This issue, we’re having a virtual delve into photographers’ kit bags to uncover their ‘secret weapons’. These can be anything from a simple lens filter or teleconverter, right up to a complex lighting set up — but the idea is that they provide a failsafe means of getting the job done.
In some cases, they might even provide a unique selling point or a signature look and feel, making the shots more saleable, while helping the photographer, and their clients, to stand apart.
In addition, we discover what successful freelances classify as the key tools in their creative arsenal, which in some cases come down to the psychology of how they deal with a subject or situation to get the best results.
Celebrated for his iconic portraiture, and images of rock and pop musicians shot as part of his ongoing freelance engagement with NME, as someone who actively seeks out new scenes and subcultures, Dean Chalkley deploys secret weapons which he describes as both technical and sociological.
Indeed, having a finger on the pulse of pop and youth culture could be interpreted as a secret weapon in itself, as it has also attracted commercial clients including Ben Sherman, Adidas, and perhaps more surprisingly, Cath Kidston, all looking for an injection of cool dynamism.
«Surrounding yourself with people who have a great perspective on things, but not in a conventional sense, can spark ideas», says Chalkley. He cites as a case in point his contribution to limited run magazine The New British, which also published work by Nick Knight for its debut issue.
«To have your radar so attuned that you can be astute from a sociological point of view is a secret weapon», he says. «If you purely focus on mechanics, you’re missing the point, because the whole nature of what we do revolves around society of some sort.
«Without wanting to name names, at its worst, this can involve photographing someone who is notoriously difficult. So in order not to fail, I take the approach of doing a bit of research beforehand, and thinking how I’m going to achieve what I want.
«My worst subject was really early on in my career, when I was still at college doing stuff for Dazed & Confused, so the fact that it happened turned out to be great, as it was a learning experience.
«A job needs a period of pre-production.
Having said that, a lot of the situations you find yourself in are very ad hoc and random, so you can’t always plan everything — so sometimes it’s about damage limitation or improvising.
«You can’t try and do too much on your own. So another secret weapon is having someone by your side you can trust. An assistant can allow you to focus on what you need to, rather than your taking the whole burden.»
With the cliche surrounding musicians being that they’re unpredictable — and Chalkley himself being so unflappable — it appears to make for a good combination, I suggest.
«I think so», he says. «You also have to approach people as people, and not just as products. The trouble with a lot of photography is that some people let the technical side and paraphernalia overwhelm everything. «If you want to get great shots from your subject, you need to take an interest in who they are and what makes them tick. Ultimately, as a photographer you’re making a ‘comment’ on them.»
In terms of equipment as secret weapons, Chalkley singles out the humble telephone as his top pick, saying «It’s very easy to send an email and get sucked into a long drawn out exchange, when it would have been much quicker to speak to them direct, which also lets you get a sense of their mood.
«I also hire a lot of equipment — including studios — and don’t really own that much stuff. Having massive overheads is not really the modern way. Rather than spend £5000 on a pack and a ring flash you < might only use twice, you want the ability to experiment with different lights.
«My style is not really technique-y. I don’t use a lot of star burst filters or gels, although I did a cover shoot for NME recently with Daft Punk, where coloured gels worked really well.
«It was in a very small studio, which ended up really working to our advantage, in terms of the way the light travelled, as we could use the room as if it was a big soft box. The fact I’d shot the band before helped too, as I knew what to expect.
«I also don’t really like silence on set. I sometimes even have a live DJ in as a way of changing the mood on a shoot. I think David LaChapelle does that, too.
«I DJ a lot myself and run regular clubs, so I know the power of music and how it affects people. It provides energy and fun.
«There are a lot of people out there who don’t really use fun enough. I don’t like unhappy people with inert expressions on their faces! Some photographers are worried about showing ‘soul’. But we should embrace that, and realise that there’s a whole variety of feelings out there, and photography should depict them all.»
