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…
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