Foray Into Film: Day 31

We’ve reached the end of August already. I thought at this point I would be writing up a concluding post on Foray Into Film, but instead this is a short announcement that I am going to run the project into September. Delays with developing mean that I still haven’t had the chance to review my work – and I consider that to be a fairly crucial step in this whole process! So until that time I’m going to keep the film-related posts coming.

Having just finished a roll of Kodak Tri-X 400, I’m now debating whether to stick with black & white or go for colour. My two choices are Fuji Neopan 400 or Kodak Ektar 100. The former is another black & white film film that, like Tri-X, I came to be aware of through the work of some of my favourite street photographers. The latter is a very fine grain colour negative film, renowned for having quite a distinctive look. There are even those who say it bears some resemblance to the famous Kodachrome 25; for that reason alone I am intrigued to try it out.

By way of brief overview, the past month has been a very full-on learning experience. I would say that the greatest lessons I have taken from shooting film so far – lessons that I can feel are sticking with me and instilling good habits – are definitely those of composition, timing, and being patient enough to really ‘see’ shots before pressing the shutter. I was down in the New Forest for a few days last week and took my DSLR out for an early morning landscape session. I found myself behaving as if l still had the OM-10 in my hands. I could really feel myself hunting for shots and adopting a ‘one-frame-per-scene’ mentality. I managed to get the photo below in one take and I dare say that might not have been the case a month ago.

DSC_6325E

 

Foray Into Film: Day 23

One of the most valuable lessons I am taking from this project is understanding the importance of…timing. I was shooting on Blackfriars Bridge earlier in the week, getting an evening shot of the Thames and the Shard. I carefully set up the framing and just before I was about to press the shutter I noticed a train crossing the river in the background, heading into London Bridge station. I thought it would make a pleasant addition to the image, but preferably when the train was pulling out of the station and heading in the opposite direction. So I waited, with camera glued to my eye. And waited. And sure enough, after a few minutes, another train started to pull out across the bridge. It was at this point, however, that an unwanted sightseeing boat chugged into view and ruined the composition. So I waited some more. Once it had disappeared out of frame, the train was long gone.

What followed was about 15 minutes of waiting for the correct timing of trains and boats, while all the while the sun was setting behind me. Now that might not sound a long time, but this wasn’t a pre-planned landscape shoot. This was an opportunistic shot. It also feels a lot longer when standing on a blustery bridge! But in the end I achieved the composition that I wanted. The ‘handicap’ of not having an LCD to immediately view the photograph you have taken is in many ways a wonderful thing. Rattling off five shots of the same scene in under a minute may give us plentiful options to ‘pick the best’, but so often this method lacks thought and consideration. Nothing hones your sense of timing like knowing that you don’t have the opportunity to instantly review your shots, coupled with the desire to not waste film.

And there’s no excuse for when we are shooting digital. The rear LCD can be a beneficial aid but it shouldn’t become a complete crutch. Nearly all modern digital cameras will have the option to turn off image playback completely. Try it for a short period. Avoid the temptation of retrospectively fixing a shot because you didn’t like the way it was composed the first time around. Remove this feature and take the time to really think about all the different aspects of the scene, knowing that when you press the shutter it is composed exactly how you want it. Over the course of this month I have found that increased sense of control over my photography – and the images I am creating – to be extremely satisfying.

eggleston

Sources of Inspiration: My Favourite Film Photographers

I’m past the halfway point of my Foray Into Film project and thought that I’d use this post to share with you my influences for picking up a film camera – photographers who utilised the medium and whose work I find particularly inspiring. If you’re completely new to film photography, check out the following names for a great introduction.

 Ansel Adams
The Tetons and the Snake River

An unrivalled champion of light, clarity, and depth

I was unsure whether to include Ansel Adams on this list, given his ubiquity in the world of photography, but upon reflection it made little sense not to include him. How can anyone not be inspired and/or influenced by arguably the most famous photographer to have ever lived? From his masterful control of light to the wildness of the landscapes he shot, for me, his work made me realise how beautiful photography could be. The first time I viewed The Tetons and the Snake River I was compelled to visit the same location – it was an instinctive, visceral reaction that I had never experienced before. More significantly, it made me want to create work that had the exact same effect on other people.

