People watching

Musings about the art of photographing people.

I quite happily confess I'm not an experienced portrait photographer.  It's an odd conundrum.  I work with people all the time in my musical life, directing ensembles and orchestras to achieve the carefully honed result I'm looking for.  However, put me in front of an individual with my camera and I often feel completely out of my depth.  I guess it's a training and experience thing.  My many years of musical training and experience have taught me the techniques I need to create the musical sound and shapes I'm after.  Ask me to do that as a portrait photographer and I feel much less confident in my ability, although, somewhere in my subconscious, I do feel that I could probably do it if the chips were really down.

Now, give me a photographic subject who is just going about their business and doesn't require me to direct them and that's another thing entirely....

 A moment from this year's Recorder Summer School as Tom Beets interacts with his class 

A moment from this year's Recorder Summer School as Tom Beets interacts with his class 

For many years now I have combined my musical activities with my photography, acting as official photographer for school concerts and events such as The Recorder Summer School and the National Youth Recorder Orchestra.  The difference here is that I'm capturing a moment in time that would happen whether I was there or not.   As I've mentioned in a previous blog post, in such situations I use my musical training as much as my photographic training to pick the right moment to click the shutter button to freeze that crucial musical or dramatic moment. 

 One of my favourite portraits from the course I attended at West Dean College.  This is Pamela, one of my fellow students. 

One of my favourite portraits from the course I attended at West Dean College.  This is Pamela, one of my fellow students. 

I took a big step forward from this type of people photography back in August 2010 when I attended a course with the press photographer Richard Cannon at West Dean College in West Sussex.  The focus for the weekend was purely taking photos of people, both formal portraits and candid shots of folk in the street.  I still felt all at sea when directing people in front of the camera but it gave me a little more confidence to photograph life on the streets and sometimes, just sometimes, to interact with complete strangers in order to take their photo.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 A street performer on the South Bank of the Thames in London, during my day of street photography with my friend Sharon

A street performer on the South Bank of the Thames in London, during my day of street photography with my friend Sharon

A year or so later my friend Sharon and I went to an exhibition of street photography in London and agreed that, as soon as we'd eaten our lunch, we'd try our hand at the art ourselves.  I guess there was a feeling of safety in numbers doing it together rather than as lone individuals.  We had a ball that day and it fired up an enthusiasm for photographing people that I'd never had before.  

Ever since that day I'll take a day here and there to do some street photography and while I still get a little nervous I really enjoy trying to capture what Henri Cartier-Bresson called 'the decisive moment'.  Sometimes I'll get spotted and the subject of my photo will throw me a steely look of disapproval.  However, on other occasions there will be a flash of eye contact and a warm smile as they clock what I'm up to and those moments make the nerves all worthwhile.  I still wouldn't say I feel at home directing formal portraits but I just love this stealthier form of people photography.

Just last week I found opportunities to follow this interest on two consecutive days.  I had some time to spare while travelling through London and went to one of my favourite spots for people watching - the British Museum.  I find folks tend to be in their own little world inside museums and there are all sorts of interesting moments to be captured as they interact with the exhibits and even the architecture.

 One of those magical moments at the British Museum - they almost seem to be communicating with each other!

One of those magical moments at the British Museum - they almost seem to be communicating with each other!

 Another London street performer, this time beside the Millennium Bridge.  This chap was an absolute joy to photograph.

Another London street performer, this time beside the Millennium Bridge.  This chap was an absolute joy to photograph.

The following day I took part in the 500PX Global Photowalk, again in London, a group of some 50 photographers roaming the streets of London.  We'd been given a theme of 'repeating patterns' to shoot for so I had expected to end up doing lots of architectural photography.  As it happened though, the light on Saturday was very flat and not at all conducive to sculptural architectural shots so, once again, I found myself focusing more on the interesting people we met.  Many of my subjects were street performers, for whom being photographed goes with the territory.  One of the moments that made me smile the most though was a shot that started out as a candid portrait of a chap on his mobile phone and changed into something altogether more interactive.  Just as I focussed my camera he looked up and spotted what I was up to.  Instead of glaring at me he gave me a warm smile and a thumbs up and there was a moment of friendly interaction which made me smile too.

