simon r leach

– photography – lighting – creativity – process – copyright –

University Roulette

It is fast approaching that time of year when tens of thousands of you will make your final choice about which university course will launch you to photographic stardom. Whilst one or perhaps two of you might achieve those dizzy heights, for the rest, perhaps, a little thought and planning might help you on the way to something approaching a sustainable career.

As would be expected, there are some courses that may offer you greater benefit than others. Whilst I have an opinion, I am not going name courses (good or bad). First, because it depends a little on what you are looking for, and second, because they have better lawyers than I can afford. Instead, what I want to suggest are a few points for consideration, perhaps a few questions to ask and setting a personal expectation.

Be aware this is a serious investment, not just in fees and living costs. You should be willing to invest in gallery visits, work experience, production costs and possibly even starting your kit purchasing. That all requires more work or less parties, probably both. If you are on a fee-paying course you will be seen by the institution as a ‘client’. In my opinion this may or may not be in your best interests. It means there is an incentive to the University that you pick their course and therefore you will be marketed to! Meaning, you have to work harder to see what you might actually gain. My first question is, I would argue, the most important; what do you want from studying?

I have spoken to many students of photography in the last few years and all but a handful are surprised at the question, most don’t have an answer, many are even surprised to be asked! So to clarify, do you need technical knowledge, do you know everything about operating your camera without any built-in program? Or, do you need the creative process, do you know about personal style, concepts, semiotics, visual communication? I suspect that the vast majority would identify some balance of both, if forced to think about it.

If you need to learn the technical craft of photography, what do you know about the facilities you are being offered. Do not let yourself be blinded with a few state of the art pieces. You need to experience as much of photography as you can. You need access to different studio set ups, different cameras, dark rooms, digi-labs, lighting, the more things you can try the better. Do you know about availability and the booking process? Will you be taught how to use everything or is it a trial an error approach? Remember photography is a scientifically based medium and it’ll cost you more money to learn after you graduate, so do it now.

How about your tutors and technicians? Are you aware what background they have? Have they practised professionally, or as an artist, themselves? Maybe you’re lucky enough that someone is still running a practise alongside their teaching. This will give you better and more current insight into the industry and your earning potential. Whether you’re not sure what you want to do in photography or you’re fairly clear but want to experience different aspects while you can, make sure the knowledge base is available for you to learn from. What ever you do, don’t fall into the trap of thinking art is easy because you don’t have to do the business bit. Even artists have to eat and pay the rent. Look for courses teaching on business practise as well.

Finally, ask about the grading. Photography is a practical business and whilst I rarely use the theoretical writing I learnt in my time studying, personally do see a place for academic study within photography (not the view of a good number of photographers). I see benefit to understanding the history of photography, the way we read images and culture associated with art. The craft and practise of photography is by far the biggest element, but balance that with both academic study and business practise and you’ve found a great course.

Remember, things can change with time and if you are not sure about changes to the course you have committed to, then say something. If you take this opportunity seriously, then your investment will pay off. Good luck, and one last thing, don’t forget to enjoy it!

The importance of being identified

It’s been now been a few months since the government formally opened its Orphan Works licensing scheme. There was a very faint fanfare as they did, but that seems to have quickly gone quiet, so it’s probably time to think about the implications and what you can or should be doing.

A quick recap, if you don’t know what Orphan Works ( OW ) are. Basically an orphan is the term now being used to cover any creative work where the author ( creator ) or other Copyright holder is not identifiable. In short, you take a picture, you release it into the public domain without any credit, mark or metadata; and it very quickly becomes almost impossible to trace back to you. As of the end of October 2014 in the UK, the government has given itself, via the Intellectual Property Office ( IPO ), powers to then grant licence to that work. That means that if a request is made and certain criteria are fulfilled, they can issue a legal right to others to use your ‘orphaned’ work. The license can be issued for any output media. Perhaps the only positive is that licenses are only granted in the UK and for a single use.

So what can you do to stop this? Well, in order to have a license granted the potential user has to have completed and supplied evidence of what is referred to as a diligent search. This is, among other things, a suggested list of sources the individual or organisation requesting a license should research in order to prove that a work is, in fact, a true orphan. Having taken part in one of the working groups that advised on what a diligent search should involve, I can guarantee you that your fellow creators and representatives worked hard to make this process as inclusive as possible, giving you as much opportunity to be identified as the author of a creative work as is possible.

