Week Notes 010, 011, 012 — W/E 11 June, 18 June, and 25 June 2023

View of the British Museum main entrance at night. It is lit with warm light, there are candles on the steps and a line of cars waiting to pick up guests.

Another set of week notes bundled for your reading (dis)pleasure…

I don’t think it’s worth accounting for the time week by week. The late nights, tens of thousands of images and numerous shoots of the last few weeks blurred into one amorphous endurance event. This isn’t comprehensive (I can’t talk about some of the projects), instead it’s a selection of takeaways and things that I want to experiment with or think about more in the future.

  • I started with four evening shoots split between two venues. The four events were split into two pairs, with different guests at each, but following a nearly identical format. Welcome drinks on the first day at venue one and then a black tie gala dinner on the second day at venue two. It was both challenging and interesting to work through the déjà vu of shooting essentially the same job twice in the same week. Each evening I had to find new angles and approaches to keep the pictures fresh and my attention sharp. On the other hand, I could review the pictures from the first pair of days, then go into the second half of the project knowing where I messed up, what I over and under shot, where the light would be at a certain time, and how people would interact with the spaces.
  • To a certain extent this is the kind post mortem I run after every shoot: What worked? What didn’t? Did I need more depth of field for the tight shots? What would have been a better shutter speed / ISO trade-off? Should I have asked for more portraits or prioritised candid moments? However, it’s rare that the review ⮂ shoot cycle is so short, and even rarer that I can apply what I’ve learned to an almost exact replica of the situation where I learned it.
  • I enjoyed the scope of this project — in one evening I shot the scenography and spaces, documentary pics of guests, details of the food, two fashion shows, beauty shots of models wearing jewellery, a performance by a pop megastar, night time architectural shots of the venue’s exterior and a dimly lit after party. Despite being snobbish about photographing at events initially, it’s honed and diversified my skills more than any other photography genre. It’s taught me how to cover a variety of subjects quickly and effectively, even when I have little to no control of the situation.
  • I shot two projects at the newly reopened National Portrait Gallery and one at the National Gallery. Having also shot at Tate Britain a few weeks prior, I can say that the light for ambient photography at some of London’s premier galleries is terrible. Legions of spotlights and high ceilings are a recipe for burned out highlights, panda eye shadows and luminous noses — a visual dish that is deeply unpalatable to me. I’m comfortable shooting in very low light situations, scenes lit only my candle light or a handful of lanterns for example, but straight-up ugly light is hard to deal with. The National Gallery is by far the worst in this respect. Not only does the light veer between harsh and sludgy, the main rooms are also incredibly dark.
  • I had to be discreet on the first shoot at NPG, so I crossed my fingers, underexposed to save the highlights and boosted the shadows massively in post. (Sometimes using specific masks on hero shots to bring out faces.) For the second NPG shoot and the National Gallery shoot I decided to renege on my vow of purity and add a speedlight to my wide angle camera. I kept the longer lens free for ambient light images, and switched between them as the situation dictated. At the National Gallery, that meant getting safety shots/full lengths with flash and then shooting some super shallow DoF ambient portraits when in areas with nicer light. Despite the obvious differences in sharpness and directionality, the flash images integrated quite nicely with the other pictures. It helped that I shot it at a higher ISO, gelled the flash to tungsten, and used a wider f stop (f2–f2.8) and a slow shutter speed (1/15s–1/60s to mix in the ambient light) to mimic images shot in low light.
  • I still don’t have a lighting solution that I’m happy with when shooting impromptu portraits or reportage in shitty light. I need to experiment more with flash on camera, to work out how I can integrate it into my style of shooting. I dislike how a speedlight makes me very obvious when shooting candid pictures. (I prefer to take the picture and move on without the subject even noticing.) My work camera + flash combo is large and cumbersome, and as soon as I take the first image, I announce my presence, changing the scene. For portraits it’s not so bad as I’m not in stealth mode. However, it worries me that I can’t see what I’m going to get through the viewfinder especially when I need to work quickly. I don’t want to hit playback to check that I got the picture, I want to see the light in the viewfinder before I trip the shutter.
