My National Photographic Portrait Prize photo

This year I was fortunate enough to be a finalist in the National Photographic Portrait Prize (NPPP), and I thought I might let you all take a peek behind the curtains at how the photo came to be.
Now clearly I’m setting myself up to fail a bit here, if you’ve come to this blog because you’re interested in the NPPP, then you’re probably relatively au fait with photography, and so will be pulling your hair out when I’m explaining why I went with a 56mm f1.2 lens…and for people who are regular readers of my blog, you’ll probably be saying ‘I don’t even know what f1.2 means, and I care even less about why you went with f5.6 for this photo. Just tell me how I can take a similar photo!!!’
But you’re all stuck at home and looking for distractions, and I managed to get an entry into a nationwide portrait competition using a 6yo APS-C camera, so you can all shut your pie-holes and read on…then complain bitterly in the comments section.


Now clearly, what I would love to say is ‘I had a clear vision for this photo. I wanted the rabbit to represent new life / innocence / modern cuisine, and I spent hours on the lighting setup at the studio I hired. Then I said to the model (who was was incredibly excited to be working with a photographer of my calibre) “Give me a look that is simultaneously; strong, vulnerable, stoic, protective and beguiling.” Then I nailed it in one shot, and my team of assistants packed away the gear while I lay on a chaise-lounge contemplating my brilliance’.
But the truth of the matter is that Katie (my wife) wanted a few headshots for a conference she was presenting at, so I set up my soft-box in the kitchen, and when I had finished I asked if the kids would pose for a few photos. Holly (my daughter) asked if she could go and get ‘Pebbles’ (her rabbit) and I thought that could be fun. So I took some photos of the two of them.

Holly and Pebbles

The tech stuff

The light – About 7 years ago I bought some second-hand flash gear. This included; an Alien B strobe, a soft-box, beauty dish, ring light and stands. I think I have probably used the beauty dish and ring light about 4 times in total since then…mainly because I just don’t seem to be able to make people look good with them.
But the soft-box I love! It always makes people look great, and I’ve found a setup that allows me to use a blank wall in our kitchen as the background.

The lens – When I made the move to Fuji four years ago, I used one of Zack Arias’ guides as to what to buy. In the end I went with; the 35mm f1.4 as my carry around lens and proxy ‘nifty-fifty’, the 50-140mm f2.8 to give me some zoom if I’m shooting weddings or anything I can’t get up and close and personal with, and the 10-24mm f4 for anything wide. These three lenses pretty much covered off every eventuality and would get me into and out of as much trouble as I could hope for as a photographer.
So the fact that I also purchased the 56mm f1.2, is very hard to justify! With enough light I’m never really going to need f1.2, and the 85mm focal distance is covered by the 50-140mm. So this really was a vanity purchase. I have always loved taking photos of people, and to have a lens that is almost exclusively designed for this purpose was too great a temptation. Plus, as a 40th birthday present to myself, it seemed a lot cheaper than the Porsche 911 I was also hankering for.
So any time I get to use this lens, there is a degree of ‘See?! I told you I needed it!’

The Fuji 56mm f1.2 on my trusty X-T1

The setup – I basically try to get the light as close to the subject as possible. Given that I’m shooting in my kitchen, and I can’t move the bench that people are sitting at, or the wall behind them, I find that getting the light as close as possible to them gives me the softest light on them, and the best fall-off of the light on the wall behind them. A better photographer would be able to quantify and explain this…but I did NOT win the yr 10 drama prize by being good at STEM!
The light is above and the left of the subject (from my perspective and is on about 60 degree angle. This is due to the hypotenuse of a triangle being relative to Gould’s Law of thermodynamics, and…nah…just kidding, I just like it being there.

In hindsight, it was probably a bit lower and a bit more front on for the actual shot.

Settings – f5.6 (because anything lower and it gets overexposed…and in this case, it also meant I got both Holly’s eyes and the rabbits eye nice and sharp!), ISO200 (because that’s as low as I can get it on X-T1 in RAW) and 1/180 because that’s as fast as I can go and still sync with the flash.

The pose

Having seen all of the finalists in this year’s NPPP I realise how lucky I was to make the cut. I get the distinct feeling that about 90% of them would have been great photos no matter what their subject had done. They have put time and effort into the story-telling part of their photo, and the subject is just completing it. Whereas my entire photo hangs off Holly’s expression. I do pride myself on being able to get people comfortable in front of the camera so that I can catch those candid little moments. But as I said earlier, this was not part of a grander plan, and I can only thank Holly for being such an amazing person to photograph.

