Peter Turnley’s head, hands and feet

First off – a confession. I'm a gear head. I absolutely love
equipment but I don't have a fetish for it. I'm not a collector or one of those
people who names their tools like they are pets. Nah, but I do believe that the choices which an
artist makes in regards to their tools says something about who they are and
certainly how they work. Sometimes this even says something about how they think. Given that I almost
became a psychotherapist I do have a penchant for wondering how a person thinks. So as much as I love deconstructing an image I like to
try and deconstruct what the photographer was doing/thinking/feeling before the
exposure was made. It’s a little game of mine. One of the things that I do
often is use an EXIF reader pluging for Firefox which is my web browser of


EXIF is a bunch of data that is nearly universally encoded
into the files made by digital camera. It tells you what camera model, and even
the serial number, all the various settings, lens type, zoom setting and sometimes
even the focusing distance. The data can be striped out but it’s often there
when you post an image to the web. So if you are a nosy guy like me you can
take a deeper look into what is going on in the image.


I regularly read The Online Photographer and they have been
posting a bunch of stuff by Peter Turnley. If you don’t know about Peter and
his identical brother David Turnley they are a couple of the best
news/documentary photographers of the last 20 years. They have worked for more
big names and won more awards that I can keep track of. But I digress. TOP has
a big three part post of images that Peter took in Seville
during a holy week festival that he was teaching a workshop around. Excellent
stuff as can be expected from a guy like him. Take a gander: Peter Turnley's Faces of Semana Santa


So I was doing my thing looking at the images and got to
reading the EXIF data as I went. By half way through the first installment I
developed the following insight into his working method for that shoot: One camera, one lens,
one exposure setting and a lot of walking around. Specifically he was using a
Nikon D3 with a Nikon AF-S 24-70mm set to shutter priority and cloudy white
balance. Alright time to get geeky so I’m putting on my tweed jacket for this.


Frankly as I was going along I was waiting to see him post an image that used a
long lens to isolate the subject but no. In fact of all the images in the three
posts I don’t believe that he ever got longer than 32mm. So what he was doing
was essentially carrying a 24- 32mm zoom lens. This I’m sure freaks some out
but to me it makes sense. He will be wading through the crowd and processions
so a truly long lens will be nearly useless. Also anything wider than 24mm is
going to bring a lot of edge and foreground distortion. 28mm works wonders and
the zoom gives him a bit of flexibility. Given that one body makes things
easier to carry. I found it neat that he didn’t change his white balance. It
stayed on Cloudy the whole time. If the light got cool or warm so did the photo.


What I found most interesting was the use of shutter priority
exposure. This is coming from a guy who has done fully manual exposure since
the Regan administration. He kept his shutter speed to be 1/250th in
nearly every bright light shot. This seems to be a smart move by a seasoned
pro. Our light meters are surprisingly good these days and if he’s shooting
people watching and reacting to an emotional situation a 1/250th will
do a good job of keeping their movements sharp while letting the photographer
not worry about camera blur as he quickly moves about. He set his ISO to a place that let the camera select apertures between the lens maximum of f/2.8 to
around f/5.6. He was using the ISO as the key exposure setting to keep the lens pretty much open for good
subject to background separation. This is a nice trick that I think I will play
with in the future.


But the best lesson here is how he obviously moves about.
Considering he was using essentially a fixed, call it 26mm, lens he is tight,
wide and everywhere in between. He moves and moves and moves. His feet are his
most used photographic tool. In this era of “auto everything” and even more of “fix
it in post” this proves that getting to where the photo is and putting yourself
where things line up and the moment happens can’t be automated or processed.
Bravo maestro!

10 thoughts on “Peter Turnley’s head, hands and feet”

  1. Jonathan,
    I have to admit that I did the just what you did when I first saw the Semana Santa photos about a week ago – I looked at the EXIF and discovered the limit range of focal lengths used.
    To me that sounds just like the way to do it. I remember that back when I used Leica M6 cameras I took the best photos when I carried the least amount of gear. In the end I carried only 28, 35 and 50mm lenses and discovered that I could have left the 50 at home.
    After I short love affair with zooms (among them the 24-70) today I’m back to using fixed focal lengths on my D3S. Again, the 28 gets the most use with the 35 in second place. For pictures like this long lenses simply don’t work; they would put the viewer into the position of a distant observer who’s spying on the subjects with a telescope.

  2. The other technique you will see in almost every frame is the use of background content to add depth . Peter s images have a 3rd dimension to his composition..he layers in the background to complement his subject.
    This is the aspect of his composition that makes you feel inside the procession. Beyond of course catching the exact moment.
    He will shoot 6-10 frames to get just the right elements in the frame. His style is blend of artist and athlete .
    I was attending his workshop in Seville and was shooting beside him for many of the images .

  3. Of course if you are a mean sonofabitch you can modify your EXIF data rather than strip it out ……… that could get folks scratching their heads.
    Seriously though, one of the useful things about DAM and general cataloguing software is it’s ability to produce a statistical analysis of your own shooting parameters. Might be handy when deciding what new lens you really need

  4. Great observations.
    After looking at the exif info, I also noted that, in the ones I examined, he use minus exposure bias. In some cases -1/3 and in one -2/3. Also the histograms were interesting.
    I have just decided to return to my range finders and fixed lens after wandering for about 3 years in the digital slr wilderness.
    Just not for me…
    My next decision is to add a wide angle. Your observations were very useful to me.

  5. Hey gang! Yeah I’m pretty much a nerd with stuff like EXIF reading. For me it’s like reading the ingredients on your cereal while you are eating it. Mmm, riboflavin!
    Carsten, I agree that in situations like the one that Peter was working in keeping things simple often increases your ability to see well. My Nikon AF-D 28mm f/1.4 is my go to lens for this kind of stuff.
    As for Mr. Dorn’s thoughts, if you are more comfortable with a rangefinder then use that. I use two range finder cameras and they don’t seem to change my ability to see pictures much at all. However since I tend to use moderately wide angle lenses at wide apertures I find the SLR easier to work with because I can easily see how much detail I’m getting or losing in my background. With a close focused 24mm lens wide open putting the soft blobs into the composition is to me easier because I can see them where with a rangefinder I need to guess. But then that’s me.

  6. When talk about field,the first sight I think that is the own of somebody,but now I haven’t thought that,because I read your post,that new opinion there,thanks,learn the knowledge from you lots.

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