When was the last time you took a break from work? I don’t mean two weeks off at Christmas, or adding a day to a long weekend, I mean really took a break from work. To the point where you are so far removed from your daily work routine that you have to check your phone to see what day it is. Can you remember what that feels like? Can you recall that feeling of being able to climb out of the morass of deadlines, and performance reviews, and endless & unnecessary meetings, and take a look at your life as a whole? To capture what drug addicts and alcoholics refer to as a ‘moment of clarity’ and make it last for hours on end.
In fact our lives are geared in exactly the other direction. Our work follows us everywhere on our phone. We’re working longer hours and we’re not being paid for them. Most of us are only two missed paycheques away from defaulting on our mortgage or rent. And we’re so jealous of the lives that everyone else is enjoying on social media, that we are simply resigned to putting our heads down at work and hoping that it eventually all pays off…and that the family we have neglected in order achieve this pay off, still wants to spend time with us when it does.
What we all desperately need is an escape hatch, a get out jail free card, some time to focus on the things in life we neglect because of work…and we need to get paid while we do it. In short, we need long service leave!
For those outside of Australia and New Zealand, long-service leave is basically 2 months of leave that you are entitled to after 10 years of working full-time for one organisation. It’s a throwback to when English people had to come and work in Australia. When they had worked for 10 years, they were entitled to sail back to England, stay for a few weeks to catch up with family, then sail back to Australia…all on full pay.
For any Millenials reading this, a full-time job is a bit like one of the three part-time jobs that you’re currently working, except that you work at it all of the time and it offers some security, which is good when you want to get a mortgage. A mortgage? Well that’s when you go to the bank to borrow money to buy your own home. Your own home? Well…sorry, that’s a figment of your imagination…and did you know that we have set up an economy that means that you will be the first ever generation to earn less than your parents? You’re welcome.
But back to me. Having being made redundant from two of the three full-time jobs that I had enjoyed after leaving Uni, and absolutely hating the third. I chose to take a job with the Victorian Public Service (VPS). I promised myself that I would only be there for two years, as I was terrified of becoming an ‘institutionalised public servant’ who would never be able to find work outside of the VPS.
10 years later, I was still in the VPS. Thus proving that I am truly a man of my word. But more importantly, I was now a man with 12 weeks of long service leave available to him.
In 2016 we went for a 3 week campervan journey through Queensland, and at the moment we are spending three weeks looking after a B&B in Normandy, before heading over to the UK for two weeks. I know that, just like Queensland, this trip is going to be an incredible experience for our family. The kids will be exposed to new cultures, new languages and new ways of life. They will get to see the versions of Mum and Dad that aren’t stressed out about work (I can tell you categorically that they are a LOT more fun), we will get to bond as a family unit, I will get to spend time taking photos and making videos, and Katie gets to see the fun guy that she married, rather than the financially neurotic handbrake that gets to spend her life with normally. In short, we get to be the family that we want to be, and we get to do this because of long-service leave.
Now I know that the more conservative voters amongst you will be saying ‘Well that’s just great Chris…but you know what? It’s not up to your employer to be providing you with this. They give you an income and annual holidays. That should be enough.’ To be honest, the Catholic guilt part of me agrees with this. Certainly the part of me that got made redundant twice, knows that a full-time job is something to cling to…especially if you actually enjoy it. But I think that these feelings are actually symptomatic of a bigger problem; we’ve all started to believe that our role in the economy is more important than our role in society. We’ve all borrowed more than we can afford, and now we’re at the whim of ‘business’. We can’t afford to be unemployed, so we keep working longer and longer hours, with no relative rise in income, while those at the top earn eye-wateringly large amounts of money, and it pisses us off. So we get angry in traffic, we retreat to our phones to see how everyone else is doing, and we see that, according to their Facebook posts, life is just peachy, and so we get pissed off again, and when the Government tells us that the real problem is refugees, we think ‘Yeah, that’s why my life isn’t what I want it to be’ and suddenly we have people like Peter Dutton in charge of Immigration and Border protection…and that’s pretty bloody bleak place to be.
But you know what could break this cycle? An extended period doing what actually makes you feel good as a human being. Some time travelling, some time following a passion, some time not in the 8-6 grind (we all know the 9-5 grind is ‘aspirational’). Some time being the person we want to be.
So yeah, maybe your job doesn’t owe you long-service leave…but you know what? You don’t owe your job all of the work you do outside work hours…but you’re still doing them. So let’s just call long-service leave a slight re-adjustment of the ledger.
Now before I start to sound too much like that annoying 2nd year Uni student who has just discovered Marx. There are of course myriad reasons why taking a long break actually makes you a better employee. If you’ve travelled, you may have picked up a new language, if you’ve followed a passion, you will almost certainly have developed new skills, if you’ve spent 6 weeks painting the outside of your house…well…you’ll be a lot less likely to complain about whatever work you come back to. But I can guarantee that by doing something different for an extended period, you will have created new neural pathways. In short, you will be able to think differently, and you will be able to problem solve better.
Sure you might spend the first few days back at work weeping at your desk as you wade through a sea of unread emails…but after that, you’re going to be a better person, and therefore employee, than you were when you left.
Also, don’t ever underestimate the value of your ‘organisational knowledge’. In any organisation there is ‘the proper process’ (ie ‘what they tell new employees’)…and there is ‘the way to get things done’ (ie what you know after 10 years of working in an organisation). I know that over the course of 10 years at DHHS I have learnt how to get in contact with most of the key decision makers…and most importantly I have forged good relationships with all of their Executive Assistants, so that if I need something done in a hurry I can at least get an audience with someone who can make it happen. There are hundreds of these little communication channels that only open up after you have served your time in an organisation and shown your worth, and they save your organisation large amounts of money every year…so just see long service leave as your organisation’s way of saying ‘Thanks for making us more efficient’.
In an era of fewer and fewer full-time jobs, and of people moving jobs more frequently, the number of people who are actually going to work for 10 years in the one organisation is no doubt dwindling. But for those of us who do have it, for the love of God use it! You will never regret taking a holiday. You will never be as; young, energetic, enthusiastic, adventurous and capable as you are right now. Don’t put it off. Don’t sit on it like some bizarre nest-egg. Don’t worry that your job wont be there when you get back. Just do it! Book that holiday, go to that place that you always wanted go, do that thing that you always wanted to do. Be that person you’ve always wanted to be!
You’ve earned it.
One of the great things about being a parent is that you get to watch all of your foibles, inadequacies and quirks enacted by a miniature version of yourself. ‘Ah’ you get to think ‘So that’s what I look like when I lurk around the periphery of a group conversation instead of joining in!’ Or, ‘Wow, so that’s what I look like when I try to block out the mundanity of hanging out the washing by plugging in headphones’, or ‘Ahah! I like the way he’s running down the basketball court at just the right pace to create the impression that he wants the ball, but all the while actually never getting into a position to get the ball, and inevitably miss the layup’. That last one is particularly apt. I’ve been taking Josh to basketball every Saturday for the last few years, and I fast saw myself becoming that Dad who tells his kids what to do in their sporting endeavours…knowing full well that he didn’t do it when he was a kid…and certainly wasn’t doing it now.
I hate those guys.
So I decided that if I was going to tell Josh what to do on the basketball court, I should probably be able to do the same myself, so I committed to joining a basketball team. Although this was a bit easier said than done, as I didn’t know anyone playing basketball…let alone someone who was looking for a new player. So I figured that if I just started hanging out at the local basketball courts, and showed some hustle, then eventually someone would put me on their team and take me under their wing, and while it may be a bumpy road, eventually I would repay their faith in me by pulling off a crazy dunk to win the game!
But then I remembered that this was actually just the plot to 1990’s movie ‘White Men Can’t Jump‘…and so I was back at square one.
After a bit of research I found an organisation called Just Play that basically provides a service for lonely people looking to find a team to play with…it’s a bit like Tinder, but for people who long for balls to play with and who love to get sweaty…no wait…it’s exactly like Tinder!
So after grossly underestimating how large the ‘medium’ singlet that I ordered was going to be, I headed off to Coburg Stadium for my first game.
Now is probably a good time to explain that I’m actually not that great at basketball. I really like playing it, and I may have spent 40% of Year 10 skipping music class to go and shoot hoops with some friends. But I’ve only really ever played socially. So I was kind of banking on this being a good chance to meet some new people, get a bit of exercise, and have fun playing basketball with a group of people at about the same skill level as me.
After five minutes of playing my first game, I realised that this may not be going to happen. The game moved so fast! It was like landing in a foreign country with no language skills and being dropped into the city at peak hour. I could see everything happening around me, but couldn’t get my head around any of it quickly enough to actually contribute. I took one shot that kept everyone guessing by not only missing the goal, but missing the entire court. My only score was one magnificent Falcon where a pass rocketed through my hands, into my face, and then out of bounds. I did however manage to keep the scorers busy by racking up three fouls, and one of my teammates suggested that maybe I head to the bench, given that I was now 2 fouls away from being kicked off the court for the rest of the game…and we were only quarter of the way through the first half.
This was not the glorious return I had hoped for.
After a few games
Thankfully after about 3 games I started to get into the rhythm of the game. I certainly wasn’t contributing a great deal, but at least fewer balls were smacking into my head.
But in terms of my role within the team, the damage was done. I was clearly the weakest link, and so I spent the most time on the bench. Plus our resident alpha-male had taken it upon himself to let me and the rest of the court know when he was displeased with my efforts…which was pretty regularly. In terms of putting myself in Josh’s shoes, I was pretty much putting on a masterclass…except that in his case,I had been the one telling him everything that he was doing wrong. This was meant to be a story of inspiration to him…not one of pathos to me!
The great irony was that we won our first 10 games in a row, but I was hating it. After 10 years of triathlon training, it was nice to do a sport that wasn’t; swimming by yourself, riding by yourself and running by yourself. But I certainly wasn’t making new friends, and I had forgotten how much I hate the macho bullshit that comes hand-in-hand with guys playing sport. Worst of all, I could see myself doing all of the things that I had been chastising Josh about; the apparent lack of passion, the reticence to be the ball carrier, the resignation to warming the bench.
So what should I do? Adult me knows that I usually learn the most about myself when I’m pushed out of my comfort zone…but adult me also already knows most of the things I’m learning about myself by playing basketball, and would be a lot happier without the weekly reminder.
But ‘parent me’ knows that ‘Hey kids, just remember to quit as soon as things get difficult!’ isn’t exactly a life-lesson I was hoping to instil in my children. So I don’t know if I’ll play again next season. Fortunately I’ll be away for the last 6 weeks of the season…so I’ve bought myself some thinking time!