Today brought yet another opportunity for some observational photography of an altogether different type.  Walking through the City of London I noticed a covered passageway near St. Mary-Le-Bow Church.  At the other end I could see some advertising in the window of a shop, a parked car reflected in the window to the left of the passage and a selection of people walking past, silhouetted by the bright light beyond the tunnel.  Thinking this might make an interesting composition I chose my spot, framed my shot and waited for the right person to walk into the frame.  Then my luck really came. A group of local cafe workers paused to the right of the tunnel to have their cigarette break and to complete the image a lady in a dramatic black coat came around the corner, silhouetted and reflected in the window.  Click went my shutter and I'd got a shot that kept me smiling all the way down Cheapside to St. Paul's tube station!

 This scene just made my day today - sometimes it just pays to wait for that 'decisive moment'

This scene just made my day today - sometimes it just pays to wait for that 'decisive moment'

 

 

Heading towards another milestone

In recent months my Facebook page has gradually become better known and it's heading towards 200 likes.  To celebrate this I'm offering a free 10x8 mounted print to the 200th person to like my page, which they can choose from any of the images in my portfolio.

If you know someone who might enjoy my Facebook page please do share it with them and I look forward to sending my gift to the lucky 200th person!

Updates, additions and new products

After an exciting couple of weeks, with a trip to Wales and a day spent shooting the Tour de France I've had a quieter day today, refreshing up my portfolio collections.  Please do click on the Portfolio link above to have a look at new images I've added.  I've also recently added some new products to my Etsy greetings card store which can be reached via the Shop link above.

I'm also considering adding some reasonably priced mounted prints to my store.   I'm envisaging offering smallish prints (10x8 or similar) in mounts which could easily be put into readily available standard size frames for those who might wish to buy my work without going the whole hog and buying a larger canvas print or similar from my 500px store.  I'd be interested to know if there's a demand for this so please feel free to add a comment to this blog post.  If there is a particular image among my portfolio (or even one you've seen on my daily photoblog) that you would be interested in buying please let me know via my contact page above.

I found a great vantage point on the hill in Finchingfield this week to watch Le Tour coming through.  For the full story please take a look at my photoblog here


City of London Churches, part 4 - St. Mary Woolnoth

I've really enjoyed doing the research for my City of London Churches project.  Each week I look at the map on the Friends of the City Churches website to see which ones I can get to during my hurried commute between Liverpool Street Station of Bank tube station on a Tuesday morning.  Tuesday comes and I invariably find myself thinking, "There can't possibly be a church hidden away here", only to round a corner and find an architectural gem.  

The impressive facade of St. Mary Woolnoth

My destination this week was St. Mary Woolnoth, in King William Street, just a stone's throw from the Bank of England.  Many of the city's churches were built but Sir Christopher Wren but St. Mary's is the work of one of his pupils, Nicholas Hawksmoor.  Hawksmoor is perhaps best known for his designs for the west towers of Westminster Abbey but he built a total of six churches in London, including St. George's in Bloomsbury and the church of St. Alfege in Greenwich.  

Unlike many City churches, St. Mary's was blessed with a reasonably open plot on which to be built - so many churches of the same period are squeezed into tiny gaps between pre-existing buildings.  That said, it is still relatively compact, although the light, airy interior gives a feeling of space when you go inside.  On entering you are greeted by a dark wood high altar which is embellished with plenty of gold leaf.  In many spaces this would become a dominating feature but Hawksmoor prevents this by illuminating the church from above with four semicircular windows.  The soft light from these windows create a magical atmosphere and the use of multiple white painted pillars for structural support and a highly carved ceiling gives the church a remarkably light and open feel.

Unusually, I ended up visiting St. Mary's in the afternoon (a delayed train prevented me getting there in the morning) and as a result the church was surprisingly busy.  Various people visited to pray and admire the architecture and after a few minutes we were joined by the church organist who set about doing some practice on a suitably rousing piece of organ music.  In a corner I found an artist drawing the church.  This elderly gentleman turned out to be the painter Anthony Eyton who told me he was drawing it to make sense of the architecture.  He's 91 years old now but still working and these drawings are the preparation for an exhibition on the Hawksmoor Churches which he's putting on in Islington later in the year.  He was a delight to talk to and it only seemed right that I should take his photo as he had included me in one of his drawings as I meandered around the church!

