Portrait Workshops

One of my aims for 2017 is to develop my portrait photography skills. It's an area I'm particularly interested in - after all, people are an endlessly fascinating subject - but for a relatively new photographer it can be challenging to get started in this field. It's a classic catch-22 situation - it's hard to get work without a portfolio, but it's nearly impossible to put a portfolio together if you're not getting the work.

One (partial) answer to this quandary is to take part in workshops. As well as picking up tips from more established photographers, you also end up with a memory card full of images, one or two of which can go into your portfolio. At the beginning of the year, I booked myself on two different portrait workshops; the first was an urban portrait workshop using natural light, followed by a two-day studio session a few weeks later.

The urban portrait day was put together by Going Digital (the same franchise that ran the steampunk-themed workshop I attended last year). This time I headed down to London to take photos of a model at various locations along the South Bank and in the graffiti-covered tunnels underneath Waterloo station.

The weather gods kindly sent us a bright but overcast day - ideal for outdoor photography as the cloud cover means the sky acts as a giant softbox, providing a gentle, even light and avoiding harsh shadows. The day kicked off in the cafe of the National Theatre, where I met the course tutor, Tish Hornsbury, and the other workshop attendees. After a short introductory session we were introduced to our model for the day, Alex Watson of The Model House.

Alex was a great model, lots of fun to work with and adept at somehow making our inexpert posing suggestions look good. We started off looking for locations around the back of the National Theatre...

As is usually the case when you have a bunch of people taking photos, we attracted a fair bit of attention from passers-by. One of the guys working on a nearby building site was particularly keen to get involved, so we took the opportunity to grab a bonus model!

Thanks, Archie!

Next, we headed into the tunnel beneath Waterloo station. The graffiti-covered walls here provided some great, colourful backgrounds, although the low light levels and the odd colours (both from the lights themselves and the reflections coming off the painted walls) made it a challenge to capture a natural-looking portrait.

Due to time constraints, we only had time to use on-camera flash. With longer to set things up and get a better balance between lighting the model and lighting her surroundings, you could get some outstanding photos here. 

To round off the day, we ended up back on the South Bank, taking shots along the Thames. I like that in the photo above, the London Eye is reflected in Alex's sunglasses. If anyone asks, that was entirely deliberate and not at all just a happy accident, okay?! 

 

The studio workshop was run by the Royal Photographic Society. The tutor for this one was Chris Burfoot, and our model was Hannah. It was held in the beautiful village of Lacock, although we spent most of our time in a little hall, only escaping at lunchtime to soak up a bit of the glorious spring sunshine. Set over two days, the mini-course started off with the simplest one-light shots and built to a full studio setup. The workshop was also my first opportunity to try out my new Fujifilm XF50-140mm F2.8 lens.

We looked at all sorts of lighting options - starting with umbrellas (shoot-through or bounce/reflect), softboxes, grids, snoots, beauty dishes, reflectors and diffusers. The course was supported by Broncolor so the studio lights we used were supplied by them. This meant we got to test a pretty high-end setup (a basic Broncolor kit will set you back a couple of thousand pounds), but a lot of the principles are the same even if you're using a humble flash gun.

These two workshops were useful to do so close together, as between them they covered most of the important aspects of portrait photography. And more than anything, they demonstrated that from a minimal, natural light approach where you're very responsive to the surroundings, all the way to a full studio setup where you have control over pretty much everything, one of the most important things is quickly developing a rapport with your subject.

Baby Steps into Newborn Photography...

One reason I haven't had much time to post much on here recently is that in the middle of November last year my wife and I became first-time parents.

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I very quickly discovered that having a newborn son doesn't leave a lot of space in your life for much else!

Babies change so much in their initial few weeks and months it feels like a constant race just to keep up with them, and for the first time in my life I fully understand why parents are so keen on taking photographs of their little ones at every opportunity. You need to find a balance of course between capturing every development and taking time to just be fully there with them without experiencing everything through a viewfinder or the screen of a mobile phone.

Within a month our son had gone from a scrunched-up, blotchy, slightly alien little thing into a proper little chap, with the first few hints of a personality and a fine taste in shirts (OK, he's not actually choosing them for himself yet, but it can't hurt to nudge him in the right direction, can it?)

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It was about this time that I asked around in our NCT group to see whether any of the new mums and dads would be interested in a mini photo shoot for their babies. I don't have any particular ambition to move into baby photography, and I get the impression that to do it properly you really need a studio set-up. It was more about pushing myself to try something new and hopefully getting a few shots the new parents would enjoy. One or two of the couples already had professional shoots booked, but a few of the others were keen to take me up on the offer.