One of the points that was made by the working group was that OW’s should only be granted a license when no other alternative is available. In other words, that this should not be easy: find an OW on the internet and get yourself a cheap license. What it does mean is that we creators have to do our bit. It’s incredibly easy now to add essential identifying metadata to every file you create, to add a simple watermark, to make sure you have an online profile that can be traced. Okay, I know the excuses, Metadata can be stripped, watermarks are ugly or you just don’t want people finding you online. All fine, but if you don’t do something your just making life easier for a potential exploiter of your work. An important note at this point is that just because you’re identified and approached, you don’t have to license or even reply if you don’t wish, but identifying you and a means of contact should be enough to stop the ability of an OW license being issued.

So, set you’re metadata template up and apply every-time you import files, all good software has this ability now. Better still, some cameras will add very basic info at the point of capture. Now metadata can become out-of-date if you move or change studio, have to change you mobile, etc, so having a profile online is a good way of maintaining an easy to find contact reference. Based on the OW scheme, my recommendation would be either one of the major professional associations or a creators registry, like PLUS, if possible have more than one. All these organisations will be recognised sources of creator information and are more photography-specific than, say, social media. If you add a URL to one of these in your metadata you can, to the best of your ability, future-proof your attempts to be identified. Applications for OW licenses are published online, so you can check what’s being requested, but surely prevention is better.

If you decide you want to share and you don’t want the responsibility of licensing work then consider a Creative Commons ( CC ) license, but again if you do this, consider your options. There are different CC licenses, attribution will maintain your identity, in theory, with that work. You can also chose to restrict commercial use and/or derivatives, if you wish.

In the end Copyright, in my opinion, and as I have stated before, is about your choice, don’t leave it to someone else to make the choices for you.

Further links you might find useful

The Copyright Hub @CopyrightHub
PLUS Registry @PLUScoalition
Consultations from the Association of Photographers @AssocPhoto
Creative Commons definitions @creativecommons

The Intellectual Property Office links:

· Apply for a license
· Scheme overview
· Guidance for returning right holders
· EU scheme eligibility tool
· Diligent search guidance and checklists
· View the register of orphan works

Words of wisdom ( not mine )

I have planned a blog post on identity for this month, but inspiration has intervened and so instead I am sharing a few thoughts about getting inspired and the identity piece should follow shortly.

Last week saw the Association of Photographers Awards 2014. Following the awards night there was an “Expo”: part trade show, part seminars. I took some time out to attend because there were a number of people I really wanted to hear speak, and I have to say I wasn’t disappointed. Interacting with the photography and ideas of others is something I see as extremely beneficial to my own creative process and these intimate discussions provided motivation, inspiration and some real gems of thought.

What surprises me though (and often does at such events) was that with there being so many people apparently passionate about exploring the photographic medium, we are never packed in like sardines. Why is that? Is everyone so busy doing jobs, taking photographs, that there is no time to attend events? Is it that I am almost unique in thinking these opportunities provide food for the thought process that, as a creative visual communicator, I must have? Or, is it something to do with being happy with where we are or worse, maintaining the status-quo?

I truly hope it’s not the latter! I realise that there are always other things on and it’s a busy time of year. And of course I am not able get to every photographic event I would like to. However, I also know that sometimes I have to work around other demands to make sure I get to make the most out of opportunities. Yes, I probably should have been doing something else, but then I took away ideas, inspiration and motivation to get me started into the New Year, so for me it was worth it. So thank you to the AOP and to all the speakers.

Maybe you have never thought about seeking out how fellow photographers see the world, but there are some really great people happy to share their experience and views. It is not be too hard to find them. If you haven’t seen it as important to your photography before, then may I set you a challenge for the New Year? Make yourself aware of what’s going on and make time to attend at least two events in 2015. I promise you won’t be disappointed.

Useful links

The Association of Photographers
The Royal Photographic Society
The British Institute of Professional Photography
The Societies
The Photography Show

From Expo

Tim Flach
Richard Seymour
Wayne Johns
Richard Bradbury

A love of light

Light, well it is all around us, even in the middle of the night there are not many places I seem to be able to go now to avoid it. As a photographer it’s our life: the reflection of light from a surface we wish to observe, capture and show others. The illumination of the stories that we want to tell.