Anthony Eyton at work

Now my regular Tuesday trips through London have ceased until the Autumn I will hopefully have time to make some special trips into the city to continue my project at a more leisurely pace.  Watch this space for my continued meanderings....

City of London Churches - St. Michael, Cornhill

I continued my project photographing the City of London's churches this morning, heading this time to St. Michael's in Cornhill.  Sadly it was closed today but I found lots of fascinating details to photograph on its exterior.  Following its almost complete destruction in the Great Fire of 1666 only the tower of the original church remains; with the rest of it being rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren.

Like so many London Churches, St. Michael's is squeezed in between the surrounding buildings.

To see the full story of my visit to St. Michael's and see all my photos please do visit my photoblog.

Convergence

I spent Saturday evening photographing a concert by the Chichester City Band and it got me thinking about the way I work in such situations.  

Ted Howard conducting Chichester City Band

As many of you will know, I spend much of my life working as a professional musician, playing the recorder in concerts (solo and orchestral) and conducting various ensembles and recorder orchestras.  As I photographed the concert last night it occurred to me that I wasn't just using my photographic skills, but my musical ones too.  

Before the concert I went through my usual checklist I use when shooting musical events - working out the best vantage points to shoot from and checking which focal lengths would be best for wide angle and close up shots from the various positions.  I also took time to read through the programme to see which solos were being played and made a point of finding out where the soloist would be standing so I could get a decent portrait of them in action.

Principal trombonist Bob Ainsworth stands up to play a solo

Thanks to my musical training and twenty odd years of listening to brass bands my other half has played in I was remarkably familiar with much of the concert repertoire and this undoubtedly helped me as I had a fair idea which sections of the band would be playing at crucial moments.  My decades of playing under various conductors stood me in good stead too.  Timing is everything when photographing conductors in action, especially if you are shooting them from the side or behind.  It's no good taking a photo while their hands are in front of the body because all you see is their torso and it can almost look as though they've lost their arms altogether!  Instead I used my knowledge of the music and conducting patterns to ensure I only pressed my shutter button as his arms were outstretched.  As a conductor myself I also had a fairly good idea of when Ted might give a particularly expressive gesture and knowing the intricacies of the music meant I was ready at the crucial moment.  

A close up of Ted in action

I don't profess to have reinvented the wheel here but I do wonder just how many photographers are able to employ musical as well as artistic skills when shooting concerts.  I'm willing to bet there can't be too many of us who can photograph such an event and know that they've done all three jobs, as player, conductor and photographer!

 

You can see the full collection of photos from Saturday's concert by Chichester City Band below:

Introducing Brian...

REVIEW - 3 Legged Thing tripod, Brian X1.1 

I often ponder the best ways to improve my photography.  As a self confessed gear addict the easy answer would be to buy a new lens but I know in my heart that, while it would be fun, I could spend my money more wisely.  

In recent weeks I've come to the conclusion that if I was to purchase anything it should be a new tripod.  So often I come across potential images which either need or would benefit from using a tripod but the sheer size and heft of my current Manfrotto model puts me off from carrying it over any distance.  As a result, more often than not it stays at home or in the boot of my car. 

I've been doing some research and had initially been tempted by a Giottos model which offered a truly light weight and portable option.  However, closer inspection and some review reading made me wonder whether it would ultimately frustrate me with its lack of height and ability to support heavy lenses.  A few weeks back I took a look at Gitzo's travel tripod offerings when I found myself in Harrison's Cameras in Sheffield.  These were more impressive but also bank bustingly expensive so I discounted this idea in the absence of a lottery win! 

Finally, my thoughts turned to a British company, 3 Legged Thing who are based in Stagsden, Bedfordshire.   I first came across them at the Focus on Imaging show in Birmingham in 2012 where their CEO, Danny Lenihan, demonstrated their latest offering to me.  I remember being very impressed at the time but couldn't quite bring myself to part with the cash at the show, especially as I'd already bought a flashgun that day.

