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!
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.
At the start of this year I made the decision to cut-back my work at DHHS to four days a week so that I could spend one day a week focusing on my creative endeavors and my video and photography business. After nearly pulling the pin on it in July…I’m sticking with taking the Wednesdays off for at least the rest of the year, here are a few things I’ve learnt.
There has been roughly a 500% increase in the number of mid-week roast dinners. KPI’s around the cleanliness of the kitchen, and laundry that needs to be done have been smashed, and being able to do a mid-week market shop makes meal planning a lot easier.
It has also been fantastic spending more time with Xavier as he watches me clean the kitchen, hang out clothes and do the market shop. It’s both every 40yo man’s and every 5yo boy’s dream!
I have been able to work on three projects that I otherwise wouldn’t have been able to.
I won’t lie, there is something intrinsically wonderful about only working in 2 day stints. It means that every day is either a Monday or Friday…unless it’s a Wednesday, in which case, it’s a weekend!!!
While my domestic duties KPI’s may be being smashed…the scoreboard for creative endeavors is less impressive:
Number of blog posts written = 0
Number of portraits done = 0
Number of podcasts recorded = 0
As for the business, while it has been awesome to be able to do the few photo jobs and one video job…thus far they have paid about 20% of the money I would have made if I had just worked the Wednesdays at my normal job.
On the positive side to this I currently have outstanding invoices (from jobs I have done on my weekends) that will take me to well over 50% of what I would have earned at my normal job…but an unpaid invoice, while providing some level of comfort, is of absolutely no use when you need to pay for petty little things like food. In fact, on the day before my last payday by my 4-day week employer, the money I had in the bank was 0.03% of what I had in outstanding invoices. They’re the sorts of numbers that would make an accountant or financial planner weep. *On this, I do have a few clients who pay me the day after I invoice them, and I love those people from the bottom of my heart. But the rest of them…WTF?! You have your videos…pay your invoices!!!*
On top of that, running the business as an actual business means you have to do boring things like pay for business insurance. But as I’ve discovered, this is not in fact boring, as you get to enter a bizarro world where people come up with elaborate reasons as to why they can’t take your money.
I decided to get in contact with the insurance company that looks after our home insurance as I thought I might be able to swing a discount (I won’t say the company’s name…but let’s just say you’re “lucky” to be with them…and their name sounds the same as a girls name…and it’s AAMI…shit, this discretion thing is hard!) Here is how the conversation went:
AAMI: AAMI business insurance how can I help?
Me: I’d like to insure my business so that if any of my gear gets stolen then it’s covered. I’ve got my home and contents insurance with you, but I understand that if I’m using my gear for any sort of business then it’s not covered.
AAMI: That’s correct. What sort of work do you do.
Me: and video.
AAMI: Oh…do you do any directing with your video?
Me: Well I have to tell people where to sit or stand, and sometimes I have to get them to do things like walk into a room or do whatever it is that the video is about.
AAMI: Well I’m afraid we can’t cover you.
AAMI: I’m sorry but if you do any directing then we can’t cover you.
Me: But I tell people what to do with the photography as well, is that a problem?
AAMI: No…but we can’t cover you if you do it for video.
Me: But that’s insane…I mean-
AAMI: I’m sorry but that is our policy.
Me: It’s just that-
AAMI: but we do have a subsidiary company that will cover you, would you like me to put you through to them?
CGU: Hello, how can I help?
Me: I’d like to get some business insurance?
CGU: Is there a reason you’re calling about this?
Me: I’d like to get insurance to cover my equipment.
CGU: But nothing’s happened that makes you want to have to do it suddenly?
Me: No…I just…I called AAMI and they put me through to you.
CGU: What sort of business do you do?
Me: Photography and video
CGU: OK, I’ll put you through to a consultant.
CGU: Hello, how can I help?
Me: I want to insure my photography and video business.
CGU: Do you do any directing with the video?
Me: Yes, but..
CGU: Well I’m afraid we can’t cover you.
Me: But I was put through to you by AAMI because you could cover me. Besides the only direction I do is filming what people do in their day-to-day lives…there’s nothing dangerous.
CGU: Sorry, but we don’t cover that.
Me: This sounds insane…
CGU: I’ll just check with my supervisor.
CGU: Yep, we can’t cover you. I mean if your client asked you to hang off a cliff or jump out of a plane, then you would have to.
Me: What?! No I wouldn’t.
CGU: Well, you would.
CGU: I can give you the name of an insurance broker who might be able to help.