Whilst light is fundamental to life, as scientists down the ages will tell you, to photographers it is fundamental to understand its characteristics, to admire its beauty, even to control and manipulate it artificially. This knowledge and the use of light is perhaps “The” principle creative element of photography. Whether you are going to use a camera to capture it or Photoshop or CGI software to generate it, light in a final picture can set emotions, guide a viewer, enhance a message and elicit a response. I am surprised at how regularly I am asked by other photographers about lighting, especially by those just starting out. The only conclusion I have made is that with the transformation to a digital environment we have forgotten, and perhaps no longer teach, the principle relationship of photography and light. Has photography become so ubiquitous it doesn’t matter? A question for another day.

Okay, so I am old fashioned, a Luddite; these things no longer matter; it’s all about pressing the shutter release; the subject, the concepts, the metaphor. Well then, why is it that the shot of the old man sat smoking a pipe in some remote place is interesting, but add a shaft of light and we all pause a little longer? The lonely young woman on a street may be a story but the orange glow from street lighting or a first light of morning softness adds something we want to understand?

It’s the same in a studio type environment: understand what your light is doing, see how it falls, and you are away into a whole new world. Artificial light is not just about illuminating to get an exposure that’s not too dark, it’s about adding something: painting with texture and colour, exploring the subject in front of you and showing it to your audience. Light is not something to be frightened of, it just requires practise and a little confidence. I am afraid I am not a subscriber to the set lighting approach either, I do not subscribe to teaching where to place lights for this shot or that shot. Instead, be confident. Look at the subject and the light falling on it and trust when it’s right for you. If you’re starting out, don’t over complicate things. One light will teach you vast amounts and still give you good results if you use your eyes. As you start building up to bigger sets you will need a light meter. I don’t care what anyone says, you can’t tell the relationship between different light sources through the back of the camera no matter how good your screen.

In the end photography should be enjoyable and lighting should be fun, not a chore or a nightmare to avoid. Look at the photographs you like, see how they use light and open your eyes. Learn to embrace this most engaging of elements.

Will be sharing more on November 29th

Judging from the other side

It seems like every week I get an email saying “x” competition is now open for entries. With so many competitions, with so many categories in each, how do you pick which to place your time, effort and sometimes money into entering?

First a little background, this blog piece has been swimming around my brain since August I when I was asked to go to Shanghai, as a last minute replacement to judge on a photographic competition after someone had to dropout at short notice. I wasn’t offended at being second choice, I was on the same jury two years ago and in normal circumstances wouldn’t have been invited a second time. This, repeat, experience and having judged a few competitions now all with very different selection processes, started me thinking about the ways we, as entrants, could assess what to enter.

If you are a career photographer, like myself, there are certain competitions you will be aware of because of their perceived standing with your potential clients. In decades past when there were far fewer awards, it was definitely the case that by winning certain ones you could, and did in some cases, launch sustained and prosperous careers. My personal view is that now, awards are so numerous they have, for the most part, undermined the ability of any one to hold such sway. Although some will still get you noticed in the right places and may even generate a commission or two, you need to work harder than one trophy to sustain a career. For those that do not form their income from photography, I guess it’s about personal recognition and perhaps prizes or exposure or your images.

Most photographers I speak to would probably say that the terms and conditions of awards are the thing they look at first, well, maybe after the entry fees. There have been a number of competitions that have been set up purely as rights grabs: where the organisers or sponsors gain extended or outright inclusive use of all imagery submitted. If you’re not sure about the rules of a particular competition there are people you can turn to that know their stuff and are willing to help out. For example, the Artists Bill of Rights focus on career-based competitions and operates a traffic light system to guide would-be entrants. For the Salon exhibition the Royal Photographic Society, Photographic Society of America and Federation International Art Photographic all have guidelines that most worthwhile competitions will have agreed to. You can spot these competitions as they will be allowed to display the relevant logos.