 

Vivian Maier

Vivian MaierAn unknown New York street photographer 

Since the recent discovery of Vivian Maier, there has been huge public interest in her life and work. Epitomising the unappreciated artist, her huge collection of negatives and prints only reached a public audience after her death in 2009. In a short space of time she has gone from being unknown to one of the most respected street photographers of modern times. I recently saw the movie Finding Vivian Maier, which documents her life through those she worked with. It’s a fascinating insight into a woman who had this incredibly natural eye for photography and yet shared her work with nobody.

 

William Eggleston

egglestonThe master of colour and American symbolism

Simple, vivid, and immediately recognisable, William Eggleston’s work is characterised by his use of colour. His popularity grew with a photographic style that involved vivid imagery and otherwise mundane subjects: diners, road signs, parked cars, gas stations, vending machines – classic American scenes.

 

Joel Meyerowitz

joelA personal favourite and hard to categorise 

Joel Meyerowitz is one of my favourite photographers full stop. His work spans 35mm, medium format and, most recently, large format. His subject matters are also varied: his street photography is energetic, while his landscapes are serene. He also created a moving portfolio taken from ground zero in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. I’d also recommend taking the time to hear him speak: he is one of the most engaging  photographers to discuss their craft, with no arrogance, but just a deep connection to his work.

 

Garry Winogrand

garryOne of the greatest photographers of the streets

More street photography from America here, but what makes Garry Winogrand’s work stand out from so many others is his sense of timing, emotion, and the natural environment he captures. His work is typically filled with character: people expressing shock, pity, humour, tiredness. You truly feel as if you are observing the scene there and then, through your own eyes. Winogrand was also a firm advocate of shooting often: he left behind approximately 2,500 undeveloped film after his death in 1984.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Foray Into Film: Day 11

I’m halfway through my second week of Foray Into Film and it’s been a steady learning curve so far. Since my last post, I’ve moved away from landscapes and portraits and have been doing a lot of street photography to really put the camera through its paces in a fast moving environment. Thankfully, central London offers up plenty of opportunities to experiment at every turn – quite literally.

So what I have learnt about shooting film on the streets?

1) I’ve formed a good habit of regularly checking the aperture on the lens but I’ve found that when shooting on the street one can be a little more ‘reckless’. The reason I say this is that I nearly always shoot at f/8 on the street as it is my preferred balance between depth of field and shutter speed. I set the aperture dial before I step out the door and I’m good to go. It’s one less thing to worry about.

2) The biggest lesson this past week is that good manual focusing technique pays dividends. The fast-paced action of the streets means that you not only need to be constantly anticipating what will happen, but you need to convert that awareness into instinctive reflexes. There’s no secret to improving here other than practice, and lots of it. But something as simple as knowing intuitively which way to turn the focus ring to bring focus forward or push it back is crucial. It’s all about knowing your gear inside out – and that goes for digital as well as film. That said…

3) …give yourself a helping hand by pre-focusing. There are countless pages on the subject all over the web so I shall not be teaching that lesson today. But what I have discovered is that when shooting film on the street this is almost a necessity if you want to put the percentages of a ‘good’ shot in your favour. Pre-focusing your lens, memorising  how much depth of field you have to play with, and knowing how far you need to be from your subject to achieve a sharp shot is extremely beneficial.

4) I mentioned in my post last week that shooting film has helped me to slow down and think more. I find this concept difficult to apply on the streets. Yes, there are less digital variables to worry about, but the subject isn’t going to slow down and wait for you just because you are using film. So, in some respects, using film for street photography is the ultimate test of your ability to get the shot in the heat of the moment.

Incidentally, I haven’t drawn any strange looks because of the ‘old’ camera I am carrying, which I am slightly surprised by. Perhaps more surprising is the fact that I actually feel less conspicuous carrying the OM-10 compared to any other camera I have used. I can sling it over my shoulder, no bag required, and because of its age I can treat it a little rougher than I would, say, a brand new DSLR.

One final point before I sign off this post: I am taking the OM-10 everywhere I go, without even really thinking about it. Literally, not a day goes by when I do not have it on me. Again, I’m sure a part of this is down to me being a little more abusive towards it because of its age and condition ;-) Regardless, if this is the case then I’d recommend everyone only purchase second-hand! We all love our cameras, but sometimes perhaps our desire to protect them gets in the way of using them as much as we all want to.

