Leon Neal

For award-win­ning Getty pho­tog­ra­pher Leon Neal, the best part of his job is not know­ing what the next day will bring. But as Keith Wil­son dis­cov­ers, those days are rarely dull…

NPhoto - - Leon Neal -

Look­ing at Leon Neal’s port­fo­lio (www.leon­neal.com/ al­bums) you find your­self won­der­ing if there is any­thing he can­not pho­to­graph. From prime min­is­ters and US pres­i­dents to dancers, po­lice­men and mu­sic fes­ti­vals, Leon is one of the most pub­lished cur­rent af­fairs pho­tog­ra­phers work­ing in Britain to­day. His artis­tic eye and in­ter­est in cur­rent af­fairs were both nur­tured by his par­ents, but not in an overtly di­rect way, as he ex­plains…

How did you get into pho­tog­ra­phy?

My first real ex­pe­ri­ence of pho­tog­ra­phy would have been when we went on hol­i­days and we’d make a lit­tle com­pe­ti­tion of it and see who’d get the best hol­i­day pic­ture. Then when we got our prints back, we’d look at them all and choose a win­ner. We tended to go to the same place near Aberys­t­wyth, on the coast in Wales, and be­cause it didn’t change very much and looked the same ev­ery year, it forced you to think of dif­fer­ent ideas. It prob­a­bly does ex­plain my in­ter­est in al­ways try­ing to find some­thing dif­fer­ent in pic­tures.

Why did you be­come in­ter­ested in news and cur­rent af­fairs as a kid?

I sup­pose it’s be­cause my par­ents were al­ways in­ter­ested in cur­rent af­fairs. You were aware of what was hap­pen­ing around the world. For ex­am­ple, when I was grow­ing up in Sh­effield the near­est thing of note to my school was the Or­g­reave Col­liery, and dur­ing the min­ers’ strike, ev­ery evening there would be riot vans all around the school wait­ing to go down for the evening fights. In the play­ground we’d play min­ers and riot po­lice rather than cops and rob­bers!

When I was do­ing my A-Lev­els I stud­ied pho­to­jour­nal­ism, on an NCTJ pho­to­jour­nal­ism course, and un­for­tu­nately when I fin­ished my two years the next step you had to pay for your­self. Not be­ing par­tic­u­larly well off, I knocked that on the head and went off to play drums for a few years in a band. Af­ter that I found there was fund­ing, so went back to col­lege when I was 23 and com­pleted the course.

While you were at col­lege you won The Times Young Pho­tog­ra­pher of the Year schol­ar­ship.

Yes, the lec­turer, who was very fa­mous among the press pho­tog­ra­phers, a guy called Paul Del­mar, was very keen on peo­ple be­ing out there shoot­ing, get­ting as much ex­pe­ri­ence as pos­si­ble, so was con­stantly push­ing us to do a week at a lo­cal pa­per. At the time there were lots of schol­ar­ships and com­pe­ti­tions hap­pen­ing and the big­gest one was The Times/ Tabasco Young Pho­tog­ra­pher of the Year. We were told we all had to en­ter, so I en­tered and was very lucky to win.

The prize was six months on The Times, but you stayed for two years. What was the most im­por­tant les­son you learned from your time there?

As with most pho­tog­ra­phy, it’s the per­sonal skills. Deal­ing with peo­ple, be­ing with peo­ple, ne­go­ti­at­ing with peo­ple – that makes up a lot of the time, and with­out those you re­ally

As with most pho­tog­ra­phy, it’s the per­sonal skills. Deal­ing with peo­ple, be­ing with peo­ple, ne­go­ti­at­ing with peo­ple

are sunk. I got on well with peo­ple, I could get into places, I could learn, and I could be re­spon­sive to their sug­ges­tions, and I think that’s all they were look­ing for. They were aware that I was a stu­dent plucked from the bot­tom of the heap and they were drag­ging me up with as much train­ing and ex­pe­ri­ence as they could.

You are now work­ing for Getty af­ter a lengthy stint with Agence France-Presse (AFP). Are there dis­tinct dif­fer­ences with how these agen­cies cover the news?

Yeah, there are plenty of agen­cies around, but some are more tra­di­tional and oth­ers are known for be­ing a lit­tle more cre­ative. That was my ini­tial rea­son for go­ing to AFP, be­cause when you looked at what they were pro­duc­ing they would be the ones that were do­ing some­thing a lit­tle bit dif­fer­ent, which re­ally ap­pealed to me. My first edi­tor in Lon­don on one of my first shifts said, ‘Ok, you go shoot some foot­ball’. I said, ‘I’ve never shot that be­fore,’ and he said, ‘Well, by to­mor­row you will have!’. That kind of re­laxed at­ti­tude was a mas­sive help.