For any competition you are thinking of entering I would strongly encourage you start to look at who will be judging it. Competitions that announce their judges prior to the close of entries do so in part to encourage you to enter. If they don’t and you are interested it is normally not too difficult to find out who was on the panel the last time around. The calibre of the judges is obviously important, but maybe take note of how many judges there are as well. It’s a well proven fact that decisions made by committee are based upon compromise and as such they usually produce the least controversial result. The bigger the panel, the more compromise is required to attain a final set of images. On top of this, all competitions have other limitations on what gets through the selection process. Some, I know, would like to disagree with me on this, but the truth is things like finances, physical exhibition space and catalogue size all dictate a limit to the number of images that make the final selection – and all influence the judges. What I am saying is, the smaller the group of judges the easier it is to discuss images in detail and to take risks rather than constantly seeking agreement.

Taking this a step further, and I have held this opinion for some time, I think the way to make a competition really interesting is to hand it, or perhaps each category, to a single specialist to be judge, jury, executioner. Having been told in the past that it would never be acceptable, I am really pleased to see that someone has finally had the, ahem, ’sports equipment’ to try it. I’m even more pleased it’s an organisation I value. I think the results will be interesting and attention grabbing. If you fancy having a go at appealing to one individual judge, the Association of Photographers awards are open until Friday (and no, I am not involved).

I am confident the results of the AOP awards will produce a result that not everyone likes.What it won’t be is the result of compromise. None of the judges will be heard quietly muttering that they quite like the winner, but it wasn’t their favourite!…

Reference Links:

Artists Bill of Rights

Royal Photographic Society

Photographic Society of America

Fédération Internationale de l’Art Photographique

Association of Photographers Awards & Open Award

‘Jack of all….’

This post could be a difficult one because I might come across as sounding like I am not confident about what I do which, without being too big headed about it, is not true. In fact, getting the result is exactly what I do! Adding that “little something extra” is what I always aim for. But, what seems like a very long time ago now, a man who had a very big influence in my life said to me: “in photography there will always be something to catch you out “. I still hear those words in my head every single day.

So confession time. Thereof is one thing that scares me as a photographer: how can I know it all?

Sure, the advent of digital made photography ‘easy’ (so I have been told). Certainly it is more accessible and perhaps it appears simpler for those who want to become professional. But, as the saying goes, ‘ignorance is bliss’. It is only simple until it doesn’t go so smoothly, at which point it will be your knowledge, that time you put into the boring stuff, that saves your butt. Add to this that whilst photography is still a scientifically based artistic medium, it has moved from a chemical- to a technology-based one. In doing so a process that was researched and developed relatively slowly has become one that you can find yourself behind by a generation if you blink.

Don’t misunderstand me, I am not saying you have to buy the latest version of every piece of kit, although those who work for the manufacturers would probably like us to. Keeping an eye on the ever-moving developments and the thoughts and opinions that surround them is just another little nugget of useful information we should be trying to retain in what for me personally is a fairly average sized brain.

As technology progresses there are more elements of the photographic process I am told I can add into my skill set, more that the client will have been told ‘can be done by the photographer’. The more this happens, of course, the more there is that can catch us out. As a professional photographer this is one of the reasons you are hired, it’s a trust thing, we don’t get caught out, we can be relied upon. Consider my work as a stills photographer (just a part of what I do). I have to look beyond merely creating the image. Obviously there is the planning and organisation, making sure I know what I am going to do if something doesn’t work out, that has always been there. But now I don’t just hand over the film. I am now responsible for things like resolution, colour, perhaps retouch. With so many devices and software enhancements giving a ‘desirable look’ to photographic images, I need to make sure what the file reproduces correctly, is what I wanted not what a particular devise thought is how it should be.

I can’t help but think that somewhere there is a line to be drawn and like most things it will not be the same for everyone. If it is about guaranteeing results, then there has to be confidence in the services that are being offered and that means having the skills and knowing the information, as far as possible, inside out. As far as I am concerned I have a standard, the client has a standard, both have to be met. Therefore, the only way for me to expand my service offering is to collaborate with others who have similar values and who focus their brains on the skills that I don’t have.

So to the title; if I am not happy to risk my budget or scheduled deadline by trusting a ‘Jack of all trades’, why should I expect my clients to?

Social Network

So of course it’s easy…. Use social media, build a massive profile, watch the work come flooding in.

Love it or hate it, we are told, as creative professionals we can’t live without social media. But is it really true? I have often wondered how some manage to create a positive turnover whilst spending, what appears to be, so much time maintaining almost every available social network platform. Okay, so it’s not cash flow, on the whole it doesn’t kill your business within minutes if you get it wrong (although a hasty and thoughtless Tweet has ended political and entertainment careers); but, it could be a close second.Get too obsessed with profiles, platforms, portfolios and forums and you’ve not done what you actually set out to do: your core business.