The first was a Christmas shoot with the "oldest" baby in our group (she arrived a couple of weeks before any of the others). She's a real cutie with the most amazing hair and huge dark eyes, so getting shots I was pleased with was pretty straightforward:

Next up was a little boy who hadn't had the easiest start in life but who's really starting to thrive now.

And finally, another little boy who's turning into a right little charmer...

I really enjoyed this brief foray into baby photography, and while I doubt it's something I'd want to make a significant part of my photographic career, I'll definitely be interested in doing again. I learned a lot (particularly about lighting), and I'm pleased with the images I got. Obviously, they're not in the same league as the professional, studio-shot photos you see, but then again they can look a bit too staged and clinical. I feel I managed to capture something of the spirit of these little people, and - for me, and hopefully for their parents, too - that's worth more than achieving technical perfection.

Steampunk Portrait Session in Bewdley

Earlier this year, I attended a portrait workshop run by DCZ Photography over in Bewdley. The day had just been described as a "themed" portrait session involving the Severn Valley Railway, so I wasn't sure what to expect. I used to live in Bewdley, and occasionally the SVR would hold 1940s weekends, so I went along on the day wondering if the model might be dressed in that kind of style. The mystery was solved when we were introduced to Morgan, our model for the day, who arrived decked out in an impressive steampunk costume.

As a theme, steampunk worked really well - the 'old fashioned' background provided by Bewdley station meant Morgan's costume never looked out of place. Often it's possible to walk around the station's yard, where the trains are repaired and all sorts of big, old machinery is lying about just waiting to be used as a backdrop. Sadly, as there was repair work going on that day, the gates to the yard were firmly locked, and we limited ourselves to the station itself.

With steam trains arriving and departing while we were there, there was also the opportunity to experiment with things like a moving background. I'm pleased with how this shot turned out:

The setting and theme obviously lent itself to a rare use of my camera's sepia setting, as well as some more normal portrait styling.

After a break for lunch, we next headed up into the forest out to the east of Bewdley. Although this didn't entirely fit with the steampunk theme it did provide a very different background and another set of lighting conditions to work with.

Morgan was unimpressed by the number of creepy-crawlies lurking in the undergrowth, and the brambles threatened to snag her costume with every step, but she very patiently let us amateurs boss her about into another series of poses.

Overall, I'm not sure I learned a huge amount from the tuition side of the day, but the experience of working with a model (i.e. somebody who's relatively comfortable with their photo being taken and who isn't going to get too bored and annoyed if you want to spend a while trying various different versions of the same shot) was hugely useful. I'm very pleased with the shots I ended up with, and I hope I can put some of the lessons I learned during the workshop into practice soon.


The Kit Box

I decided I'm going to try separating 'technical' stuff (not that I'm ever likely to get that technical) from the main posts, as I appreciate that while some readers will be interested in what lenses, etc. I've been using, plenty of people won't.

For me, this workshop was, more than anything, a chance to give the XF56mm f1.2 lens a thorough try-out. I'd had it a month or so, but other than a couple of test shots I really hadn't used it for anything - and it's a pricey bit of kit to have gathering dust. So I took that, and the XF35mm f1.4, which in the end I didn't use at all. I wish I'd taken my XF55-200mm, just for some closer shots, as everybody else on the workshop was using longer lenses and so it was impossible for me to get in any tighter without wandering into their shots. I can certainly see the appeal of the XF50-140mm f2.8 for this kind of work, although whether I'll be able to justify adding that to my set-up anytime soon remains to be seen.

More importantly, the 56mm passed the test with flying colours. I'd read a lot of reviews, all raving about how sharp it is, what an attractive 'look' it gives pictures, how it's almost impossible to take a bad portrait with it - and I can only echo all those sentiments. It's a helluva lens!  Set at a wide aperture it provides wonderful subject separation, and even at f1.2 it was sharp enough to pick out errant specks of mascara on Morgan's cheek. Plus although it's well made and pleasingly hefty, it's still really not that heavy. Pairing it with my X-T10 produced a lightweight but powerful portrait-taking machine I'd have been happy to shoot with all day. I can't wait to give it another outing.