Honest to God…it was like being a 5 year old and being yelled at by a parent/teacher for doing something your friend told you to do and being asked ‘If Marcus told you to jump off a cliff, would you?!’…except in this case the assumption seems to be that an additional 35 years of life experience has lead me to a place where the assumption is that I would in fact jump off the cliff!
If this were a world where money wasn’t a concern…then the decision to go to 4 days was a masterstroke. But unfortunately, we are not. So the questions become, ‘What is the value of all the non-financial benefits that taking the day off-brings?’, and ‘Is it enough to balance everything out?’ At this stage I would say that it’s a line-ball decision, but probably sustainable…so long as we don’t get offered free accommodation in France and start planning a family jaunt to Europe…I mean, that’d be pretty stupid.
One of my favourite photographers, Zack Arias, was discussing a philosophy for whether to take a job. The philosophy wasn’t one that he came up with, but it’s one that he likes.
There are three values; Good money, good people and good work…every job has to hit two of these values before it’s worth doing. The last two months have seen a really big increase in the amount of work I’m doing through my own business, and so suddenly I’ve had to look at my philosophy for doing work, if I can’t do it all, I need to know what to say ‘yes’ to and what to say ‘no’ to.
About a month ago I was approached to do a job with a family friend, Don Palmer. The job was not as a photographer or editor or anything that I was working towards…but more as a location scout and general gopher for the shoot. We were going to be shooting for his organisation Malpa, there was a DOP (cameraman) on the job called Mark Tipple and the talent for the job would be Uncle Jack Charles. The money would be exactly $0.
So I put the philosophy into action:
Good money – Negative…but then again they may simply be getting what they pay for.
Good people – I’ve know Don for nearly 20 years…and Katie has known him her whole life. He’s just a thoroughly decent person who I would happily donate my time to whenever he asks. The DOP (Mark Tipple) is insanely good with both stills and video, and Uncle Jack Charles is well…Uncle Jack Charles.
Good work – The video we were shooting was for indigenous kids who had been chosen to be taught traditional and western medical practices that they could take back to their communities. Which is a pretty amazing cause.
I haven’t worked on a video shoot where people who actually know what they’re doing are in charge for a long time…and I haven’t worked with an actual actor for even longer. Plus, if I bring along my camera there is every chance I’ll be able to get a few photos in between takes.
So no money, but brilliant people and amazing work…I said ‘yes’ to the job.
Heart vs wallet
Working in a creative field is always a bit weird when it comes to getting paid. I can’t imagine many people would say to their electrician ‘I’ve got this great idea for a house…but I haven’t got any money for it…could you do the electrical work for me, and then everyone will see how great you are as an electrician and so you will get lots of work from referrals?’ But if you do something creative people tend to think that seeing as you’re enjoying yourself, then you probably don’t really need to get paid. After all, they hate their job…that’s why they get paid.
At the same time, a lot of really great projects will simply never get off the ground unless people chip in to help out. So where do you draw the line? If you only go where the money is you will be creatively suffocated…if you only go where the lovely ideas are…you will be out of business within 6-months.
I’m sure you’ve seen this…but it applies nicely to photography and video work as well
So with the beauty of hindsight, did I make the right call?
I got to watch a really good DOP in action which was a bit like getting a two hour masterclass for free.
I got to watch a world class actor in action. Speaking as someone who spends most of his time filming either politicians or people who are not used to being in front of a camera. It was a revelation to watch someone who can nail a script time and time again, who can read with the pacing, inflection and timing that makes you feel as though they are speaking to you, rather than reading someone else’s words, and who brought so much energy to what he was doing.
I got to introduce Josh to the world of being on a film-set. There is a weird alchemy that occurs on a film set when the cast and crew are happily working towards the same goal, and Josh got to live that first hand…and meet Uncle Jack Charles who had seen in ‘Pan‘ just the week before.
I got to take advantage of someone else’s lighting set up and take photos of someone as engaging and enigmatic as Uncle Jack Charles.
I missed swim squad…and suffered like a dog the next week.
The Gillian Welch song ‘Everything is Free‘ (a song about artists giving away their work because “we’re gonna do it anyway, even if it doesn’t pay”) rebounds in my head every time I’m asked to do a job for nothing. But I would hate to become the sort of person who passes up the opportunity to work on an amazing project like this…and with people like Don, Mark and Uncle Jack.
Some experiences are priceless.