It took two years of various suggestions and encouragement for me to start putting my thoughts into this blog. Why? Because I am a photographer, I love images: looking at them, discussing them, creating them and, let’s face it, if I can get you interested in my photographs I want you to look at them on my website, or better still in my portfolio, not read about them here. So the blog becomes about other, tangential things that perhaps I think about. And that’s one of the key things about using social media: understanding what you are about.

If I may present an argument, that we consider carefully which social media we wish to be involved with, based on what we want to do with it and get from it. To have a profile on every platform, particularly if that profile is to be kept current and well-maintained, is bordering on the impossible. So you have to choose. In the end it is all a distraction of some sort, and so perhaps it is time we looked more critically at social media and tried to balance our distraction with productivity.

Now you might be offended that I am suggesting you are not already taking a common-sense approach to social networks, but do any of us really take time to properly consider which platform we should be on? What frequency and content will give our brand the desired lift? And, more importantly, if it is a commitment we can realistically achieve over the longer-term without neglecting other elements of our business. Which platform(s) actually fit with our target ‘hit list’ for the core business and aren’t simply the latest invitation from someone we vaguely know to join the next big thing on the web. Please tell me I am not the only one that’s fallen into that trap! Of course there is some degree of common-sense, but the truth is it is difficult to critically assess where you need to be seen. Stepping back and taking a little time to carefully consider the options is worth it. This is especially true at a time when there are an obvious few and an ever-growing list of additional others that mean you simply don’t have the time to maintain a profile on all of them.

So what is ‘social media’ about? Well, in part it is to make yourself more easily accessible. You want the people who might be interested in your work (and better still might enhance your income) to be able to find you. That means being on the right platform not just for that sites core demographic, but that allows you to create the profile and brand to enthuse people about you. It also needs to be a site that allows you to make choices about your work, content, creativity and copyright, so that being on that site does not prove detrimental to your core business. For this you have to understand the site’s terms and conditions – even if it’s just the bit that relates to the copyright of your stuff. It is vital to beware of terms that give the site too much license over your work or that publish as a default under some form of Creative Commons, it might just come back to bite your profitability in the arse.

All this is difficult enough, but on top of it you need to be consistent with when and what you post as well. I would love to be more consistent with both my timing and my content, but work inevitably gets in the way. The best you can aim for is a balance you are happy to maintain and remember that social networks are an extension of us, not the whole thing. We should also not do things to others on social media that we would be upset about them doing to us, or our work. Just because a comment moves quickly down a page (often in a matter of minutes) does not mean it has disappeared and been forgotten. Social media provides a written record where derogatory and libellous comments can return to haunt you.

In the end, social networks are just another tool in our marketing and information toolkit. Unfortunately they are not the easy solution to the eternal problem of brand profile they were once promised to be.

For some further reading try this DACS fact sheet :
DACS – social media terms


Is it about a trick or technique?

In the last month I have been running around various bits of the country to attend a number of events, and meet a good number of photographers, both students and established professionals. I can report that the experiences have left me positive and feeling inspired.

Okay, so the numbers at some of the events may not have been huge, but generally the feeling out there seems to be more positive, more energetic and passionate. It rubs off, making me feel more positive and I have a little more hope. It’s been a little while since a group of students, when asked if they felt there was any science in photography, answered “yes”. But it happened, and more than once, and by more than just one lone voice. Happy days!

For as you may have gathered from my brief ramblings thus far, I believe photography to be part craft, part technique and part ideas, brought together to form a communication solution, something personal, quite often able to transcend language barriers. Sure there are little magic tricks that can be deployed to substitute a little for craft and or technique and yes there are photographers who have been clever enough to exploit such tricks to sustain a career and good for them. But I maintain that to cover your butt in case of a lack of trick, or said trick not blinding a viewer as you’d hoped, it’s best if you can learn all the technical aspects you can and give yourself a bit of craft and creativity up your sleeve.