Leamington Spa Squash Club - Court 6 Launch Day

A few weeks ago, my friend Joe told me the squash club he belongs to was opening a new court and hoped to find a photographer to help document the event. The club was holding a day-long celebration and as well as a tournament among the members, half a dozen of the top squash players in the world. Leamington Spa Squash Club is run by volunteers so there was no payment on offer, but in terms of helping to get this photographic venture off the ground it seemed like a good opportunity to get my pictures seen by a lot of local people. The only possible downsides, which didn’t really occur to me until after I’d volunteered, was that I’d never done any sports photography before and I barely knew anything about squash.

On the day itself, as I walked the short distance from my house to the club, those downsides began to seem rather significant. I could be about to spend the best part of a day failing to get a single decent shot. That would be not only hugely embarrassing for me but potentially disastrous for the club who'd be left without a decent record of the day. So I was apprehensive - to say the least - as I found my way to the courts.

The games got underway soon after, with the club members dividing up into teams to play a round robin-style tournament played over all six courts. I knew squash was a fast-paced game and (to somebody like me, at least) quite unpredictable. Add in the challenge of trying to be in six places at once and it quickly became clear I was going to be doing almost as much running around as the players!

When you're photographing anything that's fast-moving, there are two factors controlling whether or not you get a decent shot. The first is focusing fast enough to keep up with the action, the second is using a short enough shutter speed to freeze everything inside the frame. Sadly, the kind of lenses professional sports photographers use cost serious money. My choice was between a standard prime lens that isn't super-quick to focus but has a nice big aperture to let in loads of light and allow a very short shutter speed, and a short zoom with snappy focus but a smaller aperture. Most of the time I stuck with the prime lens (the Fujinon 35mm f1.4), thinking that with the zoom there wasn't a lot of point having shots in focus if they ended up blurred by a too-slow shutter speed.

I quickly found myself envious of photographers covering high-level matches where the court walls are entirely glass. With only the newest two courts having glass backs I struggled to get many shots with the 'holy trinity' of elements - a good bit of action, at least one of the players' faces visible, and the ball in frame. But there were plenty of shots with a good two out of three that I was pleased with.

After the club members had played, the new court was officially opened by Leamington's mayor, and the professions hit the courts for a series of exhibition matches. Things got a little easier for me at that point because they only used the two newer courts, but there was still a lot to keep up with.

[The professional players were: Mohammed El Shorbagy (world no. 1), Cameron Pilley (Australian no. 1), James Willstrop (England no. 2), Laura Massaro (England no. 1), Sarah-Jane Perry (England no. 2), and Tesni Evans (Welsh no. 1)]

The evening was rounded off with drinks and music in the club bar. All in all it turned out to be a fantastic day, hard work but good fun and extremely useful. I learned a lot and ended up with a selection of photos I'm very pleased with. What's even more rewarding is that the photos seem to have been very well-received by the club members. The only downside now is that I've started wondering about the kind of photos I could be taking with one of those higher-specification lenses...

Leamington: Art in the Park

On Sunday (7th August), I went along to the second day of Leamington's 'Art in the Park'. This is a well established annual event held in Jephson Gardens. It always seems to draw a large crowd, particularly on sunny days - and last Sunday was certainly one of those.

We walked into the park past a group of guys spray-painting a mural on boards attached to the park railings, and as we reached the park itself we had to navigate around a vast cat's cradle of yarn and other materials through which various small children were gleefully threading themselves.

The theme for this year was 'camouflage', celebrating the role Leamington played in developing camouflaging strategies and techniques during World War II. Among the artworks there were many references to things being hidden or disguised. Quite a few of the park's trees and even the famous pump rooms across the road had been 'yarn-bombed'!

What's great about Art in the Park is how inclusive it is. There's something for everyone, from art for sale, to demonstrations of art being created, to workshops where you can try something new without signing up for an expensive course. Plus a wide range of food stalls (so many of them looked fantastic - it was a really tough decision choosing where to have lunch!), as well as live music and various other entertainment throughout the day.

There was masses to keep the kids entertained, too. One of the biggest hits appeared to be this crazy contraption, assembled from all sorts of household junk:

It reminded me a little of the board game, Mousetrap. Essentially it was just a selection of tubes, buckets, drainpipes, wire mesh, and baskets cobbled together to form a network of runways for dozens of coloured balls to roll along. Proving that things don't have to be high-tech to be fun, this kept a small army of children (plus a good few adults) entertained for ages.

