50 Faces goes on display this June 2017 “cue fanfare for baring my soul!”

If you’ve followed me for a while, you might already know about my long-running portrait project 50 Faces.  For those who don’t know – here’s a quick summary of what it’s all about.

Back in spring of 2014, I decided I wanted to learn more about portrait photography – that I might actually want to be a portrait photographer – but I wasn’t sure.  Up until this point my serious photography had been focused on the sport that my husband and I were deep into – rock climbing.  I’d started photographing climbing for the record of what we’d acheived, and had taken many successful images of the landscapes in which we climbed and the routes we took from top to bottom.  Increasingly though I was finding it more interesting to focus on what I now know are called ‘environmental portraits’ of the climbers, to try and capture the feeling of climbing through their expressions and their body positions.

Capturing images for 50 Faces during my time working in Oman


I decided that the best way to find out whether I should pursue portraiture as a creative avenue, was to simply do more of it.  To hone my skills in portraiture by simply getting a lot of practice and deciding what worked and what didn’t, what I liked and what I didn’t.  I didn’t want it to be totally random though and I decided quite early on (after a number of people I photographed asked me what I planned to do with the images) that I wanted this to be a project and potentially an exhibition so I made them all black and white and all square format – limitation being the father of creativity afterall!

Fast forward to today and the project is finally complete.  In the intervening years I have met and photographed a lot of interesting people! Many of these people I already knew, quite a number I did not. Many surfaced as volunteer subjects with whom I’ve since become friends.  I took my project to various places I travelled to, including my time spent working in Oman but I also focused on those close to home.  What I’ve realised is that I have definitely changed, developed and found a style as a portrait photographer – and I adore it!  I love the challenge, the interaction with the subject, the planning to get the perfect shot and even the failure when something just didn’t quite work.  I love the look on a person’s face when they see their image and they love it, and the sometimes quizzical reactions of those who see something they didn’t quite expect.  I love the collaboration of making something that truly reflects the person, whether at just that moment in time or with deeper meaning and connection with their personality, their life, their loves.  More than anything I love the creativity, the multitude of ways that a person can be represented in a photograph and the sheer variety even within the self-imposed limitations of the black and white, square image.

Good friends and complete strangers alike helped me throughout the project – here, my friend Alan poses atop his balcony in Oxford, UK


Technically, all that progress (along with a lot of additional training which I would never have known I needed without this project to help me realise what I didn’t know) has led to me launching Sian T. Photography and moving forward with my photography knowing that the path I’d glimpsed back in 2014 was indeed the right one.

I’ll be writing more about 50 Faces over the coming weeks and will eventually share the whole project – for now just know that the exhibition (entitled Face to Face and in collaboration with two other amazing artists) opens on 13th June 2017 at Cranleigh Arts Centre, Surrey, UK.  I’m both excited and terrified about the whole thing. This is 3 years of my work out there to be judged, but more than that it’s the story of my photographic life over those 3 years and how it’s made me who I am today.


Photography mentoring Week 2 -artistic choices with white balance, metering modes and manual mode

Photography internship week 2 – metering and white balance artistic choices

To be honest a don’t give a lot of thought to setting white balance these days.  The auto white balance on my camera gets it pretty close most of the time and since I shoot mainly in RAW I often tweak it afterwards (in Lightroom) providing that I’ve remembered to stick the grey card in a shot somewhere.

However, Aiden the intern doesn’t have Lightroom (yet!). In fact I was amazed to find that he’s been doing all his editing of the jpegs produced on his Sony A6000 in the Windows 10 Photos ap – I didn’t even know that was possible!

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Screen shot – Windows 10 Photos Ap – Image of cat by Aiden which I rather like


Aiden had already identified colour shifts as an issue in some of his images and we decided to spend our week 2 session together in the back yard looking at the basic camera controls and discussing why they are used.

