Backstage pass – Part 2: The rehearsal

On a recent project for work I was interviewing teachers who had been working for 40, 50 and 55 years. One of the things that really stuck with me was a teacher saying that they got to the end of each year thinking they were getting the hang of it…but that they spent their entire careers with that feeling because they ‘Didn’t know what they didn’t know’. So at the end of each year they knew that they knew more…but that had shown them what they didn’t know and needed to learn.
Shooting this rehearsal was VERY much the same thing for me!
So having told you about the idea behind this project, let me take you through the rehearsal.

What I knew I knew

Shooting in low light environments is never fun. Admittedly, most venues where you shoot live music are low light environments…but they make up for this by at least having lights on the performers. Rehearsal studios on the other hand give exactly zero shits about the insane ISO levels you’re going to have to use to get your photos.


My wide angle is a 10-24mm f4 lens. I normally find that to make sure every shot of a moving musician isn’t blurry, my minumum frame rate is 1/125…but with f4, I was having to go to 1/30 and hope the IBIS did its job.
I shot on all my lenses (50-140mm f2.8, 35mm f1.4 and 56mm f1.2), and when I went back through the photos, it was the 35mm and the 56mm that did the best work. But even then the ISO was often around 2,000 which saw me going to black and white quite a bit to hide the noise.

For the non-photographers reading this, a lens with a lower f number, means it lets in more light. In my case, the 56mm F1.2 lens, which is considered a ‘portait lens’, was the lens that let in the most light.
I can’t say this often enough, the 56mm is amazing for low-light photography!

Politeness vs photography – If you’re one of those people who can walk up to a complete stranger in the street and just take a photo of them, then this next para isn’t for you.
But if you’re someone with even a little humanity, it can be really hard to find that balance between getting the shot you want, and not encroaching on the space of the person you’re photographing. After all, if John had to choose between me getting a good shot, and one of his band members nailing their part…I’m quietly confident my artistic aspirations were going to come a distant second.

This is probably my favourite shot from the day

So I spent the first hour or so just getting wider shots or shooting on my zoom lens. Then as it got less weird to have someone in the room taking photos, I moved in closer and took some portraits.

Musicians are great to photograph – I have no confidence in my ability to get people to pose for a photo…but I do trust myself to capture a moment if they give me one, and musicians always give me one…no…wait…that came out wrong!
Look, all I’m trying to say is that musicians give you shots like this:

What I didn’t know I didn’t know

Trombonists are hard to photograph – If you’re tight enough to get their face, then you’re going to lose the slide…but if you get all of the slide, then it’s a really wide shot.
Plus if you get it on the wrong angle the bell covers their face.
I guess I should just be happy that I’m not taking photos of the 76 trombones in the big parade.

It’s the notes that aren’t played that make good photos – I got into the habit of putting down the camera each time the band would stop playing. But that meant I missed a lot of the collaboration and discussion between the band members. At the end of the day, photos of people dressed casually, playing their instruments in a room with terrible lighting…are going to be, at best, poor versions of the photos I was hoping to get at the live show.
So I had to make sure I got some of the shots that showed the process of the rehearsal as a document of the day.

The end result

I was super happy with the photos I got. I probably could have got up closer to the musicians and really taken advantage of the opportunity of being in the room with them…but at the same time, I was there to take photos at their rehearsal. They weren’t there to play instruments in my photoshoot.
I also wish there wasn’t so much ISO noise in the photos, but outside of setting off a flash at regular intervals or bringing in a light, I don’t think I was going to avoid this.

You can see the full gallery here:

Best of all, John was really happy with them…and the rest of the band all still spoke to me at the gig! Which gig? Well that’s what I’ll be talking about in the next post.

Live music photography tips

Now I know that at the moment the idea of talking about photography at a live venue with a group of people all crammed in together in a non-ventilated space where they can yell and scream…may seem a tad far-fetched. Who knows, by the end of this year all pubs and band rooms may just have wisened old hipsters looking into the middle-distance and saying ‘Live music? We ain’t see no live music since…well shoot…not since Omicron!’
But I’m an optimist…and I think I’m also now at the stage where I have shot enough gigs to have learnt from my mistakes, but I’m still sufficiently new at the game to remember all of the things I wanted to know when I started.
So I think it’s the perfect time to give some tips on shooting photos at live gigs.

Get out there

A remarkably important part of taking photos at live gigs…is actually being at those live gigs to take photos. So while I have waited remarkably patiently for The National to call and say ‘Chris, we want YOU to follow us around the world and take photos at our shows’, I have also hustled to find performers to take photos of.
Now, admittedly, having the drummer from The Cat Empire as my brother-in-law has opened quite a few doors. But if you haven’t made the strategic decision to marry into the Hull-Browns…then that’s on you.
But in all seriousness, I’m yet to come across a musician who has said ‘Nah, I’m all good for free photos that I could use on my numerous social channels, and I certainly don’t need a new shot that I can send to potential venues, and the venues I am playing at really hate it it when I bring along an extra person who buys a few drinks.’
This is a win-win for you and the artists, so see if you can find a friend/cousin/friend of your kid/local parent/open mic night participant who is doing a gig and get photographing!