So why did you move from AFP to Getty last year?

The only real rea­son that I moved be­tween the two was be­cause AFP works in a dif­fer­ent man­ner to Getty and has a pho­tog­ra­pher in ev­ery port all around the world. So if some­thing hap­pens in Thai­land then they’ll use their Thai pho­tog­ra­phers, and you’re ba­si­cally stuck where you are. Getty don’t have peo­ple all around the world, which means they’ve got the bud­get if some­thing hap­pens to send you there. That opened up my op­por­tu­ni­ties, which is what I was look­ing for.

Has there been an as­sign­ment that jus­ti­fies your de­ci­sion?

Very much so. I had been with Getty for about a month, and was sat in a cof­fee shop in Vic­to­ria af­ter a fairly av­er­age job I’d shot that morn­ing. I got a text alert from BBC News say­ing the

King of Thai­land had died. Then, 20 sec­onds later the phone rang and I’m told, ‘Right, first plane to Thai­land’. So I had to get on my bike, ride home, pack a bag and get the first plane from Heathrow. One minute I’m drink­ing cof­fee in Vic­to­ria, then af­ter a 12-hour flight, I’m stood in Bangkok tak­ing pic­tures of griev­ing Thais. Getty is one of the few agen­cies that has the bud­get and the in­cli­na­tion to do that kind of rapid re­sponse!

What was your first Nikon cam­era?

The ear­li­est one I’ve got is a Nikon F3HP, but the first one I owned and used would have been a Nikon D1. I went straight into dig­i­tal pretty much. I was train­ing at school and col­lege with what­ever came along, but when I de­cided I was go­ing to do this for a liv­ing I found some­one who was sell­ing an old D1 and en­tered the world of some­what noisy dig­i­tal pho­tog­ra­phy.

So what do you shoot with now?

Two Nikon D5s; a D750 oc­ca­sion­ally, that’s a back-up; 14-24mm f/2.8; 24-70mm f/2.8; 70-200mm f/2.8; 300mm f/4 – the new one, the lit­tle tiny one, which is a gem. It’s in­cred­i­ble, it’s lighter than the 24-70mm. You can lit­er­ally have it in your coat pocket and not re­alise you’re car­ry­ing a 300mm. I used to have a 300mm f/2.8, which is a great lens, but be­cause I travel on the mo­tor­bike I would never take it into town. I now carry the 300mm f/4 with­out re­ally notic­ing it. I also have the 500mm f/4, 24mm f/1.4 and a 50mm – nifty fifty – as well.

If you could only take one lens on a job, which would it be?

If we’re talk­ing about the lens I love most then it has to be the 24mm f/1.4. I like fast primes, but I don’t par­tic­u­larly like long, fast primes. I like to take a wider pic­ture and see what else is hap­pen­ing in the room. I find the ul­tra-tight stuff could have been taken any­where, whereas with a 24mm f/1.4 you can work in low-light con­di­tions – you can cap­ture the whole story in a sin­gle frame.

Since the D1 there have been lots of tech­no­log­i­cal im­prove­ments. Which has been the big­gest game changer from your point of view?

I think colour ren­di­tion is of real im­por­tance, but par­tic­u­larly things like white bal­ance and auto white bal­ance, be­cause if I’m pho­tograph­ing some­one com­ing into a press con­fer­ence I’ll get shots on the out­side with flash, and then there will be some shots in the hall­way with aw­ful strip light­ing, and then at the end of the hall they’ll be un­der a spot­light. So a lot of the time I am shoot­ing on auto white bal­ance, par­tic­u­larly on the D5, be­cause it can han­dle it.

You have to be in­cred­i­bly ver­sa­tile in your job. Is there a cer­tain type of as­sign­ment that ex­cites you more?

It tends to be the ram­bling as­sign­ments where I don’t re­ally know what I’m go­ing to find. I’ve shot the Glas­ton­bury Fes­ti­val quite a few times now, and for the five days I’m down there I might sleep for three hours a night and spend the rest con­stantly shoot­ing and stay­ing up till four in the morn­ing, then get­ting up again at seven be­cause you never know what you’re go­ing to find. That trip to Thai­land, I was there to cover a na­tion in mourn­ing, but at the same time I was wan­der­ing down side al­leys and find­ing re­li­gious idol work­shops and do­ing a lit­tle fea­ture on that while I was

there. The op­por­tu­nity to be in dif­fer­ent places with no real agenda re­ally ap­peals to me. It’s a cross be­tween street pho­tog­ra­phy and news pho­tog­ra­phy.