We started with white balance. Most cameras have a set of white balance options including and auto setting which I reckon most people leave it on 80% of the time.  But if you’re shooting jpegs there are situations in which you’ll want to adjust your white balance to match the light falling on your subject and ensure you get a accurate depiction of the scene in front of you. Photography Life has a great article on white balance so I won’t rehash it here but suffice to say that having a better understanding of the different colours of light and how to manage that for a natural looking image makes a massive difference to both the image and the amount of editing required. I’ve lent Aiden a grey card to use to set custom white balance in camera and I’m confident that this will make a big difference to his images. Compare the image below shot during our exercise with different white balance settings.

Personally I’m a bit less interested in getting accurate colour in my image and more interested in getting a colour that has the feeling I want.  I’m very happy to play with the white balance for effect and often end up with an image with a temperature that’s not at all ‘accurate’. For portraits in particular I tend towards the cooler side and I know landscape photographers that do the same.  So as I told Aiden, it’s another artist’s choice white balance, but just make sure you’re making that choice – whether in camera or in post-processing. Don’t let the camera decide it for you and don’t feel you have to always stick to the rules.

After spending some time playing with white balance and learning to set custom white balance with a grey card we started looking at metering modes – understanding of which is essential for shooting in manual mode which was something Aiden wanted to explore.  I must add here that I used to be told pretty frequently that pro photographers only shoot in manual and you’re not doing it properly if you’re not.  I’ve since learnt that this is bollox!  There are some situations where aperture priority or shutter priority are by far the best options and while it’s true that very few (if any?) good photographers leave it in auto mode all the time – manual mode is not the only good option.  However, since we were talking about artist’s decisions and the fact that ‘perfect’ exposure might not always make the best image and the camera isn’t a perfect judge of what you’re trying to create with it – a look at manual mode was a good idea.

Once we finally figured out how the exposure scale worked in manual on the Sony (I’d heard the menus where ‘tricky’ and the viewfinder ‘informative’ but honestly Sony – get someone to sort it out – there’s no way I’m moving to a Sony system until you fix that mess!) we worked through the different metering modes and how they work.  I’m mainly a spot meter user. I find it easiest to aim my centre focus point at a part of my composition that I want to be medium exposed, and then adjust iso, aperture and shutter speeds from there to get the exposure I want.  There’s a good explanation of metering modes at Photographers Connection so no need for me to waffle on about it but the interesting thing about the discussion was the fact that again I found myself talking about artistic decision making.  I realised how much I deliberately make changes away from what the camera thinks is a perfect exposure, to get the mood or look I’m after.  Don’t get me wrong I need to know what the camera thinks is a good exposure – unlike my father-in-law who taught photography with film, with no in-camera metering and certainly no exposure guide, and who just knows what ratios of shutter speed, aperture and iso will make a correct exposure – I cannot hold all that in my head and I do not own a light meter.  But I rarely leave the little white arrow in the ‘happy place’ on the scale – I find that really dull!

I do subscribe to the idea of exposing to the right to ensure you capture enough data to allow you to make good edits in post-processing and I do this for landscapes routinely, but I don’t always do it.  Sometimes I know I want it dark and moody and I don’t want to spend ages editing it so I just aim for a left leaning histogram.  Again – it’s all about making choices and as you get used to how what the camera tells you relates to your final image, via the processing then you get to a point where you make better choices at the time of shooting.  There’s no substitute for practice with your camera and I dread the thought of a new camera and having to learn it over again – who has time for that!

So Aiden’s next assignment was to get some practice in manual mode, with white balance and trying different metering.  He had a trip to Spain and a gig photographing a local triathlon and he bravely gave the manual a go and felt the terror as clouds passed over the sun and evening started to come on.  I’ve got to say though he did amazingly well and just from talking to him it’s clear he’s learnt a lot about artistic decision making.

Here’s one of my favourites from his trip to Spain, in addition to the cat above which is also pretty cool!