The composer at a Darebin City Brass show my daughter was playing at.
My son’s piano teacher at the end of year concert

Spot focus

Ok…this is going to get a bit technical, but I promise the payoff is worth it! If you’ve ever been at a gig, or a kids concert, or anywhere where the person on stage is in the spotlight and taken a photo of it on your phone…you’ve probably ended up with a photo where that person is very bright, and the background behind them is kinda murky. This is because your phone (and you camera will do the same), has taken in all of the light from what is in the photo and found a place where on average everything has the right amount of light. So the person in the very bright spotlight and the background which is very dark…have been evened out. The dark bits are a bit lighter and the bright bits are a bit darker. In a normal daylight shot, this is great…and you will say ‘Thanks phone/camera for doing all of that thinking for me!’ But in a darkened room with with a performer in the spotlight you will be saying ‘Stuping phone/camera! That looks like balls!!’
Fortunately the answer is pretty straight forward. You can tell your camera to just focus on one part of the photo and get that bit exposed correctly…and then base everything else off of that. So in the case of someone in a spotlight, you set your ‘metering mode’ to ‘spot’ and that will make sure that the very bright person is exposed correctly and everything else will become dark. There are other modes you can choose that will vary from camera to camera…but basically the options will be for your camera to see the whole image and balance out the exposure, or take a section of the image (usally the middle of the image) and balance the rest of the picture based on that, or take a specific part of the picture and balance the rest of the image based on that.

Maggie Rigby from The Maes
Gale Paridjanian from Turin Brakes

A really good example is this shot I took of Danny Ross at the Wesley Anne. It was early evening the and the setting sun was coming through a gap in the curtains and hitting the stage. It was so bright, it was even brighter than the lights in the venue, which made taking photos REALLY tricky.

As you can see, that bright light is so bright it blows out whatever it touches

But then also gave some opportunities that I could never hope to replicate without a LOT of time.

But exposing just for that light, suddenly gives you some arty ‘light and shadow’

Get wide, get tight, get outside!

This is my advice for pretty much every photography job…but it’s particularly true for live music, DON’T SETTLE FOR MULTIPLE VERSIONS OF THE SAME SHOT!
Absolutely get the standard photos from as close as you can, and if there are multiple people in the band, make sure you have a good standard shot of each of them. But then…get creative!

Go in as tight as you can

Danny Ross

Get as wide as you dare

Lisa Mitchell and band

Take photos of their shoes

Chuck Taylors: Rock n roll since forever

Shoot from the back of the room

Danny Ross at the Corner Hotel

Shoot from outside the venue

Outside looking in on a gig at the 303 Bar

I can safely say that they will not all be good shots…but I can also guarantee that one of these shots will be your favourite shot from the gig, because you made it happen!


I once presented at a conference and there was a screen outside the room with my name on it…I took a photo of it. Why? Because in one image it showed that I had been at conference, and I had presented…and no-one had escorted me off the premises saying ‘Sir, you have no place being here’.
I think most performers want the same validation.

It’s time to move away from ‘auto’

The ‘auto’ settings on your camera are a far better photographer than I will ever be. They can do calculations that will result in the best combination of f-stop, shutter speed and ISO in milliseconds. BUT they are not set-up to provide the best shot in a darkened room, with a subject who keeps on moving and who has something sitting just in front of their face.
In fact, leaving your settings to auto will almost certainly lead to a slightly blurry photo of the performer (as they were moving when you took the shot), but that doesn’t matter, because the autofocus will have focused on the microphone instead of the singer

So you’re going to have to get comfortable manually setting some of your parameters.

Shutter speed – If you have a guitarist/singer then you’re probably looking at a minimum of 1/125. If they’re just sitting on a stool and singing you could probably go lower, if you’re trying to capture the drummer, you will have to go higher…and if you’re capturing a punk band, I wish you the best of luck.

f-stop – If your shutter is only staying open for 1/125 of second, then you’re going to have to let your aperture do a LOT of the heavy lifting in terms of letting light in. So go the lowest you can go. I have a beautiful 56mm f1.2 portrait lens that is hands down my favourite lens at a live gig as it just lets so much light in. Whereas my wide angle is only f4 and that needs a steady-hand, or a LOT of noise-reduction in post.

ISO – Modern cameras are remarkably good at taking great photos at ISO levels that would have been considered laughable in the past. So don’t be afraid to let it get as high as 5,000. There’s a reason a lot of my live music photos are black and white, and that’s becuase it’s easier to hide noise reduction (a setting in Lightroom that ‘smoothes out’ the crunchiness of a shot with high ISO).
If you’re in a venue with a lot of different lights, then I would leave the ISO on auto, because if a bright light suddenly comes on just before you take the shot, the camera will adjust before you’ve even pressed the button…you probably wont.

Focus – If you have your camera on autofocus, then it will focus on the thing closest to the camera in the auto-focus zone. So if the performer has a microphone in front of their face, and you’re focussing on their face…then it’s going to focus on the microphone. So be brave and try a bit of manual focus!

Ollie Knights from Turin Brakes

Drummers are people too

Look, I get it. When your choice is between the charasmatic lead singer, striking a rock-star pose, with the lights shining on them at the front of the stage…and the person at the back of the stage, moving frenetically, with no lighting and a car-crash of cymbals and drums surrounding them. You’re going to take the photo of the lead-singer everytime!
Just try to get a least one decent shot of the drummer…and the bass player (they’ll be hiding next to a speaker somewhere).

Drummer with Lee Rosser

Something in the way

Part of the joy of any live gig is the people around you. You very rarely get an unencumbered view of a performance, so don’t be afraid to capture this with your photos.
Get down a bit lower and shoot between people’s heads.

The man in the hat

Or ‘dirty up’ a clean picture by shooting through something (in this case it was an ornate hand rail that was about 3cms in front of the lens…but with the focal length set for the stage, actually created some nice shadows and deliniation between the performers)

Managing to get Will and Ryan into a shot of the Danny Ross Trio

Next level stupidity

Looking for something a bit different? Then why not hold your phone under your lens to create a mirror effect?