There’s a great moment in an episode of the Simpsons where Groundskeeper Willie solemnly whispers to his tractor ‘Were it not a violation of God’s law, I’d make you my wife’. Such is his love for this inanimate object.
Without wanting to scare you too much…I’m starting to feel the same way about my Fuji 35mm f1.4 lens.
But why?! I hear absolutely none of you ask. Well here are a few of my reasons.
I am quietly confident that whoever designed the X-T1 was doing it with the 35mm lens in mind. It just looks like it’s meant to be there. Whenever I have another lens on the body, it looks like exactly that, a lens on a body. But with the 35mm it just looks like a perfectly balanced camera.
It’s also wonderfully unobtrusive. If you want to swan around announcing to the world that you’re a photographer and quite a big-deal, then a 5D with a 70-200mm does a wonderful job. But if you want to just blend in with your surroundings and keep people at ease, the 35mm is sublime.
It also lets me live out the fantasy that I’m James Nachtwey or some other old-school photo journalist, trying to take that critical once in a lifetime shot, with only a few frames of film left on the roll…when in fact I’m just another Dad taking a photo of his son riding a BMX down some stairs, and if any of the 38 photos I took didn’t work…I’ll just make him do it again.
Want to shoot some portraits? The 35mm will knock them out of the park.
Want to shoot some landscapes? Again the 35mm will do the job.
Want to take a photo of your wife and son running on a giant hamster wheel at night time? Ok…that seems a bit left of centre…but sure!
If you are after a travel lens, it is the one lens that I would take with me anywhere. If there’s such a thing as a ‘desert island lens’, this is it for me.
But what about the 35mm f2 with weather sealing?
Good question. If Fuji would like to send me one I’m happy to run a comparison…but until then, I’m happy as a clam with my f1.4. As Zack Arias says ‘There’s a little bit of magic in this lens!’
If you’re looking to make the move to Fuji, then this lens should be on your list of initial purchases. If you’re already a Fuji shooter and you have this lens, set yourself a challenge of shooting on it all day (you won’t be disappointed), and if you’re a Fuji shooter who doesn’t own this lens…well you need to take a long hard look at yourself…ideally through the glass of a 35mm f1.4 lens…that you’ve just purchased.
If I were to break down my photographic journey, I would say that it has so far consisted of three phases: Phase 1: I knew nothing, and was happy to admit it. I spent about a year happily asking the dumb questions as I felt this was my right as a newbie. Phase 2: I didn’t know much, but felt obliged to hide it. I had taken some photos that people liked, had started using Lightroom and suddenly people were asking me questions about how I did things. I was still floundering with my camera, but had become quite adept at hiding that by using presets in Lightroom. But I couldn’t admit that, so I started acting like I knew a lot more than I did and as a result had to stop asking the questions that got me to where I was, and start learning via YouTube, web tutorials and podcasts. Phase 3: Realised I did know some things, and wanted to share them with other people. I had always had the fear that if I taught somebody my tricks, and showed them my Lightroom presets, then suddenly I would become redundant. Whatever work I had would be snaffled up by the people I had just given my secrets to, and the game would be up. But I eventually came to see that there are quite literally millions of people who know a lot more about photography than me…not many of them are either willing or able to teach this to other people. I’ve spent the last couple of year’s giving workshops on how to shoot and edit videos and they have always been well received…so why not do the same with photography.
And so, I decided to run my first ever photography workshop. Here’s what I learnt.
I’m not a teacher…so I won’t pretend to be one.
There is a great episode of the Simpson’s where Homer gets a job teaching at a local Adult Education Centre and announces to his family ‘Look now that I’m a teacher…I’ve sewn patches on my elbows’ and shows his leather jacket now has tweed patches on the elbows. Marge says ‘Homer, it’s meant to be leather patches on a tweed jacket. You’ve just ruined a perfectly good jacket!’ To which Homer holds up a tweed jacket with two patches cut out of it and says ‘Incorrect Marge. Two perfectly good jackets.’
In other words, in his desperation to become what he thought a teacher was…he was already failing.
So I was pretty determined to just be myself for the workshop. After all, it’s hard enough trying to pretend that you know everything about photography, without trying to pretend that you’re someone else at the same time.
So I basically sat the participants around our dining table and spoke to them as if I was chatting to a friend who had asked about photography. I had a rough outline of what I wanted to cover, but if we disappeared down a rabbit hole for 10 minutes while answering someone’s question…then that was fine.