Which as­sign­ment has proven to be most chal­leng­ing?

The royal wed­ding [the mar­riage of the Duke and Duchess of Cam­bridge]. It was just one of those mo­ments where it was an im­mense amount of pres­sure to get this pic­ture of the first kiss, and weeks of plan­ning and lo­gis­tics. AFP were even talk­ing about trans­mit­ting the pic­ture by laser to a nearby of­fice that would in­ter­cept it. So I was there with a num­ber of cam­eras set up with re­motes op­po­site the bal­cony and a very long lens, a 600mm with a 1.4x con­verter, so you’re re­ally at the ragged edge of what cam­eras can do. It was a D3S that I was on at the time, but the night be­fore I was asked to shoot on a D3X in­stead, which I’d never used be­fore, and it has a much slower buf­fer – higher res­o­lu­tion, but a slower buf­fer.

When the time comes, just be­fore the bal­cony scene hap­pens, the pub­lic moves in front of us and we’ve lit­er­ally got thou­sands of peo­ple be­tween us and them. It was a lovely sunny day so we’ve got heat haze, and we can see

How do you stay on top of your work­flow?

[Laughs] I wish I could! I edit the same as ev­ery other press pho­tog­ra­pher worth their salt. I am for­bid­den from do­ing any­thing ma­jor to my pic­tures. I can’t clone any­thing out. It’s ba­sic dark­room tech­niques: change your ex­po­sure, get your colour right, sharpen, that’s pretty much it. On the stor­age side, up un­til very re­cently I saved ev­ery sin­gle frame I took, but I shoot so much stuff that it was just get­ting silly. Hard drives fail so I want to up­load to the Cloud, but then I’ve got a four-ter­abyte drive, and how long is it go­ing to take to up­load a four-ter­abyte drive?

Now, if I shoot 200 pic­tures on a job, I’ll go through and tag the 15 I like. Then, once I’ve trans­mit­ted them, the next day, mak­ing sure there’s no re­quests for more around that, I’ll go through them again, so I might save 30 images and delete the rest. It’s brutal and it’s not some­thing I like do­ing, but it’s the only way I can man­age to stay on top. the bal­cony just shim­mer­ing. I thought: ‘Oh no, this is not good.’ They come out and we start tak­ing pic­tures and all around me I can hear peo­ple gun­ning it, while I’m go­ing, click, pause, click, pause, and when the time comes and they kiss, I’m still go­ing click, pause, click! Ev­ery­one else is firing burst af­ter burst, 30, 40, 50 pic­tures.

I trans­mit­ted my pic­tures and they rang me back and said, ‘You need to send some more be­cause these are soft’. I have never felt my en­tire in­ter­nal sys­tem fall out of me be­fore like that, but it did. I said, ‘That’s all I’ve got. It’s hazy’. They said, ‘We’ll have a look’ and then the line went dead. For 15 min­utes I was led to be­lieve that I had missed the shot and that was it. Then other peo­ple started say­ing, ‘These pic­tures are soft’, ‘Yeah, mine are soft too’. Then the desk rang back and said, ‘Yeah, we’ve seen other peo­ples’ pic­tures. It’s heat haze isn’t it?’ Yes! Yes! I think that prob­a­bly took a few years off my life that day.

You had a pre­vi­ous life as a drum­mer in a band. Have you ever thought about chuck­ing in the pho­tog­ra­phy, pick­ing up the sticks and hav­ing a re­union?

Some­body re­quested that a while ago ac­tu­ally. The prob­lem is that three of the guys are all still up in the Sh­effield area and I’m down here, so prac­tice is not go­ing to hap­pen. The weird thing is I do miss drum­ming, but not enough to ditch this ca­reer. Three months be­fore I made the change, if you had asked me what I would be do­ing next year, I would have said ‘drum­ming’, so that al­ways sticks in my mind, how you can never pre­dict what you’re go­ing to be in the fu­ture. I quite like the el­e­ment of sur­prise.

For 15 min­utes I was led to be­lieve that I had missed the shot… I think that prob­a­bly took a few years off my life that day

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