Lisa Mitchell x 2

Or take a photo through another lens?

Shantilly Clad at The Wesley Anne

Or zoom your lens while taking your photo

I know this didn’t work…but I gave it a go!

If they work, then you’re a creative genius…and if they don’t…the internet never has to see your mistakes (unless you publish them in a blog…as above!)

No flash photography

The standard rules for taking photos at a gig if you’re actually there on business is ‘First three songs, and no flash’. I will never understand why you can only take photos for the first three songs, as I think it’s like the venue selling a recording of the gig, but only including all of the between song banter and tuning of guitars…you know, all of the stuff that happens BEFORE the band actually hits its straps?!
But the ‘no flash’ thing makes perfect sense. No one wants to see their favourite singer stagger off stage having been blinded by some muppet unleashing a flash in their face…and no unseasoned performer wants a constant visual reminder that someone is capturing everything that they’re doing.
Also, if you’re shooting on your phone, just remember that the flash is designed for people about a meter away…so if you’re 15 rows back pinging of shots of a band…you’re really just taking stunning portraits of the backs of the heads of the few rows in front of of you.

Share the love

If you’re taking photos at a gig and you see another photographer…just remember, they’re not the enemy or the competition!
Realistically they are the only other person in the room who is facing the same challenges as you, and most likely the only other person you can learn anything from. So don’t be afraid to strike up a conversation, and like their photos on Instagram the next day. If you’re feeling really generous, why not grab a quick photo of them in action and send it through to them. Just as chef’s are less likely to be invited around for dinner (as people feel increased pressure to make an amazing meal), I can pretty much guaranteed that most photographers have very few photos of them in action (in fact I think the only photo I have of me in action, is me giving a photographer friend the finger while taking photos at a wedding!)

How to deal with pesky onlookers telling you how to do photography.

At the Corner Hotel gig I got chatting to one of the other photographers (the remarkably awesome Samantha Meuleman ) and during the next music shot grabbed this shot of her.

Sam in action

Is it the greatest photo? No. Was ‘here’s a photo I took of you while you were at work!’ an awkward conversation starter? Yes. But do I have any regrets? No!

So there you go…some of the lessons I’ve learned on my journey so far. If you’ve got any tips you’d like to throw my way, I’m always keen to hear them.

Making video content – approvals.

I often like to compare making a video to baking a cake; they both have a range of ingredients, you can make them in a variety of ways…and when they go wrong, everyone is looking for someone to blame!
But most of all, if you’ve never made a cake and someone showed you some eggs, flour, butter and milk on a bench…you’re unlikely to say ‘I can totally see how this is going to be a delicous cake!’
Similarly with video, if you’ve never made a video, it can be very hard to look at a very rough cut of a video and imagine what the final product is going to be like.
Given that the majority of people who are approving your video have never made one, when is the best time to show them the video to get their approval?

Stage 1 – The ingredients and the assets

Clearly a cake.

Just as there is no use in asking someone to have a spoonful of cocoa and a raw egg and hope they will approve of your culinary skills, asking for approval based on interview footage and a guide music track is a complete waste of everyone’s time.
So I’m going to ignore this as an option.

Stage 2 – The batter and the rough-cut

Batter up!

In cake terms, this where you’ve mixed all of your ingredients together…but it hasn’t gone into the oven.
In video terms, this is where you’ve got your rough narrative (ie you’ve edited the interviews down to what is going to be said in your video), you’ve got some basic cutaway footage (the footage that is going to visually tell the story of the video) and you’ve got a music track as a reference (the music tends to drive the emotion of the video).
Seeking approval here can be a really good option if you’re not sure about the narrative of the video. In non-scripted videos (which is the vast majority of the work that my team does), you’re at the mercy of what your interviewees have said, and so sometimes the narrative of the video can be different to what was initially intended (and more importantly, what those further up the approval chain were expecting). So getting it approved now can save you a world of pain if you keep working on the wrong narrative…only to find you have to go back to the drawing board after the first person who sees is says ‘NO!’
A chocolate cake can take on feedback and become a jaffa-cake really easy at this stage by just adding some organge juice and rind…but it’s a LOT harder to make it a jaffa cake if you’ve already baked it!
The counter-point to this, is that for someone expecting a cake…it looks nothing like a cake! If the person approving this is expecting a video, and instead sees something with minimal cutaway footage, terrible transitions and a music track with a digital watermark*, they will freak-out and start distancing themselves from the video. People who have made it to a point in an organisation where they can approve things before the public see them…haven’t got there by associating themselves with failed products. So if you lose them now, you’re unlikely to get them back on board!
Also, if a video doesn’t look like a finished product, people are a lot more comfortable suggesting wholesale changes (after all, there can’t have been much work gone into this if it looks so average!), so offering it around for approvals at this stage, may lead to more work than is necessary.

* if you’re using music from an online music provider, you normally download a free version of the track to edit to and then purchase the track when the video is approved. To make sure you can’t use the free download version most companies have a recording of their name spoken throughout the track so that it’s unusable.

Stage 3 – Baking and the real edit

Cake…not just a 90’s band.