The post-production

Any time I’m doing a workshop, or working with people who are new to photography, I see how blown away they are by what a little post-production can do. I’m also regularly dazzled by people who think that any sort of post-production is ‘cheating’.
So if you’re from the ‘post-production is cheating…in the olden days they just relied on what came out of the camera, blah, blah, blah’ school. Then rest assured that I shot this on some Agfa Scala 200x film and then spent time in my dark-room sniffing chemicals and adjusting my exposure times.
If you’re comfortable with a digital world, then I’ll tell you that I used a VSCO emulation of the Agfa scala 200x film in Lightroom and then played around with the colour temp, exposure, clarity etc

The joys of Lightroom

What’s next?

Now that I’ve supped from the NPPP cup and felt the thrill of having someone who isn’t directly related to you saying that they like one of your photos…I want more…MORE!
So I’m already planning a few more extravagant portraits shoots, and would definitely like to have a play with a camera with a bigger sensor to see what difference that really makes.
But with the current restrictions on travel and meeting people outside of my immediate household…it may be time to bust out the soft-box and demand the kids stand in front of it again!

The National Photographic Portrait Prize 2020

In what was described by some people as ‘an affront to a once-great institution’ and others as ‘that’s nice dear’, I was a finalist in this year’s National Photographic Portrait Prize (NPPP).
Before you become too invested in this, I will warn you that I did not win. But it was still an amazing experience that I would love to share with you.

The lead up

A lifetime of New Year’s Eves has taught me not build events up too much. If you go in with minimal investment, and even less expectation, at worst you will get exactly what you anticipated. But I was really excited about this! I had no delusions of winning, but just getting the chance to see one of my photos in the National Portrait Gallery and getting to swan around with actual, bona fide photographers, seemed like a pretty good way to spend a night.
So Katie and I hatched a plan. I would take three days off work, and we would do a family road-trip up to Canberra. We could stop at Illabo on the way and stay with some friends there, and I could use the time to get some great photos along the way. A road-trip so often throws up photo opportunities that haste to get your destination, or a back-seat full of surly children, ensure never become actual photos. So I was really excited about having an excuse to make photography a feature of the trip…after all, it was photography that made the whole trip possible!
Then I got to thinking, if I’m going to be taking such amazing photos, I really should see if Fuji would be willing to lend me a GFX for the trip in exchange for some photos and social content. I could shoot with a camera that I could never afford, and they would get some free publicity!
Everyone wins!
This was going to be great!
A family road-trip, an epic camera I had always wanted to try shooting with, and a night where I get to extort information out of some amazing photographers!


But then of course, the Gods looked down and said ‘Chris looks so happy! Look at his contented face…and look at how he has dreams and aspirations! Let’s throw a veritable shit-storm at him!’
And so we found out that Holly had her School Photos on the Friday of the event (these would be her photos from her first year of High School and so she really wanted to be there), then Xavier had an excursion for school on the Thursday and Josh had a basketball semi-final on the Saturday and his first night of Air Cadets on the Friday night, and Katie got work on the Wednesday and a gig on the Sunday arvo, and Holly got invited to a horse-riding birthday party on the Sunday, and Holly’s brass band got a slot at the Preston Market, and Fuji explained that they didn’t have a GFX I could borrow…and, well…I started to feel that perhaps this was not going to be the epic experience I had hoped for.


So, to cut a long story marginally less long, I ended up driving to Canberra with Xavier on the Thursday, Katie and Holly flew up on the Friday to arrive just in time for the big event at the Portrait Gallery, and Josh stayed home. We would stay with my sister and niece at their place, and my Mum and Dad would travel up and stay in a nearby hotel.

The big event

So having spent all of Thursday driving, and listening to an audiobook that told the story of what happened on Tattooine between the time Obi Wan Kenobe landed there with a baby Luke Skywalker, and when Luke came and found him as an adult (I shit you not…this is what I listened to). It’s fair to say that my excitement for the event on Friday night had been tempered a tad. But all of this was turned around on Friday morning when the National Portrait Gallery called my mobile!
Now I have been involved in enough events to know that the winner is usually given a bit of heads up so that they can plan a speech, or at the very least, ensure they will be wearing pants at the award ceremony. And here was the Portrait Gallery calling me on the morning of the event! This could mean only one thing…I had won the National Photographic Portrait Prize!!! $50K worth of prizes and a lifetime of bragging rights! This was amazing! This was UNBELIEVABLE!!!!
Indeed it was unbelievable, because the first thing Sheridan from the Gallery told me was that the reason that she was calling me was because the event that night had been cancelled because of the Corona Virus.