Do unto others
I’ve done a few photo workshops and my strongest memory is spending at least 70% of the time listening to people either talk about themselves or about how the camera works. I spent precious little time actually using the camera. In fact, one of the guys actually doing the workshop said that he did a half day course when he got the camera, and the only practical thing they did was turn the camera on and off. So I was determined to make my workshop as ‘hands-on’ and practical as possible. When we spoke about ISO, we would take a shot at ISO200 and then without changing anything else, shoot the same shot at ISO1,000 to see the difference. Same with shutter speed, and the same with aperture. Then we would lock one them in and use the other two to get the shot we were after.
For the last hour I roped…OK, paid…my two eldest kids into coming over the (closed on Sundays) Preston Market to act as models while the people in the group took photos.
Admittedly, this is simply the way that I like to learn…but it seemed to go really well.
‘Everything is free now…’
One of my favourite Gillian Welch songs is ‘Everything is free’, which starts out:
‘Everything is free now, That’s what they say. Everything I’ve ever done, I’m gonna give it away. Someone hit the big score. They figured it out. That we’re gonna do it anyway, Even if it doesn’t pay.’
I’ve always thought that it was a treatise on the fact that musicians (or indeed any creative people) are now expected to simply give away what they do for free. Writers, photographers, graphic designers, singers…are all told to give their content to clients on the basis that it will garner them ‘exposure’ (and as my friend Tim Arch always says ‘People die from exposure!’) But implied in Gillian Welch’s song is also the fact that part of the fault lies with the artists, because they love what they do and are going to do it anyway. It’s a bit of sad reflection of where we are as a society. We have become so conditioned to the fact that a ‘job’ is something we do, so that we can afford to do what we really want to do. If you actually enjoy your job, then you’re kind of cheating…and as such, you have to factor this cheating into what you charge for your services. After all, if you’re enjoying it…it’s not really a job!
So deciding what to charge for the workshop was actually a real challenge. After all, I had never done this before, so I probably shouldn’t charge too much…but if it does go well, then I’ve set my precedent for charging already, if people want a follow-up workshop (as has been the case) you can’t really say ‘Yep happy to do another workshop…but now it’s 50% more expensive’.
In the end I charged $110 for a 3 hour workshop. This felt right for my first one…but given how well it went, I think I will probably bump up the price for the next one.
The numbers game
One of my other memories of other photo workshops was of having large groups where vast amounts of time was wasted dealing with the litany of reasons other people’s cameras weren’t doing what they were supposed to. So I was very keen to make sure that I didn’t have more than 4 people in the workshop.
I’m willing to admit that part of the reason for saying that I wanted to keep the numbers low was also that if only one person said they wanted to do the course…then I could say ‘Well that’s great…because I wanted to keep the numbers down.’ Then I could walk to my room, close the door, and cry, and cry, and cry.
In the end I had 3, and this was pretty much perfect. I think that as I do more of them, I will be able to get this up to 5 people…but if there are any more than this, or if there is a big discrepancy in their skill levels, then I think it would be a real struggle to give everyone the attention they deserve.
Traps for young players
Have you ever had that experience of someone with a different phone to you saying ‘I can’t work out how to get to my photos, can you help?’ and then spending the next 10 minutes desperately trying to navigate your way around a device you’ve never used before muttering ‘Why the hell is that there? Who designed this menu?! Oh God, what did I just delete?!!!’ Well now imagine doing this in front of three strangers who had paid for the privilege. Let me assure it’s not fun. Obviously the more of these I do, the more adept I will become at navigating around the various menus of the various camera brands without swearing or saying ‘Look I think I’ve just broken that…how about you just shoot on your phone for the rest of the workshop?’
I was genuinely worried that I wouldn’t be able to fill in 3 hours with the basics of photography…but I soon discovered that for every 15 minute segment I had prepared, there were at least 5 half hour long rabbit holes that I could fall down if I wasn’t careful (‘So that’s how you can get more light into your photo using ISO/exposure/Aperture. But you could also use flash [blah, blah, blah]…and if you are using flash you can use on-camera or off-camera flash [blah, blah, blah]…and then you need to think about using diffusers [blah, blah, blah]…and speaking of diffusers [blah, blah, blah]…oh sorry, our three hours is up.’)
So, know your audience, tailor the information to them and then stick to it. People who are looking to move beyond using the automatic settings on their DSLR are not interested in a 10 minute investigation of the inverse square law.
