Top photos of 2016

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

Blinded by the light
Blinded by the light

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

Alain Laboile comes to Preston
Alain Laboile comes to Preston

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

A boat at Shallow Inlet on low tide
A boat at Shallow Inlet on low 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

Cousin Nick
Cousin Nick

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

Yurts and space
Yurts and space

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

Shaz and Lofty
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

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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

Autumn raindrops
Autumn raindrops

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

On the beach in Queensland
On the beach in Queensland

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

Hervey Bay
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

Family photo among the Kauri Pines at Paronella Park
Family photo among the Kauri Pines at Paronella Park

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

Black and White beauty
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

Uncle Jack Charles
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

The Spotted Mallard
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

BMX at Fed Square
BMX at Fed Square

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

'The pain won't last..'
‘The pain won’t last..’

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.

Now onwards to 2017!

8 portrait tips…and a request.

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.

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The photo of Craig Percival

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.

Man in a hat.
Man in a hat.

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.

nick-portrait-65
Man with bananas

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.

georgia-1
Photographer, Georgia Haynes
Of all the photos, I think this one carries the most weight.
The first person I ever asked to pose for a portrait, Luke at the Cobbler’s Last.

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.

3. Flash

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.

hull_brown-boys_web-40

Sir James,
Sir James,

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.

nick-portrait-55 softbox-13

Dad Portrait-33

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.

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5. Ask

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 😉

photo-course-1
Photographer, Eddie Jim

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!

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With the photo of Craig I think I was trying to be somewhere between David Hobby and Zack Arias.

7. B&W

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.

Boy on train
Boy on train

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.

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Uncle Jack Charles
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A Daylesford woodland nymph
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Motorsport photographer Joel Strickland
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Some random beautiful woman in Queensland

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!

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So there you have it, 8 tips on taking better portraits. If you’ve learnt anything from this post…or if you’re just a decent human being…then please donate to the GoFundMe page.  https://www.gofundme.com/helpcraigpercivalsfamily

percivals-5 percivals-4 percivals-2

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.

Thanks,

Chris.

So tell me about this shot…

At the end of last year I signed up for The Age’s ‘Clique’ photo competition. Basically each month they provide you with a theme and you have to submit a photo on that theme. I was relatively happy with my submissions for the first two themes (‘water’ and ‘building’), but I was really happy with my one for ‘shine a light on what matters to you’. Today I found out that it was a finalist in the competition, and while I didn’t win or get a highly commended it was awesome to have my shot rated so highly by the judges. A really good picture tells a story…but sometimes the story behind taking the picture can be just as interesting.

The Idea

Now the idea was to take a photo of something that mattered to you. Which is pretty much code for ‘take a picture of something that will make you look better by showing you care about it’, so I figured there would be a lot of photos about the environment and about poverty. While these things definitely matter to me…I wanted to do something that was a little more positive.
Seeing as I spend pretty much all of the time that I’m not working, sleeping or being a parent, training for the Ironman, I decided to take a photo of something to do with that. I’ve seen footage of me running, and that certainly isn’t an image I want to capture or share with other people…and taking a photo of myself swimming was probably going to result in the loss of my camera, so I settled on a photo of me on the bike trainer.

The challenges

I wanted to take a photo with a slightly longish exposure so that there would be an impression of movement through my legs being a blur as they pedaled, and seeing as we don’t have any lights in the shed where I train I figured that a long exposure would also allow a lot more light in. So my plan was to set up the shot by getting Josh to sit on the bike so that I could get it framed and focused, then shoot the photo with 10 second timer so that I had time to run over to the bike and start pedaling. But when I got everything set up in ‘Manual’ mode on the camera it would only allow me to set a 2 second timer, which was not nearly enough time for me to get onto the bike.

