What the job is - or, "Dealing with lemons"

"My job is not about taking pretty pictures - I wish that it were."


- so I wrote in my last article. Sure enough, the very next shoot had me being asked to get a portrait incorporating a specific background, a large, branded vehicle which could not be moved. Unfortunately, the combination of timing and the weather meant that this was (possibly) going to be impossible, or at least a pretty ugly picture. The harsh afternoon sun - such as it was and relative to the background - would be directed into the subject's eyes. At best, it would force a hard squint. At worst, it would destroy his retinas.

When I raised this small lighting issue, my client probably retorted that on nearly every job I claim the light is in the wrong place, or that there's not enough of it, or that it's just wrong, somehow. Then (I expect) they would have said something about me whingeing (but to be quite honest, I usually stop listening at this point).

Well, they were probably right. Not about the whingeing - no. But I do complain quite a bit about the light being wrong. As well as almost everything else.

The main idea is this - situations are sometimes unpredictable, the lighting often unsuitable, the location rarely ideal. You very often end up doing things that 'aren't photography' in order to adapt or change the situation. If it's something you might consider way out of your job description, it can be irritating.

However, that part of the job, as I've come to learn, IS the job.

Anyone can produce a decent picture given enough time and ideal lighting*. But the working photographer's job is to innovate, to be pliable and resourceful, adaptable. Pull things out of the hat. Foresee problems and resolve them. Change up at the last minute, and under pressure. Because the lighting is never right. And often, other things are wrong, too.

The thing to take away from this is very important, so I'll state it very clearly: loads of things appear to get in the way when shooting. I say 'appear' - but to think of them as distractions or nuisances is a *fundamental* error. I'll state it again - it's ALL part of the job. Photography might only be part of what we're doing. We're dealing with many other things first, in order to enable the photograph to be taken.

So, it's about going with the flow, thinking around the problem. Facilitating and adapting. Not getting caught up sulking - "This shouldn't be like this," or, "I was hoping for that", or, "The light is terrible". It it's a barrier, it gets in the way of the job. Therefore, dealing with this stuff IS the job.

On the other hand - happily - I would say that roughly half the time, shoots are fairly predictable, and everything's tickety-boo. The office space is the (dismal) location you expected it to be. Or, working outside, it doesn't end up tipping down with rain - despite those ominous black clouds. Or, doing portraits, you actually get to use (most of) the twenty minutes you were originally promised.

These shoots are fairly 'routine': things go roughly as hoped or expected, and the skills called upon are what I would consider central to being a photographer. These, then, are the good days. They allow you to just get on with the job, to practise, learn and improve. To expand your patter and find new ways to blag coffee, biscuits or pens. You can think about ideas, lighting, framing, illustrating the concept, telling the story, whatever. By and large, most things on these jobs are the same as the last time you did something similar somewhere else. You could even dare to go so far as to say you can actually plan these shoots**.

The other half, the ones we're talking about today, aren't so predictable - often regardless of planning. They contain these seeming obstacles, changes of schedule, extra hassles, crappy light, and apparent nuisances. And we've agreed to accept these and work through them. 
 
Sometimes, however, there are curveballs which really stretch things. People problems spring to mind first. I've had several people at a workshop who had asked not to be photographed (not even in the background), but who then took centre stage in most of the activities. Which made photography of pretty much anything else impossible.

I've had a client who insisted their logo be in shot - despite the logo being very small, and ankle-height. They became rather incensed when I explained how it wouldn't work very well (and it didn't).

Location problems are common. We're especially at the mercy of the weather in England. I was recently caught in torrential rain for a shoot about city workers enjoying summer barbecues.

And indoors, many public buildings have horrific lighting. Offices with nasty spotlights embedded into the ceiling. Dark corridors, small windows, and useless spaces.

I had a shoot in a (sort-of) theatre, and I remember the "stage lighting" only covered half the people on stage. The other half could barely be seen by the naked eye - let alone a camera.

Light, people and location issues are general and universal. I suppose the thing with it is that there are other curveballs and hazards peculiar to certain types of job. At conferences, for example, there's always that one speaker who never looks up. Which results in shots of a depressed person at a lectern talking to his navel.

At jobs where props are required, sod's law says they'll forget to bring them. I shot a pair of cricketers (for a story about cricket) who arrived wearing normal clothes, and without a single cricket-related object between them. I once also photographed some computer wizards - who'd each (wrongly) assumed the other was bringing a laptop. And so on.

So, back to the two points of the article. One was that the job is much more than just taking pictures, because much of the time things aren't as we hope or expect. The second point touches on what to do with the 'curveballs'; with those trickier, unpredictable, desperate and even broken situations.

In gambling parlance - dealing with the latter is about knowing when to stick or twist. Or if you're religious, the beginning of the Serenity prayer sums it up:

"God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference."

But let's put it in terms of lemons.

