personal beliefs that I would bring to a non-photographic setting.

I have learnt that people are far more the same than they are different, so I don’t either try to lord it over people or let them do it to me. Perhaps sadly I do tend to be rather ‘colour blind’ having spent decades working with people of dozens of countries and all races, so that, to me, is hardly ever an issue.

I believe that not enough people look in the other person’s eyes – a quick glance around a restaurant will prove that point – nor will they engage in conversation if the other person shows the slightest interest, which gives you an opening.

Everyone also has the right to understand the context of what’s happening to them – and equally, everyone has the right to refuse.

Staged Events

In this series of events with Andrew, often people were volunteering or being volunteered to be in the scene – thus, the job of making a connection was actually a lot easier than a ‘cold call’ to take someone’s picture. In Andrew’s case, I invariably chatted with the other participants around what they knew about his story. I would also pick something fun that I knew about him – he plays golf three times a week – and reference how amazing that was for a man his age. And Andrew just chuckled.

I find it easy to ask people politely to move around a bit to make the picture better – even the Princess – and I have never had anyone say ‘no’ in such a staged setting. People, whoever they are, want to look good. I will never knowingly take an image of a public figure in some kind of embarrassing situation, or with some awful expression. I got some like that this week, but they will stay in my files. My job is not papparazzi.

Christiane Amanpour was even a willing co-conspirator, in searching out the best light for Andrew (and herself) to stand in.

It is essential that I look and talk like I know what I am doing. Any hint of nervousness or dithering would just kill the moment. So, confidence is always the key. Walk on set like you own it, but also be hugely respectful to everyone else there, as they own it too.

It’s joint ownership, in fact.

As mentioned, I always offer my cards to allow people to contact me to get copies. I have nothing to hide. So, sorry to break it to everyone, but in this case,  ‘interaction’ was fairly easy. I was hugely nervous, but only I needed to know that.

The Street

It is more of a challenge when it is not a staged setting – on the street, for example. There, I do not usually take ‘sneaky’ pictures, preferring to be open about what I am doing. If the ‘subject’ notices, I will always make direct eye contact and smile.

It’s a matter of judgment what happens next. If I feel the job is done, without needing more images, I always either say (or nod)  ‘thanks’.

If I want more pictures, I’d walk over and explain that I am working on a project, and say what it is. I might ask the other person what they think of it, if I have their attention. I’d then ask for another pic, offering them copies if they would like, of course.

I have a set of business cards, with multiple images from moo.com. These are greta to hand out – ‘please pick a card’ – so If someone wants to get a copy of the pictures, they do not have to share any of their personal information. By handing out the card, I am being open.

Cambodia Stories

This afternoon’s conversation with a Khmer couple that I had never met before was different again. They are neighbours of Sarath, and  they were clearly about his age – which means they suffered as children under the Khmer Rouge. So, there were stories there to be heard.

How did the conversation go? Bluntly, I asked how old the lady was, which gave me a chance to say that she really didn’t look that old – she really didn’t – and then to simply state that she must have suffered in those times. No questions. She said she did and it still troubled her. That allowed a question as to whether she ever talks about it, or prefers to try to forget. The conversation started, and just kept going.

I showed the couple of pictures of our kids at a young age in Cambodia, as this is most definitely a family story, and that led to a short discussion about our knowledge of history.

The couple invited me to see their house. The pictures on the wall, of the time they had met in the military in 1987, led to another layer of conversation, and eventually to pictures – which I staged. At no time was anything’ forced’, or was anyone thinking that they were being interviewed. I promised to send the images, and to see them again. We parted, all knowing a little bit more about each other.

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