About a year and a half ago I wrote down my tips on shooting your first wedding, fortunately they all hold up pretty well. But taking photography advice from someone who has just shot their first wedding is a bit like asking a learner driver for advice on how to drift simply because they have returned from their first drive around the block without crashing the car. But I’ve now shot 5 weddings…so you know…I’m now like a learner driver who has done a stint of driving home from a family holiday, you’d have to be an idiot to not listen to me!
To be honest, I know that I am not a wedding photographer…but I know that I am a photographer who can do weddings. It sounds like semantics, but a true wedding photographer can; work with a nightmare client, or get incredible poses from their subjects, or tell two people to kiss and then take a photo…without feeling like a pervert. They most likely have camera gear worth over $20K and an assistant with them on the day. Most of all, when someone asks them ‘Can you shoot my wedding?’ their first reaction is most likely ‘Yes, because that’s what I do.’ rather than ‘Oh shit! What if I stuff it up?!’
But if you have semi-decent people skills and you know you’re way around the basics of photography, then there’s no reason why you can’t shoot a wedding.
So without further ado, here is what a few additional weddings and 18 months of experience has taught me about wedding photography.
Don’t fear ‘auto’
Ok, I know that the photographers amongst you just spat your collective cornflakes onto the screen and yelled ‘Imposter. IMPOSTER!!’ But fear not, I’m not saying shoot the whole thing on auto, or that you shouldn’t learn how to use your manual settings. I’m just stating a simple truth; that your job on the day is to capture moments, and if stuffing around with your settings means that you miss one of those moments, then you’re not doing your job. I can assure you that no bride is going to be looking at the photos 5 years later and saying ‘…and this photo is my Dad, six seconds after he saw me walking down the aisle. The photographer didn’t capture the actual moment he saw me…but look at the way he nailed the exposure in the aftermath!”
In time you will be able to shoot everything on full manual and never miss a beat. But for now, just nail the composition and capture the moment.
If this is your first wedding, then there’s a pretty good chance that you’re either family or friends of the bride and groom. Which can make working out what you are going to charge a bit tricky. You will be tempted to quote low, or ‘just make sure you cover your costs and then anything else is a bonus’, or think ‘I really like taking photos anyway’ or ‘I’ll just do it for the experience and to work on my Flickr gallery’.
If you’ve got an hourly rate, then work out how many hours you will be shooting on the day, and how many hours you think you will be editing for. Bear in mind that you will be working longer hours than you have before on a photo job, you will most likely have to hire a second camera (and possibly some lenses) you take at least 700 photos, it will at least an hour just to load these photos from you camera onto your computer, it will take hours to work out which photos to keep and which to toss, you will need to have a second hard-drive that you can keep all of the files on for safety. In short, this is not like when you took some photos at Christmas and sent them around to everybody. This is a big undertaking. You need to take it seriously, and the bride and groom need to take you seriously, and a really good way to do this is to charge like someone who deserves to be there. That way there’s no confusion as to who is doing who a favour.
You’re a photographer, you’re good at what you do, and you’re charging accordingly.
Now just make sure you back it up with some great photos.
Give them what they want….not what you want
For the last two wedding I’ve shot I’ve taken about 750 photos. From this I’ve culled them down to about 150 – 170 photos, worked on these photos until they are about 90% done (straightening any crooked shots, doing basic colour grading our black and white conversions, trying to work out what the $*%& I thought I was trying to achieve with that shot) and then sending these through to bride and groom for them to select 60 – 70 that I will do the final editing on.
For all of the weddings that I’ve done there have been at least 5 photos that I thought were crackers that didn’t make the Bride and Groom’s top 70…and at least three that I didn’t think were particularly strong, that they have loved! What they see in the photo can be totally different to what you see in a photo. So even if you’re only 50/50 on a photo, make sure you at least give them the option to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’. And if they happen to say ‘no’ to something you thought was genius…then just suck it up…or show the photo to your photographer friends who will no doubt see how brilliantly you were channelling Cartier Bresson.
Don’t get 10 versions of the same shot
This is one area that I have had to really work on. It was depressing to sit down to edit the photos to see how many times I would take multiple of versions of what was essentially the same shot. So I now work really hard on making sure when I’ve got a shot that I like, I also try to shoot from high and low, or wide, or maybe with something in the foreground to frame the shot, believe me you’ll be thankful when you come to send the photos through to the bride and groom and you can see a real range of shots.
It will come as no surprise that my current obsession is using reflections.
‘Oh thank God’ I hear you say ‘Finally a photography blog that talks about gear! There just isn’t enough of that on the internet!’
Well I don’t really care for your tone….but I will endeavour to keep this as short as possible anyway.
Unless you have some sort of magical lens that can do wide-angle all the way through to telephoto in low light…You will need two camera bodies. I’ve shot the last two weddings on two Fuji bodies, I’ve paired one with a wide-angle (10-24mm) and then put a 50-140mm on the other one for the ceremony, and then put a 56mm portrait lens for the photos of the bridal party. That way I always have the wide option available without having to go through the palaver of changing lenses.
If you’re going to have the two camera bodies, it’s really worth buying some sort of sling so that you can carry both of them and still have your hands free. I picked up one for $10 on Gumtree, so don’t feel you have to drop cash on a new one.
I’ve brought a tripod along to each wedding…and I’m yet to use it. This may be because there is only one of me and so I have to get all of the shots, which leaves less time for setting up tripods and locking off shots. I’m still too scared to forget about it altogether…but I’m also getting pretty sick of carting it around for no apparent reason.
One of my more self-absorbed purchases was my 56mm f1.2 lens. It seemed like a such a luxury when I bought it as 56mm was already covered on my 50-140mm and that was a f2.8 lens…so did I really need a f1.2 lens? The short answer is ‘YES!’ I have shot some of my favourite shots on this lens because of the low f-stop (and the way Fuji handles high ISO) I’ve been able to get some really good candid shots by shooting from a bit of distance and not needing a flash.
Not the gear
I 100% realise that this falls into the ‘no shit Sherlock’ category…but it’s also really easy to overlook the fact that how you are as a person on the day can be even more important than all the gear in the world.
If you can look like you belong there, and you can make the bride and groom feel that you are enjoying the day as much as they are…then it will show in the photos you take. If you look stressed or look like you’re out of your depth…you are unlikely to get people to relax in front of the camera. If you stuffed up the exposure on a shot, or if someone moved, it’s not the end of the world and no one else needs to know, so just take the shot again.
Learn a couple of poses that you can ask people to do. Just the simple act of telling people how to stand can be enough to let them know that you know what you’re doing.
The bride and groom have enough to worry about on the day…don’t add to that.
But most of all, remember that someone liked your work so much that they were willing to trust you with capturing one of the most important days of their like…and that’s pretty awesome!
Quite often a parable is an allegoric tale that teaches a lesson…whereas this is a strictly factual story from which I’ve learnt nothing, but I know how much people enjoy other people’s suffering. So here goes.
About a year ago, our eldest (Josh) saw that a few of his friends were busking and making some sweet coin. He decided that this was definitely for him, and asked if he could start busking on his ukulele on the corner of our street. Now at this stage he wasn’t really practising on his uke, and we don’t live on a busy street. So the bad parent in me saw this as an excellent opportunity to teach him a few valuable lessons around hard work and free-market capitalism. First of all, people will not simply throw money at you because you’re sitting there playing, you need to have practiced sufficiently so that you can play well, before people will part with their hard earned cash. Also, simply plonking yourself on a suburban street corner where there isn’t much foot traffic is foolhardy at best. You need to be somewhere where a lot of people will be passing by and will have cash on them (such as the Preston Market or one of the local supermarkets). Best of all, I got to teach him these harsh life lessons while appearing like the good guy! ‘Sure Josh, off you head to the corner…I fully endorse your endeavours…I certainly hope you don’t learn any harsh life lessons…good luck!’
You can imagine my bewildered surprise when he returned about 40 minutes later with just under $50. Apparently he had to come back because he was worried the wind was going to blow away all the notes…that’s right, people weren’t just giving him coins, they were giving him $5 notes…one person had even left a $20! $20!!! Apparently even the police had pulled over, listened to him and then said they’d get the next shift to drop past and listen. What is wrong with these people?! Can’t they see I was trying to teach my son some life lessons?!
Sadly this did not prove to be a one-off…and over the course of about 6 months Josh continued to busk and continued to make money. He purchased a remote control car with the money he made. He started to donate money to charities that he liked. He appeared to have joined an international fraternity of buskers which required us to leave money with almost any busker we passed (he also mastered the art of never actually having any cash on him for these tributes to the busking Gods, and so I invariably ended up handing over some coins).
Then he decided he wanted to get a lizard as a pet. I wasn’t dead keen on this as I didn’t imagine a lizard being a great pet (due almost exclusively to the fact that they were not a dog…or if you got desperate, a cat). But he was dead keen. So eventually we went to the pet shop to see how much it would cost. Now, much the same as my previous attempt at parenting, my theory was the he would hear how much it costs to purchase the tank and the heating lamps and all of the other paraphernalia and would realise that this was a foolish idea. When the guy in the pet store explained that it was going to cost $1,400, I saw Josh’s face fall. Finally…a victory for lazy parenting!
On the trip home he said ‘$1,400! It will take me at least another two weeks to earn that!’ After nearly crashing the car I looked at him and said ‘Wait! How much money do you have?!’ ‘About $1,200’ he replied. This was roughly $1,150 more than I had in my bank account. ‘Oh’ I said ‘I don’t suppose I can borrow $50?’ ‘What?’ ‘Nothing…nothing *sigh*’
Next we discovered that he had to get a license in order to keep the lizard. Woo Hoo! Finally the slow moving wheels of a bureaucracy would be my ally. After all, I get frustrated with unnecessary paperwork and ridiculous wait-times…and I’m a 41 year old man who works for a Govt Department. Surely this will be enough to crush the hopes and dreams of an 11yo boy!
But no. He saved the money for the license, filled in the paperwork and sent off the application…and in what can only be described as ‘not nearly enough time’ he was sent his license. So now he had both the money and the paperwork for his lizard.
But the Gods weren’t finished with me yet. Our next door neighbours inherited a their son’s 15yo, 2.5m long, pet python for a month or so. We were invited over to have a look at it, and Josh was smitten. While I looked at it and thought about it eating Jon Voight in ‘Anaconda’…Josh genuinely loved handling the snake…and needless to say, now he wanted a snake.