I’m going to keep going with the street photography for a few more days and then perhaps turn my attention to experimenting with depth of field and shooting wide open at f/1.8.

 

Foray Into Film: Day 4

I’m halfway through the first week of my August project: dedicating the month to film photography. I started using the hash-tag #ForayIntoFilm on Twitter and while it wasn’t the intended title of this project, I figure it’s catchy enough to use as the ‘official’ name! Before I go into a little more detail about the things I have learned so far, here is a brief overview of the gear I am using:

  • An Olympus OM-10 camera. Originally launched in 1979, it’s a great introductory 35mm camera. Although there is an adapter that can be purchased to turn it into a full manual camera, I do not have this so I am effectively using it in aperture-priority mode.
  • Two lenses: a 50mm f/1.8 and a 28mm f/2.8. The latter is in slightly better condition but I am starting off with the former as it is so versatile.
  • I picked up three different rolls of film and I won’t announce them all here, but the first one I’ve selected is a classic: Kodak Tri-X 400. I’ve always admired the use of this black and white film in street photography and so it was an easy decision to give it a test-drive.

This is the set-up I have been using for the past few days and so I thought I’d use this post to share with you all my initial thoughts. So far it’s been a positive start. Keep an eye on my blog throughout August as I’ll be posting regular updates on my progress. If you have any questions for me, just drop me a comment or message.

Initial Impressions

1) While I wish I could brag that this was seamless, I must confess that loading the film was more fiddly than I thought. I consider myself to be fairly dexterous but threading the leader into the take-up spool took several attempts before it engaged. Maybe the Olympus OM-10 is particularly awkward, but I suspect I am to blame here.

2) I learnt the hard way that turning the camera off does not disable the shutter release. The end result will be a very abstract, out of focus first exposure…

3) Perhaps the biggest difference I am encountering between film and digital is the need to constantly check the aperture. With digital we can always see the selected aperture in the viewfinder and the f stop becomes an almost unconscious point of reference. With film there is no such indicator (bar looking at the lens itself) and I have taken a few shots wide open at f/1.8 when I really wanted to stop down.

4) Strangely, I thought that the inability to view the image immediately post-shot would be a difficult habit to break but I have not found that to be the case.

4) Less shooting time, more thinking time. The knowledge of only have 36 exposures certainly comes into play here, but I have found myself slowing down and making every shot count. Whereas with a DSLR I might fire off several shots of the same scene, ‘just to make sure,’ with film there is limited capacity to be so frivolous. I’m eyeing up shots more carefully, really considering the most ideal light, and trying to ensure that I get the shot in one exposure.

6) It is refreshing to have fewer digital variables to worry about. With the OM-10 I simply set the ISO to match the film speed, check the aperture, and I’m good to go. No white-balance, no auto-ISO, no bracketing, and no menu navigation to get your head around.

 

Upcoming Project: Film Photography

Since my last post (way back in April…) a lot has been happening behind the scenes. Firstly, all important work. I’ve been doing a lot of headshot/portrait jobs over the last few months and it’s great having a consistent run on one subject to really hone those skills. Secondly, I’ve been in the process of giving my website a facelift but more on that at a later date. Thirdly, I took a short trip to Slovakia and while I will try to do a post on that at some point, in the meantime you can view a small selection of street photos that I took on my Facebook page. Finally, I’ve been brainstorming new projects to undertake and I have found a fitting one to start imminently.

For the month of August I am going to be dedicating myself (and Dodge And Burn) to film photography. I will reveal more in my posts over the coming days/weeks but, in a nutshell, I’ve acquired an old 35mm film camera and am using it as the perfect excuse to bite the bullet and put my skills in the world of ‘real’ photography to the test ;-) I shall be posting about my inspiration behind this project, the gear that I am using, the highs, the lows, and if I’m feeling really brave I’ll even show you all the end results.