So I could either use a different mode on the camera and let it do the work…or I would need a camera assistant. Seeing as my main reason for joining ‘Clique’ was to get better at using the manual settings on the camera, I opted for getting a camera assistant to press the button to take the shot. Regrettably the only camera assistants available were a 12 year old Beagle/Labrador and an 8 year old boy. I went with the 8 year old boy (and anyone who uses this quote out of context against me is a terrible person!) Now 8 year old boys have many redeeming features, however sitting next to a camera, waiting for their Dad to scamper over to a bike and say ‘now’, pressing a button, waiting for Dad to unclip from his pedals and scamper back to the camera to review the shot and then say ‘that was good but I need you to do it again’ and then repeating this 15 times when they would much rather just play on the monkey bars is not one of them. Pressing a button on the camera without also moving the camera is also not really in their repertoire…and neither is staying really still while the camera is taking the long exposure.

On the bright side, being brutally honest about whether you should have a top on for the photo is a real strong point. The reality of using these bike trainers is that you do a whole lot of exercise without any real air flow, so you sweat a hell of a lot…so I normally do these sessions just wearing my cycling knicks. But with the innocence that has broken the heart of many a parent Josh inquired ‘Dad, are people going to see this photo?’ ‘I hope so’ I replied…and after a few seconds consideration ‘Well they probably won’t want to see you without your top on’ was his considered conclusion. So ‘capturing the moment honestly’ went out the window and the cycling jersey went on.

After about 10 attempts the shot still wasn’t working. If I pedaled at a normal pace, then my legs were moving so fast that my legs disappeared with the long exposure. And the shot looked really flat. So I shortened the exposure, put my phone with the torch on at the bottom of the trainer and put my laptop in front of me so that there would be a bit of light on my face. After another couple of shots I had worked out that if I pedaled really slowly, then I got the effect of the blurred legs I was after. Unfortunately, my camera assistant worked out that he really didn’t want to do this anymore and so he headed off to do something else. To add some further excitement we were about 10 minutes away from when it was time to put the kids to bed.

There was every chance that the entire night was going to be a waste of time, so I dragged Katie away from the kitchen and asked her to take the shot. Her first shot was almost perfect, so I excitedly made a few minor tweaks and saddled up for the winning shot…only to have my phone run out of batteries and lose the light at the base of the trainer. So Katie grabbed her phone and we went to try again…then the laptop ran out of batteries. So I raced it inside and charged it for a few minutes. Then with children who should be in bed revelling in the anarchy of not being in bed, with a laptop with about 5% charge and a phone with even less, and with any chance of actually doing a training session on the bike completely eviscerated, I saddled up for one last shot…and it worked!

The result

Selfish portrait

and if you want to see the photos that won the competition…head here

Night time photography

One of the things that I love about photography is that there is always something new to try (and of course new gear to wish you had). I have recently been trying a bit of long exposure night-time photography, and figured seeing as I have done it twice, I’m clearly now an expert and it’s high time I started dishing out advice.
I was originally going to do a bit of an explanation of what long exposure photography is and how you do it…but then I realised that all you have to do is type ‘long exposure photography’ into Google and you can find any number of people (hah, who am I kidding? You can find any number of men) telling you how to do it. So instead, I’m going to tell you a few of things I’ve learnt after my first couple of forays into the field.

ISO 400, 17mm, f5.6 30 second exposure
ISO 400, 17mm, f5.6 30 second exposure

What do you need?

Camera – Clearly you need a camera that will allow you to keep the shutter open for an extended period (most DSLRs will let you go for 30 seconds).
A tripod – no matter how steady you think your hand is…taking a photo for 30 seconds without using something to keep the camera steady will lead to an image that looks a little like the last thing you saw before you passed out having consumed ‘snake blood’ on that trip to Vietnam.
A torch – Ideally you will be shooting somewhere that is has almost no light pollution (ie light coming for streetlights, or houses etc), which is great for your images. But it’s not so good for setting your focus or changing settings on your camera…or working out where the hell you put the lens cap.
A torch can also be really helpful if you are trying to frame a shot and can’t see anything through the viewfinder. You can shine a torch to get an idea of where your frame starts and stops.