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Coming up next time – Aiden gets a great opportunity and the hard truth about curating your images!


Learning composition by standing still

Reflections on how standing still and observing the scene around you can help you improve your photography

If you’re following along with my series on developing photography with my first ever intern, Aiden -check out this great project he’s put together on his first assignment


Aiden’s reflections on the mission to stand still and observe the scenes around you are interesting and insightful and frankly they make my mentoring look amazing! Of course in reality this isn’t a new idea, I can’t quite put my finger on where I got it from, but I certainly can’t take all the credit.


Introducing Aiden Steele – AKA the intern

Regular readers of this blog will know that this summer I’m mentoring a photography student/intern (see Learning Photography by Teaching Photography) and now that he’s back and has agreed to let me write about him I’d like to introduce you to him and share some of his lovely work with you all.

You’ll find Aiden’s work at Steele Imagery Instagram.  As he’s got one of those fancy new cameras which let’s you upload to Instagram directly (come on Canon catch up!) it is his sharing site of choice – that said I think it’s best to be in a bunch of different places as a photographer because potential clients use a spectrum of sites to look for work they like and if you’re not where they’re looking then they certainly won’t find you.  Aiden is working on a website which is a good call, and I think we’ll also have some conversations about where else he might showcase his work.

Aiden’s big passion is street photography and if you read the week 1 blog entry (Photography mentoring – week 1) you’ll know that the first task I set him was to take a photowalk with several stops along the way each of at least 30 minutes.  The exercise was designed to encourage him to look a bit harder for images on the street, wait for the right moment and be a bit more considered over the composition.

Aiden hit the streets of London and did a great job with his assignment.  He made some really exciting individual images with this approach and I’ve chosen a few below from his Instagram feed.  However, I don’t think these stand alone images quite do his work on this project justice as the real strength in the approach proved to be the building of  sequences of images and the ability to build a narrative around the events  of that day.

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Politics #Brexit

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I’ve encouraged Aiden to use Adobe Spark (other tools are of course available!) to build a photo essay to showcase some of the other images he made that day in a way that tells more of a story.  Although the individual images may not be as strong as stand alone items and so may not fare as well on Instagram I feel that they will be stronger overall if sequenced and edited (by which I mean the process of selection rather than digital editing in software) correctly.  It’s a real skill to be able to make these decisions and get the sequence right to tell the story that you want to tell and I think it’s something that could get missed by photographers whose only outlet is Instagram or possibly Facebook where the single image is king.

Coming up next! Week 2 – manual mode, white balance and metering modes, no right answers only creative decisions.

Photography mentoring – week 1

Photography mentoring – week 1 assignment – sit and wait street photography

In order to get an idea of my intern’s photographic interests and style, his first assignment was to go through all his images and choose just 5-10 images that were his favourites.  We then talked through why he liked these images, and what he thought would improve them.  I was surprised at the variety in the images he chose.  Although they certainly tended towards portraits there were a variety of street images, model shots and a still life.  This exercise was super useful in getting to understand what kind of photography he wants to make, and also where he feels he could improve.  The latter being mainly about managing light, particularly in high contrast situations, and improving composition and deliberate use of depth of field.

This initial discussion, in which I mainly listened and answered the odd question, has shaped how I’ve structured the internship over the 7 weeks.  I don’t want this to be a lecturing, teacher/pupil sort of thing and frankly he’s a good photographer and I wouldn’t presume that I’m in some way worthy to ‘teach’ him about what he should be doing.  However, with 10 years of photography experience under my belt I’m perhaps better placed to guide him through the process of finding his photographic style, and to pass on what I’ve learnt on the technical side to make it easier for him to make the images he wants – hence the title here – photography mentoring

This week’s images are from a shoot I did with the help of my intern – so much easier with an extra set of hands!