When it comes to pets, I’m quite the traditionalist. 4 legs and fur = good, 2 legs and feathers = pretty good, more than 4 legs = avoid, less than two legs = you had better be a fish. I have grown up running with dogs down at the park, taking them for long, teenaged walks where I could discuss with them my current top 10 reasons girls didn’t like me and they would listen attentively and without judgement. I’ve grown up with cats who blithely tolerated my existence. So the appeal of a snake, or lizard as a pet was just beyond me. I remember with great fondness visiting a bachelor pad of very blokey guys who had a pet bird-eating spider. The clear reason for this, was to be able to say ‘We’ve got a pet bird-eating spider!’ But on the night that I visited, it was discovered that the lid to the enclosure had been left slightly ajar and the spider could no longer be seen inside. You know in the old cartoons how when an elephant sees a mouse it jumps up onto the nearest stool and looks terrified…well imagine that…but with 3 very large men instead of an elephant…and some couches that had clearly been found on a hard-rubbish night instead of a stool. It was highly entertaining…apart from the fact that a highly venomous spider was currently loose in the living room I was standing in. Thankfully, it turned out that while the lid to the cage had been left ajar, no one had actually checked the underside of the lid, which is where the spider was hanging out (no doubt enjoying the high drama playing out outside of the cage). This experience did not imbue me with a love of your more ‘exotic’ pets.
But if the 1980’s TV show ‘Different Strokes’ taught us anything, it’s that ‘What might be right for you, may not be right for some’. Just because I don’t like something, doesn’t mean everyone else has to agree (although, I stand by my complete lack of interest in Drake!) So maybe Josh feels the same about snakes as I do about dogs. But then what about the other kids in the family, how will they feel about having a snake in the house? These things live a sodding long-time. What happens if Josh loses interest in it after a couple of years? If we have frozen mice in our freezer to feed the snake…does that mean I have to be even more careful with what I take out and put in a smoothie for the kids?
So many questions!
I know that as a parent I’m meant to put my foot down on some things, but this pre-supposes that I know best…and I don’t know anything about owning a snake. I just have a whole lot of ideas and beliefs that all lead to me not wanting a snake in the house…I don’t have any factual justification, I just want them to go back where they came from…and isn’t that a line of reasoning that’s working out just super for Australia?
On top of that, as a parent, what do I want for my kids? I want them to follow their dreams. I want them to know the value of money. I want them to set goals and work hard to achieve them. I want them to learn negotiation skills. I want them to understand that sometimes you have to navigate your way through systems that you think are a waste of time. These are all really good life lessons, and Josh was doing all of them. Granted it’s also a good life-lesson to know that sometimes you can do everything right, and put all your effort into something, only to have some dick at the next level of management just say ‘no’ and ruin everything…but I’ll be damned if I’m going to be that dick!
So tacit approval was given to the purchase of the snake…with my usual stalling clauses about ‘Well I’m very busy this weekend’ and ‘We’ll have to see when they have one in stock’ and ‘Well you know you can’t buy a snake while the moon is in the third house of Aquarius…that’s just bad luck.’ etc, etc.
But then I made the rookie error of going away for the weekend to do the Peaks Classic bike ride. Upon my return I was greeted by a beaming 11yo who said he had a big surprise for me. I had a pretty good idea what it was going to be…but this was confirmed 3 seconds later when our 5yo said ‘Josh has got a snake!’ I could tell that Josh was excited about the snake because he didn’t maim Xavier for ruining his surprise.
So Josh lead me into his room where the snake enclosure was and moved the little shelter that the snake was residing under. Now bear in mind, I had done a 13 hour bike ride up and down mountains the day before, and had just driven for 4 hours to get home, and I was in a room with an 11yo whose excitement levels were currently at ‘teenage girl at a Beatle’s concert’. So it was already a bit weird. Then there was a scream from Josh…and I realised that I had never heard him scream before…this may have been because he had never been bitten by a snake before. No sooner had he screamed, than Josh realised that this was not the best way to introduce his new pet to someone who he knew wasn’t really all that keen on him having it in the first place, so he casually picked up the snake and showed it to me. He excitedly told me all about going to get the snake and what had happened so far, and that the snake was still a bit ‘cage aggressive’ and so he shouldn’t really have reached in so quickly, but hey isn’t it beautiful?! All the while I’m looking at the small trickle of blood from his finger and thinking ‘the child I’m talking to just got bitten by a $*#@ing snake!’
But I reminded myself that I had seen dogs snap at children who had startled them, and I’d seen cats bite and scratch people…I’d even been attacked by a Pelican at the zoo when I was a child…so let’s not be too hasty. Besides, now that he was handling the snake, it looked totally calm, and Josh was equally calm manoeuvring it around.
So I adjusted to my new role as ‘parent whose child has a pet snake’ and the next 36 hours were fine.
But on the Tuesday night at about 2am, the alarm attached to the heating lamp in the snake enclosure went off. This basically means that the heating lamp had turned off for some reason and the thermostat had realised that the temperature was dropping to a point that wasn’t good for cold-blooded animals. The alarm was going off about 2 meters away from Josh’s head…but he was sleeping through it. Katie on the other hand, can be awoken by a mouse farting in the next suburb and so could hear the alarm from three rooms away. So she went in to wake Josh and tell him to reset the alarm. From all reports a drowsy and grumpy Josh opened the enclosure and reset the alarm, then he and Katie went back to their respective beds. While Josh went straight back to sleep, Katie lay in bed thinking one of those ‘I wonder what this lump is?’ type thoughts that you only ever think as you’re trying to get to sleep and thought ‘I don’t remember seeing Josh close the door on the enclosure’. So she headed back into his room to discover that not only had Josh failed to close the door…but the snake was now missing!
Up until this point I was doing what I do best at 2am…sleeping. This came to the most abrupt of endings when Katie came in and said ‘The snake’s loose!’ As a general rule I can sleep through most things…but ‘The snake’s loose!’ turns out to be one of those terms that gets the body moving before the mind has even caught up. So about 5 seconds later I was in Josh’s room looking at a very empty snake enclosure…then at the myriad hiding spots in his room that a snake could take advantage of…then at the open door of his bedroom…then back at the empty snake enclosure. I felt like one of those people who tries to jump onto a running machine when it’s already running at a very fast rate, things were coming at me way too fast, there was no way I could get up to speed, and it was only a matter of time before things went horribly wrong.
Katie was by far the most awake person in the room, I was just trying desperately to catch up, and Josh was trying desperately to convey that this wasn’t really a big deal…and that if it was a big deal…then he certainly wasn’t responsible for it, and that above all, this was no reason to get rid of the snake.
Just as I started playing a mental game called ‘I wonder what sort of scream the person who finally finds this snake will make?’ Katie found the snake, and thankfully didn’t scream. It had slithered over to the window and was currently hiding in the window sill. Coincidentally, this window sill was also as physically close as the snake could get to the Rabbit and Guinea Pigs sleeping outside. Just a coincidence…a pure coincidence. Just in case I thought my night couldn’t get any worse, I was then given the job of helping Josh get the snake back into the enclosure. Which it turns out is a bit like trying to all of the toothpaste back into the tube once you’ve squeezed it all out…but in this case, the toothpaste can also bite you. Josh, who had been so full of confidence with the snake earlier in the day, was suddenly more hesitant and less self-assured, and suddenly every time the snake coiled back a bit, we were convinced it was going to bite. To prove this point, the snake coiled back, and then bit Josh. To his credit, Josh kept working the snake back into its enclosure. I think he knew that his future as a ‘snake owner’ was on very thin ice…and now was not the time to make a scene about the fact that he been bitten by his snake…again.
With the door to the enclosure now closed Katie and I returned to bed, where we were both thinking the same thing; ‘This is not tenable…how the hell do we tell Josh that he has to take the snake back?!’ We had let this situation evolve and now it had come perilously close to a ‘worst case scenario’. I’m a firm believer in kids being allowed to make a mistake once, so long as you don’t do it again. But thus far that had only been applied to trying to pour milk into a glass from a full 2 litre bottle and trying to put 2 DVDs into the iMac at the same time. Somehow this felt a bit more like one of those ‘you only get one chance’ type situations. This was not proving to be the parenting masterclass that we had hoped it would be.
Then Katie thought she heard someone sobbing. I headed into Josh’s room and there he was, fighting back tears. He told me that he had been desperately thinking of all the things he could say so that he could keep the snake, but at the same time, was really scared that the snake would get out again, and that if it attacked Holly’s rabbit or guinea pigs, he would never forgive himself. I had the crushing realisation that while he had been acting so mature throughout this process, and had carried himself with the standing of an adult…he was still just an 11 year old boy who had gone through a hell of a lot, and was now just scared. I asked if he’d like to come into our bed and he said ‘yes’. So I reached down to pick him up…then I realised that he is actually a freaking giant and that me trying to carry him was going to be like one of those videos where the spider has killed a mouse and is trying to carry it away. So we settled for us walking back to my bedroom with my arm around his shoulder.
We crawled into bed and the three of us (Katie, Josh and I) had a long chat about taking the snake back, and we spoke about how Katie and I had had second thoughts the whole way along.
I can remember growing up that I felt as though my parents knew everything and that they never made decisions that they regretted…so it felt a bit weird to be admitting to an 11yo that I was so unsure of my own decisions that I had let him bring a python into the house. But I also felt that between the two of us, he had been the most mature throughout this whole process…and so I probably owed him a bit of honesty.
So the next morning Josh and I moved the less than impressed snake from it’s large enclosure into a very small container so that we could drive it back to the pet store (every part of this process was exactly as much fun as it sounds). The pet store were very understanding (I imagine the puncture wounds on Josh’s hand helped a little), and pretty soon I was dropping him off at school and left to ponder what the hell I’m meant to take away from this whole ordeal.
On the one hand, if I’d just gone with my gut instinct from the start, none of this would have happened. But on the other hand, while it was traumatic, I think Josh will have learned so much more about himself and Katie and I than any lesson I could have constructed. He now knows that we will back his judgement, that we are fallible, and that sometimes you can work towards a goal only to discover it’s nothing like you thought it would be, and these are great lessons in life. But most of all I hope that as a family we have all learnt, that we really are ‘dog people’.
If serendipity is a marker of success, then Turin Brakes may be the greatest band I know. My journey with them began when I strolled into the record store near where I worked in South Melbourne and their album ‘The Optimist’ was playing. I quickly bought the CD and fell in love with it. For younger readers, a ‘record store’ was a shop devoted solely to selling music…it was a bit like Spotify, except you got to drink the music one album at a time…instead of wrapping your mouth around a musical fire-hose. A ‘CD’ was like a digital download…but without any of the convenience. CD’s did however have ‘liner notes’ that you could spend hours reading and dissecting because the artists didn’t have wikipedia pages where you could learn everything you ever needed to know about them. For older readers ‘hours’ were the measurement of time you used to have up your sleeve, before you had kids, to do things you actually wanted to do.
‘The Optimist’ was on pretty high rotation as Katie and I prepared to get married, and even played a part in our wedding. When Turin Brakes released ‘Ether Song’ the next year, they were pretty much locked in as one of our favourite bands. Whether we driving in the car or cooking a meal, Turin Brakes became our soundtrack. The only thing better than listening to the harmonies of Olly and Gale, was listening to the harmonies that Katie would come up with singing along with them. It was an absolute certainty that we would see them when they toured.