30 seconds can be a long time

This is particularly true if you are standing alone in a field in absolute darkness, and all you can hear is the heavy breathing of cows and their occasional footsteps. It is incredibly unnerving and you will regret watching any horror movie you have ever watched.
However you will not leave, because the 30 seconds it takes for the camera to take the shot is like a distilled version of Christmas Eve when you were a kid, or that time you spent shaking a Polaroid picture back in the 80’s…for that 30 seconds, the photo you are taking could be an award winner, it could be one of the greatest photos anyone has ever taken, it could be AMAZING!!!
Then the photo appears on the screen on the back of your camera and you realise that you must have moved, or that thing you thought was in the shot actually isn’t, or that you have got the ISO/apperture/shutter speed wrong. And so you reset the camera…and spend another 30 seconds living in hope!

ISO 6400, 17mm, f2.8, 30 second

That photo looks amazing!…on that tiny little screen on your camera.

Unfortunately, while the shot may look fantastic on the screen on your camera…by the time you look at it on your computer screen, you’re going to see a lot of ‘noise’ (this is a photography term for anything in a photo that makes you walk away from your computer and swear). But don’t worry. You can remove a lot of the noise in programs like LightRoom, and if you managed to get a great shot without any noise or movement on your first couple of tries, everyone else would hate you.

ISO 6400, 17mm, f2.8 30 seconds
ISO 6400, 17mm, f2.8 30 seconds

Plan your shots…if you can

While I was driving around Sandy Point during the day, I saw a couple of things that I thought would be really good to have in a photo. So I identified a couple of landmarks that I would be able to use when I was driving at night, with zero visibility other than what was in my headlights. It worked a treat.Having said that, my whole reason for heading out that night was to get some photos of the big wind turbines down there. This would struggle to have gone any worse. In my mind, the spinning blades would create an amazing effect with the long exposure and I would be hailed as a genius. In reality, the blades were spinning so fast that after a 30 second exposure they were invisible…and so I had a brilliant photo of a pole. Needless to say, the job offers haven’t been rolling in.
But on the way back from the wind turbines, I spotted this little shack and pulled over to take the photo. There was a service station across the road about 200m away, and while it was closed there were a few lights on which gave just enough illumination for me to get this shot.

ISO 6400, 17mm, f2.8, 30 Seconds
ISO 6400, 17mm, f2.8, 30 Seconds

Bring a friend

You are going to be doing a lot of standing around in the cold, trying to be very still for 30 seconds and then swearing under your breath…why not share this experience with a friend/fellow photographer (ideally someone who is both). They will probably have different gear to you, so you get to see how it works (and if you should buy it), they will probably have different ideas and approaches (which you can steal and claim as your own), and standing out in a field under an enormous canvas of stars is a pretty amazing experience…but it’s much more fun to be able to share that experience with someone.
Most importantly, if you are stuck out in the middle of nowhere in a field of cows and there is a psycho killer waiting in the darkness…you don’t have to be faster than the killer…you just need to be fast than your friend.

ISO 400, 28mm, f11 & 30 second exposure
ISO 400, 28mm, f11 & 30 second exposure

If you’ve go any tips or tricks I would love hear them…and if you’ve got any questions about any of the photos in this post, I’m more than happy to answer them.

2 Degrees of Melbourne – Episode 2 : Mick Thomas

Given the number of times I’ve looked up on a stage and seen Mick Thomas singing or telling a story…it was a tad surreal to see him standing in my kitchen chatting about the real life person that Dickens’ ‘Fagin’ was based upon. But when you bite the bullet and decide to put some energy into being creative for a year…these sorts of things start to happen.