I guess I should get my excuses in early then: I confess that I am hopelessly inexperienced with film photography. I’ve handled film SLRs and taken the odd shot here and there but I have never truly experienced using the format or immersed myself in the process. I’ve never even loaded film before. But this is precisely what this project is all about: taking a leap off into the deep end and hopefully finding out that I can swim after all (or at least tread water long enough until help arrives…)

So, if you’re new to the world of film photography yourself and are keen to see how I fare and ask any questions or make any suggestions along the way, then stay tuned. Alternatively, if you’re a dab hand and fancy a cheap laugh, likewise you are more than welcome to come along for the ride. Keep checking out this blog throughout August or if you want to be alerted to my posts automatically via email, you can sign up at the bottom right of this page.

My Missed Shot

Things have been a bit quieter than usual on Dodge And Burn over the past few weeks, the reason being I have recently moved house. Amid the chaos of taking those first, tentative steps onto the property ladder, I haven’t been able to get out with the camera anywhere near as much as I would like. Instead, I’m using my time productively and have been reviewing my work from the past few months: editing images I didn’t  find time for, re-editing those I was never quite happy with, and casting a critical eye over my own efforts.

It was during this process that I came across the shot below. I didn’t remove it from my Lightroom catalogue, despite all the signs pointing to it being a candidate for immediate deletion. It is a shot that had a huge amount of potential but, unfortunately, no amount of post-processing will save it. I look at it and see a wonderful photo that never was. This might sound morose but I’ve kept this image as a constant reminder – a lesson to learn from. Photographers strive to put only their very best work into the public domain, but I wanted to do something different and take a bold step and post a ‘bad’ photo in order to highlight my own mistakes. So here goes…

This photo was taken in Chinatown on the day of the Chinese New Year. I decided to head out with my Nikon and a 50mm prime and turn my hand to some street photography for the afternoon. Although subjects were plentiful, getting a clear line of sight through the masses of people was the biggest problem; even lifting the camera to your eye was an effort. It was later in the evening that the crowds started to thin out and I stumbled upon this spontaneous moment.

DSC_3238E

It is not a keeper, but there is something about the shot that keeps me returning to it. So I set myself four questions/objectives in order to determine what went wrong and to see what I could learn from it.

1) In a few words, describe why this is a missed shot.

The answer here is obvious: camera shake. Sometimes the answer might be more complex but don’t run the risk of over-analysing. I find that more often than not, a missed shot is caused by something fundamental such as focus, exposure, or composition.

2) Identify the underlying issue.

The short answer is negligence ;-) The practical answer is that the shutter speed of 1/30s was far too slow for a handheld shot. Search the web for “minimum handheld shutter speed” and there are many sites giving theories on how slow you can go. My advice is to experiment, as everyone is different. Over the years I’ve determined that I can handhold at 1/80s and get acceptable results at 50mm or wider. Any slower and it becomes more hit-and-miss.

3) Was this issue caused by human error or external factors beyond your control?

There’s no hiding – it was human error. I was shooting in aperture priority all day, at f/2.8, and was periodically upping the ISO level as the light started to fade. At some point I forgot to check the ISO and left it at 1600. Without increasing the ISO to compensate for the low light, the shutter speed dropped.

4) How can you best prevent this issue happening again?

Auto-ISO is probably the ideal solution. I’m not a huge fan of this function on any camera because I tend to find that it selects too high an ISO level, even in bright daylight. However, when the light starts to fade, engaging it and setting a minimum ISO of 3200 (or even 6400) should help to keep the shutter speed suitable fast. The other solution is more obvious: always keep an eye on your settings, especially in conditions where the light is changing/fading fast.

Lesson Review

Every time I look at this photograph I feel a pang of regret and visualise it the way I wanted it to be. The shallow depth of field blurs the brickwork into a pleasing pattern; the lady has struck a very elegant pose and gaze; the angle of the parasol and the way she holds it adds balance; the texture of her coat; the gentle clutching of the panda toy. It has many ingredients for a great shot. Unfortunately, all of these things – which just happened to fall into place, as is so often the way with street photography – have been let down by my own error. Not every missed shot has to teach you a dozen lessons: one can often be enough, as is the case here.

We’re all human and we will always take dud shots. More often than not we delete them without a second thought. There’s nothing wrong with that and for the sake of your hard drive, it is probably advisable! However, the difference with this example is that it is not a dud shot that would have been merely ‘OK’ had I kept a closer eye on the shutter speed. In my opinion, this is a dud shot that could have been a great shot. It is a real missed opportunity.

