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Press photography and long lenses

Press photography and long lenses - Daily Mirror staff photographer, James Vellacott often needs long lenses to capture those all important tabloid shots. Here's what he uses and why.

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James Vellacott on the roof the Palace
 James on the roof of Buckingham Palace!
10-15 years ago quality paparazzi could often be found photographing people without them actually realising it. Back then, it was all about the thrill of the chase and knowing that the first time the celebrity or politician would know anything about the photograph would be in the paper the next day. Several years later, photographers can still be found asking questions, searching out good vantage points and chasing the famous for that perfect scoop. This may sound a little sneaky but James assures us it's not about catching them in an uncompromising position.

Celebrities these days deal with various people and if they know they're getting photographed they'll often pull out their own pictures or kill the shoot off so, in an ideal way, it's better to do it without them realising. You get more interesting pictures too as people behave how they'd normally behave rather than posing for the cameras.

James' choice to use longer lenses rather than getting up the nose of the celebrity is not a choice all photographers make. Some, who James says lack experience and may not be able to afford the longer lenses, charge straight in. But by opting for the longer lens James can take shots which are more precise and if the celebrity doesn't know he's there then, chances are, he'll get more photographs of them doing more interesting things.
Lily Allen
Photo by James Vellacott.
After a little research James found out Lily was known to be a heavy smoker and he knew she would be coming out for a cigarette.
Canon EOS 5D MkII, EF 500mm.

Take a look at the Lily Allen stuff. She was outside, having a cigarette and if I was paparazzi, standing outside with a short lens, she would have gone back in or just stayed outside for a short moment. But as she didn't know I was there she was dancing about, having a laugh, chatting to her mates and it made for a nice set of pictures. I know it sounds a bit sneaky but it works better, it makes better pictures.
Queen at the Palace
Photo by James Vellacott.
The Queen.
Canon EOS 5D Mk II, EF500mm f/4 + 2x conv(1000mm), 1/250sec at f/11, ISO800.
It is paparazzi work but it's quite fun sometimes. I'm their to document them in their natural environment. I'm looking for a good set of images of them doing something that's a bit different.

To get more dynamic images James uses his experience, knowledge and some judgement. Lily Allen, for example, is a well known smoker and because of that, James knew she'd be going outside. At that particular shoot there were three entrances and James basically parked the car up, sat on the back seat and watched.

You just use your own judgement. If I'm at the polo and I want to photograph celebrities or the Royals you get a feel for it when you're there and judge how easy it will be for you to be seen. You kind of keep the camera out of sight for as long as possible so people don't become aware of you and you wait for your opportunity. It's like a treasure hunt really, it's a bit of a chase.

Opportunities often come in the form of a tip off – a valuable source for any press photographer. A common tip off is about film set locations and when James receives one of these he suddenly feels hungry.

I go along to the film set, leave all my cameras in the car and I head over to the food van. I buy a coffee and just have a chat with the guy who's running the van to find out what's going on where and who's around.
U2 U2
Photo by James Vellacott.
A tip off the day before and a little bit of research got James this vantage point over U2.

Canon EOS 5D Mk II, EF 600mm f/4, 1/125 at f/4, ISO3200.
 Photo by James Vellacott.
Location for the U2 gig in London.
Canon EOS 5D MkII, EF 16-35mm f/2.8, 1/50 sec at f/2.8 ISO3200.
From there, he decides where to go and waits patiently to capture the perfect picture. For James, the important thing is to not take too many photos too early. It's a good idea to have one or two in the bag but if you overshoot it, people will become aware of you and there's more chance they'll ask you to leave. It's much better to wait for the frame that's worth pulling the camera out for.

Royal Family on the balcony
Photo by James Vellacott.
Some members of the Royal Family on the balcony at Buckingham Palace.
As James is a staff photographer for the Daily Mirror he's an ambassador for the paper which means he has the Press Complaints Commission's (PCC) guidelines to follow. The PCC guidelines are not law but James is advised to follow them. So, unless an image is in the public's interest James will not shoot onto private property and never within private property unless he's invited. Regarding long lenses, he does not shoot anyone in a private environment without the office saying it's in the public's interest or he has the permission of the person he's photographing.

If we see anything which may be close to the mark we put the cameras down and don't do it.”

Photo by James Vellacott. 
Long lenses are need for sports like this.
James uses a Canon 600mm f/4, a Canon 500mm f/4, a Canon 300mm f/2.8 and, on occasion, he's also used the Canon 100-400mm lens as it's quite discreet and it goes up to a reasonable frame.

The Canon 600mm f/4, my longest lens, can be used with a 1.4x and 2x tele converter to make it even longer. I use this lens for motor sports like Formula One as it throws the background out and it really freezes the action. It's quite heavy so you need a tripod or at least a monopod to operate it. The Canon 500mm f/4 can be carried and I can use that hand held but I usually use it with a monopod. The 300mm f/2.8 I use for fashion as it throws the background out and it gives you a really nice perspective on the subject. I also have a 28-300mm which is good for covering conflicts. It's not a bright lens so it needs to be used in a bright environment i.e. Afghanistan. I could jump on and off helicopters with that and one body and not need anything else.”

See James Vellacott's Mirror Blog for more information.
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