My first and the Cobblers last

One of the sad realities of getting involved in photography is that you start to see everything as a potential photo. That old guy at the train station is now someone who would make a great ‘street photography’ shot, that derelict old building is now a great potential location for a shot, and that camping trip with the family is now a great opportunity to take some long exposure night photography shots. So when a new shop that fixes shoes opened next door to work, and had guys who work there in clothes that look a tad Dickensian and had two amazing old school shoe shine seats…my first thought was ‘That would make a great photo’.
Now that is normally where the idea stops. After all, the unbridled success of my idea could only be sullied by the reality of me attempting to actually take the photo. But in keeping with my new motto of pushing myself out of my comfort zone, I decided to bite the bullet and ask if the guy who was working in the shop would be interested in posing for a portrait.

Hello complete stranger…can I take your photo?

I have no doubt that once you have an impressive portfolio and you genuinely know what you’re doing, then asking a complete stranger to give up an hour of their time so that you can take a photo of them becomes relatively straight forward, as you know that in return for the hour of their time, you are going to give them a photo that they will like. But when you’re still learning your craft, there is always the fear in the back of your mind that you may be asking someone to give up their time for a substandard reflection of themselves. Fortunately I had an ace up my sleeve, I had some shoes that needed to be fixed, so I could use that as a justification for striking up a conversation…and then smoothly ask ‘Would you mind if I portrait a photograph of you?…I mean take a photo of you?…I mean not now, that would be creepy, ha ha ha…maybe when there’s no-one else in the shop…no wait…I mean…that would be worse…what I meant was, can I take a portrait of you?’
As I said…smooth.
Fortunately the man behind the counter (Luke) said he was more than happy to do it (but I suspect he was mainly saying that to get me out of his shop so that he could press the ‘panic alarm’ button). So we locked in a time a date.

The idea

As I mentioned earlier, Luke had two shoe-shine chairs in the shop, and so as Buck 65’s track Craftsmanship looped in my head I had a vision of getting a shot of Luke on the shoe shine seat- the artisan and his tools. Similar to the shot of took of my father-in-law, I would use an off camera flash on an umbrella.

Sir James,
Sir James,

The execution

We had arranged to do the shoot on a weekday after work. So in the morning I trundled off to work with my camera bag (550D, 50mm, 17-55mm, flash, remotes, battery charger & grid), my work bag with my lunch and drink bottle, my lightstand, my bag with my ironed shirts for the week, my tripod and an umbrella (it was raining).
It was at about Northcote that I realised that the pivotal piece of equipment, the reflective umbrella was still at home under my bed. Perfect. I eventually tracked down a shoot-through umbrella and figured that may suffice.
Then when I got to the shop I realised that the shoe-shine seats were actually a lot higher than I had realised, which meant that it was nigh on impossible to get the flash up high enough to create the light that I wanted. But that was fine….because the shoot-through umbrella wasn’t capable of getting the light that I wanted anyway (in short the spread of the light was a lot broader than what I wanted). So I set about getting a few shots of Luke in action, in the hope that I might have a moment of inspiration in the meantime.

Luke at work buffing a shoe incidentally.
Luke at work buffing a shoe…my shoe incidentally.
The hands of someone who does actual work.
The hands of someone who does actual work.

Eventually I took the plunge and took a couple of shots of Luke up on the seat

Up on the seat
Up on the seat

but it wasn’t until Luke suggested sitting down at ground level as if he was going to be doing a shoe shine that it all started to work. In hindsight, it was never going to look natural with him up on the seat…as that just doesn’t make sense. It’s almost as if the guy who has been doing this for years knows more about it than the photographer who has just swanned in to take a photo…weird.

Suddenly it started to work. It was nothing like the photo I had in my mind at the start of the shoot…but it was starting to feel like it made sense.

The peaked hat was giving me a few problems...but looking to the light always helps.
The peaked hat was giving me a few problems…but looking to the light always helps.
Yep I've seen one of these's a shoe.
Yep I’ve seen one of these before…it’s a shoe.

In the midst of a few shots, I got this one…and it’s my favourite.

Of all the photos, I think this one carries the most weight.
Of all the photos, I think this one carries the most weight.

So what did I learn?

  • Well first and foremost, pushing yourself out of your comfort zone is definitely the best way to learn…but this is a hell of a lot easier when you’ve got someone who’s patient and understanding to work with. Luke was happy to wait while I faffed around with the camera and flash, provided suggestions, and not once did he say ‘You know, I really do have better things to do with my time!’ (so if you’re in the city you really should get all your repairs done at his shop he’s a pretty awesome dude!)
  • Also, if your shot is reliant on a piece of equipment…then actually bringing that piece of equipment is a really super idea. If you fail to heed this piece of advice, then you need to be able to adapt pretty quickly to whatever you have at your disposal.
  • From a technical perspective, I really have to let go of this idea of shooting everything at ISO 100. The 550D doesn’t do high ISO all that well, but shooting at 200 or 400 isn’t going to be a big problem, and does give me a much faster shutter speed.
  • I’m slowly growing out of the ‘shoot everything at the lowest f-stop because that always looks so cool’ phase. But I’m not there yet.
  • Presets in Lightroom are still my go to…but they are teaching me a lot about how to use post to make an image pop.
  • Go with your strengths. My photography still has a long way to go…but my chatting to people skills are pretty good. So no matter how bad I may think the technical side of a shoot is going, I need to maintain that dialogue with the person I’m photographing. Even if I take a really good photo, I won’t be invited back if I act like an aloof dick.
  • I took over 100 photos for about 20 ‘keepers’ (and in all honesty 5 that I was really happy with)…the Washington Generals have a better shooting percentage than that!
  • The constant soundtrack for this photoshoot was ‘Craftsmanship’ by Buck 65. So it’s only fair that I finish with a line from that song:
    ‘There’s a right way to go about your job and a wrong one
    I find this way is much better in the long run
    It ain’t about the dollar or trying to go fast
    Unless you take pride in what you’re doing, it won’t last
    Craftsmanship is a quality that some lack
    You got to give people a reason for them to come back’

You can see the full gallery of shots here.
If you don’t already own a copy of Buck 65’s Talkin’ Honky Blues, then go out and buy one…it’s genius.
And once again thanks very much to Luke for his patience and enthusiasm.