Three weeks ago I made the short drive over to the Chicken Shed (as 3 Legged Thing affectionately called their headquarters in Stagsden) to take a closer look at their products and, inevitably, came away a good few pounds lighter but clutching my new tripod - a Brian X1.1.  

I should explain about Brian's name...  From the very beginning of 3 Legged Thing, when they launched in 2011, they have had a quirky and refreshing approach to marketing.  All their tripods are named after rock guitarists (mine is named after Brian May from Queen) so as well as Brian they offer Keith, Eric, Tim, Dave and Eddie.  Add to this their marketing strapline, "They came from Stagsden" (suggesting they sell some kind of aliens!) and quirky marketing videos (which invariably feature various members of staff dressed up as chickens!) and here we have a company with a refreshing sense of humour and who are willing to laugh at themselves.  

Don't let this distract you from the quality of their products though.  All their tripods and monopods are the result of careful thought about what is actually needed from a tripod and beautifully executed.  Evidently I'm not the only person to think this as their products have won many awards, including this year's 'Innovative Imaging Product of the Year' and 'Tripod of the Year' awards.

Coming back to Brian, he's made of carbon fibre, with a vivid blue head (the Airhed 1 model) and comes in a great protective case with a handle and shoulder strap.  In common with models from several other companies, the tripod legs rotate through 180 degrees, meaning that they can be folded up around the head to make the tripod more compact for transport.  Compared to my old Manfrotto model, Brian is about half the weight and approximately two thirds of the length when folded up - a big consideration when the purpose of buying a new tripod was to pick one that I will actually feel inclined to carry around with me.  Even better, despite the fact that Brian is advertised as a 'travel tripod' the legs are rated to carry 8kg of equipment (which will more than cope with my camera and longest, heaviest lens) while the Airhed 1 is rated for a whopping 35kg.  On top of that, you can use Brian to shoot from just five inches off the ground up to a vertigo inducing two metres - that's what you call flexibility!  Another perk is the ability to use one of the legs as a monopod (which, again, is infinitely lighter than my clunky Manfrotto monopod) and you can even remove the tripod's centre column to reduce weight further for travel.  

 One of my first shots taken with Brian on a visit to the RHS gardens at Hyde Hall

One of my first shots taken with Brian on a visit to the RHS gardens at Hyde Hall

I've been out on a few photographic outings with Brian since I bought him and I have to say I'm loving the experience.  I no longer begrudge carrying the extra weight as Brian is relatively light and very compact and my photography has undoubtedly benefited.  Using a tripod slows me down, makes me consider my compositions more and, of course, gives my camera more stability.  I haven't tried the integrated monopod in anger yet but I can see it being very handy when I shoot motorsport events with large lenses.  All in all, I'm delighted with my purchase and I can see Brian and I are going to have a long and creative life together!

 

 This little fellow was remarkably tolerant of me as I set Brian up to shoot his portrait!

This little fellow was remarkably tolerant of me as I set Brian up to shoot his portrait!

 

New projects and inspirations

For some time I've felt I could do with a photographic project to give me something specific to shoot for regularly but I couldn't quite pinpoint what the subject of this project should be.  This week inspiration finally struck.  Since we moved to Essex I regularly find myself walking through the City of London, more often than not from Liverpool Street Station through to the tube station at Bank.  I've often marvelled at the sheer number of churches that lie hidden away in the square mile of the City and it finally struck me that these would make an excellent ongoing subject to shoot.

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After a little research I discovered that there are no less than 42 churches in the square mile, despite the best efforts of the Great Fire of London, falling numbers of parishioners and the devastation of the Blitz in World War II - plenty of photographic fodder for me to shoot!

I made a start today with a church that stands in Bishopsgate, just yards from Liverpool Street Station.  It rejoices in the unusual name of St. Botolph without Bishopsgate, although I have since discovered it isn't the most unusual name among the City's churches - I think St. Andrews by the Wardrobe wins that title!  I've walked past this imposing brick structure many times but never been inside.  When I did venture inside I found a very handsome and well cared for building which evidently has a full and varied working life.  One striking feature is the new stained glass window (pictured above) which commemorates the restoration of the church following the devastating IRA bombs which exploded nearby in 1993.  The church hall which lies behind is equally striking, decorated with two elegant statues of orphaned children on either side of the front door.  If you'd like to see all the photos I took please do stop by my blog here.  I'm hoping to visit further City churches in the near future but I suspect it'll be a while before I get around the complete set of 42!  