However, from memory, one of the two key members of the group had a serious fear of flying, and while they were regularly touring the UK and parts of Europe, the lengthy flight to Australia was proving a bridge too far. Then suddenly, in what was clearly divine providence a tour was announced that would coincide with our 1 year wedding anniversary! What joy!
But proving that the God’s can indeed be cruel, we realised that we would be in Tasmania when they were playing in Melbourne…and in what can only be described as a cruel blow, they would be in Tasmania when we were in Melbourne.
So we missed out on seeing them.
I bought their next album ‘Jackinabox’ in 2005 and it was a cracker…but in the liner notes there were photos that were clearly taken down on the St. Kilda foreshore, and it served as a subtle reminder that they had been in Melbourne…and I hadn’t seen them.
By 2007 we had a 1yo child and I had started a slow decline into musical irrelevance. I simply no longer had the money or the time to stay on top of new music. I was also riding to and from work everyday and so was no longer listening to the radio to hear new songs…besides, to paraphrase Homer Simpson ‘Why do we need new music? Everyone knows it reached perfection in 2001!’
But then I heard Fee B Squared on the RRR-FM Breakfasters announce that she had a new track by a band called Turin Brakes and played ‘Stalker’. The song still had the beautiful harmonies…but also had a sense of self-assurance and urgency. My love for the band was reignited by the simple good fortune of listening to the radio at the right time. Best of all, I was able to walk into a JB HiFi and buy a CD that didn’t have dust on it!
The album was great, but over the next 10 years (and two further children) I well and truly lost touch with the band. I briefly reacquainted myself with them when I stumbled across Olly talking to Phillip Bloom a photographer/videographer whose work I really like, and who was unaware that he was in a video battle with Zack Arias to see if I would go with Canon or Fuji for my big camera purchase.
Then, one afternoon some friends came over and on the spur of the moment we decided to get some pizzas. I drove to collect them, and on the way home I happened to be listening to the radio when an ad for the Northcote Social Club came on, and among the list of bands they had coming soon, was Turin Brakes! Now the odds of me happening to be in the car, with the radio on instead of a podcast, and of the radio being on PBS-FM when the ad came on, and of them having Turin Brakes on the list of upcoming artists seemed pretty astronomical. In fact part of me was pretty sure that there was a hot new band called ‘Curing Snakes’ and I had simply misheard the ad. Nonetheless, when I got home I jumped on my phone and checked the Northcote Social Club website, and sure enough, Turin Brakes were coming to Melbourne, and playing a venue less than 3kms from my house! Needless to say, tickets were purchased quick smart.
Taking photos at the gig
So that’s where the story could have ended. ‘Boy finds band, boy loses band, boy finds band again.’ But as the gig drew closer, I realised that it would be an awesome opportunity to take some photos of the band at the show. I’d recently taken some photos next door at the 303 Bar and Danny Ross was happy with those shots, so I knew I could do it…I just had to work out how.
So I sent the Northcote Social Club an email explaining that I’d like to take some photos at the gig, and that I already had a ticket, so it wasn’t going to cost them anything. They explained that I would need to get a press pass from the company organising the tour (Bluesfest touring), and at this point I started to wonder if it was worth trying to get a press-pass just so that I could take some photos of a band that I liked. Also, Turin Brakes have a song called ‘Stalker’…and I was starting to wonder how ‘some guy says he’s a big fan and wants to come and take photos of you’ was going to sound.
But I also realised that a large part of my reticence was having to step out of my comfort zone, and while that is never pleasant, it’s usually where I learn the most. Plus, it really was a win-win. If the photos were good then the touring company got some free photos, and I got the chance to take some photos of a band I love that I could keep for the next 15 years until they toured again! So I sent the email, and a few emails later, I got the press pass.
I’d only ever shot at gigs where the band had invited me, so one of the first things I learned was that the photographers only get to shoot for the first three songs. I don’t know if this is so that the photographers don’t get to stay for a free show…but it does kinda suck, as bands rarely hit their straps until after the first three songs. Plus, it doesn’t give you a whole lot of time to work out which lenses and which settings work.
I decided I was going to rely pretty heavily on the 56mm as it handles the low-light so well…and is just a beautiful lens to work with. Plus I would take the 10-24mm so that I could at least get a few wide-angle shots that had the whole band.
I got the venue just before the support act started so that I could chat to the bar manager and get the lay of the land. The rules were pretty simple; First 3 songs, No flash, no backstage. I asked if seeing as I had a ticket if I could keep shooting…he said ‘no, that was the agreement they had with the touring company’. So I headed in to watch the support act, have a look at the lighting and try desperately to work out what was going to work in terms of settings.
In the interests of not making the non-photographers read this want to gouge their eyes out by banging on about the technical aspects of the photos, I will just say that the 56mm was awesome, and that the X-t1 is a genuine joy to shoot with. Beyond that, if you have any questions, hit me up in the comments and we’ll crap on about f-stops and shutter speeds until our virginity grows back.
I shot just under 200 photos in the three songs with Turin Brakes and 3 songs with the support act (Lee Rosser), from this I got about 30 photos I was happy enough to keep and 12 photos I was happy enough to share.
walking into that environment and acting like you belong makes a big difference.
Drummers really do sit too far back for me to get a decent shot
There are things that happen during songs after your 3 song limit that would make amazing photos…and you just have to look at them, acknowledge that they would have made a great photo, and die a little bit inside
Getting to take photos of one of your favourite bands, and then stay up the front for the rest of the gig is pretty much a dream. Sure they didn’t stop halfway through a song and say ‘Wait, is that a Fuji camera? We love those. You should totally come backstage after the show, take moody portraits of us, then spend hours dissecting our lyrics before we all decide to appear on your podcast’…but you know…but it was still pretty awesome!
Push yourself out of your comfort zone and take a chance!
As discussed in my previous blog, I really hadn’t done enough training for the Peak’s Challenge Falls Creek (aka ‘the 3 Peaks’). But was I going to let a woefully inadequate training load stop me from attempting this? Hell no! After all, how bad can 13 hours on a bike be?
Well…I think that when ‘How bad can 13 hours on the bike be?’ is a question you are legitimately asking yourself…then perhaps your state of mind isn’t all that flash to start with, and perhaps it would be a good time to start questioning the decisions you’re making. Of course, I know this in hindsight…because I now know exactly how bad 13 hours on the bike can be. But I also know just how much of a difference the people you meet along the way can make. So without further ado, here is my race report for the Peak’s Challenge 2017
A bit of background
Just in case you haven’t read the previous blog, here’s the background:
The Peak’s Challenge is a 235km bike ride through the mountains in the Victorian Alps
I signed up for this last year as the final part of deal with my coach and friend Craig Percival. He was going to coach me for the ride, but tragically passed away in December of last year
I have done a lot of training on an indoor trainer…but not nearly enough out in the real world
My ride plan is to avoid getting caught up in groups that are riding too fast for me, working with people when I can so that I don’t exhaust myself riding solo…and then hope like hell that my legs will get me up that final climb.
I ultimately just want to finish the ride, but if I can finish inside 13 hours, then I am deemed an ‘official finisher’.
Falls Creek to Harrietville
This was actually pretty cruisey. I ticked off one of my goals by not crashing on either the descent from Falls Creek to Mt. Beauty, or from Tawonga Gap to German Town (nothing says success quite like binning it 20mins into a 13 hour ride!) A small part of this success my have come from me noticing that I had put my front wheel on the wrong way round and having to change it about 2 minutes before the start.
Towards the end of the descent from Towanga I got into a group of 5 who were setting a pretty good pace. As we hit German Town, they wound up the pace a bit and suddenly I was sitting just outside of comfort zone. I sat with them for about 5kms, but knew that this was exactly the mistake I had made so many times before…sticking with a group, but burning more energy that I could afford given there was over 180kms and two mountains to go. I also knew that I had been sitting on the wheels of the other 4 guys for the duration, and that slipping off the back without pulling a turn would be pretty poor form. So I rolled to the front and did about 1.5kms. If sitting in the group was on the limit of what I could sustain, then sitting out the front in whatever wind there was, was definitely beyond what I should have been doing. But up ahead I could see a larger group that were clearly travelling slower. So I decided to hold on with the group I was with, in the hope that we would catch the next group. We did, and thankfully they were sitting at a pace that let me recover all the way into Harrietville.
I pulled into Harrietville, had something to eat and drink, and then headed back out onto the road, all within the time limit I would need to adhere to if I wanted to finish in 13 hours
Harrietville – Dinner Plain
Pretty much straight out of Harrietville we hit Mount Hotham, and the climbing began in earnest. I’ve never climbed Mt Hotham before, and all I’ll say is it’s about 20kms of tolerable climbing…and then about 10kms of ‘when the hell does this finish?!’ Every time I thought the summit would be just around the corner…it wasn’t…and in its place was a snaking line of cyclist disappearing into the distance.
But once I hit the summit I began the rolling descent to Dinner Plain. As I was to find out over the rest of the day, a rolling descent means that there is just enough time spent going downhill to technically be getting closer to sea level, but there still feels like there is a lot of going uphill as well. I pulled into the lunch stop about 7 minutes down on where I needed to be, but I figured if I could just keep my lunch stop to about 10 minutes, then I would still be back on the road in time to achieve the 13 hour mark.
Dinner Plain – Omeo
This was tough. We had a bit of tailwind, which was really nice, but it was hot. I started to get ‘hot spots’ on my left foot, and so loosened my shoe as much as I could. But it was the element of the unknown that was the hardest to deal with. When I was climbing Mt. Hotham, even though I didn’t know the climb, I knew I would be climbing, and so I was resigned to that, with any downhill sections a bonus. But for this part of the I just didn’t know what was coming, and every small hill felt like a slap in the face.
Then as we made the final turn into Omeo there was a literal slap in the face, with the change in direction turning a crosswind/tailwind into a headwind. I pulled into Omeo knowing that I had lost time, but figured if I could just get some food into me and have a quick rest, then I would be able to tackle the 40kms to Angler’s Rest. But no sooner had I filled up my drink bottle, than the guys manning the aid station said ‘You’ve got another 10 mins’ and then we close. On cue the Lanterne-Rouge (the last two riders) arrived, and I suddenly realised how close I was to having to retire from the ride (if you fall behind the Lanterne-Rouge riders then you have to retire).
So I hastily jumped back on the bike, and headed off into the headwind and unknown.