A bit of background

For those who don’t know, Mick Thomas is a Melbourne based singer songwriter. He is probably best known for his work with ‘Wedding’s, Parties Anything’, but has also released numerous albums as both a solo performer and with ‘Mick Thomas and the sure thing’…and has written soundtracks and theater productions.
While I had always been vaguely aware of ‘Weddings, Parties, Anything’ (it’s a memorable band name…and their constant touring meant I saw a lot of their posters around) it wasn’t until a friend of mine (Dave Walsh) brought a song of theirs in to play on my student radio show. The song was ‘A tale they won’t believe’ and basically tells the true story of a group of convicts escaping from a prison on Tasmania, and eventually resorting to cannibalism. As far as songs about cannibalism go, it was pretty awesome.
I bought a couple of albums and was hooked. Having been raised on a pretty strong diet of Irish folk music and occasional ‘Bushwackers’ dances…I recognised the sound and the energy of the music…but suddenly it had lyrics about Australian history, or the trials of being in a relationship and working different hours, or being mistaken for Jack Jones. Most importantly a lot of the songs were about life in Melbourne.
So when I came up with the idea of doing short videos on people who I thought were an integral part of Melbourne…Mick Thomas was one of my ‘must haves’.
Flushed with the success of the Andy White video (over 2,500 views on Vimeo!), I just decided to try my luck and simply sent Mick an email via his website explaining what I was looking to do…and in a rare display of poor judgement…he agreed to take part!

Preparing for the interview

I love listening to interviews by Mark Colvin and Jesse Thorn…if for no other reason, than that wonderful moment you can almost hear the guest think ‘Oh wow…this guy has really done his research’. There is a near-tangible change in the way the interviewee responds to the questions, because they realise that they aren’t going to be asked the same questions they’ve been asked before, by someone who is contractually obliged to talk to them….they are talking to someone who has put in some effort, has some great questions and the mental agility to respond to anything they say.
Clearly I wasn’t looking to achieve these lofty standards…but I wanted to be closer to them, than to Richard Wilkins on the red carpet asking ‘So who are you wearing?’
So I did as much internet research as I could…which proved to be a good idea, because one my questions was going to be about the brilliant lyrics in one song he sings…which research revealed to be a cover he does. Nothing makes a songwriter happier than having someone praise a song they sing that they didn’t write.

The interview

One thing I’ve learnt over the course of the two interviews is that when you’re by yourself and filming on one main camera, and filming on a second camera (my phone), and monitoring audio, and asking the questions, and actively listening to the responses and framing your next question, and doing your best to make sure your interviewee is comfortable…you tend to get to the end of the interview and think ‘Well that seemed to go well…but I’ve got no idea if it’s going to work as a five minute video?’
But I think it does…and so here is Mick Thomas

2 Degrees of Melbourne – Mick Thomas from 2 Degrees of Separation on Vimeo.

In conclusion

The music I wrote for Andy’s video just didn’t work with Mick’s…so I had to write something else (and by ‘write’ I clearly mean ‘stick together a series of samples in Garageband’). But I’m really glad I did. I also had to call an end to the interview a little earlier than I would have liked because the the camera was starting to overheat…and I ran out of memory on the card (shooting at 50fps is all well and good to get nice slow motion…but it chews through the memory!)…and editing in 1.5 hour blocks between putting the kids to bed and going to bed myself was less than ideal.
But I can live with all of these little issues, the one thing I’m still annoyed with myself about is that with Mick standing right there in my kitchen I didn’t have the guts to tell him that I think that he is one of the best singer/songwriters that Australia has ever produced…and certainly my favourite. And that Melbourne is so lucky to have someone to immortalise it in song. So I’ll just write it here instead, and pretend that this somehow makes up for it.
But if you’d like to make up for my inadequacy, then I heartily suggest that you all ‘do yourself a favour’ and go out and buy a ‘Weddings, Parties Anything’ album or a ‘Mick Thomas and the Sure Thing’ album, or head to Tassie and check out ‘Vandemonian Lags‘…or just visit Mick’s site and see when he’s performing next.
You won’t regret it.

My night at the roller derby

On Saturday night I headed to my first ever roller derby bout, armed with a media pass from The Victorian Roller Derby League and got some of the best photos I’ve ever taken. So I thought I’d spend this blog talking about some of the things that worked…and of course a few of the things that didn’t.