It was good to see the event so well supported, and everybody there looked like they were having fun. We were definitely lucky with the weather, but even if it hadn't been such a nice day it would have been well worth a visit. It's also nice to see what a lot of artistic talent there is in and around the area. It's hard not to feel inspired by so many different ideas and so much creativity on display. I hope my photos do them justice.

London: A "Field Test" of the Fujifilm XF 18-135mm f3.5-5.6 Lens

Using the 18-135mm recently for the Leamington Summer Carnival reminded me that back in March this year, I reached the point where I felt I probably had enough lenses for my X-T10. Six seemed like quite a lot, for somebody who doesn't work as a full-time photographer. More to the point, I still had my eye on one or other of the 35mm lenses in the range (I've since bought the 'old' f1.4 version, taking my total to seven lenses), and I felt I ought to look critically at what I'd got, and see whether there was anything in my collection that wasn't pulling its weight.

The most likely contender seemed to be the 18-135mm zoom. I get the impression this is seen as a bit of an ugly stepchild by a lot of photographers. In fact, if you went only by the review sections on a lot of even the most enthusiastic Fuji-fans, you'd be forgiven for not being entirely sure whether or not this lens actually exists. I bought it because I'd found with my previous DSLR that about a quarter of the photos I was taking needed a bit more reach than the 18-55 lens I had, and it was a nuisance switching lenses for those. The 18-135 offered that reach, and the versatility that comes with it. But... I hadn't used it for a while, and its focal length is covered by the 18-55mm and 55-200mm, despite the occasional need to switch lenses.

So, I decided to put it to the test, and with a weekend trip to London on the cards, I did something I almost never do - I set off with just one lens.

This wasn't exactly a photographic trip - my wife and I were visiting friends, so I just had to grab whatever opportunities came along and try to give the 18-135mm lens as much of a work-out as I could without getting on everyone's nerves.

Detail of one of the benches at Leamington Spa railway station

The padlock on the grit bin at Leamington Spa station

I think I'm right in saying that the 18-135mm was the first lens in the range to carry the WR (weather resistant) badge. This does add to the lens's rugged versatility, but for me it's a bit of a moot point as the X-T10 I'm attaching it to isn't actually weatherproof. Also, to be honest, with a maximum aperture of f3.5 - dipping to f5.6 at 135mm - it is something of a fair-weather lens. Fortunately, that's exactly what we had, a lovely clear spring day.

A heron in Regent's Park

 Greylag goose in Regent's park

Greylag goose in Regent's park

The photos might not be as jaw-droppingly sharp as the best that the 35mm or 56mm XF lenses can take, but if you're not a dedicated pixel-peeper you're not going to be too disappointed with the shots this lens can capture. Plus, however many times fixed-lens enthusiasts claim that all the zooming you need can be done with your legs, it's sometimes very useful to go from a wide shot like this...

Magnolia blossom in Regent's Park

... to a close shot like this...

...without trampling all over the flowerbeds.

Conclusion

So, what did I decide? To be honest, I'm not sure. The lens does seem like a pretty decent compromise between having a high-quality, one trick pony of a lens and a jack-of-all-trades that doesn't do anything particularly well. Were there any shots I took on this trip that one of my other lenses couldn't have done better? Probably not. Did I feel the benefit of only lugging one lens around with me? Yes, once I'd go used to it.

I think the 18-135 is probably the ideal lens for this kind of trip - one where it's not a case of achieving photographic perfection, but capturing as much as you can without undue faffing about. Not having to swap lenses to get that bit closer is a real benefit, although the 18-135 is a well put-together unit and the weight and bulk of it can't be entirely overlooked. Its weatherproofing does make it well suited to travel, particularly in dusty or humid environments where you really don't want to be exposing your camera's innards more often than absolutely necessary.

As far as I'm concerned, the lens earned its place in my camera bag - for the foreseeable future, at least. It's versatile and despite overlapping with the other lenses in my collection it does provide a flexibility the others don't. Longer-term, I can imagine it'll make way for something more specialised, but I'll wait to see what direction my photography takes me in before I rush to part with it.

Leamington Summer Carnival

Last Wednesday, I spotted this tweet:

The "official" part seemed a little intimidating, but as I'd been planning to go along to the carnival anyway to see what photographic opportunities it offered, I thought it was worth replying.

A few tweets later, and I found myself well and truly volunteered, with a call sheet listing all the pictures the organisers required. I'd never shot a public event before, so this was a bit of a leap into the unknown, but at the very least I thought it would be good experience, and a chance to practise taking photos in an entirely different environment to the kind of thing I'm used to. It's good to step out of your comfort zone every so often, right?