Reviewing the 10 images he’d identified and listening to his thoughts on how the composition in many of them could be improved, I identified one factor that I thought might make a real difference – taking time and slowing down.  Having just read a book about Cartier-Bresson in which he is described as sitting at various Paris street corners for long periods of time waiting for something interesting to photograph, I decided this sounded like a good idea.  So I set him the task of going out on a city photo walk during which he was to choose several stopping points and sit or stand still for at least 30 minutes at every one.  The idea was to observe the environment, identify potential compositions, wait for the right moment to make the image and to look at all possible angles on a location before moving on to the next.  I wanted to see how this changed the images he made compared to his normal approach of walking around a city grabbing a  photo here and there.

I also wanted him to think about creating a set of images that work together rather than an individual image.  He’s got many stand-alone single images that are very effective and the constant movement approach has led to great variety in the images. These are perfect for Instagram which is his main sharing channel, but he expressed an interest in exploring other ways of sharing such as submitting to a gallery or making a book and for these I feel it’s helpful to work in a more project orientated way.

We got together to review the full set of images from the day (via a closed Flickr group) and it was fascinating.  Already the compositions were more considered and more varied. He talked about waiting for long periods for people to move into just the right position, and about shots that didn’t quite work because you can’t control the street environment.  Themes started to emerge and perhaps not surprisingly given that he was working in London on the day our new Prime Minister was sworn in, a really interesting photo-journalistic, current events feel to many of the images. His feedback was about how he’s found it difficult at first to sit and wait, but had begun to enjoy it and was really pleased with many of the images and I know he has shared several on Instagram and they’ve been very well received.

I hope to share some of these images with you soon but as he’s away and I haven’t got his permission I’ll hold off on that for another post.  I really liked the way this exercise challenged him but was also fun and led to some images that he really liked.  I think it was also a great introduction to visual storytelling and has opened his eyes to the possibility of working in that way being a natural, evolving thing rather than a forced restriction.  I’ve suggested that he take some of the images and use Adobe Spark to create a photo essay or maybe 2 essays picking out the different themes of the images.  I have encouraged him to take time to identify and lay out the images to tell the story, to make sure that every image contributes to the whole and to be choosy about what gets included.  I think this is exceptionally hard to do and when editing down my own work I struggle through the process, second guess myself and change it over and over before I get to a finished set – so I’m fascinated to see what he does – hopefully he’ll let me share it with you!


Learning Photography by Teaching Photography

This summer I’ve got my first ever photography intern/student and having sworn I would never be a teacher (my husband teaches 14-18 year olds and frankly it’s put me off) I’ve been surprised at how informative the experience has been so far.  My intern came to me offering to assist with shoots in return for some basic teaching on operating the camera, setting up lighting and some mentoring on composition.  I’m pretty busy with portrait shoots over the summer so the extra pair of hands is very helpful, but I was initially unsure about how much I could really teach him and whether he’d be getting a fair deal.

I guess this is what made me really start thinking about how to structure his ‘course’.  Thinking about what elements of photography I would want to know about at his point on the learning curve and about what I think is important for photographers not just to know, but to think about.  Doing this has really made me consider what I feel makes good a good image, about how much of photography is about self-expression and communication rather than technical brilliance and how much I’ve grown over the last couple of years when I started worrying less about sharpness and the rule of thirds, and more about what I wanted my images to say about me and about my subjects.

So over the summer I’m going to blog about what we’ve been up to, hopefully I can share with you some of the projects he is working on as part of his internship and I’ll maybe get him to guest blog about his experience. I’ll certain share with you a week by week account of the lessons I’m teaching him and the challenges I’m setting him, and why I think they’re important.  I’m interested to hear from other photographers about what activities or lessons made a difference to their photography in the early days, and if you’ve any ideas for assignments do share them!