Get good talent
I’m a great believer that you can take a great photo of anyone, it’s just that some people need a little more coaxing and effort before you can get a good shot. Of course the flipside to this is that some people are just naturally outgoing, naturally engaging and generally up for anything…a number of these people play Roller Derby.
I was pretty keen on getting some shots that actually reflected their personalities, so I literally just gave them the chalkboard prop, told them to write their name and then just let them do whatever they wanted. Sometimes this sort of lack of direction drives people back into their shell ‘But what do you want me to do?’…I was blown away at how quickly the players adopted a range of poses I would never have thought to have asked them to strike.

G-Banger

Skate Bush

6ft Hussy

Have a plan
I knew that I wanted to have a consistent background for the photos, but not knowing what the venue was like I didn’t want to be reliant on finding something that would work. So I decided I would use a big roll of white paper I had used a couple of times as a background. I also knew that the players all had awesome roller derby names (‘Pony Slaystation’, ‘Mon U Mental’, ‘Calamity Maim’ etc) so I thought it would be cool to have them write their name on a small blackboard and then have them hold it so that the photo was somewhere between a mugshot and a school photo. The final part of my plan was to shoot a wide shot and a close up and convert them all to black and white.
I think that going in with a vision was great as there are basically hundreds of ways I could have shot them, but when you only have a person for a minute or two, you need to know exactly what you are after. To once again quote General George S Patton ‘A good plan executed violently now is better than a perfect plan executed next week’.
Of course you also need some leeway, and when I started working on the shots in Lightroom I realised that a lot of them looked a lot better in colour.

Scarlett O'Hurta

Alice in Chains

Alex in Chains

 

Take a risk
A couple of years ago Veeral Patel quit his comfortable IT job and decided to go and photograph the Tour de France. It was a massive risk and I really admired his dedication. Since then he has won awards and his photography has gone from strength to strength. Clearly going to take photos of roller derby players isn’t in the same league as throwing in your job to follow your dream, but this was the first time I had decided to call myself a photographer and put all the focus on just my photos (rather than having them as an incidental part of a video).
The risk certainly wasn’t huge. If the photos had been appalling, there probably would have been a few people who were annoyed that I had wasted their time, and the person who helped organise everything (Monica Campo) would probably have been annoyed that she’d wasted her efforts.
But it was still a big step up on the previous level of risk, which was ‘Nan doesn’t like the photos’.

You can see all of the photos here

But what didn’t work?

Action shots
Without a flash it was always going to be difficult getting good action shots at the speeds they were travelling. This was one of the best action shots I got, and that’s just because someone else’s flash went off just as I took the photo.

Also, not knowing anything about the sport meant that I was always just off with my timing or I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. I tried to make up for this by taking a number of photos of things that weren’t moving. But this lead to my second problem.

Batteries
I had no idea when I would get access to the players, so I just headed around taking photos of the games and the audience…for 4 hours. So suddenly after the second game when a whole lot of players came over to have their photo taken, the battery light on the camera was flashing furiously. Which meant I rushed the photos of the last few players, which meant I didn’t get the shots I was after.

Dead Ringer Rosies

Bicepsual

Refs

The viewfinder
I know this is going to make any real photographers reading this throw their hands up in the air, but I find the LCD screen on the back of the camera a lot better to use than the actual viewfinder. But the LCD screen also chews through the batteries a lot quicker. So when I switched to just using the viewfinder for the last couple of shots to preserve the batteries…I ended up with shots that were at best ‘soft’ and at worst, out of focus.

But ultimately if you can come away from an experience like this with some photos that you are really happy with and a few lessons learnt…then you can chalk it up as a success!
So a big thanks to my Dad for coming along and being my camera assistant. An even bigger thanks to Monica for giving me the opportunity. And my biggest thanks to the players from the Dolls of Hazzard, the Toxic Avengers, the Rock Mobsters and my team the Dead Ringer Rosies for taking the time, and being so damned photogenic on and off the track.
The VRDL Grand final is coming up on Nov. 24, I suggest you be there!