This is possibly where the cake analogy falls apart. With the cake, you’re basically just throwing it in the oven, waiting, and then taking it out. With a video, you’re adding all of the cutaway footage, adding in the transitions, making sure edit points work to the music track, adding in graphics, and basically doing all of the things that make a video work as piece of communication.
But, whether it’s for the cake or the video…this is going to be the most time consuming part.
For me, this is when you want to present the video for approvals. This is pretty much exactly as you want the video to look, and is also what the untrained eye expects when they look at the video. By showing the video now you’re basically saying ‘This is what is going to be said, and this is the vision that’s going to accompany it. Are you OK with this?’ Not ‘This is kinda how it’s going to look…but it will be better…and this is what we’re probably going to say…what do you reckon?’
Now clearly, you have spent a lot of time getting it from ingredients, to batter to this…and if you’re only now presenting it for approval and someone says ‘This was meant to be a flourless orange cake’…or ‘You know that the audience is allergic to eggs right?’ Then yes, you are going to have to go right back to the drawing board and start from scratch. And yes, you could have saved a decent amount of time by presenting it for approval earlier. But in reality, if you’ve misread the brief this badly, you may need to look at your pre-production process.
In my experience, most of the time when presented with the choice between; a video they can use right now that they’re 90% happy with, or a waiting a week for a new version to approve…they will go with the one that they can use right now.

Stage 4 – The icing on the cake and the final export

The icing on the cake.

Now look, cake by itself is pretty great…but add the right icing and you’ve got a masterpiece! Similarly, with a video, it’s stuff that you do now that will take your video from ‘good’ to ‘great’! Doing a colour grade, animating some graphics, creating captions and making a bespoke thumbnail, are the finishing touches that make you a professional.
I’m yet to achieve the level of chutzpah that would allow me to deliver a video at this stage for approval, as there is just WAY too much work being done before you take on feedback…but if you can…then shine on you crazy diamond!!

So there you go. Getting approvals for a creative project (especially within Government) can be a real balancing act. Getting approvals too early can see people distancing themselves from the project, or requesting unnecessary changes. Getting approvals too late, can mean that all of your work has been for nothing as you’ve headed down the wrong path and now have to re-trace your steps.
But in my experience, erring on the side of doing more work and being able to present a video that is as close as possible to a finished product, is often what gets it across the line.
Am I suggesting that this will work every time? No.
Could there be factors in your work environment that make this approach unfeasible? Yes.
Do I have a therapists worth of projects that have had to be re-done or scrapped altogether? Yes.
But most importantly, do I now have a delicious cake to eat as a result of my wife making one for the photos in this blog? Yes…so I will see you next week, when I talk about being a creative person in a bureaucracy.

Eyes only for the cake.
Hoping this product placement will earn me a lucrative Tupperware deal.

Making video content – the 3 essentials

15 years ago I joined the public service.
I know this, because my eldest child is now 15 and I joined the public service when he was born, because I was sick of being made redundant in the video production world.
In 2009 I was lucky enough to start the video team at DHS…and by ‘team’ I mean ‘me trying to teach myself how to shoot and edit videos, while desperately pretending that I knew what I was doing’ (full disclosure, my time in video production had been as a Producer…so I was really good at organising things, but not so good at the actual making of things).
11 years and one department change later, I’m now the manager of a creative team with three visual designers and two videographers.
A LOT has changed in this time for video. In 2009 only a few government departments had internal video people…now pretty much every deparment has a video team. Video used to be the high-end tool that was wheeled out to launch only the biggest and most prestigous projects…now videos are part of a daily social media content plan.
But some things have stayed the same, and so I thought I’d share the three essential ingredients I believe every video should have…so essential, that my team won’t work on projects that don’t contain all three!

Essential 1 – A Story

The days of people watching a video simply because it’s there, are gone…nowadays your videos need to engage and retain your audience. The best way to do this is with a story.
You can list the benefits of your new project or initiative as much as you like, but people don’t connect with projects and initiatives…they connect with people. So if you want to connect with your audience, you need to tell a story about how your project or initiative has benefited a person, or a family or a community.
So for example, training and apprenticeships are a great idea and you can talk a lot about the levels of funding and courses available…but that’s not going to make for an interesting video.
Or you can show the story of someone who grew up watching motorsport with her Dad and asking what things were and how they worked…and who has now done training in motorsport and has her Dad asking her what things are and how they work

Or someone who was originally a florist, and is now driving heavy machinery on major projects:

Never underestimate the power of a story!

Essential 2 – A Storyteller

Once you have your story, you also need someone who can tell the story in a way that will engage with your audience.
Now I know that the first option most people think of is to get the head of the organisation, or the CEO, or anyone in a senior role to do the talking on camera. After all, these people can say ‘This agile project will deliver key outcomes to our stakeholders and offer synergies with the sector’ without even flinching!
Plus, nothing helps get a video approved quickly, quite like having the person approving it, also being the star.
But I can promise you that it will not resonate with an audience, as it just won’t feel authentic. What you need is someone with an actual experience of what your video is focussing on…and if they’re too nervous or shy to talk on camera, then you need one of their peers, or a frontline worker who has seen how they’ve changed. In short, you need someone who your audience is going to like and want to listen to.
If you go with the boss, you will get all the right words in the right order…but if you go with someone who is actually telling their story, you’ll get a little piece of unscripted magic that people will genuinely engage with.

Let your story teller tell their story in their own language

Essential 3 – A Visual Element

Video is a visual medium. So you need to tell your story visually, and you need to engage people visually. If you look at any of the videos above you will see that only about 10-15% of the footage is the person talking to camera, that vast majority is footage that tells the story and engages the viewer.
So before you commit to a project, ask what is the visual element of this video. If the project is a consultation, or a roundtable or a mentorship…just be aware that the footage of people talking to each other will be engaging for about 6 seconds…after that, you’re going to be in struggle town. If you absolutely have to make a video about something that is ostensibly about peope talking to each other, then it may be better to keep your powder dry and make a video about what the consultation/roundtable/mentorship actually resulted in (as that’s much more likely to feature people actually doing something…rather than discussing the many somethings they may or may not do!)
Also, the reality is that if you’re posting your content on social media, there is a VERY strong chance that the video will start playing without any audio, so you will need some REALLY engaging visuals if you want to convince people to unmute the audio and keep watching.