Omeo – Angler’s Rest
Shit got real. The wind was hot and in your face. The road was unrelenting, and my confidence was shot knowing how close I was to the cut-off. I found two other guys who were riding a bit faster than I was and asked if they wanted to roll some turns. They were up for it and so we just rotated turns, with one guy sitting in the wind, while the other two tucked in behind him. I know that I wasn’t really pulling my weight, and so when they started to drop me I just fell back. They looked back at one stage and started to slow down, but I waved them on. I was done. I knew that there was no way I was going to do 13 hours…and in reality, there was no way I was going make it to the climb up Falls Creek. Which actually really pissed me off, because I knew that I could make up some time on that final climb. I’m not a strong rider, but I’m a pretty good climber. Now I wasn’t even going to pit myself against the climb because I wasn’t going to make the cutoff at Angler’s Rest.
It’s a funny thing with these sorts of events. Ultimately I do them because I want to see how I respond to that moment of absolute despondence. When I think I can’t go on because it’s all too hard. In that moment of darkness, how will I respond? But the simple truth is, it’s not a single moment. It’s a series of moments. In this case it was about and hour and a half of moments where I just had to keep pedalling. I knew that I was cooked. But there had been 3 ambulances go past on this section of road alone, so I was still having a better day than some others. I decided that I wasn’t going to retire from the race until I was asked to. So I would ride on for as long as I could. Not exactly a gallant defeat…but perhaps a less ignominious one.
I will admit that I spent a lot time pondering what Craig would have said if I had failed to finish the ride. I concluded that he would have tolerated it, provided I had left nothing in the tank. Even though I was spent, I knew I was still holding a tiny bit in reserve to get me up that final climb. So when the Lanterne-Rouge riders swept past with about 8 riders sitting with them and they said ‘Jump on’, I knew that I had to go. I had been trundling along at about 16km/h and they were sitting on closer to 25km/h, but I knew that if there was a time to burn my matches…this was it. I sat with them for the last 5kms into Angler’s Rest, and arrived with enough time to eat my last sandwich (home made peanut-butter with a lolly-snake inside…adversity is indeed the mother of invention).
One thing that had kept me going for the last couple of hours was the promise of a can of Coke at Angler’s Rest. No less than 4 people had told me how amazing this hit of sugar and caffeine was. Sadly the mythical ‘best can of Coke of my life’ didn’t happen because they had sold out…so I had to settle for the ‘best can of Lift of my life’.
I heard the announcement that we had 5 minutes to leave Angler’s Rest and then 30 mins to ride 10kms to WTF Corner (the start of the climb to Falls Creek). That sounded eminently doable, and so I set off again.
WTF Corner to Trapyard Gap
I made the time cutoff for WTF and started the climb. If you haven’t seen the first part of the climb of the back of Falls Creek, it is insane. It kicks off insanely steep…and then pretty much holds that for about 12kms. I was only about 400m into the climb when I started seeing people walking. After about 2kms the number of people walking far outnumbered the people riding and there were an increasing number of people sitting by the side of the road either swearing at their cramping legs or with their head in their hands. By the time I got 10kms into the climb it was like a scene from a war movie. There were about 6 ambulances that went past, sag wagons full of dejected looking people rolled through, bikes were left by the side of the road, those who were still walking had 100 Mile stares, and the people sitting by the side of road looked shattered.
I knew I was making good time and that I was now a really good chance to make it in before the Lanterne-Rouge…and maybe even within the 13 hour time limit. I had promised myself that I wouldn’t stop until I got to Trapyard Gap. I wasn’t riding much quicker than walking pace…but there was principle at stake! Then a marshall stopped by the side of the road and offered me a can of Coke. There was a moment of hesitation…but I quickly dismounted and drank what was indeed ‘the best can of Coke of my life’. Then rode on to Trapyard Gap.
Trapyard Gap – Falls Creek
In a day of swinging momentum, I felt the momentum swing back my way. We had 23kms to go, 10kms of which were climbing, then the remainder was ‘rolling’ to the finish…and we had an hour and half to get it done to make the 13 hour official finish time. This was actually doable.
The Lanterne-Rouge riders rolled in and I had a quick chat. My mate Bill who was one of the Lanterne-Rouge riders told me to put my vest on as it would get pretty cold from here on in. As someone who had spent the last 6 hours suffering in the heat, I found that hard to believe…but I put it on anyway and then rolled out for the last part of the day.
If I reflect on the day I can see that the best parts of the day were defined by the groups I was with; the group from German Town to Harrietville, the two other guys I rode with for about 15kms out of Omeo, the Lantern-Rouge riders that I held onto for dear life into Angler’s Rest. The ability to have a conversation offers a respite from the relentless drudgery of following a wheel or turning over the pedals. It also serves to remind you that other people are suffering just as badly as you are.
Beginning the climb out of Trapyard Gap was pretty funny. On any other day, we would have been flying up this climb, but everyone had locked into their own rhythm and was pacing themselves up the hill. I could see how slowly I was going (about 10km/h) and each time I looked up I expected to see the other riders disappearing into the distance…but instead we all just travelled at the same pace. Sometimes you would have a burst of energy for 15mins and ride past some people, but then you’d fall back, and some of them would ride past you. But whereas for the first 12 hours the other riders had been either a wheel to jump on, or someone who was passing you, or someone for you to pass…once we got to the rolling section at the top of the climb, everyone banded together. We had taken the worst of it, and now we were desperate to finish as a diaspora of stragglers.
As the sun set it really was an amazing sight. The skies were grey in front of us, save for the burning orange on the horizon, the skies behind us were clear and dissolved from pinks to mauves and purples, and on the ridges you could see the silhouettes of riders. It’s a sign of just how tired I was that the thought of stopping to take a photo was not even entertained. Then the sun set, the sleet started and the landscape started to look like ‘The Upside Down’ from ‘Stranger Things’. Everything was muted greys and shadows, with the bike lights picking up the highlights of the raindrops. As I descended briefly and turned back into the wind, I checked my watch, it was nearly too dark to see, but I made out that I had about 5kms to go, and about 12mins to do it in if I wanted to make the 13 hour cutoff. I did some quick mental arithmetic and realised…that I was in no state for mental arithmetic. In short, I needed to average over 20km/h over the last 5 kms, and I had no idea how many hills were left, and I was riding into a headwind, and within a few minutes it would be too dark for me to see either my watch or bike computer. Deep down I knew this wasn’t possible, so I decided to just go flat out for the last 5kms and at least beat the Lanterne-Rouge riders home.
Having spent the first part of the day conserving energy for the inevitable final climb, and then spent 2 hours between Omeo and WTF Corner riding well out of my comfort zone just to avoid missing the cutoff times, it was strangely liberating to just go flat out and push myself, knowing that no matter what happened, I was going to finish the 3-Peaks.
I don’t want to get too prosaic, but for that last 5kms, even though I was riding into the wind, I felt like I was riding down hill. Everything felt fluid and strong, and I can only assume that a strong Tasmanian was pushing me along, and in the dark I gave a quick word of thanks to Craig Percival.
One more quick climb, and a sketchy descent in the dark and wet, then suddenly I was in the carpark of Falls Creek. Then there were people, and lights and noise, and the finishing chute. Then it was done. It was over. I pressed ‘stop’ on my watch and looked down to see how close I had come to 13 hours, my watch read ’12:58:49′! I’d snuck under the 13-hour time limit by just over a minute! Did this make up for the previous 13 hours of mental suffering and physical exhaustion? Noooooo, No, no, no, no, no!
But I will say that the 10 minutes I spent stumbling around the finish area talking to fellow finishers (including Jean-Pierre who had been my companion from Trapyard Gap, and one of the guys who I had ridden from Omeo with) was among the best feelings I’ve had in my life.
So unlike the Ironman where I walked away swearing ‘I would never do that again’, I reckon I would like to do this again so that I could at least know what to expect with each section of the ride…but next time I’ll train better…next time I’ll train better.
Last but not least, a big thanks to Katie and the kids for giving me a weekend off to see what was apparently some beautiful countryside, thanks to Ailie, Peter, Troy and Aaron for the support along the way, thanks to the Sufferfest for the training videos, thanks to the volunteers who were so awesome over the whole 13 hours, thanks to Bicycle Network for running such a great event, thanks to Bill and Chris the Lanterne-Rouge riders for keeping me in the hunt, and of course thanks to Craig Percival for the inspiration to do the ride…and for the push for the last 5kms, I couldn’t have done it without you.
It’s now just over a week until the Peaks Challenge Falls Creek (affectionately known as ‘the 3 Peaks’) a 235km bike ride through Victoria’s alpine country that has, three hefty climbs. There are many guides on how to prepare for the ride, and they are great. But who hell wants to hear how other people are going to succeed? What you really want is some poor sap to outline exactly how not to prepare yourself for this ride, so that you can either laugh at their expense, or use their approach as the antithesis of your next training block…or just thank God that at least your preparation has been better than theirs.
Ladies and gentlemen, I believe I am that sap. So here are my tips on how not to prepare for the 3 Peaks.
Do all your training on an indoor trainer
A year and half ago I wrote about falling out of love with cycling I think it’s safe to say that neither of us really wants to get a divorce…but I am definitely sleeping on the couch each night.
A pretty clear indicator of this is that every time I’ve had to make the choice between heading out into the wee hours of the morning to go for a ride…or trotting out to the shed to sit on the trainer and do Sufferfest sessions…I’ve chosen the ‘sit in a room, sweating like a pig and being eaten by mosquitos’ option. For the uninitiated, a cycling trainer is basically an exercise bike (or in my case a device that I attach my actual bike to), and Sufferfest is basically an app that plays footage of cycling races and yells at you. So you can see why this would be a natural choice over getting out into the hills around Kinglake with a group of friends.
On the bright side, the number of times I’ve been abused by drivers or nearly run off the road while on the trainer is an impressive ‘zero’ (coincidentally ‘impressive zero’ was also my nickname at high-school). I can also scamper off the trainer and make breaky for the kids when they wake up…and it’s a hell of a lot easier to be served fruit toast on the trainer than out on the road.
Lose your coach
Last year I made a documentary about my friend and coach Craig Percival. Part of the deal was that he would coach me for an event. Craig had been my coach for the Ironman, and while I couldn’t motivate myself to do exercise…for some reason a weekly email from Craig was enough to make me feel guilty enough to actually get out of bed at 5.30am and train. I’d always wanted to do the 3 Peaks, and I thought that having a structured training regime that yielded a good result may be just what I needed to reacquaint myself with my love of cycling. So Craig and I had been working away at this goal for a few months.
Tragically, at the end of last year Craig died as a result of complications after a routine surgery. So suddenly I lost the coach and mentor that I knew I was going to be relying on…and the many conversations we’d had about his frustration with how much time his training took away from his family, took on a whole lot more weight.
In the Hollywood version of this story, I’ll be about 4km from the finish and feeling that I’ve got nothing left, I’ll look up to the sky (it will still be light because of how fast I’ve ridden) and ask Craig for help…and he’ll say ‘you’ve got this!’ and I’ll find a hidden reserve of strength and power to the finish.