Image captured while teaching about white balance and metering modes

Workshop review – Introduction to studio lighting with Hannah Couzens

I’ve been looking for a class on portraits for quite a while and was drawing a blank (with the exception of creepy looking ‘glamour’ workshops – ew!) until I came across this workshop.  I think this was the inaugural course which was great for me because it provided an opportunity to talk to Hannah beforehand about what I was looking for and how it all might work.  In essence, I was after something around lighting and the different options in terms of lighting effects and equipment.  This came about following my first real studio style shoot for One Three Seven and the fantastic experience of working with professional stylists and models.  I got the bug really badly but recognised my images were very evenly lit (necessary for the photos showcasing the hair colours and cuts) but not necessarily very interestingly lit (see examples below)

The workshop day started with the five students meeting at Hannah’s studio in St Albans. It’s a beautiful studio, the walls are covered in Hannah’s lovely work, very inspiring.  We spent the morning listening and taking notes (while drinking tea!) as Hannah explained the basics of how light works.  We covered the impact of close and far away light sources, of the size of the light source and of hard and soft light.  There’s a lot of physics involved in all this but Hannah was very careful to keep it to what we really needed to know, with helpful analogies and practical examples to help us. Towards the end of the morning we got into the 5 standard portrait lighting patterns and their impact on the shadows falling on the subject’s face – we were getting to the really interesting bit!

Lunch wasn’t provided but that meant a great opportunity to stretch the legs in St Albans which has no shortage of eateries and after a lovely two course lunch with fellow workshopper Lucy, I was fuelled and ready for the afternoon session.

The afternoon was all practical.  With the aid of lovely model Natasha (patience of a saint and a look I just absolutely loved!) Hannah showed us how to set up a single light for each of the lighting patterns and how to modify the looks by adding light with a reflector.  Each set up was demonstrated and photographed with the images appearing on screen for us all to review.  In between shots Hannah answered our questions about focal length, modifiers, posing and a host of other random things.  It was a really lively and engaged group and, while that did mean running a bit behind schedule, Hannah was always gracious and never hurried.  After the demos we got our own opportunity to set up the light to replicate the patterns (great fun!)  and just that little bit of practical really helped the stuff stick in my brain.  My favourite shots from the afternoon are below.  Not perfect examples of the lighting techniques but definitely an improvement in terms of lighting interest.

It was an unusual workshop in so far as I didn’t come away with that many shots, but that really wasn’t the purpose of the exercise.  If you want to just shoot a model then you’re better off hiring a model and studio and doing it yourself.  However, if you want to learn about studio lighting, watch a pro in action and get a bit of practice setting up the light to get different effects then this is definitely the workshop for you.  One of the great things about the day was that Hannah is really not obsessed with what light you’re using so it’s possible to implement what you’ve learnt regardless of what light you’ve got or want to buy.  Studio flash heads are used for demonstration but as only a single one is used for each demo, it can be replicated with a constant light or a speedlight (albeit with a bit more guess work!). Set-ups with multiple lights were demonstrated and Hannah did cover the different modifiers and their suitability for various light uses; key lights, hair lights, spotlights etc. but this was all non-essential and there was no pressure to have a whole bunch of lights to be successful.

The day ended with a series of videos on using just one studio head and a universal umbrella to light ten different subjects. I must say, by this point my brain was saturated so I was really glad that Hannah provided links to these videos to watch at home later as I don’t think I could take much more in.

All in all this was an extremely useful and enjoyable day and also one of the most inspirational workshops I’ve ever done.  I learnt a surprising amount and am now on a mission to make use of what I’ve learnt in my portrait work. As soon as I got home I was anxious to start trying it all out with my on-site model Isaac and I could instantly see an improvement in the impact of the images (see below).  Following the workshop Hannah kindly answered a couple of questions I had about gear and the follow up materials including the videos were dispatched really quickly.  Hannah is also really active and responsive on social media so it’ll be really easy to stay in touch and follow her work.


Introduction to studio lighting – Inspirational stuff!

Aspect Star Rating (out of 5*)
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Cost *** £250
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Post-event feedback and follow-up ****