  • I’ve found TTL unreliable recently — I get two or three perfect shots and then a completely different lighting balance on next few images. I’m scared that I could shoot 5–10 pics of a VIP, then check the camera to find that the results are a dog’s dinner and I’ve lost my opportunity. I’m going to start experimenting with manual flash for consistency. My working distances are usually quite controlled and I can work out sensible defaults for a full length, landscape two-shot and a close-up. I’ve been practising this with my Ricoh GR III + LightPix Labs FlashQ Q20II with good results. This is my Goldilocks set-up for non-work parties — the camera is designed for one-handed operation and the flash has a tiny detachable transmitter for off-camera work. It doesn’t hurt that it’s a cute combo that people find funny… Particularly when I pop up in praying mantis stance, camera in one hand, flash held aloft in the other, grinning ear to ear. I’ve started carrying the GR in one pocket and the flash in the other on work shoots too, so that I can grab a quick hard flash shot when the opportunity presents itself. I used to hate the flash-on-camera look when I was younger but it’s really grown on me. I like projects where the photographer mixes photos using beautiful natural light with saturated hard flash pictures.
Oliver Holms holding up a Ricoh GRIII in his right hand and LightPix Labs FlashQ Q20II in his left hand. He has long brown hair, is wearing a dark green jacket and is smiling to the camera
  • I’m also looking into small continuous lighting options like the amazing new mini COB lights by Zhiyun — the MOLUS X100 and MOLUS G60. I love the idea of that much light from such a small package, coupled with a small hard source and enough battery to run for a while on low to medium power settings. Reviews are a little thin on the ground, so I might have to buy one to try out. I sometimes work alongside a great French celebrity portrait photographer. When he is shooting portraits at an event, he moves through the crowd with an assistant who carries a Profoto B10X on a pole. They locate their subject, the assistant lights them up using the flash’s modelling light through a mini-softbox and the photographer gets the pic on his medium format Fuji set-up. This approach allows him to work in chaotic and dark environments using a high resolution camera that would otherwise suffer in those conditions. I want something more minimal and inconspicuous than their gear; maybe something that I can hold myself, or light enough to clamp to furniture and bounce off the ceiling in hotel rooms/small venues. Still the idea is solid and I love continuous light, particularly if it’s a situation where I won’t have much time, control or second chances.
  • I bought a new screen, my first in more than a decade, after it became impossible to calibrate my ancient Eizo CG234W with due to a software / operating system conflict. I went for the Apple Studio Display as I wanted something that would integrate with my all-Mac ecosystem without fuss. Gaining three new USB-C ports and the ability to charge my laptop via the screen are a bonus too. I bought a reconditioned VESA mount version so I can use a monitor arm to free up desk space. I needed to get down to work immediately, so I bolted its beautifully machined chassis onto the fugly grey plastic stand I salvaged from my Eizo. (Shudder) So far the screen is excellent — the extra resolution makes it much easier to assess how sharp a picture is and see people’s faces clearly in a group shot. The reflections on my standard glossy version are a little annoying (the window is behind me in my office). However, when editing/grading I like to work in what my wife and I affectionately call ‘The Cave’ — a sensory deprivation environment created by closing the blinds, turning off the lights and wearing noise cancelling headphones. In the gloom of The Cave, the reflections disappear; and when I’m not working on photography stuff, the reflections don’t bother me much.
  • I had a last minute shoot at Ascot called in the night before. I scrambled to find a morning suit at 2100. I lucked out — my wife’s friend who lives 20mins away had one. Clearly, he has much fancier friends than me. I have a few suits and black tie on hand for various dress codes, but I draw the line at having a top hat on the kit shelf…
  • I’ve shot at Ascot a few times and it never ceases to bemuse. It’s a such a strange mix of people, drawn together to have parallel but distinct experiences. It’s a playground for memetic desire. Everyone is aspiring, but in different directions, following different blueprints. Perhaps one year, I’ll get a press pass and attend to shoot street-style without the strictures of a commission? I want to read Wanting by Luke Burgis too, his book on René Girard and mimesis as I enjoyed his interview on The Knowledge Project.
  • This has been nearly a month of complete work life imbalance — if I wasn’t shooting, I was editing at my desk until 0000–0430. I’m very grateful to have so much on, but the delivery schedule required so much computer time that it swallowed all other aspects of my life. Being so busy is great for my finances and building new client relationships, but the workload was totally unsustainable. As an assistant I used to freelance on projects for some A+ photographers who were shooting 2–5 days a week, often travelling internationally once or twice a week to get to the job. It’s mind-blowing to me that they managed to endure that pace for years on end without burning out. One famous photographer told me that his crew were the only friends he saw regularly — in his eyes they were his family. Working with him was a powerful experience for me — it made me reconsider whether I wanted to attain the specific vision of success that I had been striving for. What if winning is worse than losing?
A man wearing top hat and tails walks up a shallow ramp into a marquee at Ascot. He is seen from behind and the ramp is flanked by large Roman style pots, some filled with ornamental shrubs. There are large cumulus clouds in the blue sky.