Ask for feedback after the workshop. This doesn’t mean saying ‘Did you guys like it?’ as you usher them out the door. It means actually following up with them a day or two after the workshop with a few basic questions, and making sure they feel comfortable telling you the truth (and trying to not get too hurt if they have some negative feedback). If you want to do this again, you need to know what worked and what didn’t…and then fine tune your next workshop accordingly.
So in conclusion
When I think back over the last 7 years of taking photos, there have been quite a few ‘Aha!’ moments…but they are usually interspersed with months of ‘Blah’ moments where you feel as though you’re just treading water. So doing a workshop with people who are just starting with their DSLR is kind of rewarding in that you suddenly get to realise how far you’ve come and how much you’ve learnt.
I also realised that when I was just starting to throw myself into learning about photography, I was really looking for someone who could mentor and guide me through to the next level. So it was really nice to be that person to somebody else.
But if you’re not the sort of person who likes to stand in front of complete strangers and talk to them for 3 hours…then there are probably easier ways to make your money.
Last but not least, if your wife is willing to bake a cake, and the participants are a really great group of people, and you have access to a coffee machine, and the weather Gods shine on you, and you do a lot of preparation, and you have kids who are willing to model for you, and a local bingo hall has recently been covered in art-work…it really helps!
And of course…if you are interested in taking the first step away from the ‘auto’ settings on your camera…let me know.
I was once taking photos in a bar in Melbourne and the guy next to me started asking a few questions about my camera. We chatted for a few minutes about the relative pros and cons of Canon, and then he said ‘Well, no prizes for guessing what I shoot with’ at which point he lifted his suit pants up to his knee to reveal a tattoo running the length of his calf saying ‘Pentax’. Up until that point, I didn’t even realise that Pentax still existed, and yet here was a businessman who had their logo permanently etched into his skin. It really brought home the fact that photographers do tend to invest themselves in their photo brand. You learn the form of the camera, you know how to quickly navigate settings, you know what the capabilities of your camera are, and most importantly, you’ve probably dropped a sizeable amount of money on lenses and other gear… so when you make the jump from one brand to another it can be a scary and cathartic experience. I should know, as I’ve just moved from a Canon 550D to a Fuji X-T1. So if you’re thinking about jumping ship, here are some things to consider.
Do I really need a new camera?
New gear is awesome. It can be smaller, lighter, faster, have a bigger sensor, make us look more pro…and in truth, it can help us take better photos. But it can also cost a shirtload of cash, and can sometimes be used to hide our inadequacies. So I reckon you need to be confident that you’ve learnt everything that you can from your current camera. You need to make sure that the new camera will make you a better photographer…not just give you nicer photos.
I’ve been shooting on the 550D for five years now. In five years the technology in cameras has come a long way. Things like ‘face detection’ and built-in wifi, just weren’t on the table when I bought my 550D…and the thought of taking a decent photo at ISO800 was fanciful. So any new camera was going to make life easier right away. But I also felt that I had pushed the camera as far as I could. I had learnt a hell of a lot on a great entry level DSLR, and now it was time to upgrade to a few bells and whistles.
How deep is your love?
If you’re not really into photography and you’ve made it this far, then well done…or commiserations on your lack of alternative things to do with your time. But you should probably know that a lot of information is sent from the lens to the camera, not just the image, but a whole lot of information about the image. For example, autofocus is sent as a message from the lens to the camera. So, while you can always buy adaptors, it makes sense that Canon lenses talk better to Canon cameras, than say a Sony lens talking to a Canon camera, or Fuji lens talking to a Nikon. So while you may be able to mount the lens on your camera, you may find that it doesn’t autofocus because the lens and the camera work on different systems. The long and the short of it is, if you’re looking to change to a new brand of camera, you may find that a number of your lenses will not make the transition. So your new purchase of a camera may require additional lens purchases as well. Which can make for a pretty expensive exercise.
For better or worse, I was pretty lucky that I only had the two Canon lenses (a 50mm f1.4 and the 17-55mm f2.8). But if I was to move to Fuji, then I was pretty much writing them off. I had come to terms with this…until a friend offered a 2nd hand Canon 5Dmk3 with some really nice lenses. Which leads nicely to my next point…
Dollars and sense.
There is no shortage of really good cameras out there. By the time I’d done all of my research I had reduced my list to; the Fuji XT-1, the Sony A7r2, the Lumix GH4 and the Canon 5Dmk3. Should the Olympus OM-D been on that list?…yep. But was I having so much trouble choosing between 4 cameras that adding a 5th camera was just going to make me cry?…also, ‘yep’.