But in reality, I’ll probably be begging for Craig’s help from about the 75km mark…and all he’ll say is ‘Mate…you really should have trained for this! Now if you’ll excuse me, David Bowie is running in the Heaven Marathon, and I told him I’d be out on the course to cheer him on.’
Don’t stop those swim and run sets
Between work, family and running your own business, there really isn’t a whole lot of time left for training. So it’s probably a good idea to just focus on the cycling when you have the time to do a session.
Or…you can do what I’ve done and split my time between swimming, running and cycling. If you really want bonus points, throw in a weekly circus class for the latter part of 2016. It will all pay dividends when you arrive at the bottom of Falls Creek and they say ‘Look, normally we make everyone ride up this hill. But if you can run 10km, tumble turn or juggle…we’re just going to drive up and you hold onto the side of the car.’
So what have I actually done?
I have legitimately done a lot of sessions on the trainer…including a few 2.5hr sessions that really took me to a dark place. Plus I commute 80km every week.
Like every geriatric, I’ve swapped out my 53/39 for a more hills friendly setup (for the non-cyclists…ah who am I kidding?…there’s no way any non-cyclists made it this far into this blog! So let’s get down to random numbers, I’m going to be running a 52/36 and 11/28)
I’ve also grown my hair long like Peter Sagan. Part of me still hopes that his incredible cycling strength is actually not due to his work ethic or genetics…but due to his long hair. It’s a long-shot…but long-shots are all I have left!
Most importantly, I’ve resigned myself to what is going to be at least 12…and quite realistically 13 hours of mental and physical carnage. I’m not going to waste any energy trying to sit with packs that are going too fast, I’m not going to stop for very long at any of the rest areas along the way, I’m going to eat before I get hungry, I’m going to try appreciate the natural beauty of the Victorian high-country, I’m going to remind myself that you learn so much more about yourself when you push yourself to your limits, and I’m going to remember a sign I ran past on the Melbourne Ironman that simply said ‘Just remember, you paid to do this!’.
They say that ‘Harley Davidson’s are like haemorrhoids, sooner or later every arsehole gets one’…I think that in 2017 we will probably be able to swap ‘Harley Davidson’ for ‘podcast’. With that in mind, I’d like to announce my new podcast!!!!
Well first and foremost, I love podcasts. For the last 5 or 6 years they have been my escape hatch while I do menial tasks like the dishes, or hanging out the washing, or colour-grading a video. They also help me block out the real world if I’m ever on public transport, and they are pretty much the only thing that gets me through any long run.
Secondly, so much of the video work that I do comprises half hour chats that are edited down to 2-3 minutes. While I love the process of editing a conversation down to just the essentials…there is invariably good stuff that never sees the light of day, and there is often something nice about being able to ease into the flow of a conversation, rather than just hearing the highlights. I simply don’t have the hard-drive space to do long form videos (plus I think that if you’re going to use a visual medium, you need to make it visually engaging…and two people chatting for an hour just doesn’t cut it), so the audio only world of podcasts seemed like a really good solution.
Thirdly, I really like getting to know people’s story. But life with 3 kids doesn’t allow for a whole a spare hour where you can just talk to someone about their life…unless you schedule it in. So this is my way of scheduling it in. Also, after 40 years on this earth, I feel that I’ve met a number of really interesting people, who have a great story to tell.
Finally, I wanted to set myself the challenge of creating a range of content, from a single session. So my aim with this project is to create; a podcast (45mins to an hour), a video where the person talks about something they have done that they are really proud of (3-5 minutes) and a portrait photo.
Why has it taken you so long?
Weellll, the honest truth is that I attempted to start a podcast about 4 years ago with my brother, Tom. Both of our lives were pretty frantic at that time, and despite having a lot in common, we were spending less and less time together. So I thought that if we could catch up once a week to record the podcast, then that would be a good, regular excuse for a catch-up. So after a bit of coaxing, I borrowed an audio recorder, and Tom and I sat down to chat about a range of topics. From memory, it was pretty good. There were some jokes, some witty insights and some fond reminiscences. I say ‘from memory’ because at about the 1 hour mark of the recording I looked down to see how the audio recorder was going and realised that while I had armed the recorder, I had not actually started recording (on that recorder you press ‘record’ once to get it ready…and then again to make it record)…I think that if I had at least got it recording at that moment I would have heard one of the world’s great exasperated sighs emenate from my younger brother. But I didn’t even capture that…and I’ve been too embarrassed to ever ask him to do it again.
Traps for young players
Hoo Boy! I can remember when I went for my driver’s license thinking that if a friend of ours (who was not the sharpest tool in the shed) could get his license…then surely I could get mine! Similarly, I’ve listened to some pretty amateurish podcasts, and so I thought that if they can get a podcast recorded and uploaded…then so can I. But I was wrong. So very, very wrong.
From the start I had to decide if I was going to have my questions as part of the podcast. If they weren’t, then I would only need one microphone…but I would have to edit the answer in such a way that the question was self-evident. Or I could hold the microphone and ask the question, then pass the microphone to the interviewee for their answer…but this sounded like a terrible way to have a conversation, or I could put the microphone in the middle of the table and we could both talk and sound equally faint and echoey.
Alternatively, I could use my two radio mics that I use for my videos, and that way both myself and my interviewee would have a mic. But then I would need to work out how to plug the two mics into a recorder (that can accept to different audio sources) and then get that to plug into Garageband so that I could monitor the audio. In the end this is the option I went with…but this meant having two wireless mics, two wireless mic receivers and an audio recorder and a laptop all on the desk in front of me while we recorded (and me desperately trying to pay attention to my guest, while also checking battery levels on the various devices, and monitoring audio, and making sure everything was still recording). In short the whole set-up looked some carnival freak show where a snake eats itself while their handler looks on in confused disbelief.
I’ve now done 4 recordings…and while I think I’m getting better, the simple fact is that I will need to buy some dedicated microphones, as the sound is still pretty average and ‘roomy’.
One highlight was spending an hour trying to work out how to get the two mics to work on the recorder and then how to get Garageband to recognise the recorder. Suddenly after another flurry of settings changes I could hear my voice through my headphones. This was great as it meant I had finally cracked the code and got the computer to recognise the mics. But the only problem was that there was a weird scratching noise (like something rubbing on the mic). I checked both mics and nothing I did could get rid of the scratching sound… it even made it when the mics were just sitting on the table and clearly not touching anything that would lead to the scratching. Eventually I turned them both off and let out a sigh…which came through my headphones clear as a bell. With both mics off, this shouldn’t have been possible. Then I realised that I had my headphones (my iPhone headphones) plugged into the Mac…and Garageband had been recognising the microphone on the headphones not the microphones I’d been trying to set up. So everytime I picked up one of the mics and did a check, I could hear my voice, because my iPhone headphones could hear my voice.
That was not a career highlight.
Then there was learning how to edit on Garageband, writing some theme music in Garageband, creating artwork for the podcast, finding somewhere to host the podcast, learning how to share from wherever you’re hosting the podcast to iTunes…in short, it’s a whole lot harder than ‘upload video to YouTube’.
Another little thing I had to overcome is that whenever I’m doing a video shoot, I don’t appear in the final product, so it’s really important that you don’t hear me talking from off camera. As a result I’ve become very good at responding to what people are saying, without actually making any noise (there is a lot of nodding and smiling). But on a podcast, it’s ok to audibly support the person speaking…in fact, it sounds kind of rude if you’re apparently not responding to what is being said. So over the course of the first 4 episodes I think I’ve got a lot better at responding to what is being said and making the recording a genuine conversation.
*Insert call to action here*
This is all just a rather long winded way of saying, the podcast is now live.
You can head to the website to find the podcast and video here:
I’ve got a bank of 4 more up my sleeve, so as long as I keep recording one every couple of weeks, I should be able to release them fortnightly (even if I miss a week or two).
I’d love to have your feedback, it’s still very much a work in progress, so I’d love to know what works and what doesn’t. But if you have anyone you think would be good to talk to, then please let me know (I’m looking to maintain a 50/50 gender split, so if you could give one of each that would be awesome!)
In terms of a creative project, it has been awesome to try my hand at creating a music intro/outro, I’ve loved having an excuse to shoot four portraits and hone my skills there, I’ve been excited to have that ‘this could all go horribly wrong, but I’m doing it anyway’ feeling back in my life…but most of all, it’s been great to just sit down and have a chat with some really interesting people.
Sitting at work desperately pretending that you’ve got something to do? Stuck at home with the kids thinking ‘Wait…I’ve got to put up with this crap 24/7 for how many more weeks?!!!’ Holed up at a holiday destination somewhere where it’s too hot/wet/cold/windy to do anything? (if you’re in Melbourne there is every chance that it’s been all 4 of those things in the last half hour). Then fear not, relief is at hand.
No, I’m not going to distract your boss, or look after your children, or sacrifice something to whatever Gods are the controlling the weather in your local area…instead I’m going to present you with my favourite photos of 2016. A year when I adjusted to life with a new camera, shot a wedding in the country, got paid to shoot some portraits, ran some photo workshops, filmed my first ever documentary and travelled through Queensland with the family in a campervan.
Did I manage to take 17 photos that I was happy with? No! So, in no particular order, here are my top 16 photos of 2016!!!
No. 1 – A shed in Daylesford
Katie was performing at festival in Daylesford with Songrise. We had lunch in someone’s garage/workshop and just as we were about to had off I saw this beam of light coming through from the corrugated iron roof. I scampered over and did a quick shuffle-dance to raise some more dust off the ground and then asked Xavier to stand under the beam. I asked him to stare up at the roof…but as with many times when I ask a child to pose, it didn’t look like a child looking at the roof…it looked like a child who had been asked to look like a child looking at the roof. But then he decided to clap his hands in the shaft of light and I managed to capture the moment he was winding up for the clap (‘winding up for the clap’ may also have been a euphemism for consorting with prostitutes in the 1800’s…but that is not what I meant).
The big photography lesson for me was to get the shot set up…and then let the person interact with it…trying to manufacture a moment is still not a skill I have.
No.2 – Cooling down
Ok, you know how 6 words ago I was saying that manufacturing a moment is not a skill I have…well here is a case in point. Not even if the local water supply had been laced with peyote could I have said ‘What I want to do is get a shot where Xavier is in a bucket, looking cherubic while he rests his head on his big sister’s hand, who is looking lovingly at the camera, while sitting backwards on a high-chair, dangling her legs over the high-back of the chair…and ideally wearing a bandage on one knee’. But if that moment does unravel in front of me…I am getting better at capturing it.