Dead Ringer Rosies

Shooting portraits

My favourite photography to look at and to take is portrait photography. I love the idea of trying to tell a story, or capture an emotion in a single frame. I recently took a whole lot of portrait shots at a family get together, and I was really happy with some of them. So ‘I’m No Expert, But’ here are my tips for shooting portraits.

1. Light
If you have a studio and lights then you are probably reading this post on an ironic level…so I’ll just provide advice for the rest of us.
Use whatever natural light you have available. So if there is a window in the room, make sure the subject is facing towards it (and obviously avoid placing the person in front of the window, as all the backlight will make their face comparatively dark).

2. Shallow depth of field
A shallow depth of field basically means that one part of your shot is very clear, while the rest is blurred. To me this allows you to make the persons face the focus of the shot…everything else is just background. The lower the f-stop you use, the smaller the area that is in focus. My lens can go to 2.8 so that is what I use. Some lenses can get down to 1.4, some can’t get lower than 3.5.
The challenge with using a shallow depth of field is that while it means that you have one area beautifully in focus…you need to make sure that it is the area that you want. I have a dazzling array of photos where the person’s hair is in focus…or their ear. When in fact what you want to capture is…

3. The eyes
This is where the connection is for me. The mouth can be smiling…but the eyes will always tell the real story…so make them the focal point of the shot.
If you can, try to get some ‘light in the eyes’. If people are looking towards the light you will see a reflection of this light in their eyes, which adds an incredible sincerity to the shot.
Steve McCurry is a great exponent of this.

4. Camera settings
If you have the time and ability, then by all means set your f-stop, aperture and everything else manually.
Personally, I use the ‘CA’ (Creative Auto) setting on my Canon. Then use the following:
Flash: Turned off
Background: Blurred as possible (this is the shallow depth of field I was talking about)
Exposure: Leave as is unless it is really dark or sunny…and even then, just move somewhere else
Picture setting: Monochrome (I really like my portraits in black and white). But only do this if you can work with RAW files on your computer.
File type: RAW+L This will give you a RAW file (in full colour) and a JPG in black and white (if you’re in the monochrome setting). A lot of people will tell you to shoot full colour and then desaturate the image to make it black and white. But I personally like to see the image in black and white as I shoot it…and if I suddenly need a colour version, then I can just save the RAW file as a colour jpg.
Shooting: Continuous (people’s expressions change in the blink of an eye…so it’s worth shooting a whole lot of shots, to get that one moment where you have captured something special).

5. Put yourself in their shoes
Imagine you are sitting in front of a camera, unless you are an extreme extrovert, you are going to be feeling a bit nervous…the photographer takes the photo, then says ‘No, that didn’t work’ or ‘We’re going to have to do that again’. How do you feel? I’m going to guess ‘not so great’. As the photographer you may have meant ‘I didn’t quite get that right’, or ‘I’ve got to change my settings’…but the damage has been done. You are now very unlikely to get a great shot of this person because that are going to be feeling awkward or self-conscious.
So always put yourself in the shoes of the person you are taking the photo of…if you wouldn’t like someone doing something to you, chances are they won’t like you doing it to them. And from a purely selfish perspective, you are going to get a much better photo of someone who is happy to be there and having fun.

I also think it’s worth making sure you get at least one photo that the person having their photo taken will actually want. Yes that photo of them in the middle of yawn ‘totally captured their inner child’ and yes that photo where pretty much everything is out of focus except for their left nostril is a fitting tribute to ‘the look you were going for there’. But you’re going to run out of people who are happy to let you take their photo pretty quickly if nobody likes how you’ve made them look.
So find some work that inspires you (I love cycling so Kristof Ramon , Veeral Patel, and Wade Wallace are a few of my faves) and get out there and try to capture some magic…then upload that magic to the internet…then wait for people to tell you that ‘you’re doing it wrong’.