So that was cool.

On the bright side, I now had all of the time I would have spent writing a speech and putting on pants, to go and take some photos around Canberra. Plus there was still going to be an event where all the photographers got to see their artwork in the gallery, and where the National Portrait Gallery would announce the winner…and they had organised for the artists to have a dinner in the restaurant of the hotel where a lot of people were staying. So while there wasn’t going to be a big event and an after party, there was still going to be an event with the finalists, and a free dinner with a guest of my choice!

Take that Gods!

Channeling my inner Alex Ellinghausen
About 2 seconds after I took this shot a flock of birds flew right above me and would have made this shot epic!!
Rollerblading in the echo chamber

The event itself was pretty awesome. We all were given a lanyard that had our photo on it which was great as it made it easier for me to stalk those photographers whose work I really liked.

The only lanyard I’ve ever been happy to wear!
Tough crowd…and no I didn’t realise how much smaller my photo would be than everyone else’s!!
For posterity, me in front of my own photo at the National Portrait Gallery

If nothing else, walking around looking at all of the other photos made me realise just how tough it is to be a judge in a competition like this. There were so many amazing photos, so many brilliant stories and so many totally different approaches. But if there was a correct decision…then I think that the judges made it. All three winners (the overall winner, the highly commended and the ‘Packer’s prize’) were all outstanding, and you can see them here

Holly and Pebbles

A huge note of thanks to the judges and the National Portrait Gallery for selecting me as a finalist, and to the NPPP staff who did such an amazing job of still making the event a night to remember, in spite of everything else. And to the staff at the Midnight Hotel who were able to provide meals for all of us at remarkably short notice.
A big thank-you to my sister and niece for putting us up in Canberra, to my parents for travelling all the way up to Canberra, to Katie for pulling out all the stops to get from Melbourne to the gallery in time to see the portrait, to Xavier for being such a great road-trip companion, and last but by no means least, the biggest thanks to Holly (and to a lesser extent Pebbles) for giving me such an amazing portrait!

And of course if you want to vote for the portrait in the ‘People’s Choice’ category…you are more than welcome to here

Being a finalist in the NPPP

About a month ago, I was working with one of my videographers on the pre-production of a tricky video we were shooting the next day, when my mobile rang. The number came up as ‘Unknown’ and the location was Canberra, and so I assumed it was a telemarketer. This impression was in no way diminished when my videographer looked at my phone and said ‘Oooh, someone’s about to save some money on their electricity bill!’
So I think it’s fair to say that my tone when answering the phone was dripping with ‘You’re wasting my very important and valuable time…please sod off!’ But then the person at the other end of the line said ‘Hi this is Tara from the National Portrait Gallery, and I just wanted to say congratulations, you’re a finalist in this year’s National Photographic Portrait Prize!’

If you’ve ever seen a Hollywood car chase where the driver is flying along in reverse and then does an epic skid while spinning the car around and changing into a forward gear, then speeding off in one fluid move.

via Gfycat

I was now attempting to do the conversational equivalent of this, as I tried to desperately go from ‘Go away telemarketer!’ to ‘Oh my God this amazing, thank you so much!!!’ with the additional degree of difficulty offered by trying to do this while walking swiftly through an open-plan office trying to find an empty meeting room.
I think my response of ‘Oh…that is good’, really nailed it in terms of conveying how excited I was to have been selected as a finalist, and in no way sounded like I was an underwhelmed jerk who was learning English through an iPhone app.
Thankfully, responding to good news like a human being wasn’t one of the pre-requisites for the NPPP, and so I’m still a finalist. Seeing as this isn’t a position I ever expected to be in, I thought I’d take you through how I got here.
BUT SPOILER ALERT – I can’t post the photo that made it to the final 48. So it isn’t in this post!!!

4 generations have worked this farm, and I got to meet three of them.

In it to win it

I never buy a Tattslotto ticket on the basis that I have basically the same chance of winning whether I buy one or not. My approach to entering photo competitions has been pretty similar. That’s not to say that I haven’t had friends and family say things like ‘Oh you should enter that in a competition!’ or just send me links to photo competitions via Messenger saying ‘That photo you took of *insert thing here* would be perfect for this!’.
But these same people say things like ‘No of course the haircut looks great!’ and ‘This is delicious…you can hardly taste that it’s burnt’…so their opinion only carries so much weight.
Plus, have you seen the photos that are being submitted? They’re really freaking good! Who the hell am I to enter a competition and nominate myself as being in their league?
Not to mention you have to spend more money on an entry fee than a lotto ticket…and you have to spend a LOT more time filling in the entry form on a photo competition than you do on a lotto ticket.

