A revolution has happened…

Stuart Wood FBIPP FSWPP gives food for thought in his article below. For more information on Stuart and his training courses then visit www.stuart-wood.com or www.stuartwoodweddings.com


I often get asked these days to visit Colleges and Universities and lecture to their students. What I see staring back at me is probably a pretty similar sight that greeted our visiting photographers twenty odd years ago (ouch!). What I do make a point in telling these eager (hopefully) and insecure (definitely) faces is that a revolution has happened within our industry since I sat in their seats.

Like most revolutions, it started as the merest whisper that drifted our way from time to time and left us blissfully ignorant of the sweeping changes to come.

In those now faraway days as a carefree student, film ruled supreme and as yet unchallenged. But like all mighty empires, the ‘golden age’ of this particular and temperamental dictator that often graced you with rewards beyond value but could also be mightily and mercilessly cruel in it’s punishment for not absolutely adhering to it’s unconditional rules, was slowly then surely eroded and gnawed down to it’s now mere toe hold within the industry by the new usurper to the throne…digital!

I explain to my captive audience that of course, the new technology must be embraced and as a result of the advances, we are now able to easily perform techniques and control over our images in post production that a few years ago were only available to a privileged few that had the big budgets of major advertising campaigns.

Unfortunately I am noticing and also regularly being reliably informed that the huge advantages that we all now enjoy can, as is the nature of such sweeping changes from the old ways, also bring potential disadvantages.

Post production and Photoshop are important ‘tools’ that all photographers should have at their disposal but they are not, nor should they ever be, used to ‘cover up’ deficiencies elsewhere in the image making process.

To explain this properly, let us rewind again back to my student ‘film only’ days where there was no access to ‘post production’ other than performing impossibly unrepeatable ‘dodging’ and ‘burning’ techniques in the darkroom that at times resembled a surreal travelling mime artist. I showed my then best image to a visiting London photographer, who took one look at it and said ‘good’ but not ‘great!’

He went on to justify this direct and honest statement by explaining that while I obviously has found the invaluable knack of transferring the image from my head to the photograph, I would now have to put another 95% effort into my work if I wanted to raise it that extra 5% from ‘good’ to ‘great’

This could also be described as improving the image by putting extra effort into refining the lighting, style, composition and content.

This is probably the single best piece of photographic advise that I have ever been given and with now over twenty years of shooting professionally ‘at the coal face’, this has only underlined to me that these words of wisdom are absolutely and unequivocally correct.

I recently had the rare opportunity to shoot some personal work on a trip to Lanzarote on the PTO. Previously tutoring on this wonderful annual gathering of likeminded people that immerses you in photography for a week in the sun in January, this year I returned as a delegate.

The other delegates noticed that after hiring one of the available models who also happened to be a Royal Ballet trained dancer and whom I talked into leaping gracefully at the rising sun, how much time that I invested beforehand armed with my trusty iPhone compass finding the perfect beach. Everyone noticed that I refused all offers of the usual wonderful ‘networking’ in the bar the night before and those that were assisting me on the shoot told of how quiet that I went during our dark taxi ride to the beach in the early morning.

As a result of all this preparation, I was free to concentrate purely on pushing myself, the model and my equipment to the limit and we worked so hard to achieve a result that we are all so proud of. And all of it achieved purely ‘in camera’.

We hear the omnipresent ‘the end is nigh’ voices regularly proclaiming that the art or craft of photography is now dead. I do not think that this is the case for one minute, but it has changed.

Fortunately I was forced to learn my craft with the notoriously unforgiving transparency backed up with Polaroid and as such, this forced me to work within the narrow parameters of this unwieldy medium and still be able to shoot to the standards required of national magazines.

Like most established professionals of the time, I was at first apprehensive at the eventual forced and final switch from film to digital capture but to my surprise, actually found it unbelievably easy as a direct result of the way that I had previously been forced to work.

From time to time over the years, my assistants have brought in work for me to comment on. All too often I have been told as I am handed the work that they knew that this or that was not right but that they would put it right in post production later.

This is always greeted with universal and immediate condemnation from me and then I explain that if they want to improve and be the best photographers that they can, then they need to immediately ‘raise the bar’ on their standards and only accept these standards from themselves from then on. Under no circumstances whatsoever is post production and Photoshop to be used as a sort of ‘crutch’ to compensate for poor photographic technique, or worse still pure laziness.

I am SO grateful that I had no other choice but to learn my photography in the way that I did. As a result of having taken that sound advise long ago, I came to realised that your best photography does not happen by chance and you need to invest every effort that you can into it.

Only when that side is mastered are we truly free to explore our craft.

All the time invested in the preparation for this image allowed me to concentrate purely on pushing me, model and equipment to the limit.

This image that was a commission from the Radio Times for their Christmas Issue and features Mark Warren and Sophia Miles was achieved fully ‘in camera’ and with no retouching. Lit day for night in a graveyard the only thing added was the polystyrene angel on the left which we cadged from the props dept and was added to disguise the vandalised grave underneath. I am able to achieve this as a direct result of the years working with transparency and Polaroid at a time when you simply did not have and post production retouching facilities.

This image was shot for the Big Issue and was a lifestyle ‘real life’ feature about a girl who has had a double lung transplant. I needed a very positive feel to the picture due to the complete success of the operation. By lighting the couple with location flash and then under exposing the sky by selecting a faster shutter speed, this almost 3D effect was achieved completely in the camera with no retouching. Being so practiced at using these techniques releases me to concentrate completely on connecting with the subjects to achieve exactly the look that I wanted.

This commission for a Remembrance Day article about blind veterans for Sunday Express magazine was backlit with location flash that simply boosted the sunlight that was also backlighting the subject. Another flash was shot from the rear to create the flaring on the left hand side and a 6ft California Sunbounce reflector was placed in the hedge to reflect the flared light onto the subject to create the main light. All this was achieved by preparation and well practiced technique and no retouching.

Embracing the new technology, this is four images put together. All the footballers were shot separately as singles. This is because the middle player could never have the edge lighting that he has because both the players on each side would block the edge light on him from both sides and if this was real, all three would merge into shadow without detail.

Stuart Wood