Previously an assistant to Dean Chalkley, music and editorial photographer Emilia Bailey numbers NME, clothing brand Ben Sherman, and various music labels and musicians among her burgeoning roster of clients. She says that her secret weapon is, in essence, simplicity itself.
«Due to the nature of the jobs I do, I favour really simple lighting setups», she says. «Portrait shoots for NME are generally quite quick, so I need to be speedy, using mainly daylight mixed with fill in flash, for which my trusty Nikon Speed-light is a must.
«Or, if I have time and perhaps more of a budget, then a portable location flash system such as a battery operated Profoto Pro-7b kit, which I hire from Calumet, is always great.»
With a lot of her shoots happening on the move, Bailey shoots on a Nikon D3 with a D700 body as back up. Or, if she’s shooting without an assistant or the use of a car, she will take just a lighter D700 and a Nikon SB900 Speed light.
«The other thing I would say is I always use Pocket Wizards as opposed to a sync lead, which either gets in the way too much, or often falls out», she adds. «I also use a grey card, to make colour balancing easy in post production.
«I probably shoot more on location than in the studio, but it depends on the client. I’ve been doing Ben Sherman shoots twice a year for the past three years, which are more studio based, and I tend to get more lighting in for those shoots, both because there’s a bigger budget, and lighting is more critical.
«For studio shoots, I’ll hire a Profoto
Pro-7a kit, which is mains powered, and I’m quite a fan of the — a massive umbrella crossed with a soft box, which gives a really beautiful light.
«Otherwise, I like the soft light from beauty dishes for portraits, again from Profoto, and will try and use as much daylight as possible.
«I’ve done quite a few shoots lately of bands recording in studios, and for these I’ll turn on every light I can find, and use the on-camera flash on the subjects so they look as natural as possible. I’ve got the knack now of balancing it all out.»
Bailey also describes her general approach as a weapon, of sorts. «I’m an enthusiastic person, and can get excited by the shoots I do», she says. «As I’ve gone on, I’ve got better at channeling that nervous energy. Even though I have to rush on some shoots, I try and step back to make sure I’m getting everything I want and need to achieve.
«Often for NME shoots, I get there the same time as the journalist, and we work out whether the band would prefer to have the interview or the shots done first.
«Sometimes, if I end up sitting in on a 45 minute interview, taking a few shots as they chat, it means that, by the time it comes around to my taking the bulk of the photos, I’ve got to know my subjects a little better.
«At other times though, if the interview doesn’t go so well, it can backfire! If bands end up very grumpy, I have to work extra hard. You have to cross your fingers.»
«Some of my secret weapons are much more to do with the psychology of handling people than any piece of kit», says multi-award winning wedding freelance Dennis Orchard.
«Everyone loves my natural photographs, and part of that is down to one rule I use with all of my clients: which is that I remind them of the children’s game, Simon Says. I tell them that, if I point the camera at them, I don’t want a ‘Facebook smile’: I want them to carry on doing what they’re doing unless I’ve spoken their name.
«And by passing that message around, it totally transforms your ability to take pictures. By avoiding that Facebook smile, and instead leaving people to interact with one another, your pictures can tell a story instead, which is what wedding photography’s all about. If I don’t have that piece of psychological ‘kit’ with me and use it, I find I get very boring wedding pictures.»
In terms of equipment meanwhile, Orchard adds that step-ladders are good. «Quite often, you need height», he says, «so I’ll have a pair of ladders in the car, that I’ll tuck out of the way at the start of the wedding service, ready for when the couple come out. This means that, if we’re doing photographs on the church steps, I’ve got a higher viewpoint and am not looking up everyone’s noses.
«On a more serious note, my secret weapon is probably an 85mm f/1.2, by far my favourite portrait lens, on a Canon EOS 5D Mk III. The beauty of using this kind of prime lens, set to a very wide aperture, is that you can really isolate subjects, and get lovely shots of the flowers on the table for example, with the background totally out of focus.