I’ve mentioned this before, but this shot was shamelessly influenced by Alain Laboile
No. 3 – Adrift on an incoming tide
Last year I wrote a blog on how keeping fit can actually help your photography. One of the things I mentioned then was sometimes when you’re out for a run or ride you see things that you know would make a great photo, but that you would have missed if you’d been driving (or indeed at home watching YouTube videos about photography). So on an early morning run I saw these boats sitting on the sand at low-tide, and I thought it would make a great photo that could represent futility, or being stuck, or dwindling natural resources. But by the time I actually got to head back there to take the photo, it was early evening. I took a few photos of the boat from the front (or as we nautical types like to say ‘the pointy end’), but it just didn’t work. Then I swung around to the back (or ‘arse end’) and realised that it looked like it was heading out to sea. Despite the fact that my shoes were getting soaking wet…and covered in crabs…I set a long exposure, and this is what I got.
No. 4 – Making the job easy
I think my dream job would be to take candid portraits of people, where they didn’t know I was there and so I got perfect, unscripted, unprompted moments. Unfortunately, this is also pretty much a perfect description of a stalker. So for the time being, I think my dream job would be taking portraits of people who are as easy to work with as Nick. I had some ideas, he had some ideas and he was 100% willing to commit to all of them. As a result I got some of the best portraits I’ve ever shot. But I think this is my favourite as it actually captures how easy-going Nick is. There’s a genuine smile that’s also in his eyes…and of course there’s that beard…that beard. There are three certainties in life; death, taxes…and me never, ever being able to grow a beard like that.
No. 5 – Nhillbilly nights
One of the things with a long-exposure shot, is that you press the button to open the shutter and then wait 30 seconds for the camera to take the shot…then wait another 30 seconds while it gets rid of the noise, and then after a minute of sitting in the dark and cold an image appears on the screen of the camera and you see what you’ve captured. Sometimes you look and realise that you’ve got the camera slightly tilted, or that you’ve cropped something out (it’s so dark that you can’t see anything on the viewfinder while you’re looking through it) or that the camera has moved during the exposure and everything is blurry. And so you sigh, make a few adjustments and try your luck again.
But sometimes you look at the screen and you see something like this, and you know you’ve captured something special! That orange glow to the left of the frame is the moon rising. That light inside the yurt was so soft, that I could only just see it with my naked eye…but on a 30 second exposure, suddenly it looks amazing. And the fact that the milky-way is rising from the top of the yurt? Well to be honest…that was just good luck…but I’ll claim full credit for it anyway.
No. 6 – Shaz and Lofty
This the the shower block on Sharon and Lofty’s farm. It’s all exposed timber and corrugated iron, and as soon as I walked in I knew I wanted to get a shot here. It had textures and colours and light and shadows…in other words, it had everything a photographer could want. Yet my favourite thing about this photo is that the setting plays second fiddle to the bride and groom. Your eye can look almost anywhere in this photo and pick up little details…but it will always return to how naturally happy and excited the newlyweds look.
No. 7 – The country wedding
I think that this is my favourite photo of the year. I love how Australian it looks. I love the story it tells. I love the lights and the shadows. I love the lady resting her arm on the pram, the boy listening to the speeches but also putting a reassuring hand on the dog. I also love that by this stage I had taken photos of the bride and groom, I had taken photos of people watching the bride and groom, but taking photos of people looking at the people watching the bride and groom…that’s pretty meta. Upgrading to the Fuji X-T1 was a really big decision. But I simply couldn’t have got this shot on my old gear. So this photo reminds me that sometimes taking the plunge pays off.
No. 8 – Water torture
I’m sure that if I had simply gone outside and snapped a quick photo of a raindrop falling and it looked like this…it probably wouldn’t have made the cut. But I know that I spent at least an hour in the drizzle just waiting to capture the moment one of these drops fell. As you can see from this shot, there were plenty of raindrops to choose from, but by the time you had the tripod set up and you had got the focus dialled in…it would have dropped, so then you would choose another one, but then while you were waiting for that one, three other ones would drop and you would curse yourself for not choosing one of them…then the wind would blow, moving the vine and getting the raindrop out of focus…or it would drop and you were just a split second too late.
Needless to say, I did a lot swearing at rain-drops on that day.
Now let’s never mention it again.
No. 9 – Solar plexus
OK this is going to get a tad technical. But on my first attempt at getting this shot I had the camera on autofocus. I got myself in position, pressed the button halfway to arm the autofocus in the middle of the shot, and then got Josh to run and jump off a ledge across in front of the Sun. He was wearing a hat, and he was doing this awesome ‘airwalk’ with his legs…so he looked like something halfway between Michael Jackson and a skater. Brilliant!
Except of course that I’d set the focus before he was in shot…and so the camera had focussed on whatever was in the middle of the shot then…at best it was that boat travelling through…at worst the horizon. Either way, Josh was completely out of focus and the shot looked pretty crap. So this time I got Josh to stand exactly where I wanted him to be for the shot, I focussed on him manually then got him to run and jump off the embankment again. This time he was in focus…and I was pretty happy with my timing as I managed to get him just as passed the sun. Admittedly I was trying to get him as he blocked the sun…but I think this actually looks better!
No. 10 – The pier at Hervey Bay
As part of my Lightroom workflow I will add a star rating to all of my photos. Basically a ‘5’ is a photo that I am over the moon about (I probably shoot about 10 of these over the year), a ‘4’ is one that I am really happy with and I know will be a solid photo once I’ve worked on it, a ‘3’ is one that I need to look at again, and if I don’t like it on the second viewing, I’ll delete it…I don’t do ‘1’ or ‘2’ stars as they are automatically deleted.
This photo was a ‘3’. Even on a second viewing I couldn’t decide if I liked it. I took quite a few similar photos, and on this evening the sunset had set the sky ablaze with colour. In this shot the colours were just a bit washed out as I had gone for a 2 second exposure and it was all a bit bright…but I really liked the framing, and I really liked the people on the pier, the footprints in the sand. So this photo lived on my computer as a rare ‘3’ star photo. When I got back home from the trip I looked at the photo again and decided to try it as a black and white…it worked so well that it now adorns one of our walls.
You really need to have some rules about how you cull your photos, or you will end up with a hard-drive full of average photos…but you also need to be able to bend those rules occasionally so that you have time to give photos a second chance.
No. 11 – Family photo
I’m quietly confident that there are more photos of Yeti’s than there are of our family together. I also took a photo earlier in the trip, but I feel that in this shot you can see that we had bonded as a family over the two weeks of camper van life…and our tans are a lot better.
Take that Yetis!
No. 12 – Black and White beauty
I can boss relative strangers around in order to get a shot that I want, I can tell clients to do whatever they want and I’ll usually be pleasantly surprised by their response, I can tell myself that a photo of a friend or family member doesn’t have to be perfect…after all, it’s just a photo that you’re doing for them.
But I can’t do any of that with Katie. Every direction, every gesture, every request and every reply carries with it the weight of a near 20yr relationship, a 14yr marriage, ups, downs, trials & tribulations, kids, jobs, wins and losses. So getting a photo that captures everything that you love about someone that has been an integral part of nearly half your life, with all of that history between you is no mean feat. But I reckon this one does it, and does it well.
No. 13 – Uncle Jack Charles
To be brutally honest, I think it would be pretty hard to take a bad photo of Uncle Jack Charles. The hair, the beard, the boundless energy, the infectious laugh, the incredible story, the stagecraft…it’s all a photographers dream. So the challenges become; manufacturing an opportunity and trying to come up with something original. I know I took some photos that were better, but they were photos I felt I’d seen of him before.
This one felt original.
I know this is insanely trainspottery…but it’s actually that tiny reflection in his right eye that I love the most.
14 – Django and the Spotted Mallard
One of things I’ve been trying really hard to do this year is to look at the whole frame and make sure everything works. It’s often really easy to see what you want to shoot and simply take a photo of it, then when you look at it later you realise that you’ve cropped out half of a person, or you’ve got a whole lot of unnecessary space at the top of the picture when there was stuff happening at the bottom that would have really added to the story that you were trying to tell. So in this shot, obviously Django is the star. But I also wanted to show the audience watching on (I love the guys hand on the back of the person next to him…it speaks volumes about how relaxed and supportive the room was), and I wanted to show the incredible ambience of the Spotted Mallard (the mirrors reflecting the natural light, the candelabras, the myriad lamp-shades), and I wanted to get all of those sodding ducks on the curtain behind him in the shot. In the end I had to position myself pretty much behind the bar to get the shot…but I was so happy when I got this shot.
No. 15 – BMX bandit
If nothing else, I want my photos to be a document of our family. Right now, Josh rides his BMX pretty much every day. In a year’s time he may shooting his own YouTube videos about BMX, or he may have moved on to something else entirely, but I would hate for this year of obsession to have gone undocumented. So Josh and I headed into Melbourne to take some photos of him in action. I really love this photo for a few reasons. One, I realised that the sunlight reflecting off the windows of a nearby building and illuminating the set of stairs would be enough to shoot a fast shutter speed and capture him mid-descent. Two, in order to capture this I had to break with my usual approach of ‘don’t draw attention to yourself’. If the the 10yr old on the BMX doesn’t care who’s watching…then the 40yr old taking photos shouldn’t either. Three, I love that despite being in the city there is only one other person in the shot…and they are looking at Josh. Four, and this is probably most important, we printed this picture onto a large canvas, and Josh has it beside his bed.
No. 16 – The turning point of the 8in8in8
I’ve written about this photo before…but for those late to the party. The man on the left is Craig Percival. He was my coach for the Melbourne Ironman, and had brought me onboard to document his attempt to become the first person ever to compete an Ironman (3.8km swim/180 bike ride/ 42.2km run) in all 8 Australian States and Territories, in 8 consecutive days (the 8in8in8). The man on the right is John Maclean. John was a triathlete who was hit by a truck while out training and became a paraplegic. He went on to become the first ever wheelchair athlete to complete the Kona Ironman (the world championship race in Hawaii) and was a massive inspiration to Craig.
This was day 6 of the 8in8in8, and Craig had finished the previous day’s Ironman in Canberra so late that his crew had driven through the night to get him to Sydney to start his 6th Ironman. I’m not sure what someone who has done 5 Ironman’s in 5 days and has slept for about 1.5 hours in the car is meant to look like as they stare down the barrel of having to do it all again…but Craig looked like it. He looked broken.
His crew had let me know that they were going to pull the pin on the event, he simply couldn’t go on. But then Craig saw John, and saw that 3 x World Ironman Champion Craig Alexander had come down to join him for the swim…so he reluctantly agreed to do the swim (from memory his words were ‘Ah shit…how can I say ‘no’?’)
This photo was taken just after the swim, when Craig was getting a massage and having his battered feet attended to. John had basically come over to tell Craig that it was OK it he wanted to pull the pin, people would understand…but by the same token ‘the pain won’t last, but the memories will’. I honestly believe this was a turning point for the whole 8in8in8.