Even if your footage is just people talking…you can still make it visually engaging.
Dance = easy to show visually,
Farming = easy to show visually
Psychology = not so easy to show visually

So there you go, the three things we demand are part of any video project we commit to creating.
Next week I’m going to talk about the challenges of getting a video approved…especially in a Government context.

iPhone photograpy …the follow up edition

A few weeks ago I wrote a post about using my iPhone on an overnight hike. Regrettably this did not result in Apple swiftly getting in touch and insisting that I take up a role with them as their official photographer. In fact all it did yield was some people asking me how I actually got the shots to look like they did.
Now clearly, only an idiot would give away their trade secrets…so here I go.

It’s not about the technology…no wait…it is!

Earlier this year I upgraded from an iPhone 6 to an iPhone 12 Pro. Now I can promise you that if you have an older phone, then the tips I’m going to give you will help you get better photos…but I also know that if I had taken these photos on my old phone, they wouldn’t have looked anywhere near as good. And besides, the battery would only have lasted for the first 35 minutes of the hike.
Composition and technique help…but so does millions of dollars of Research and Development! So as with most things in photography, the more money you throw at your equipment, the more people say ‘How did you get that photo?!’
But telling people you can take better photos by dropping $1,200 on a phone seems like the sort of advice that inevitably leads to a global financial crisis (albeit one that is beautifully captured in photos on Instagram), so here are some tips that won’t cost you a cent!

Light bro

We’ve all had that experience of incredible light. Whether it’s the last fading light of a summer’s day, or the first golden rays in the morning, or that incredible light that comes after a big rain storm. You can take pretty much any photo in that light and it will look amazing. Why? Because the light is being diffused. Whether it’s because the sun is just rising or setting and so is only hitting you with about 10% of its light…or because the light is being reflected around by moisture in the air. The result is beautiful soft light.
The antihesis of this is pretty much any photo taken in Australia from 10am – 5pm, where the brutal sun just a makes everything look flat and unispired.
So the first step to getting a great shot on your phone is to get up nice and early when that light is at its subtle best.

‘I love the look of Pano mode in the morning!’

Setting the exposure

If you have your phone with you…bwah ha ha! Just kidding. Of course you have your phone with you! So seeing as you have your phone with you, load up the camera and find a shot where there is something bright (a window or light), and something dark (perhaps an open cupboard or shaded area), and then put your finger on either of these spots. When you put your finger on the bright part, you should see everything else get a little darker…and when you put your finger on the darker part, you should see that the everything gets brighter (to the point where the bright part gets really bright).
I know what you’re thinking ‘Cool story Chris…but how does this help me?’
Well, the reason this is happening is because normally your phone is looking at a scene and trying to find the right balance so that the bright parts aren’t too bright and the dark bits aren’t too dark. It’s a bit like making a decision by committee, you don’t come up with the best result…just the one that people hate the least. When you put your finger on the screen you are telling your camera ‘This is the part that I want you to get right…and everything else can just work around it!’ So for example with this shot, it’s the colour in the sky that draws you in.

More cloud…less guano.

But if I had just taken this photo as the phone wanted to take it, it would have tried to capture the detail in the shadows on the log in front, or the hills, and so would have added a lot of light…and in doing so, would have made the sky a white mess. So I put my finger on the sky, told the phone that this is what I want it to get right, and this is the result.
Tragically I have missed out on highlighting the beauty of the birdshit on the log…but these are the sacrifices you have to make as a photographer.

Similarly if you’re ever at a gig or a concert and someone is up on stage with a spotlight on them, press on the screen where their face is so that the phone knows to expose for that and it will make the background really dark, but have them perfectly lit.
There was a distinct lack of spotlights on the hike we did…but there some burnt out tree stumps…so exposing for the person’s face in the full light, made the blackened stump fall away to a perfect black background.

Stand in this burnt out stump son…Daddy’s taking a photo.


I think we’ve all had the experience of walking into an incredible natural scene, being overwhelmed and taking a photo…then thinking “Wait…that looks a lot more shit than I remember!” I call this the ‘Every phone photo ever taken of the moon’ phenomenon.
My non-scientific belief is that the experience you have is of feeling humbled by all that you’re taking in, but your phone can’t replicate that feeling (an iPhone 12 makes you feel many things…but ‘humble’ is not one of them).
My photographic approach to dealing with this is wonderfully contradictory!
First and foremost you need something in the foreground to give the grandeur behind it some perspective.

At the same time…going for the ‘Pano’ approach allows you to take in a larger portion of the scene, while getting rid of a lot of the sky and ground (I think as humans we can see a bit of sky and a bit of the ground and imagine how the rest of the sky and ground looked). Unless the sky or the ground is the part that’s interesting, focus the viewer’s eyes on what you want them to be looking at.

Also, speaking as someone who once had to ‘stitch’ 3 photos together in Photoshop (before this was an automated process)…the fact that you can just wave your camera around a scene and your phone will turn it into something comprehensible, is as much a modern-miracle as any life-saving drug!

Get low

We spend most of our lives walking around and looking at things from between 5-6 ft high. So if you want your photo to get people’s attention, try shooting from a different height. In particular…get low…especially if there’s water around for a reflection!

Crystal clear reflections

Getting high can also help your photography…but that feels like a different blog.