I believe that reviewing your own work – truly analysing and critiquing it – is more beneficial than having a stranger do so. Sometimes the lessons you learn are simple and can be fixed immediately; other times they are more complex and require more hours of practice to overcome. I’d encourage everyone to take a look back through your own catalogue (preferably more recent work) and find your own missed shot – the one that got away. Analyse it, find out what went wrong, and most importantly of all, take something positive away from it. Ask yourself those four questions and be completely honest about your own shortcomings. It’s an extremely beneficial exercise and aids your development, even when you don’t have a camera in your hand.

 

“Experience is a hard teacher because she gives the test first, the lesson afterwards.”

- Vernon Sanders

 

Tips For Photographing Basketball

The relentless, end-to-end action of basketball makes it a fantastic sport to photograph. The opportunities come thick and fast all over the court. However, for these very reasons it can be extremely tough to get winning shots. So I thought I would share with you some of my top tips, based on my own experiences. They won’t guarantee you keepers every time, but will hopefully improve your hit rate! If you have any tips of your own, please share in the comments section below.

1) You can’t cheat the need for shutter speed

DSC_8207EBasketball is a very quick sport, so if you want to freeze your action completely I find that shooting at 1/500s is a good baseline to work from. But don’t be afraid to experiment. If you’re shooting down the court, head-on with your subject, then you might be able to get away with slowing down the shutter speed a fraction. However, if you are standing on the halfway line and shooting square-on to the court, then I would recommend keeping it at 1/500s, if not faster.

As for which shooting mode to set your camera to, I use Shutter Priority the vast majority of time and occasionally turn to Manual if the lighting is particularly awkward or I want a little more control over my depth of field. Which leads me onto my next tip…

2) Stop down a little, if you can

DSC_8435EFast glass for any sport is nearly always a must. With basketball, the combination of rapid action and often inconsistent/downright awful indoor lighting means that you will likely need to get your hands on a fixed f/2.8 or f/1.8 lens. The wide open aperture will help you achieve those fast shutter speeds and maintain a good exposure. However, be aware of just how shallow your depth of field will be when shooting at f/2.8 or wider.

In the UK, a regulation court is 28m long. Imagine you are shooting from under the basket and your subject is approaching the three point line (10m away, give or take). Using a focal length of 150mm at f/2.8 your depth of field is just 50cm (and even less on a cropped sensor body). This doesn’t give you a lot of room for error. So if the conditions permit you to stop down even a little bit, try it. You will lose some subject isolation but increase the chances of getting the shot in acceptable focus.

3) Frame with the player: go portrait

DSC_7122EWhen I first started shooting basketball I chose landscape orientation by force of habit. However, even with some of my favourite shots, I always felt that there was something missing. It was only when I flipped the camera to portrait that it dawned on me what the issue was. Basketball is a game where the action typically centres on two or maybe three players at any one time; it is not too common where you will have a shot with four or more players in the frame, except perhaps rebounds. Shooting in landscape can therefore leave a lot of negative space around your subject(s) and result in a flat image.

By shooting in portrait orientation, the framing is tighter around the player and allows for full body compositions. This is really effective when shooting head-on into a point guard who is dribble up court; they might not have anyone challenging them at this point so landscape orientation will leave a lot of dead space either side of the player. Of course there are times when landscape is preferable, such as when under the basket and the action is happening right in front of you. Otherwise, go portrait and tighten up the framing to make the viewer really feel part of the action.

4) Unleash AF-On mode

DSC_7308EThere has to be a pretty exceptional circumstance for me not to use autofocus during a game. On top of this, I utilise the AF-On function. A lot has been written about this on the web so I’ll keep my definition short: it separates the action of focusing from the shutter release, so the user can control each independently. It’s a device that can save you a fraction of a second per shot but, as any sports photographer will tell you this, this can be the difference between capturing the perfect moment and missing it entirely.

So what does this mean in practice? Well, you keep your finger pressed on the AF-On button (or if your camera does not have a dedicated button you can assign it to the AE-L/AF-L button) and the camera will continue to adjust focus automatically as soon as a subject passes across one of the focus points. It happens quickly and smoothly, leaving your trigger finger ready to hit the shutter release, knowing that you won’t lose precious milliseconds waiting for it to adjust the focus. It takes a bit of getting used to but once you try it, it’s hard to go back! Without any doubt, my hit rate has gone up noticeably since using the AF-On mode.