I love this shot because you can see the steely determination in John’s eyes, the full eye-contact with Craig, you can see that he was learning to walk again and had left his wheelchair behind to come and show Craig that anything is possible, there’s nothing staged or fake, it is just a moment of honesty.
Tragically Craig died from complications after knee surgery in December, if you’d like to learn more about him and possibly give a donation to help his family, please head to https://www.gofundme.com/helpcraigpercivalsfamily
So there you go…my top 16 photos for 2016. If I could draw any overarching themes they would be; I sure am a sucker for black and white, I take better photos when I’m travelling and putting myself out of my comfort zone, and thank god for kids who are still willing to have their photo taken.
On the 14th of December last year I purchased a brand new camera, on the 30th of December I took a photo of friend who was about to announce to the world his plan to do 8 Ironmans in 8 days in the eight States and Territories of Australia. His name was Craig Percival, and he was kind enough to have me film a documentary about his attempt to become the first person to ever complete what became known as the 8in8in8.
On the 14th of December this year I was staring at the at that same photo I had taken of Craig, but this time it was in a booklet that had been handed out at his funeral. At age 45 he died from a blood clot while recovering from an operation on his knee.
Amidst the tragedy and senselessness of his death, the photographer in me was actually really proud that his family had chosen a photo that I had taken to represent the person he was. I felt that in a very small way I had done something to help…and now I’m asking for you to do something to help. A page has been set up to help the family that Craig left behind, and I would love for you to put some money towards it. But I feel it’s only fair that I give you a little something in return…so in keeping with the theme of 8in8in8…here are 8 tips that I’ve learnt about taking portraits, and how they relate to the photo I took of Craig.
1. Us and them
I’m sure there are people out there whose public persona is actually a 100% reflection of the person they are. For the rest of us we are walking a constant dichotomous tightrope between the person we are, and the person we want people to think we are. We normally keep this bubbling away under the surface, but a portrait photo is a weird time when a single image is going to conspicuously identify who we are, and so as the photographer you have to decide which incarnation of the person you want to capture. If you capture the person they want to project, then you’ll probably miss the chance to capture something honest or slightly flawed…but then again, they’ll probably still want to talk to you after you publish the photos on social media. Alternatively, if you capture something a little more raw or candid, you will probably capture something that will get you a dozen likes on Instagram/Flickr/500px…but you’re probably not going to get that ‘Thanks so much for taking my photo’ email that were hoping for…or perhaps more importantly that ‘I’m going to recommend you to my friends’ email that you were hoping for.
So my simple answer, is shoot both. Start by getting a few traditional shots of them smiling in a traditional pose…then move on to a couple of shots where you can try to capture a break in the facade. Maybe give them prop, maybe move them into a space where they are really comfortable, but do what you can to try and capture an unguarded moment.
Craig actually has an easy smile…but he’s not someone who will flash a Hollywood smile on cue. So I made a few jokes and then as I delivered the punch-line on the last one, I snapped as soon as I saw him start to smile.
2. Everything is awesome
If you are taking photos of famous people or unashamed extroverts, then you’re probably not reading this blog. The rest of us are taking photos of people who really don’t want to be having their photo taken…they may want the end product…but they’d rather not go through the process of getting there. So if they’re feeling vulnerable and exposed, the last thing they need is you appearing out of your depth or annoyed.
They will blink just as you take the shot, you will stuff up your exposure or your composition…but they don’t need to know any of that. You just need to keep saying ‘That was great! I’m going to grab another one of those’ or ‘That was perfect. Let’s try something a little different’. If you fill the room with positivity and encouragement, you’re going to get a much better photo.
Shooting with a new camera I couldn’t for the life of me work out how to override the ‘preview’ mode on the EVF. In short, because I was shooting with a flash I had the shutter speed at about 1/160 which was really dark (but when I took the photo the flash would fire and the light the scene). The display on camera was showing me a preview of what the shot was going to look like but it couldn’t account for the flash, so I was basically looking at a black screen. Normally you just look through the optical viewfinder and see exactly what you can see with your naked-eye. But the Fuji X-T1 doesn’t have an optical viewfinder and so I was desperately hunting through menus trying fix the problem…all the while pretending that everything was going swimmingly. I eventually worked it out…and hopefully Craig was none the wiser.
My favourite thing when taking a portrait, is when you just capture a fleeting look or moment. You can’t ask someone to pose and give you that look…it’s just something that happened organically. That’s why I love using a flash for my portraits, it gives you the chance to freeze a moment. Now clearly, I’m not talking about the pop-up flash on your camera, I’m talking about some sort of off-camera flash…and ideally some sort of diffusion like an umbrella or soft-box. And yes I’m sure you can do the same thing with a quick enough shutter speed. But as someone who swore black and blue that I would never use a flash…I love using a flash in portraits, and I know that my best photos have been taken using one.
If you don’t have a flash (and realistically you’re looking at hundreds of dollars to get a flash, and triggers, and diffusers) then just hire one with some equipment for a weekend and have a go. It will only cost about $70 to hire a flash, stand, umbrella and triggers, and you’ll learn a hell of a lot. For bonus points, download the OneLight video from Zack Arias.
I picked up some second-hand strobes and gear for about $200, and the photo I took of Craig was the first time I’d used it.
4. Something to do
One of my favourite things to do while watching the news or current affairs is try to guess what direction was given to the person on camera for cutaway footage. For example ‘OK, just walk over to that book case and take out a book’ or ‘just walk past the camera and sit down at the chair’ or even ‘just walk towards the camera’. If you ask an actor to do this, they will nail it. If you ask a normal person to do it, they will look like a very unconvincing version of themselves doing something unconvincing. Why? Because they’re over-thinking it. If you could look inside their minds there would an inner-monologue yelling ‘OK left foot then right foot…No wait…right foot then…no, I was right the first time…left foot then left foot – OH GOD WE’VE FALLEN OVER!!!’
It’s the same with a portrait shot. Tell a person to ‘just look natural’ and they will spend the next five minutes trying to work out where their hands would be if they were being natural. So wherever possible, give them something to do, whether it’s looking down and then looking up to the camera, or rubbing their hands, or playing with a prop…just give them something that can briefly distract them from the fact that you’re taking a photo of them.
While shooting these photos of Craig I actually gave him a pull-bouy to throw up in the air and I took a couple of photos of that, which looked pretty cool and really got him thinking about something other than being photographed.
For me the pressure of taking a portrait shot, is nothing compared with the pressure of asking someone if you can take their portrait. To a large extent you are saying ‘If you give me your time/money, I’ll make you look good’. Which is a pretty big promise. But even in these days of selfies and endless photos on social media…people still rarely have a nice digital distillation of themselves. After all, selfies invariably end up looking everyone else’s (person at an arm’s length away from the camera looking at the screen instead of the camera)…and friends will quite happily post of photo where they look great, and you look like balls. So don’t be afraid to take the plunge and go and ask someone if you can take their photo. You’ve got a 100% better chance of taking a great photo if you do than if you don’t. Oh, and the people who say ‘no’ are probably hiding something 😉
With Craig, I didn’t ask him in advance as I figured if I’d said ‘Can you come around for a video shoot and then some photos?’ it would seem like too much of an undertaking. Instead I set up the soft-box in advance (if you look in the background of the shot where Craig walks towards the camera you can actually see the soft-box set up in the background), and then when we had finished the video I said ‘Would you mind if I just grab a couple of shots, so that you’ve got some photos for the website.’ Talking on a video is more stressful than standing and having your photo taken…so he probably figured he had already done the hard yards…and besides, what did he have to lose? If he didn’t like the photos, he just wouldn’t use them.
In the end he used that shot on pretty much all of his web and social media content.
6. Take inspiration
You have so many options at your disposal when it comes to taking a photo. There are endless combinations of shutter speed, aperture and ISO…and that’s before you’ve even started composing the shot, or getting someone to pose or choosing a lens. So don’t be afraid to find something that you like, and then try to emulate it. I’m not saying you should make a career out of ripping off other photographers, but when you’re starting out…or if you’re in a creative rut, don’t be afraid to experiment and try to work out how they get the shots that you like. A friend of mine (Eli Mrkusich) introduced me to the work of Alain Laboile and I had a great time trying to recreate it with my kids…albeit without the French countryside…or the incredible light he captures…or his endless creativity…or his…look, let’s just say we were not only not in the same ball-park, but not even really playing the same sport. But it was fun, and photography should be fun!
Friend, and fellow X-T1 enthusiast, Luke Vesty and I often have the same discussion where we have done a black and white execution of a shot and a colour execution…we feel that the black and white one is better, while our wives think the colour is better. We reassure each other that of course we’re right (and on top of that we’re brilliant photographers…and remarkably good husbands), but I do think that a lot of photographers have a weak-spot for black and white. It’s probably because growing up, the photos that had the biggest impact were black and white and so we are subconsciously trying to replicate them (it will be interesting to see if in 20 years time there are vast swathes of photographers with a weak-spot for the Instagram filter ‘Juno’). Whatever the reason, I love using black and white in portraits…and with a digital camera I don’t even have to be brave and commit to shooting on black and white film…I can just press ‘black and white’ in Lightroom! But going with black and white does also give you a lot of options in terms of pushing the contrast or colour balance without having to worry about someone’s skin tones suddenly looking like an Oompa-loompa.
I also think it adds a lot of gravity and sincerity to a shot. Seeing as I lack that in myself…I like to try to pretend I have it by putting it in my photos.
The photo of Craig actually worked really well in colour (as it was primarily a black t-shirt on a white background anyway)…but as this was the first time I’d used my new flash equipment I hadn’t learned how to angle the infra-red trigger away from the person in the shot…and so there was a horrible red cast over Craig and the wall behind him was a little bit pink. But you know what lets you hide amateur-hour mistakes you’ve made with colours? Black and white! So, black and white it was.
8. Change it up
There have been plenty of times when I’ve found a shot that I like, and then I’ve just fired off multiple versions of that shot. If I have half an hour with a person, I might take pretty much the same photo for 25 minutes, and then try something different for the last five minutes. Yet when I start working on the photos in post, it is invariably one of the photos where I’ve done something different that ends up being my favourite.
So by all means, take the shot that you’re comfortable with, but then change the lens, or shoot from up high, or from below the eyeline of the person, or change your orientation from portrait to landscape. Whatever it is, just think differently and make a change. You may not get a better photo, but you will learn, and you will keep your subject engaged and active.
With Craig I did dance a little between a 35mm and a 56mm lens…and I reckon while the landscape version of his head and shoulders shot was the winner for the day…this portrait 3/4 shot could have been…if I’d only paid a bit more attention to not cropping out half of his hand!
Over the course of the 8in8in8 I got to spend some time with Lindell, Sam & Sienna and I know the hole that will be left in their lives by Craig’s death. While we can never replace their loss, we can always do our bit to help out.