«The only thing is that it’s almost impossible to use auto focus with it, because focus is so critical at f/1.2. The technique I’ve developed is to switch off the AF, roughly manually focus and then, with the aid of the viewfinder, just sway backward and forward to get the final critical focus on their eyes.
«That’s the only efficient way I’ve found to use it, because AF will always aim for the end of their nose. Also, I don’t need to retouch skin when using this lens, because everything is so beautifully soft anyway. That’s a perfect portrait for me.»
Guernsey-based wedding and portrait photographer and lab owner John Fitzgerald’s secret weapons could be put down to common sense and best practice — as well as years of experience.
«I always follow the rule of doubling up on everything in case anything goes down», he says. «I’ve had several memory cards fail on me recently for example, even though I reformat them every time I use them.
«Thankfully, the cameras I use have dual drives and memory slots, and I write raw files to both. So my essential secret weapon is a camera that can back up shots as it takes them.
«I use different camera bodies depending on the weather, too. If it’s a sunny day, I’ll use a Canon EOS-lDs; if it’s a dull day, I’ll use a Nikon D3 or D3X. If you overexpose slightly, the Canon handles the sunshine and highlights better, while the Nikon tend to burn out, whereas the Nikon are better at high ISOs.
«Another thing is, each time I do a job, I reset the file numbering when I format the memory cards. In that way, I’ll know if
I’ve lost a card, as there will be a gap in the numerical sequence. I’ll always take spare cards with me, too, of different makes and a different capacities, just in case of any issues.
«I don’t use filters, even basic ones to protect the lens, as I reason that, having paid a fortune for a particular lens, I don’t want to shove something else in front of it.
«In terms of accessories, I don’t have vast numbers — which is deliberate, because if you’re working at a wedding, then ideally you just keep things as simple as possible.
«I don’t go around with battery packs and lamps on stands either, as it just forms a distraction. I use on-camera flash, and bounce it off a wall, so it looks like it’s coming through the window. This softens it down, but also provides that element of modelling to make it look more natural.
«I’m not a ‘stress-y’ photographer. I can leave for a wedding 20 minutes before I’m due to be there. And I try and let my clients enjoy the day as much as they can without putting any pressure on them.
«This year, rather than trying to squeeze all the photos in before they sit down for the meal, I’m letting the couple have more time with their guests, and then grabbing them for an hour in the early summer evening when the light’s gorgeous — which also avoids my competing with the caterers.»
«My key secret weapon is probably a Sekonic exposure meter», says Scottish wedding freelance Craig Stephen, who still shoots a lot of the time on medium format film — a secret weapon of its own perhaps, given the current predominantly digital climate.
«About 50% of what I shoot is on film, so a light meter is really key to that», he says. «It gives me a snapshot of what is happening with the light, and I can absolutely rely on it. I can go into a room or environment, and know straightaway what light I’ve got; I don’t need to bring a camera up to my eye. If you’re shooting interiors or balancing flashlights for commercial shoots, it’s invaluable.
«Compared to shooting digitally, those of us shooting on film must be in single figures, percentage wise. I’ve gone this route because I view it as a unique selling point.
«Certainly for social photography, such as weddings, when it comes to skin tones and using natural light, film is a far superior medium to digital. With medium format, you’ve got a bigger image to start with as well, even compared to the current crop of DSLRs. It’s quite a bit bigger than a 35mm sensor.»
Stephen reckons his clients have noticed the difference in the visual aesthetic too, as all the weddings he’s booked this year are film packages, as opposed to digital.
«I can charge more for shooting on film than digital too — and would love to solely offer a film service», he adds. «But I offer a comparative digital service, which is a bit cheaper because there’s not the same number of consumables and processing and scanning costs.
«I shoot on a Hasselblad H1, which is still supported by Hasselblad. Other than that, I’ve got a close up filter that I’ll shove onto a lens to get a wee bit closer for a wedding ring shot or something like that. It saves carrying a close focus lens, and gets used for two or three shots during the day.