This may come as a shock…but I didn’t buy a special edition iPhone to take my black and white shots…I actually converted them to black and white in post-production! Similarly, I will almost always adjust the contrast, or pull back the exposure, or raise the shadows, or add a vignette to a photo before I publish them.
The person looking at the photo doesn’t get to smell what I was smelling or hear what I was hearing…so I’ll be damned if I don’t try my best to engage them visually!
All of these options built into your phone, and you can ‘undo’ any change you don’t like. So start experimenting and see what you can do!

Straight out of the phone
With some tweaking

If you have access to something like Adobe’s ‘Lightroom’, then you can have even more fun working on your photos…just try to get past the ‘add heaps of ‘clarity‘ to everything’ stage as quickly as possible. Like ‘instant noodles’ and ‘undercut’ haircuts, we all have to go through that stage…but it’s nothing to be proud of.

So there you go…some free tips on how to raise your phone photography game…for everything else, just drop a distressing amount of money on a new phone!

Up the creek…with paddles

8 portrait tips…and a request.

On the 14th of December last year I purchased a brand new camera, on the 30th of December I took a photo of friend who was about to announce to the world his plan to do 8 Ironmans in 8 days in the eight States and Territories of Australia. His name was Craig Percival, and he was kind enough to have me film a documentary about his attempt to become the first person to ever complete what became known as the 8in8in8.

The photo of Craig Percival

On the 14th of December this year I was staring at the at that same photo I had taken of Craig, but this time it was in a booklet that had been handed out at his funeral. At age 45 he died from a blood clot while recovering from an operation on his knee.
Amidst the tragedy and senselessness of his death, the photographer in me was actually really proud that his family had chosen a photo that I had taken to represent the person he was. I felt that in a very small way I had done something to help…and now I’m asking for you to do something to help.
A page has been set up to help the family that Craig left behind, and I would love for you to put some money towards it. But I feel it’s only fair that I give you a little something in return…so in keeping with the theme of 8in8in8…here are 8 tips that I’ve learnt about taking portraits, and how they relate to the photo I took of Craig.

1. Us and them

I’m sure there are people out there whose public persona is actually a 100% reflection of the person they are. For the rest of us we are walking a constant dichotomous tightrope between the person we are, and the person we want people to think we are. We normally keep this bubbling away under the surface, but a portrait photo is a weird time when a single image is going to conspicuously identify who we are, and so as the photographer you have to decide which incarnation of the person you want to capture. If you capture the person they want to project, then you’ll probably miss the chance to capture something honest or slightly flawed…but then again, they’ll probably still want to talk to you after you publish the photos on social media. Alternatively, if you capture something a little more raw or candid, you will probably capture something that will get you a dozen likes on Instagram/Flickr/500px…but you’re probably not going to get that ‘Thanks so much for taking my photo’ email that were hoping for…or perhaps more importantly that ‘I’m going to recommend you to my friends’ email that you were hoping for.

Man in a hat.
Man in a hat.

So my simple answer, is shoot both. Start by getting a few traditional shots of them smiling in a traditional pose…then move on to a couple of shots where you can try to capture a break in the facade. Maybe give them prop, maybe move them into a space where they are really comfortable, but do what you can to try and capture an unguarded moment.

Man with bananas

Craig actually has an easy smile…but he’s not someone who will flash a Hollywood smile on cue. So I made a few jokes and then as I delivered the punch-line on the last one, I snapped as soon as I saw him start to smile.

2. Everything is awesome

If you are taking photos of famous people or unashamed extroverts, then you’re probably not reading this blog. The rest of us are taking photos of people who really don’t want to be having their photo taken…they may want the end product…but they’d rather not go through the process of getting there. So if they’re feeling vulnerable and exposed, the last thing they need is you appearing out of your depth or annoyed.
They will blink just as you take the shot, you will stuff up your exposure or your composition…but they don’t need to know any of that. You just need to keep saying ‘That was great! I’m going to grab another one of those’ or ‘That was perfect. Let’s try something a little different’. If you fill the room with positivity and encouragement, you’re going to get a much better photo.

Photographer, Georgia Haynes

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

Shooting with a new camera I couldn’t for the life of me work out how to override the ‘preview’ mode on the EVF. In short, because I was shooting with a flash I had the shutter speed at about 1/160 which was really dark (but when I took the photo the flash would fire and the light the scene). The display on camera was showing me a preview of what the shot was going to look like but it couldn’t account for the flash, so I was basically looking at a black screen. Normally you just look through the optical viewfinder and see exactly what you can see with your naked-eye. But the Fuji X-T1 doesn’t have an optical viewfinder and so I was desperately hunting through menus trying fix the problem…all the while pretending that everything was going swimmingly. I eventually worked it out…and hopefully Craig was none the wiser.

3. Flash

My favourite thing when taking a portrait, is when you just capture a fleeting look or moment. You can’t ask someone to pose and give you that look…it’s just something that happened organically. That’s why I love using a flash for my portraits, it gives you the chance to freeze a moment. Now clearly, I’m not talking about the pop-up flash on your camera, I’m talking about some sort of off-camera flash…and ideally some sort of diffusion like an umbrella or soft-box. And yes I’m sure you can do the same thing with a quick enough shutter speed. But as someone who swore black and blue that I would never use a flash…I love using a flash in portraits, and I know that my best photos have been taken using one.
If you don’t have a flash (and realistically you’re looking at hundreds of dollars to get a flash, and triggers, and diffusers) then just hire one with some equipment for a weekend and have a go. It will only cost about $70 to hire a flash, stand, umbrella and triggers, and you’ll learn a hell of a lot. For bonus points, download the OneLight video from Zack Arias.


