The wonderful people at Sleeklens have invited me to share my thoughts and experiences as a freelance photographer working in London. I will endeavor to do this several times a month, and for my first correspondence, I thought I would introduce myself so you will hopefully get an idea of what I love about photography and how my life as a working photographer unfolds.
My name is Matt Writtle and I’ve been working professionally for over twenty years. I have been seen quite a lot of changes, from bulk loading Ilford HP5 film and shooting with an old Nikon FM2, to shooting most of my work now on a Leica M (240) digital. I prefer digital now, controversial I know, but I have never been the most patient of people and the majority of my work is to shoot portraits and features for newspapers such as the Daily Telegraph and London Evening Standard.
To describe my work succinctly: I have to produce a studio quality portrait on location, in a venue I have never been to before, in less than thirty minutes.
Nearly all portrait shots are time allocated and controlled by the public relations officer or “PR” for the subject. Consequently, time is tight and closely monitored. I normally get fifteen minutes, thirty if I’m lucky, so preparation is key. The best way to prepare is to correspond with the PR in advance of the shoot, and then arrive early. Thirty to forty-five minutes before the shoot is a good amount of time to recce the venue, mostly hotel rooms, lobbies or a theater, and ascertain how much available light there is and what set up to use.
Budgets are tight, photographic assistants on newspaper shoots are rare, and as technology has advanced so has the demise of manpower, so, I have to travel alone with all my equipment on my back. I wheel it all around in Think Tank Airport Security V2.0 and additionally, I now carry a 22inch beauty dish in an extra large drum cymbals case on my back, very useful case and vastly cheaper than photographic equivalents. I look like a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle going on holiday!
My two main light attachments are the dish and a Photek Softlighter II 46 inch. Presently, I use the dish as my key light, and should I need any shadow fill I use the Softlighter II (brolly box). I have to be mindful not to have too much darkness and contrast in the image as newsprint doesn’t reproduce blacks very well. I also have to consider house style: newspapers don’t want their images to be too moody and gloomy.
On most shoots, I walk around the location and try to imagine how the subject will look in a scenario befitting of the angle of the interview. I tend to ask the PR to stand in for a light test. Exposure and mood created, I wait. Many people don’t consider how different each individual will look in the same light, and often, I have to modify the light to accommodate the star.
This was the case when I photographed actor Tom Burke (BBC’s War and Peace) recently for the Daily Telegraph. The shoot was at London’s Hampstead Theatre he was performing in, so, stairwell and lift lobbies were my backdrops. Ten minutes recce and he appeared. I keep things simple. The more complicated you try to make things, the more time you waste.
Set up one was at the top of some stairs with framed posters of previous actors who’ve starred at the theatre. I was thinking hall of fame and he was being inducted. Beauty dish key light, with a basic backlight to add mood and light the framed pictures.
Set up two was in a darkened lift lobby, but as Tom Burke is known for his brooding characters, I thought this quite fitting. Again, beauty dish key light, with a gentle amount of fill for shadows with the brolley box, all of which shot on my Leica M (240) with a 35mm f1.4 and 50mm f1.4 aspherical.
In addition to the technical, you have to get a famous or notorious person inside to produce the image you want. I would say it’s a challenging and tense situation. For those fifteen minutes, I channel my adrenaline, whilst being friendly and keeping the subject happy. At the same time, I make sure the image is focused, composed, exposed and the lighting suits the mood of the character, all while a PR is standing behind you counting down how much time you have left.
It can be frustrating, but only because you have unique access and often not enough time to do it justice. But when there is a connection, the shoot sparks into life and that’s when the magic happens.
This was apparent when I photographed the Austrian actress Susanne Wuest who starred in a horror film “Goodnight Mommy’ which has received critical acclaim. We met at her penthouse apartment at the old Arsenal FC football stadium, now flats. Having modelled before, I was optimistic the shoot would be successful. She was as enthusiastic as I and we connected on what we both wanted to achieve, which took place on her terrace against a beautiful blue early spring sky.
Set up one was just natural light shot on my Leica with a 35mm.
Set up two was on my Canon 5d mark III with a 24mm-70mm zoom. I metered for the natural light and then placed two Elinchrom Quadra heads, one with the beauty dish, one naked, at 45° angles to her and boom! I got my favourite shot.
Hope this guide has been useful for you as a brief panorama of how do we photographers suit our gear to match the different scenarios we may come across during our daily job. See you next time!