They all had different pros and cons, the 5D would let me stay in the Canon ecosystem and let me go full-frame…but then it’s a big camera, and the lure of the mirrorless was strong. The GH4 shoots beautiful video and I could get the body with a good range of lenses for the same price as the body of some of the other cameras…but it wasn’t a considered a great stills camera. The Sony was the way of the future, great video and great stills…but at a price to match. My original idea had been the Fuji…but with more video work coming my way, its shortcomings on the video front made it less attractive.
So after weeks of cross referencing tables, drawing up lists of pros and cons, and boring everyone to tears with my constant analysis of these tables and lists…I went with the Fuji. Why? Because, that’s what I really wanted. The other cameras all made sense, but when it came down to it, the Fuji is the one I had my heart set on. Also…
Zack Arias told me to do it.
Looking for information about cameras on the internet is a bit like drinking from a firehose. There is just so much information, and so many opinions (most of them differing) that it’s overwhelming. What you really want is a professional photographer who can take you through all the relative pros and cons of a camera. To tell you what lenses would be best suited suited to your style of shooting, and to walk the talk by actually using the camera they recommend. Fortunately for Fuji, they have Zack Arias doing just that. He goes through all of the cameras, then all of the lenses, then breaks people down into a range of users and suggests the best combos for them.
This information was invaluable. So much so that I pretty much followed his recommendation verbatim. So if you’re looking to make the move to a new system, make sure you find a source you trust and then work out exactly what you want, because now it’s time to take the plunge and purchase your new gear.
Clicks and mortar
If you live in Australia, then you know that buying online is going to save you about 30% over buying in an actual store. But you will also know that websites don’t have a ‘haggle’ button that you can press and knock some money off the price…which is something you can do in store with an actual person. Also, there is a lot to be said for supporting a company that pays local people. So in the end I decided that if I could get the gear that I wanted from an actual store, for within 10% of what I could get it for online…then I would buy it locally. While I couldn’t get the camera body and lenses for this price, by the time I had haggled getting a camera bag, SD cards, a spare battery and mic adapter thrown in, I was there! So on the day of my 40th birthday I got to walk out of the store with my new camera and a bevy of lenses (for the record; an X-T1, 10-24mm f4, 35mm 1.4, 56mm f1.2 and 50-150mm f2.8).
The best thing about dropping a large amount of cash on a new camera system is that it will change everything for the better! You’ll be faster, shoot better photos, look more pro, become a better lover (actually you may have to chose between the first one and the last one). Which is awesome right up to the point where you miss a shot because you where you normally stab your thumb to adjust the auto-focus has instead changed the ‘film stock look’ of your photo, or you can’t for the life of you work out how to make your flash fire remotely, or you discover that you have to upgrade Lightroom because your camera isn’t supported by the version you have. This isn’t what you signed up for!!! Why did you change?! Why couldn’t you just leave well enough alone?!!! I wonder if you can sell this and return to the warm embrace of the ecosystem you chose to leave?!
It’s all going to be alright. Remember when you bought your first good camera and you spent weeks freaking out at all of the options at your disposal? Remember how you spent ages just shooting on ‘automatic’ or ‘aperture/shutter priority’ until you got the hang of things? Well you’re just going to have to do that again…but now you have the advantage of years of experience in working with people, and framing a shot on your side. So while you’re not as good as you were on your previous camera yet, you’re also not back to square one. So get out there and shoot!
However, if after a month or two you are still getting photos that are as bad as the ones you bought new gear to improve…then the problem may be with you. So go and do a photo course and brush up on your skills…or take up macrame…macrame’s nice.
Four months in
It’s now four months since I jumped head long into the Fuji world. In that time I’ve shot over 1,000 photos on the Fuji (well, I’ve shot a lot more…but I’ve kept that many). I’ve shot a wedding. I’ve followed a guy doing 8 Ironman’s in 8 days and shot both photos and videos. I’ve captured some treasured memories of my family, and most importantly I’ve really enjoyed getting out and taking photos again.
So if a fear of the unknown is the only thing holding you back from taking the leap to a new brand, then just remember ‘Life begins on the other side of your comfort zone’.
The opportunity to document someone attempting 8 Ironmans in 8 days in the 8 States/Terrritories of Australia doesn’t present itself all that often…in fact when Craig Percival mentioned it to me, he also mentioned that he would be the first person to ever attempt this feat. I readily said yes, as it was a very good way of ensuring I wouldn’t be asked to join him for any of the swimming/riding/running.