Saturday morning rolled in with grey skies and gusty winds that didn't do much to conjure a summery atmosphere. I'd been dithering over which lenses to take with me and the threat of rain pushed me towards the XF18-135mmF3.5-5.6 R LM OIS WR (my only weather-sealed lens), with the XF 35mm F1.4 R and XF 56mm F1.2 R tucked in my bag in the hope the weather would brighten up a bit later.

I was relieved to arrive and find I wasn't the only photographer on the scene, but I figured I'd treat it as though I was on my own and try to get as many of the necessary shots as possible. The Leamington carnival is relatively small, as it's re-establishing itself after a few years of not being held at all, so there weren't too many floats to get around before the procession began.

My favourite was probably the Star Wars-themed float, with its impressive cardboard Millennium Falcon and TIE Fighter, although you have to admire the simple-but-effective Minecraft one.

Leamington's mayor (the lady without a fluorescent jacket in the photo below) judged the floats. She picked a woodland-themed float from one of the local nurseries as the winner.

As well as the floats, there were plenty of people (and dogs!) dressed up, including a couple of guys in some impressive fursuits. Even though it wasn't particularly sunny, I'm sure they were roasting inside those. Plus a marching steel band and numerous other entertainers.

Although the carnival is relatively 'new', it was well supported and it was great to see so many people out and about in town.

The 18-135 lens performed pretty well, all things considered. I felt like most of the time I was using it in the range where the optically superior (to my eye, at least) XF 18-55 f2.8-4 would have done a better job. But it was handy to have the extra reach for a few of the shots. It doesn't seem to be a point-and-shoot lens the way some of the others in the range are - the best photos from the day are all ones where I had time to set up the shot, rather than grabbing the moment and moving on. There were a couple of occasions where the autofocus didn't quite lock on to my intended target, but rarely to the point where the resulting photos are unusable. Considering how drab and overcast the skies were, it did a good job with the colours (helped no doubt by the Velvia film simulation mode).

After the formal stuff was out of the way, I had half an hour or so to wander around the fairground where the carnival procession finished up. By this time the weather had improved and I switched to the 35mm f1.4 lens for some of the following shots. The pictures I took at this point definitely fall into the 'unofficial' category, and I can't see any of them being used to promote next year's carnival, but for one reason or another they appealed to me.

Those shots are probably about the closest I get to street photography. It's not something that comes naturally to me, but I enjoyed dipping my toe into the genre. Something to work on in the future, I suspect!

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Brownsea Island

I grew up on the English south coast, and Brownsea Island was somewhere that always seemed too close to bother with. In fact I think I only went there once during the eighteen years or so I lived in Hampshire. All I really remembered about it was that it didn't take very long to get there on the ferry, and there seemed to be peacocks everywhere.

In April this year, my wife and I found ourselves down on the south coast again with a day to kill, so on a whim we took a trip over to the island. It's reasonably cheap to get there on the ferry (around £10 for an adult return ticket), and as it's a National Trust property there's a landing fee of about £7 to pay once you get there (free for NT members). And, obviously my memory was working reasonably well, as it doesn't take long to get there, and there are peacocks all over the place.

All the photos in this post were taken with a Fujifilm X-T10 and the 50-200mm XF lens.

Although the feathery fellows are very fine indeed, they are given a run for their money by the numerous red squirrels that also call the island home. I'm not sure if there are many other places in England where you can see red squirrels in the wild, and they certainly have the run of the place on Brownsea.

I don't remember the squirrels at all from my previous visit. Considering I was on a cub scout trip at the time it's likely my friends and I were all running about and being too noisy for these inquisitive but wary animals. But, as we found out on this visit, if you keep still and quiet they will come pretty close. A particularly brave young squirrel even jumped onto my wife's leg for a moment!

The island is relatively small and you can easily walk around it in a day. I can imagine it can get pretty busy on a sunny weekend in the summer, but we managed to pick a bright term-time Friday and hardly saw a soul all the way around.

If you like the forest, and you like being by the sea, Brownsea Island offers the best of both worlds. There isn't much there in terms of entertainment, so if you're looking for high-octane thrills it's probably safe to say it won't fit the bill, but if an almost complete absence of technology, traffic, and hassle appeals - which it certainly did for us - it's definitely worth a look. Don't forget your camera!

Now that I've rediscovered what a nice place it is, I'm definitely not planning to wait another 30 years before I go back for another visit!