My Uncle John, on his brother’s 80th birthday

But this year I made a commitment to actually enter a few more photo competitions, because ‘Oh but everyone else is so good!’ is just another way of saying ‘I’m too scared to enter, but I want to sound magnanimous about it!’ If there’s one thing I wish I’d learnt earlier, it’s that opportunities don’t fall into the laps of the lazy and introspective…they go to the people who actually take a risk and put themselves out there.
It’s also actually a pretty good reality check. In Lightroom I normally rate my photos from 1-5 stars. Any 1-2 stars are deleted, 3 stars are given another look, and if they don’t get bumped up to a four they’re deleted. I think it’s fair to say that my social media feed is pretty much all my four star photos, and I get about a dozen 5 star photos per year. But for a photo competition you need to go through those 5 stars and hope that someone else sees the same things that you see in it.

My first attempt at a long-exposure portrait

The cull

I managed to cull my favourite portraits for 2018-19 down to 20 photos, and this was quite a fun process. You get to sit down and go through all of your photos for the year and pick out ones you really like. The next step is not so much fun, you have to start eliminating photos that you really like, and this is even less fun when you have to start getting rid of photos of family members, or choosing between photos of your kids, or getting rid of photos that you know took a lot of effort to take.
I managed to get the list down to 12, and then took it to my family for feedback. They were of course politely brutal and got it down to 7. I then sent this list of 7 to my Graphic Design, Social Media and Video teams at work and asked them for their top three. Herein lies the challenge inherent in asking people to judge artistic endeavour…people like different things. So seven different people came back with 6 different top threes, which was not super helpful. But all 7 had the same photo in their top 3, which was VERY helpful.
A smart person would have just entered that photo, but because I like to make more work for myself, so I entered three photos (but for the record, the one that everyone chose, is also the one that the judges chose!)

Double exposure portait

The photo

I know most of you are probably just reading this and saying ‘stop talking about your bloody culling process and talk about the photo!’ Well the simple truth of the matter is that the photo that was chosen as a finalist is actually embargoed until the winner is announced in March (so I will be adding it to this blog then…but not before), but I think that I can safely say it was a photo of one of my kids (about 80% of my photos are of the kids, so I don’t think that’s giving too much away).
It was taken on my Fuji Xt1 with the 56mm f1.2 lens, and as much as I would love to claim otherwise, it was not pre-conceived or meticulously planned. I had set up my soft-box to take a different photo, and when this opportunity presented itself, I took it.
I would never claim to have the technical skill to manufacture a great portrait, but I do feel I have the personality required to create an environment where a great portrait can happen.

Man in a hat.


As part of the submission you have to have the consent of the person in the photo (one of the reasons I never entered this photo of Uncle Jack Charles is because even though he was happy for me to take his photo, I’ve never been able to get onto him to explicitly say he was happy for me to enter it into a competition!)

Uncle Jack Charles

It can be really easy to just say, well they’re my child, so I’m sure they’re happy for me to use the photo. But just as I always ask my kids before I post an image of them on social media, I’d asked my kids if they were happy for me to enter the photos.
I won’t lie, it does feel weird asking your kids for permission to do something. But I think it’s really important for kids to have control over how they are portrayed to the world, I would have hated to have had numerous moments of my life documented and sent out into the world to live on forever without my permission. It’s also a good opportunity to show how a single photo can suddenly take on another life outside of your control once it’s in other people’s hands.
So parents, get your kids consent before you post that next photo of them on Instagram, they’re the ones who are going to have to live with it.

I would love to claim I can both do a tie and take a photo…but in truth this photo was taken by Luke Vesty

So now what?

Well now I have to get the photo printed and mounted ready for exhibition. And book a trip with the family to Canberra for the big event at the National Portrait Gallery. And spend a LOT of time working out how I can weave the terms ‘serendipity’ and ‘lyricism’ into my descriptions of my own photo. And retrospectively charging friends and family for any photos I may have taken of them (it’s only fair, and I’m sure they’ll understand).
But most of all I’m going to celebrate the fact that one of my photos is going to be hanging in the National Portrait Gallery, and then going on tour around Australia.
And that’s pretty amazing!!!

Swimming self-portrait