By the time all of the logistics and financial implications were sorted, we agreed that I would travel to Canberra to see Craig finish there, then travel with the team to Sydney, sleep the night in Sydney, then document all day in Sydney, fly home to Melbourne the next day and then film and photograph Craig’s final Ironman in Melbourne.
Things got off to a poor start due to the predilection of Melbourne drivers to crash into each other as soon as the roads get wet…despite leaving the city at 4.30pm, my 6.45pm flight had left by the time I got to the airport. So I had to book another flight…and given that there weren’t any more flights into Canberra, I had to fly to Sydney instead. I called Kate Patterson to let her know that I would meet her at the accommodation in Sydney, and I got the distinct impression that things were not going well in Canberra…and that perhaps my throwing another spanner into the works was about as welcome as a cold-sore. In fact, Craig was unlikely to finish the Canberra Ironman until about 2-3am, and so the team was going to drive directly from Canberra to the pool in Sydney to start the next one. Craig would sleep in the car as would the rest of the team…although ideally not all at the same time as that would make driving treacherous.
Clearly this was not the ideal start to my filming and photography…but a little drama never hurt anybody.
But when Craig arrived at the pool the next morning I realised that it hadn’t been ‘a little drama’, and it had indeed hurt him. In fact Kate and Lindell pulled me aside to tell me that during the drive from Canberra they had agreed to pull the pin on 8in8in8. Craig would do as much of the swim as he could…but that was it. It was over. As the guy who was meant to be documenting a triumph…I quickly realised that my day was over before it began.
But then 3 x Ironman World Champion Craig ‘Crowie’ Alexander jumped in the pool with Craig and I thought I may as well take some shots…so here, in no particular order, are my top 8 shots from the 8in8in8. These are not necessarily the best photos, or the photos that best encapsulate the whole thing, but they are the images that captured the key moments for me as a somewhat embedded observer.
#1 The before shot
Traditionally the ‘before’ photo is used to show how much someone has improved in the ‘after’ photo. How much weight they’ve lost, or how ripped their abs are now. But I think that in the ‘after’ photo for this one, there probably wouldn’t have been the relaxed smile, the quiet confidence and the ‘let’s do this’ attitude…I also think the t-shirt would have said ‘Ragged’ instead of ‘Jaggad’.
#2 The swim in Sydney
If you ever want a brutal reminder of just how out of shape you are, let me assure you that donning the budgie-smugglers and hopping into a pool with a 3 x Ironman World Champion and a man who has done 5 Ironmans over the last 5 days is a remarkably good place to start. But I was determined to get some under water footage of Craig swimming, so myself and the trusty GoPro jumped into the pool. After I got the footage I was after I decided to get some photos too. One of the challenges with shooting with this GoPro is that it doesn’t have a viewfinder, so you can’t actually see what you are shooting. You just have to line up a shot that you think will work and shoot. I was shooting on burst mode so that I got 10 shots in 3 seconds. The other nine shots in this burst were rubbish (catching a swimmer mid stroke can either look powerful and fluid…or like they are coming a distant second in an underwater dancing competition), but this one I love. The reflection creates really nice symmetry with both the stairs and Craig’s arm, and more importantly I know I never would have got it if I hadn’t swallowed my pride and jumped in the pool.
#3 The power of words
As I said earlier, Craig had decided to pull the pin on the 8in8in8 on the way from Canberra to Sydney. He had pretty much done the swim because Crowie and John Maclean were there. But the local Cronulla Tri squad had sorted a masseuse to come and give Craig a rub down, and while Craig was lying there John Maclean came over to talk to him. Sometimes you can see two people talking and just sense the gravity of what they are talking about, and this was one of those times. I knew I had to capture it, but when I took the photo from the side so that I could see both of them, it just didn’t work. So I scampered the other way so that I could see Craig, but that still didn’t work. Then I went behind Craig’s shoulder and realised that I could see John’s wheelchair in the background and knew that this shot would really tell a story. So I framed up the shot, pulled focus on John and waited for him to look up towards Craig…when he did ‘snap’, I knew I had the shot I wanted.
Over the last couple of months I’ve been working really hard on not just taking a shot from one angle, but trying to take it from a variety of angles. In this case it really paid off.
#4 The painful reality
When I think of some of the most powerful photos I’ve seen, I realise that the photographer hasn’t been trying to help the starving child, or save the people running from the explosion, or stop the horror unfolding before them. They have made a decision that their photo will do more to change a situation than anything else they can do. For better or worse they have had to choose between taking a photo, and actively helping someone, and they have chosen to take the photo.
