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.

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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.

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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.

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Review – Lighting, posing and retouching with Hannah Couzens

Regular readers will know that I’m a huge fan of Hannah Couzens, portrait photographer extraordinaire.  I went on her Basics of Studio Lighting course earlier in the year and had a great time as well as learning a lot of lighting stuff that I’ve been using ever since.  So this next level course was a great way to follow up on that with some more complex lighting techniques as well as learning more about working with and posing models and some very useful tips on portrait retouching.

Hannah ran two classes on back to back days in November and luckily for me the one I was on was all ladies and one of them was also on the previous course with me, so there was a great feeling of cohortiness (yes I’m making up words now) and the atmosphere was relaxed but the participants were also highly motivated and asking lots of useful questions – just what you want in a small group course like this (there were 4 of us in case you were wondering).

We started the day with corporate headshots of our male model.  This is a really practical thing to have up your sleeve as there’s money to be made with corporate headshots if you’re good at it – so I’ll definitely be looking for some opportunities to practice this.  Hannah builds up all the lighting set ups from one light first and then adding lights in and all the while we talking about the posing, how to get a friendlier looking image and coping with common challenges like double chins, glasses and scowling finance directors.  Probably my top tip from this section was about separating the dark suit from a dark background with a back/hair/rim light.

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Corporate headshot with separation lighting from the back

 

Next up was a more fitness style set up, also with our male model.  This started off simple, building up to 3 lights plus a back light with a gel and a smoke machine.  Great fun and, while this is not a set up I can easily replicate on location or in my tiny studio, the posing in particular will be really helpful.  Again, fitness style portraits are a growth area and posing them right is tricky. You want edgy for fitness shots so the lighting needs to be really precise.

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Fitness style shot set up – lights included!

 

After lunch we met Lucy our professional fashion and beauty model for the afternoon.  We began with a Q&A session during which Lucy talked about her experiences working with different photographers, including a few horror stories about over re-touching, overstepping boundaries and uncomfortable situations.  In particular it was interesting to hear that even professional models like Lucy appreciate some direction and encouragement that they’re giving you what you want in terms of looks and poses.  Given this, I now feel a bit more confident giving direction as I was always worried about coming across as too bossy during shoots, whether with models or regular people – I’m a lot less worried about that now and I think I’m getting better images as a result.

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Shooting Lucy for a soft and pretty look as well as a more classic beauty shot was an absolute pleasure.  We had a lot of fun playing with both the lights and the poses and I particularly enjoyed some shots lit for black and white as this is a big part of my work.  I’m getting myself a second speedlight for Christmas so that I can give some of these a go in the new year!

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My new posing and retouching skills at work here – although it’s pretty easy to make it look awesome with a great model like Lucy!

 

As with the previous course, Hannah really packed in the content so there wasn’t as much time on the retouching section as was intended (I think!) as we were having too much fun shooting.  To be honest I think my brain was both fried and buzzing at this time so any more would probably not have gone in well.  Hannah covered frequency separation retouching for skin, which I’ve since been reading more about and having this basic grounding has been useful in exploring the technique further.  For more on this I went to my Kelby One video training subscription and Kristina Sherk – definitely worth getting the free trial to access her course High End Portrait Retouching for a more detailed look at retouching.  But honestly I wouldn’t have known where to start without Hannah’s introduction.

Once again Hannah hit it out of the park with this course, such a relaxed but energetic atmosphere and jam packed with content and some excellent opportunities to practice and get great images.  I made some friends too so that’s a bonus!  Hannah is genuinely supportive as well and there’s a great sense of being part of a club.  She’s always happy to answer questions both during the course and afterwards and she shares a lot of really useful lighting techniques online for free – she’s just a really nice person which counts for a lot in my book.  It’s not a cheap course but it’s a full-on day and a very small group so you get a lot for your money and I think if you’re looking to take your portrait photography to the next level, maybe start charging or start charging more, this course is a good investment in your photographic future.

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One of my favourite shots from the day – lots of fun in post processing!

 

 

 

Lighting, posing and retouching with Hannah Couzens – News you can use!

Aspect Star Rating (out of 5*)
Ease of booking *****
Pre-event communications *****
Personalisation and 1:1 attention ****
Information and Learning *****
Approachability *****
Location *****
Cost *** £250
Image review and feedback ***
Post-event feedback and follow-up ***

 

New discoveries in photography podcasts

It’s been quite a while since I wrote my original Top 3 Photography podcasts blog and I’ve discovered some great new shows so I thought I’d share them with you all today.  I love a good podcast when driving or when pottering around the house and I’ve learnt a huge amount, about both the technical and artistic aspects of photography through podcasts.  However, there are so many out there which ones should you choose?  Here are my current recommendations

1. Petapixel Photography Podcast with Sharky James

Now at episode 111 and linked to the ever-so-useful Petapixel photography news site, this is a really fun podcast about whatever’s new in the photography world that week.  It covers new gear and software as well as a whole lot of other news content including ethical issues, copyright and silly season stories about photographers around the world.  Sharky is a sports photographer in the main so we also get to hear about what he’s been up to on the sidelines at football games (that’s American football for you Brits) and every week he introduces someone from the world of photography as part of his intro – this is really useful if you’re looking for people to follow on Instagram!

Fairly short and sweet, the shows usually contain a number of different stories with plenty of Sharky’s dry sense of humour thrown in.  I just love the fact he calls it like he sees it and so much of what he says is grounded in grown-up, family man thinking with plenty of pragmatism and a realistic view of what’s sensible for the average photographer.  Sharky is also really active on social media so follow what he’s up to on Instagram.

 

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2. TWIP (this week in photo) Family with Jenny Stein

Good podcasts that have just one guest per episode are hard to come by, but I love TWIP Family in which mom and photographer Jenny Stein talks to guests whose work is primarily around family and child photography.  The conversation ranges from discussions about their artistic vision and the meaning of their images, to practical business matters.  I’ve found the business aspects particularly useful over the past few months as I’ve been launching and developing my own photography business. It’s not the same as taking a class in that there’s not a lot of detailed information to be had, but learning about the different approaches to a successful photography business is really helpful in plotting your own course.  I still think you’d get a lot out of the podcast if you’re not in business, but some episodes more than others.

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3. Photo Taco with Jeff Harmon

Part of The Improve Photography Network, Photo Taco is the only place you can get “photo tips you can learn in the time it takes to eat a taco–or perhaps a burrito” – I love that tag line!  I’ve only just started listening to this one, initially because Sharky James was a guest in a mammoth episode they did on sports photography – but so far I’m enjoying it.  The tips themselves range from the sort of Q&A style session with Sharky, to information on features of digital imaging software, to a really basic explanation of what the numbers and letters on lenses mean.  It’s usually short (that’s kinda the point) so even if you think you know all about the topic, it’s worth a listen as more than likely you’ll pick up a nugget or two.

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This week’s images are of East Wittering in Sussex – one of my favourite weekend photo destinations and hopefully where I’ll be heading tomorrow – if the rain ever stops!

 

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!

 

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

https://spark.adobe.com/page/55Z1ZZJhnziNL/

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.

Politics #Brexit

A post shared by Aiden Steele (@steele_imagery) on

Underground

A post shared by Aiden Steele (@steele_imagery) on

Barrier

A post shared by Aiden Steele (@steele_imagery) on

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

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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!

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