Sir James,
Sir James,

I picked up some second-hand strobes and gear for about $200, and the photo I took of Craig was the first time I’d used it.

4. Something to do

One of my favourite things to do while watching the news or current affairs is try to guess what direction was given to the person on camera for cutaway footage. For example ‘OK, just walk over to that book case and take out a book’ or ‘just walk past the camera and sit down at the chair’ or even ‘just walk towards the camera’. If you ask an actor to do this, they will nail it. If you ask a normal person to do it, they will look like a very unconvincing version of themselves doing something unconvincing. Why? Because they’re over-thinking it. If you could look inside their minds there would an inner-monologue yelling ‘OK left foot then right foot…No wait…right foot then…no, I was right the first time…left foot then left foot – OH GOD WE’VE FALLEN OVER!!!’
It’s the same with a portrait shot. Tell a person to ‘just look natural’ and they will spend the next five minutes trying to work out where their hands would be if they were being natural. So wherever possible, give them something to do, whether it’s looking down and then looking up to the camera, or rubbing their hands, or playing with a prop…just give them something that can briefly distract them from the fact that you’re taking a photo of them.

nick-portrait-55 softbox-13

Dad Portrait-33

While shooting these photos of Craig I actually gave him a pull-bouy to throw up in the air and I took a couple of photos of that, which looked pretty cool and really got him thinking about something other than being photographed.


5. Ask

For me the pressure of taking a portrait shot, is nothing compared with the pressure of asking someone if you can take their portrait. To a large extent you are saying ‘If  you give me your time/money, I’ll make you look good’. Which is a pretty big promise. But even in these days of selfies and endless photos on social media…people still rarely have a nice digital distillation of themselves. After all, selfies invariably end up looking everyone else’s (person at an arm’s length away from the camera looking at the screen instead of the camera)…and friends will quite happily post of photo where they look great, and you look like balls. So don’t be afraid to take the plunge and go and ask someone if you can take their photo. You’ve got a 100% better chance of taking a great photo if you do than if you don’t. Oh, and the people who say ‘no’ are probably hiding something 😉

Photographer, Eddie Jim

With Craig, I didn’t ask him in advance as I figured if I’d said ‘Can you come around for a video shoot and then some photos?’ it would seem like too much of an undertaking. Instead I set up the soft-box in advance (if you look in the background of the shot where Craig walks towards the camera you can actually see the soft-box set up in the background), and then when we had finished the video  I said ‘Would you mind if I just grab a couple of shots, so that you’ve got some photos for the website.’ Talking on a video is more stressful than standing and having your photo taken…so he probably figured he had already done the hard yards…and besides, what did he have to lose? If he didn’t like the photos, he just wouldn’t use them.
In the end he used that shot on pretty much all of his web and social media content.

6. Take inspiration

You have so many options at your disposal when it comes to taking a photo. There are endless combinations of shutter speed, aperture and ISO…and that’s before you’ve even started composing the shot, or getting someone to pose or choosing a lens. So don’t be afraid to find something that you like, and then try to emulate it. I’m not saying you should make a career out of ripping off other photographers, but when  you’re starting out…or if you’re in a creative rut, don’t be afraid to experiment and try to work out how they get the shots that you like. A friend of mine (Eli Mrkusich) introduced me to the work of Alain Laboile and I had a great time trying to recreate it with my kids…albeit without the French countryside…or the incredible light he captures…or his endless creativity…or his…look, let’s just say we were not only not in the same ball-park, but not even really playing the same sport. But it was fun, and photography should be fun!


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

7. B&W

Friend, and fellow X-T1 enthusiast, Luke Vesty and I often have the same discussion where we have done a black and white execution of a shot and a colour execution…we feel that the black and white one is better, while our wives think the colour is better. We reassure each other that of course we’re right (and on top of that we’re brilliant photographers…and remarkably good husbands), but I do think that a lot of photographers have a weak-spot for black and white. It’s probably because growing up, the photos that had the biggest impact were black and white and so we are subconsciously trying to replicate them (it will be interesting to see if in 20 years time there are vast swathes of photographers with a weak-spot for the Instagram filter ‘Juno’). Whatever the reason, I love using black and white in portraits…and with a digital camera I don’t even have to be brave and commit to shooting on black and white film…I can just press ‘black and white’ in Lightroom! But going with black and white does also give you a lot of options in terms of pushing the contrast or colour balance without having to worry about someone’s skin tones suddenly looking like an Oompa-loompa.
I also think it adds a lot of gravity and sincerity to a shot. Seeing as I lack that in myself…I like to try to pretend I have it by putting it in my photos.

Boy on train
Boy on train

The photo of Craig actually worked really well in colour (as it was primarily a black t-shirt on a white background anyway)…but as this was the first time I’d used my new flash equipment I hadn’t learned how to angle the infra-red trigger away from the person in the shot…and so there was a horrible red cast over Craig and the wall behind him was a little bit pink. But you know what lets you hide amateur-hour mistakes you’ve made with colours? Black and white! So, black and white it was.

8. Change it up

There have been plenty of times when I’ve found a shot that I like, and then I’ve just fired off multiple versions of that shot. If I have half an hour with a person, I might take pretty much the same photo for 25 minutes, and then try something different for the last five minutes. Yet when I start working on the photos in post, it is invariably one of the photos where I’ve done something different that ends up being my favourite.
So by all means, take the shot that you’re comfortable with, but then change the lens, or shoot from up high, or from below the eyeline of the person, or change your orientation from portrait to landscape. Whatever it is, just think differently and make a change. You may not get a better photo, but you will learn, and you will keep your subject engaged and active.