«I’ve always felt photography is 90% interaction and communication, and 10% is the bit where you press the button. You just put people at ease and try to find a common ground, so you’re comfortable and confident with them and they are with you.
«Everyone goes a bit ‘rabbit in the headlights’ in front of a camera — so another secret weapon is that I try and avoid the ‘smile’ word as much as possible.
«You tell people to smile, and you’ve got this great big cheesy ear-to-ear grin, which is not what you’re looking for.
«While most of my wedding work is ‘directed’, I try not to overly pose the couple. It’s a slightly more editorial, as opposed to a straight reportage, approach.»
Stephen uses as much natural light as possible. «The sun is still the best and the cheapest light that you’ll get», he says, «and with all other lighting you’re just trying to mimic that, to a certain extent.
«I do sometimes use a reflector, though. I recommend the California Sunbounce, which is actually made in Germany. In a wedding environment, you don’t want to take anything along that’s going to hold things up; that’s not what I’m about.»
Dave Kai Piper
In terms of secret weapons, Dave Kai Piper cites three things: Photoshop duotones and graduated filters; his regular portrait model and muse, Chloe-Jasmine Whichello; and Fujifilm’s X-Prol compact system camera.
«I’d choose a muse as a secret weapon, because I attribute a lot of the success of what I do to teamwork; it’s not just a solo endeavour», he reasons.
«My portfolio would not be anywhere near what it is without creative input from other people.
«Most of my work is photographing Chloe, and sporadic collaborations with her. And she’s much more than a model -she also works as my commercial booker. We do a lot of stuff together, so nine times out of 10 she’s my secret weapon.
«Regardless of the equipment, I know that, if I’ve got good people to work with, I’m always going to get something good and be able to deliver. Chloe’s very hard working and ‘on point’: she’s an outstanding model in her own right, and knows what works, so when we’re planning shoots she enables me to be confident, and helps me direct what I’m doing.
«The Photoshop thing harks back to when I was starting out, and trying to develop my own niche and signature look.
«I came up with three or four duotone colours that I could overlay onto my work, and would use those throughout everything I did. So when someone would look at an image, they’d say, ‘Oh, that’s Dave’s’.
«Over time, I’ve refined and honed the look, but even with the work I do today, I have a set of actions already set up, and only use a red tone, a blue tone and a black and white.»
Piper says his signature look carries through his imagery no matter what the subject matter or genre — so subjects as diverse as a landscape, a wedding shoot, or a model portrait, will share a signature visual aesthetic.
«It’s a different matter if I’m doing commercial work, though», he adds, «as when I retouch it, I’m very aware that I have to match someone else’s brand and to fit their profile, not mine.
«If I’m doing a shoot for Gap, I’m not going to use my colour tones: not unless they deliberately want my signature look, of course, in which case I charge a premium for someone else using my ‘calling card'».
Having initially being drawn to it for its retro Leica-like design aesthetic, Piper justifies choosing the Fujifilm X-Prol as his third secret weapon for its portability as much as its quality. Borrowing one from the manufacturer for a test run to Marrekech, he subsequently took it on a trip across the States, where he found himself using it in preference to his high spec DSLRs.
«I had the X-Prol with me when Barack Obama’s Marine One helicopter landed in front of the White House», he says. «I’ve been able to make a 20x30ins print out of the shot I took. That’s not something I’d have been able to achieve on my phone, while I wouldn’t have had a DSLR with me at the time, as I was just out for a walk.
«It’s developed into a nice relationship. I’ve had the luxury of shooting with pretty much every camera on the market, and always come back to the X-Prol. I’ll use it on a commercial shoot, and not bother about taking a DSLR. The image quality might not be exactly the same, but it has its own unique spin, which I feel is a good fit with my brand. I’ve had a lot of fun shooting with it, and my images have become a lot more fun as a result, because I’m shooting with a freer mindset.»