Photographer of the Week - Martin Bailey

My photographer of the week this week is Martin Bailey, a British born wildlife and landscape photographer who is based in Tokyo, Japan.  Martin first came onto my radar back in 2006 when I was searching iTunes for podcasts about photography to help me in my photographic education.  Back then the choice of photography related podcasts was pretty slim as the genre was relatively new but it quickly became apparent to me that Martin had a lot to offer, both as a photographer and an educator.

Beautiful morning

While I came to Martin's work via his podcasts (and he's now up to show number 422 and counting) I was immediately inspired by his photos too.  He specialises in wildlife, nature and landscape photography, in particular the wildlife of Japan, his adopted home.  His photos of birds in flight are an absolute delight and I am also a particular fan of his 'flowerscapes' (a term coined by Martin himself) which are so beautifully dreamy.

Poppy heaven

For many years Martin combined his photography with a full time job but since 2010 he has been a full time photographer and this has allowed him to expand his educational work too.  He still produces a podcast every week, offering advice and inspiration, product reviews and fascinating interviews with other photographers.  I listen to lots of photography podcasts but Martin's is still one of my favourites and I'm proud to say I have listened to every single episode!  One of the unique features of Martin's podcast is the fact that he includes his own photographs in the podcast feed so I you can actually see the images he's talking about as you listen.

Pensive power

As well as the podcasts, Martin regularly leads photo workshops and tours to countries across the globe.  Recent tours have included visits to Hokkaido (Japan's most northerly island and a snowy, winter wonderland), Namibia and Iceland.  When he returns Martin creates podcasts about the tours, including his photos from them and comments from the participants so those of us who haven't been able to attend feel we've almost been there too!  

Snow monkey deep in thought

Another recent addition to Martin's portfolio of work has been his contribution to Craft and Vision, writing eBooks and articles for Photograph magazine.  Martin's eBooks are invariably lovingly crafted, with wonderfully clear explanations and, of course, illustrated with Martin's beautiful photos.  

Black Kite soaring

I'd like to say thank you to Martin for all his work and inspiration and for allowing me to share some of his wonderful images here.  I have learned so much from Martin's podcasts and his photos are an daily inspiration to me, particularly when I'm shooting wildlife.  I would encourage anyone to take a look at Martin's website which you can find here.

Photographer of the week - Vivian Maier

My intentions to post my 'photographer of the week' on a weekly basis (as the title suggests!) has rather fallen by the wayside since my first post.  However, I'm back on track now and thought I'd talk about a totally different genre from the work of Tim Wallace, who I featured two weeks ago.

Street photography is a relatively new discipline for me.  I took my first tentative steps in the field back in 2010 when I attended a course at West Dean College and have enjoyed dabbling ever since.  It's a real luxury to have the time to simply watch a street scene and look for what Henri Cartier Bressan would have called "the decisive moment".  Over the years I've become braver and rather than using a long lens to shoot people from a distance I now tend to shoot with my beloved 'nifty fifty' lens from closer quarters.  

One of the street photographers who has influenced me the most in recent years is Vivian Maier (1926-1909).  Maier was an American, based in New York and Chicago, where she worked as a nanny.  In her spare time she was a keen observer and photographer of human life on the streets around her and she took countless photos, latterly with a Rolliflex camera which allowed her to be relatively unnoticed as she worked.  

In her later years she fell on hard times, putting some of her belongings into storage to save money.  These were auctioned off in 2007 to raise funds and it is thanks to this auction that the wider world became aware of her work.  One of the buyers, John Maloof, found her photos and many undeveloped films (she left over 2000 rolls of undeveloped black and white film and 700 of colour film), saw the amazing quality of her work and realised it needed to be shared more widely. 

Vivian Maier had a wonderful eye for that crucial moment in the streets she walked and so many of her images capture unique moments in time.  As well as these candid shots there are wonderful portraits and the connection between her and her subjects invariably has a real intensity.  