Uncle Jack Charles

A Daylesford woodland nymph

Motorsport photographer Joel Strickland

Some random beautiful woman in Queensland

With Craig I did dance a little between a 35mm and a 56mm lens…and I reckon while the landscape version of his head and shoulders shot was the winner for the day…this portrait 3/4 shot could have been…if I’d only paid a bit more attention to not cropping out half of his hand!


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

percivals-5 percivals-4 percivals-2

Over the course of the 8in8in8 I got to spend some time with Lindell, Sam & Sienna and I know the hole that will be left in their lives by Craig’s death. While we can never replace their loss, we can always do our bit to help out.



The photographic waiting room

It can be very easy to think that the  modern photographer’s life is one of instant gratification. After all, Ansell Adams often had to wait weeks before he knew if that shot of a rock had worked as he wanted it to…nowadays we can take a photo of the rock, add a few filters and send it to an uninterested world in a matter of seconds. But much like a young tradie being sent to the shop to get a ‘long weight’, there are still a few times that photographers find themselves waiting, and then realising that they are too embarressed to tell anyone about it.

The time between taking the photo and getting to work with it in Lightroom

Pretty much every photographer has had the experience of looking at a shot on the screen on the back of the camera and thinking ‘Nailed it!’, only to get the photo onto a larger screen and realise that in fact it’s soft (slightly out of focus), or noisy (ISO too high) or shit (shit). So there is always a degree of paranoia about your shots until you can load them into your computer and see what you’re really dealing with. After all softness can be sharpened, noise can be reduced and shitness can have 100% clarity added to it and passed off as ‘HDR’. But you just don’t know what you’re working with until it’s loaded onto your computer…and so the wait between clicking the shutter and clicking on the mouse can seem like an eternity.

Last year I shot my first ever wedding. By the time I got home that night and loaded the photos onto my computer it was late and I was too shattered to do any work on them. But then the next day was chock-a-block with family activities, and the day following that involved a 5 hour bike ride. So I spent over 48hrs freaking out that I had no idea if I actually had any decent shots…it was torture.

So if you live with a photographer and want to be nice to them, give them an hour off other duties and let them load in their photos and have a look at them  on a big screen with access to some software that can hide their mistakes…it will make them a lot more pleasant to be around.

Waiting for feedback

I think that people who don’t take photos can underestimate just how much a photographer invests in a shot. As the photographer  you’ve chosen to take a photo, you’ve composed it, you’ve chosen your settings, you’ve forged a brief alliance with your subject, you’ve taken the shot, you’ve spent time doing post-production on the shot, sent through the final product, and then…well then you’re in the hands of the recipient, and the longer you wait for a response, the more you become convinced they hate it. It can be soul crushing. It’s a bit like finally plucking up the courage to call someone you have a crush on, but getting their voicemail and having to leave a message and then having to wait them to call you back. Or maybe you should call them…to make sure they got the message…or maybe I should I see if they’re available on Facebook…wait, it says they’re logged in on their mobile…why didn’t they answer my call then?… Oh God they must be trying to think of a nice way to say ‘No’…Oh God I feel like such an idiot!…but why don’t they just let me know? Why do they just leave me hanging? What sort of psycho are they?! Screw this, I’m going to send them a really nasty text message telling them that I can’t believe I ever I had feelings for them, but not to worry, I can take the hint, and I’ll never bother them again!
Meanwhile, in the time it took to go to the bathroom, the subject of your desires has received one voicemail message followed a few minutes later by a bafflingly angry text message.
In short, you are a tad vulnerable when you put a part of yourself into a shot for someone else’s judgment, and paranoia + time = teenage boy.

So if you have the misfortune of living with someone who fancies themselves as a photographer, or someone has taken some photos for you, here are a few things you can do to assuage our fears:

  • Let us know you got the photos. Even if you haven’t had a chance to look at them yet, just let us know they’ve arrived. Sometimes, due to the vagueries of the internet, photos don’t make it from sender to reciever, and there is nothing worse than waiting for feedback  on photos when the other person is still waiting for them to arrive.
  • Give feedback. Look, I know we’re all time poor, but I’ve had photos that I’ve taken hours working on, uploading to a gallery on Flickr and sending through,  only to recieve  ‘Great, thanks’  as the feedback. What was great?! Which ones did you like? Why?
    When I did the recent photoshoot with Luke from the Cobblers  Last  he actually went through and listed the photos he liked and why. It was awesome because going into a shoot you have no idea what people are hoping for, so it’s great to know how close you came to what they were after.
    Oh, and if I’ve seen you write ‘Cute pic’ or ‘That’s so great’ to someone’s clearly out of focus photo of their child on Facebook, your feedback has no weight with me.
  • Tell it like it is We are precious flowers…but sometimes we need to hear what you don’t like. Yeah, it hurts and we will probably spend the next couple of hours in a huff, but we need to know why you didn’t like a photo. I can pretty much guarantee that if there’s a photo you don’t like it’s either a photo the photographer had doubts about themselves, or there is a specific reason why they included it. As a photographer you take a lot of photos…the real skill is culling them down to the ‘good ones’. The more informed we are about what constitutes ‘good’ the better we’ll become as photographers.
  • Be our muse Yep, standing a spot while the photographer stares blankly at the display on the back of their camera and then adjusts the the off-camera flash for the umpteenth time can be boring as batshit. But consider it an investment in the ultimate prize; a photo of yourself that you actually like!

So there you go. We photographers are in fact incredibly misunderstood and under-appreciated geniuses who thoroughly deserve your respect and admiration.  Just please tell us we’re good…please!