5) Keep an eye on the lighting (or lack of it)

DSC_8609EThere is one thing that will significantly influence how you shoot any game: the lighting. Depending on the competition level and the sport centre’s own facilities, the quality of lighting will vary considerably. Regardless, I always set my white balance manually, dialling in the best setting on the Kelvin scale and using live-view for guidance. Fluorescent bulbs are notoriously inconsistent in the light they emit so shoot in RAW and any colour imbalances can be easily corrected.

Crucially, look up into the rafters to see if any of the lights are not working. You might not think that one bulb can make a huge difference, but you’d be surprised. There’s a fair distance between those lights and the court floor and ‘dark’ patches can form which can potentially throw your exposures about. If you see that a bulb is out, make a mental note of where on the court will be affected and work around it. Hopefully it will be in the corner and not under the basket…

6) Track the player, not the ball

DSC_9080EWhen you first photograph a basketball game, it can be instinctive to follow the ball through the viewfinder. Don’t. It will result in you frantically jerking the camera back and forth in a desperate attempt to keep up with the action and you’ll be an endless source of amusement for the spectators! Whilst it can be tempting to follow the game, detach yourself from it and try to predict the moves. Identify the players and their roles. Will they be backing down in the post? Are they regularly driving to the hoop? Or are they constantly putting up threes from their preferred spot on the other side of the court? The more you know about each player’s strengths and habits, the more chance you have of being in the right place at the right time – which let’s not forget, plays a big part in sports photography.

One method I adopt is to dedicate time periods for a particular player. How long is up to you, but I often devote, say, 30 seconds to one player. During this time I remain entirely focused on them, whether they have the ball or not, and this leaves me perfectly placed to capture the moment when they are involved in the action. When the time is up, I move onto another player. You might be thinking that this leaves open the risk of missing action elsewhere, and you’d be right – it does. But remember, it is impossible to capture everything that happens; this tip will merely hedge the bets a little more in your favour. If you chase the ball you are chasing the game and this means you will rarely get that great shot, as you will inevitably always be arriving a fraction too late.

7) And as an overtime bonus…

…here are some final quick-fire tips:

  • Don’t forget about the reactions of the coach and players on the bench.
  • Blurred feet/hands are unlikely to ruin a shot, but a blurred face almost certainly will.
  • If you’re going to include the ball, make sure you get the whole thing in the frame.
  • Watch out for kits which lack contrast as this might throw your autofocus off.
  • Don’t worry about high ISO noise; with all the inherent difficulties of shooting indoor action it should be the least of your concerns.
  • Use a battery grip, if only for the portrait orientated shutter release, as it will help to prevent your hand cramping up into a claw.
  • Offence is exciting, but don’t overlook the simple pleasures of a hard-hitting defence.
  • Free throws are a good opportunity to capture pre-shot routines. And post-shot frustration.
  • Spot meter, as there can often be a great deal of distracting colours and contrasts in the background.
  • A lens hood might just save your expensive gear from a misdirected pass…

Behind the Mask: The BAFTA Portraits of Andy Gotts

I’m going to kick off the new year with a short post about the Behind the Mask exhibition, currently on at Somerset House. Before I do, you will have noticed that Dodge And Burn has undertaken a re-design for 2014. I really liked the appearance of the previous theme, but the use of side menus made everything a little narrow. For a blog that is regularly displaying photos, that does have its disadvantages. So, I’ve gone for a wider, cleaner look this time. I hope you like it.

Behind the Mask showcases the work of Andy Gotts MBE and his portraits of actors and actresses who have either won a BAFTA or been nominated (since 1954). I was pleasantly surprised by just how large this display is; give yourself an hour, minimum, to weave through the many rooms. The subjects are instantly recognisable: Al Pacino, Helena Bonham Carter, Robert De Niro, Helen Mirren, Sidney Poitier, Judi Dench, Ian McKellen, Penelope Cruz, Johnny Depp, Lauren Bacall. The list goes on and on. You’ll be hit with an inevitable pang of envy to think that Gotts had access to seemingly everyone who’s anyone in the film industry. Given the sheer number of portraits on display, it was surprising to learn that it took him just two years to complete this project.