Has the rise in digital technology and software enhancement taken us away from valuing and understanding basic technique? Do we no longer follow the basic rules and principles that form the various creative processes? Do we no longer value the creative photographic process? Well the discuss about what value creativity might have may be a much one bigger than I can fit here. But I am heartened that just perhaps, in photography, the aperture is not dead, maybe Kelvin does still exist and even ISO might be more than a guessed setting when you can’t find Auto.

I suggest that photography is about exploiting laws of physics, of radiation and reflection of light; of exploiting scientific techniques, be they chemical or technological, to record and visualise a point in your creative journey, part of your story.

C is for

Copyright, the dreaded C word of negotiation. Clients want it, photographers know they should keep it and then there are those lobbyists that think we should just do away with the whole idea completely. So here I go, money where my mouth is, trying to explain why I personally see it as important, why I encourage others to understand and engage with it and why I try to get involved when changes to copyright law are suggested.

The principle is easy, you own a car…..then you can decide who drives it. You live in a house or an apartment…..then it’s your right to choose who enters. Of course people can come in against your will, but that would be trespassing or breaking and entering and you can choose whether to call the police. Copyright is an umbrella term for something that ‘I’ own because ‘I’ created it. In my case this is a photograph, for someone else it is a sculpture or a painting (and so on). I want the right to choose who gets to use my photograph; whether I am remunerated, for how much and for what purpose comes later; the principle, though, allows a personal choice. I think most would agree it is difficult to create a case to argue for dictate, when personal time, money, knowledge and skill have been invested.

If I have no copyright then I have no choice as to who uses something I have created – even if it is an organisation that I have no wish to be associated with, perhaps because of a difference in economic, environmental, political, cultural or religious differences. If someone wishes to own a representation or original work I have created, without copyright I have no ability to limit editions, denying them potential benefit from any rise in perceived value of that work. I also have no ability to offer use to one company, organisation or individual to the exclusion of others, therefore ruling out any benefit of having sole and exclusive use of the imagery. Without exclusive use of imagery it is difficult for companies to market, brand and raise their profiles, making it more difficult for that business to develop and benefit society.

If you think this is only relevant to businesses and to professional photographers, wrong! This applies to everyone. Everyone has created something, even if it’s only a photo on a mobile phone, a picture of your family, a picture of your holiday, something. Is it really fair for you to have absolutely no say in who might attribute your creation to their cause? If you really want to make your work available to others without exercising any restriction, you can use Creative Commons licensing to do so. But retain the right to make it an active choice, rather than merely a default position.

Finally don’t be swayed by the argument that it is okay to do away with copyright where there is no gain being made for the user; that it’s not being used commercially. Benefit comes in many forms, if nothing else it’s about exposure, brand, identity and promotion. Just because it’s not being sold, it does not mean someone is not gaining.

Some further information you may find of interest.

Association of Photographers
provides draft licensing forms, a set of FAQ’s and an online usage calculator

Creative Commons
for information and definitions

an online registry for your contact information to prevent historic metadata

Creative Barcode
visible barcodes and registry of associated licensing information

A little on learning

So this week I started with a few trips to The Photography Show and I will finish with presenting lighting workshops at Sheffield Hallam, looking at some studio lighting with a group of degree students. This got me thinking, there has never before been such an availability and variety of photographic education.

Now don’t jump to conclusions! I am not about to wade in on slating the inadequacies or benefits of courses today. Remember we ALL start at the bottom. I started knowing nothing, I have learnt through apprenticeship and formal courses. I have been blessed with some of the most patient and persistent teachers/photographers that ever existed. I am forever grateful to them and I trust they know it.

No, my thoughts were turned to thinking about how as a photographer, or film maker, I/we should never stop learning. That we should educate and encourage ourselves and others not to do the basics and never move on, but to keep exploring, keep sharing and keep learning. Just because you have completed ‘X’ course does not mean you are done. Personally I feel it should not be seen as demeaning to any ‘teacher’ or course to admit that their ‘student(s)’ will not learn everything there is to learn before they go their separate ways. In fact I venture further to say that in creative media such as photography we can never be taught everything by another person, we have to learn to teach ourselves as well.

We should be guided and we should seek opinion. We can be taught core techniques and the basis of ideas, we can be encouraged and we can be inspired, but we cannot be spoon-fed into become the ultimate photographer. We all have to motivate ourselves into taking the next step to move forward. To make the best of ourselves as photographers we need a little instinct and the desire to keep learning.