While of course not on the same scale, I had quite a few moments on my day in Sydney with Craig when I was tempted to take a photo that showed the physical and mental toll the day, and the indeed the previous five days…and no doubt the thought of the next two days, were having on Craig. To show how broken he was. But it just didn’t seem right. I felt as though I would be betraying Craig, Lindell, Kate, Ginny and everyone else who was supporting him.
So when I saw this moment, I knew I had to get it. It showed just how shattered and exhausted Craig was, but it also showed the wealth of support that surrounded him.
#5 Getting ready for the run at Cronulla
Perhaps this is the reward for not getting in Craig’s face for the preceding 11 hours. It was about 5.30pm, Craig had just hopped off his bike and was preparing to do the marathon along the Cronulla foreshore. I was just waiting to get the right shot of him when he looked at me, laughed and said ‘You’re still here mate?’ As with a lot of the other photos in this blog, this shot serves as a signpost to a turning point. I wasn’t there for the first five days, so I don’t know this for sure, but I felt as though Craig had spent the first five days enjoying people’s support, but not relying on it. But over the course of the day, Craig had let his defences down and realised that if he was going to do this, he was going to have to rely on the support of a whole lot of people he had never met.
So for the next 7 hours he walked the marathon, and people came from all around to walk with him. Earlier in the day he had been worried about what people would think of him if he walked the marathon…but by the end of the day I think he knew exactly what people thought of him BECAUSE he walked the marathon.
#6 The cheer squad at Prahran pool
Craig’s motivation for doing the 8in8in8 was to raise money for the John Maclean Foundation. Last year when he told me he wanted to raise $80K from this, I did my best to pretend that this was achievable. But deep down I wanted to say ‘Are you out of your mind?! I think you’re gravely overestimating the generosity of people’
Fast forward three months and Craig is swimming his final swim leg of the 8in8in8, and after the swim he is going to present a cheque to Tommy Le’Au and his family so that he can get a wheelchair. Tommy’s siblings and cousins had perched themselves by the side of the pool and were cheering him every time he went past. I’ve got three young kids and I know how hard it is to keep their attention for the time it takes to swim one lap of a pool, let alone 76. But these kids clearly knew what Craig was doing and why he was doing it…and they wanted him to know how much they appreciated it.
For the record, Craig has already raised over $84K and has now set his goal as $100K…so if you haven’t donated already, every little bit helps…and this is who you’ll be helping
#7 Midnight in Melbourne
It’s nearly midnight on Sunday, we are on the closed roads of the Albert Park Grand Prix track, there are over 50 people still running with Craig, and he’s just let us know that he’s confident of finishing this epic event. If that’s not worth a photo, then what is? Of course the challenge is that it’s really dark, they’re too far away to use a flash…but that f1.2 56mm lens that you beat yourself up for buying, has just come into it’s own!
#8 ‘You know I’m going to do this!’
Kate Patterson had worked tirelessly in the lead-up to the 8in8in8…and while ‘tirefully’ isn’t an actual word, if it were, then she would have worked tirefully for duration of the 8in8in8. Surviving on smatterings of sleep, taking days off work to be there when Craig needed her and doing all of the media and social media stuff along the way. She was indefatigable.
About an hour into the final run (on the Albert Park Grand Prix course no less…another thing that Kate had managed to organise), I had perched myself at the 2km turnaround point of the run and was giving Kate some photos for her to feed the ravenous beast that is Facebook. When Craig ran past, then doubled back and said ‘You know I’m going to do this!’ and gave Kate a hug. He still had another 4.5 hours to run, but this was the first time I had heard him say this, and the first time he had let his game face slip, and reveal a little bit of the optimist inside.
Technically this is not a great photo. It was really dark where we were so the ISO is ramped up to 1600, I was clearly hunting for focus so the image isn’t sharp, but it captures a moment…and that’s all I ever really want to do.
Now for the movie
For those who don’t already know I’m putting together a short video about 8in8in8. I’m hopefully shooting the interviews next week, and then will be furiously editing it for a couple of weeks. I’ll do my best to write a few posts about this process.
But in the meantime I just want to thank Craig, Lindell and Kate for taking me on for this project. To Amanda, Grant, Ginny, Shrek, Ailie and everyone else who helped me out along the way, thank you so much, it was greatly appreciated. Last but not least to everyone who supported Craig whether it was in person, or on social media, or by donating to support JMF, you were part of something pretty special and I hope it inspires you to do something great.