simon r leach

– photography – lighting – creativity – process – copyright –

Tag: photography

Portfolio Development

Portfolio development is, as you will know, something I consider hugely important. As a creative we have to keep our work moving forward, to develop our own style and our own way of seeing and communicating, to keep ourselves engaged and passionate about our own work. Client’s want to work with a creative that is driven and passionate about their work, someone who takes pride and interest in what they do and who will use that creativity to produce the best outcome.

Building and developing a portfolio, especially at an early career stage, is important. With the high numbers of people now interested in becoming photographers the demand for instruction and portfolio development have become big business. So how do you best develop, who is best to help you and, when it comes to clients, who will then be trusted to produce the goods?

I am not going into detail about the formal qualification route here. If you are looking at a college or university course, please see my post on questions to ask when selecting a course 1. Choose the right course and your initial portfolio will be a product of your development through that experience.

If you are already a graduate wanting to progress a portfolio or move it in a direction you didn’t feel able to whilst studying, or you are someone looking to develop a portfolio outside of taking a formal qualification then workshops and group portfolio days are an option. Leaving the workshops to come back to later, lets first consider what to look for in a group portfolio day.

The idea behind group days is that everyone wants shots and by organising a group, more than one person covers the costs (Location, Model, Make-up, possible food etc.) Financially it is much less of a burden to the individuals involved. Spending the day with the right peer group can also provide some excellent support, encouragement and learning from each other. The considerations to bear in mind include how much time you have for your shoot and how much control you have over the shoot content. Sometimes you will be allocated your own time, say an hour, and within reason be free to shot as and how you wish. This is a good start but I feel it is never enough time to light, build a rapore with your model and get the shot right. There is almost certainly not time to amend hair and make-up and outfit changes are likely to be limited as well. Group portfolio days provide you with models and crew and some also provide a standard lighting set-up and the exposure setting. Great shots perhaps, but not really yours as such! These factors are almost certainly true if you are working with a group of photographers at the same time. Someone sets-up possibly teaching you what they are doing as they do it, but then its a bit of a ‘rugby-scrum’ to get shots before things move on. The other problem with group days is that you are very often learning specific set-ups. These can be great in getting you started but sooner or later you will get board and won’t necessarily have been given the knowledge to move forward effectively.

Attending workshops, on the other hand, can, with the right person, solve this predicament. Hopefully what you will be learning here are some of the basic rules. With these you should be more confident in trying different things and challenging yourself to explore your craft. Practical workshops, if small enough in terms of attendees, will provide you with the time and space to learn but also to get those all-important images to build into your portfolio. I have led a number of workshops and the most successful give you all of the above, starting with the basics and with the instructor very hands-on and gradually adding to your skill base through the day so that by the end you are producing something that is your own. Of course, this can mean the cost will be higher. Ideally you are looking for a day limited to around 6 attendees and even then ideally I like to break the group further. I find shooting in pairs the most effective.

Beyond this you will most likely move to setting your own personal shoots or tests and either covering any costs yourself or perhaps sharing with a friend or two. For example getting a larger location where you can all shoot at the same time in your own area and swap spaces at an agreed time. Working on a solo test or alongside a friend can often be cost effective and give you far more space and time to develop your own ideas and style. All of these options benefit from the addition of one-to-one mentoring 2, but especially so for those that are testing on their own. Finding the right mentor is crucial and just because a mentor is recommended does not mean they will be a perfect match for you. Having had a mentor and been one I assure you that developing a conversation and a relationship that allows you to understand and affirm what you do and who you are as a creative is immensely valuable. A one-off session can open your eyes and provide great insight, but if you find the right person take the time to invest in a process that will continue over an extended period. Remember to always seek opinion outside of that conversation because fresh eyes can always point out something you may have missed. Remember, every opinion is valid, what you are looking for is those that help reinforce what you feel instinctively.

Building a proper portfolio is not just a case of grabbing a few lucky shots, that someone else has set and lit, that have had model/props/location/styling all supplied without your input. It is about building the knowledge and ideas that allow you to create shots that a client will ask you to recreate. It is about developing themes and insights into a subject and the skills to articulate them into an image that someone will want to buy. It is also about you, the way you see things and enjoying photography.


2. there are many, many options for mentoring, just a very small selection of the options are


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?

Blog Introduction

So I have been undecided about starting a blog for ages. There is just so much information out there and honestly who wants to listen to (or read) me spout words of ‘wisdom’ as I see them?

But in the end here I am taking the step, or at least a key tap, into the unknown.

What can you expect? Well I am just another photographer, exploring ideas, expanding my technique and I hope creating something people like, or that at least makes them think about whether they like it (or not). Light, like many, is at the core of what I do and who I am as a Photographer. Beyond that it’s sophistication, elegance, beauty and simplicity…..well for the time being anyway.

I am a visual collaborator working with like minded people to expand the impact of my projects, as well as helping others move forward their ideas. I also present on occasions, anything from practical lighting, to creative practice and personal brand. Photographers rights are important and I continue to get involved in discussion and consultation, whenever possible.

Photography is the foundation of my creative passion, it continues to grow through the enthusiastic people I meet, the places I go, the things I see and the simply unreal experience it can bring.