Eating Lemons

Sometimes you can only do what you can do. You can't use lights, you can't influence proceedings, you can't change locations. You can't do anything other than take pictures. The important thing is to be aware of the limitations, and work out how you can mitigate their effect or work within them. Accept what there is and do the best you can with the choices which you are able to make (lens, position, composition). And convey this to the client without sounding like a whinger. So with the conference speaker who doesn't look up, it might be best just to go for a wide shot, including the surroundings. Then you're not making so important that he's looking down. I should just point out that there are a few near-certainties which save us in tough situations. You learn what these are with experience. Even someone at a lectern reading from a script will look up, even if only at the very end of their speech for a fraction of a second. It's all to do with the decisive moment, and knowing what's coming up.

Anyway, another curveball: I remember photographing a (very) amateur dramatic youth production with poor lighting, everything spread out across the stage, no props or costumes to speak of, and no real action or interaction. Very little to do. The only thing left to do was to use a long lens and 'pick out' individual actors and their expressions and actions. The picture below is from a dance show, and is a similar example of something reasonable from out of not much, in this case through using a wider view:

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Another example: I did some portraits of a trainee on a building site. I had a space (arbitrarily selected for me, without my input) of about three square metres to work within. Seriously. And there were no props***. Low angles, different lenses and a little changing of position still enabled us to get a reasonable variety of reasonable pictures, because at least the background was relevant. Here are a few from the shoot:

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Making Lemonade

As pointed out in my other articles, many (most?) situations have a tendency to lead us thinking down logical paths. Certain kinds of shots present themselves, as other ones become unworkable.
When our preferred or expected shots are ruled out entirely, on occasion we can take those difficulties and turn them into opportunities. The job of the photographer is to know what's possible, to come up with a plan B on the fly. It's a remarkable way to focus the mind.

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The example above comes from a situation where the banner needed to be in shot. Let's just say I'm not a big fan of banners, unwieldy as they are. Although, to be fair, this is probably the best one I've used. But then that's what I expect from the amazing Booktrust. By putting the banner centre, and having the people interact with it, it's not so much 'shoehorned in', as it is an integral element of the photograph. Imagine what the picture would be without the banner: a potentially dull group picture.

 The example below had extremely hard sunlight causing problems. So we found a wall and turned the light to our advantage. It's a go-to shot which gets you out of a spot:

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Swapping lemons for apples

With vision, it's sometimes possible to reject the situation entirely. This often applies to dire situations where we don't (appear to) have any input or control - and we then really push it. Part of this can be knowing when that is. It may be possible to interrupt, ask for something, go against what we're presented with, create something different - when we had previously been told (or had assumed) we couldn't do something or other, that we weren't permitted. This takes confidence. Of course, it may not be possible, in which case we're back to eating lemons...

A recent example was at an awards ceremony. I had been clearly instructed not to use lights for the performances between the speeches.

However, the lighting was awful. The background was awful. There were only a couple of (not very good) places for me to position myself. The performances - exciting as they were for an audience - would not work at all well (photographically) by themselves.

Well - I used my lights. And nobody stopped me. Nor was I reprimanded - it turned out that the client had just expected the lights to be much more of a nuisance than they were. They even said after that it had added to the sense of occasion. And the pictures were much better.

To be fair, this is quite an unusual example. More often is the situation where you have to use your position of expertise and overrule someone. To explain why something else entirely should be done, that's it worth the time or effort, that the current setup is no good. All the time, being aware that your client or subject may have strong feelings to the contrary, that someone might be at risk of losing face - and knowing that you have just one chance to prove yourself right. This is especially tricky where you are viewed as a 'snapper'.

So - to sum up: In these difficult circumstances the job is to know what is and isn't possible; what can and can't be changed; and to have the confidence to stick or to twist.

And what did I do with the picture with the bright afternoon sun which started this article off? I'd like to say I managed to rearrange everything quickly and smoothly, with clear vision and minimal fuss. Without offending anyone. But as it happened, a few small clouds had started to appear and pass overhead by the time we were to do this main photo. As there were several other shots to do, I got on with those first, quite happy to delay doing this main photo. I no doubt seemed to be stalling, but I simply wasn't confident we'd have a sufficiently large cloud for sufficiently long enough to cover us. I was, however, confident that the shot would be better than our other options - if we could get it. In other words, I didn't have a plan B and had nothing else up my sleeve.

And as it happened, we had a small window of opportunity, just enough time for about four frames with the sun behind a cloud, and I was happy enough with the shot, below. I suppose sometimes you just get lucky:

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*What is ideal lighting? I suppose it depends what you're shooting. Remember that ideal can equate to safe - which can equate to boring.

**That may seem surprising - but in general I don't plan many types of shoots. I have a rough idea of what I might want to do, what the job might be, but so often it's more a starting point. Because as I keep saying, so many are different to what was promised or expected.

***While I think about it, if you haven't already, look at the articles I wrote on limitations.

****I appreciate the lemons analogy is starting to fail.