I would have liked to include a few of Vivian's photos in this post but I haven't received permission from the curator of the website which features her work in time.  However, I strongly recommend you hop over to www.vivianmeier.com and take a little time to browse through her portfolios there.  The website shows a mere fraction of her enormous output but it gives an excellent sense of the variety and quality of her work. 

Photographer of the week

I thought it might be an interesting exercise to make a weekly post here about the photographers who have most inspired me as I have developed my photographic skills and to share their work with you.  As many of you will be aware, I am mostly self taught and I've learnt a huge amount from studying the work of talented photographers in many different fields.  

I thought I'd start the project off with one of my favourite car photographers - Tim Wallace.  I first came across Tim when he appeared on Scott Kelby's podcast, The Grid.  As someone who loves finding interesting details when I'm photographing cars I appreciate his way of finding the perfect angle to shoot a car from, lighting its details to create a sense of drama.  Add to that his shots of beautiful, iconic cars in stunning landscapes and I just can't help but plan how I'm going to spend that big lottery win I feel sure I'm destined for one day on an Aston Martin DB5!

 How could anyone  not  want to own an Aston Martin when it's depicted in such an inspiring way?

How could anyone not want to own an Aston Martin when it's depicted in such an inspiring way?

Through his company Ambient Life, Tim creates inspiring images of those aspirational cars we'd all love to own - Aston Martin, Bentley and Morgan to name just a few.  I've heard Tim say that the photos he takes are of the cars you buy with your heart rather than your head - purchased for their desirability and not necessarily their practicality.  Tim has recently started an Ambient Life Facebook page where he posts his latest work and behind the scenes photos from his shoots but to really enjoy his wonderful photography you really should visit his Ambient Life homepage

I'd like to thank Tim for allowing me to use some of his beautiful images in this blog post and, of course, for inspiring me to want to improve as a photographer.

Weekend travels

It's been a busy period since I last updated this page, with travels to Sheffield and Reading for musical work.  However, ironically my favourite moment of the week came at St. Pancras Station in London when I found a fellow passenger playing jazz on one of the station pianos.  That brightened my evening and, of course, a photo had to be taken!

 

   

 

To see the full story of my week please do drop by my blog here.

Friends, modern and medieval

Today started off with yet another flurry of new likes for my Facebook page, most notably taking the total up to 150 - quite a milestone considering it only had 46 followers this time last week!  A big welcome to all my new Facebook friends.

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This evening was a rather more Medieval occasion with a visit to Bishop's Stortford Camera club by Neil Prior, a historical re-enactment enthusiast.  We had great fun photographing him with his costumes and weapons - if you'd like to see all the photos I took please do stop by my blog.

Making new connections

In yesterday's post I mentioned that I'd done some work to make my Helen Hooker Photography Facebook page more visible and, boy, has it paid off! As of this evening the page has gained 45 new followers in less than 24 hours - I think that can be classed as a success.  Many are people I was already friends with on FB but it's great to see some faces that are completely new to me appearing in my timeline - welcome and thank you for joining my photographic adventure!  

 

  Even a spot of rain can't stop a Jaguar from roaring!

Even a spot of rain can't stop a Jaguar from roaring!

Talking of adventures, we took a drive over to Biggleswade today for the Shuttleworth Collection's annual car show.  The weather was pretty dismal but I rather like the effect a smattering of raindrops has on a piece of well polished chrome so I found lots of interesting subjects to photograph.  If you'd like to see the end result of our visit please take a look at my blog here.

A busy day

I've had a busy day today, photographically speaking.  In between sorting and editing the 700-odd photos I shot during yesterday's trip to Silverstone for the World Endurance Championship I've also been out exploring the Essex countryside and discovering hidden World War II airfields.  If you'd like to see the results of both please visit my blog at www.photoblog.com/girafferacing.

 

  Mark Webber's World Endurance Championship car in action at Silverstone yesterday

Mark Webber's World Endurance Championship car in action at Silverstone yesterday

As if that weren't enough, I've also been tweaking this website and promoting my recently started Helen Hooker Photography Facebook page!

New developments.....

I thought it was about time my new website had a blog area where I can keep visitors up to date with the latest developments in my photographic life.  I'll be updating this page regularly so please feel free to bookmark it and pop back to see where and what I've been photographing.