I’m a big fan of simplicity, when it comes to my own photography and other people’s, and I immediately connected with Gotts’ work. Many of the images are monochrome, against plain white or black backgrounds. But it’s his mastery of light that makes them so effective – especially those that utilise side-flash, helping to create really deep, brooding shadows. The end result is a great deal of intimacy; the subjects are solemn, pensive, laughing – even yawning. As for the most memorable? My vote goes to Samuel L Jackson (simply the back of his head), Tony Curtis (this is, reportedly, the last professional photo taken of him alive, with the USA flag projected over his face), and Heath Ledger (a shot that made me feel slightly uncomfortable, with his patchy, scraggly beard and howling expression).

This is a thoroughly enjoyable exhibition. Quite often with portrait photography there is a temptation, in the desire to strive for originality, to go too far with the shock factor. This isn’t the case with Behind the Mask. These are intimate portraits with no unnecessary distractions. To the viewer, it doesn’t come across that Gotts has tried to artificially uncover “the other side” of these celebrities in a bid to inflate the artistic license. Instead these are some very natural, extremely accessible shots. Viewing Behind the Mask might make you jealous of Gotts, but you’ll come away feeling as if you are that little bit closer to your favourite actors/actresses.

Behind the Mask is on at Somerset House, from 21st January to 7th February. Admission is free.  

Photo of the Month: Conclusion

It’s the last day of 2013 and I’ve just posted my final Photo of the Month. The reason I chose to undertake this project was, just like the premise, simple. It is designed to not just get you shooting more frequently, but to go broader and learn to adapt to situations that might usually be out of our comfort zone. Consequently, I don’t think I’ve ever been more consciously aware of my surroundings as I have this year, as in the back of my mind there has always been the question: “what would make for a great photograph this month?” Admittedly, that is a question we should always be asking ourselves but, let’s be honest, there can be days, weeks and even months that go by when our creativity takes a hit and that eye for sussing out effective shots lets us down. A project such as this helps to keep that eye in check and, I would like to think, refine it.

I am acutely aware that my shot discipline has improved as a result of devoting more time to thinking. Shooting more does not mean being trigger happy and mindlessly running up hundreds of exposures a day; it is about shooting with a greater purpose. My thinking time before I press the shutter has increased and if there is doubt about what I am trying to achieve, I feel I have become more disciplined in putting the camera down and reassessing. Diversity is another benefit. Reviewing the images I have selected throughout 2013, there is wildlife, landscapes, nature, sport, portrait, architecture, street and even an attempt at fine art. I doubt I would have shot such a range of subjects, had it not been for undertaking this project. The counter to this is to ensure that you are always learning; there is no point in photographing an endless array of subjects to increase your breadth without trying to improve your skills in that area and enhance your depth.

It is frequently said that the simple things are often the most effective and I certainly believe that a project such as Photo of the Month fits that bill. I’d recommend it to anyone, whether you intend to publicly publish the results or not. If the time-frame is too long then similar projects such as the classic “50 at 50″ (50 shots in 50 days, all taken at 50mm) might be more appealing. Or even better, go out and create your own personalised project: the key is to ensure that it is fulfilling a genuine and specific need. Photo of the Month was designed to get me shooting more regularly: without a shadow of a doubt it fulfilled that requirement.

As I write this post, I’m undecided as to whether I will take Photo of the Month into 2014. On the one hand, I have enjoyed it immensely and can genuinely feel the rewards. On the other, it is important to keep evolving and coming up with new challenges and goals. I never want a project to feel like it is becoming a chore and am a believer that you have to keep looking forward. I feel I have accomplished everything I can from Photo of the Month, so if I am to continue with it I suspect some new rules or parameters will have to come into play. In any event, watch this space!

To round off the project, and indeed the year, below is a gallery of all my selected Photo of the Month images for 2013. I hope you enjoy them and if you have any thoughts of your own or have a favourite from the twelve, please do comment below this post or click on an image and comment on one specifically. Thank you very much for following this project over the year and let me wish you all a very happy new year. See you in 2014!