Tuesday, 20 July 2010

A Brief Encounter

One of the great railway films of all time is Brief Encounter, a classic and timeless story that showed how an unexpected meeting can set off a chain reaction that would never have occurred had just one of those people not been in a certain place at a certain time.

My own brief encounter happened in June, and I recounted the full story here.  Briefly, I was on duty at the Nene Valley Railway quite by chance as I was covering for a colleague who was sick.  A photographer and model (Siân) came to the NVR for a photoshoot and I mentioned that I met them quite by chance, as they needed a guide to take them into the yard.  At the end of the piece I flippantly wrote, ‘I personally wish Siân great success with her future career; perhaps one day she might get to star in a Grumpy Git Production, the pinnacle of any model’s career.’

Well, fact can often be stranger than fiction.  After some thought I contacted Siân through one of her website portfolios and asked if she’d be interested in doing a photoshoot with me, bearing in mind that I am a complete amateur and have no experience at working with models whatsoever.  As a photographer I have to be honest (as indeed I was in my communications with Siân) and say that I am at the bottom rung of the profession.  Well, I’m looking up at the bottom rung, but it gives me something to aim for.  My photographic kit is restricted to one good quality point-and-shoot style camera (Panasonic TZ6), a Fuji Finepix S1500 that I don’t much care for, a tripod that accompanies me everywhere and a reflector, which is actually a silver sunshield, scrounged out of a car at work.  When I say basic, that’s exactly what I mean.  This was brought to home in January at the Great Central Railway Winter Steam Gala when I joined a line of photographers who looked as if they were filming a Hollywood blockbuster.  Out came my diminutive Samsung point n’ shoot (at the time) and tripod which I set up in all of 30 seconds.  A group not ten feet from me openly scoffed between themselves at turning up with such kit, although when I glared across at them with a lorry driver’s hard stare, they shut up.  For these reasons I didn’t I really think that a professional model would be interested in a shoot, but Siân had seemed a very pleasant and outgoing person at the railway, and I felt that if I didn’t ask I could miss out on a great opportunity and regret it later.

Therefore, I was delighted when Siân replied the next day, which impressed me a lot, and agreed to a shoot.  Many emails passed between us, and I was struck by her helpful advice and suggestions as things progressed.  It was clear from her emails and portfolios that she loves her job and gets a real buzz from it, but what makes her stand out is that she wants the best possible results for the photographer as well.  Frequent communication also built up a rapport in readiness for the shoot, which meant things were relaxed from the moment we met on the day.

I have no studio experience at all, and as I mentioned above, I’m somewhat lacking in the equipment department.  I enjoy working in the field, shooting variations on landscapes or transport scenes, particularly railways.  So a location shoot was required, and I have a reasonable imagination when it comes to composing pictures.  Therefore I planned a shoot that would be varied and hopefully interesting for both of us, set on a local farm that sits in a beautiful and undulating valley.  Perfect – and everything was set for the shoot.  Except, being Britain, the prolonged heatwave and clear skies over Lincolnshire turned dramatically into storms five days before the shoot.  It soon became clear (to me, not the weather) that conditions were going to be ‘unsettled’ as the BBC weather Wombles like to say.  They meant, ‘It’s going to rain a lot’, and it did.  Wednesday was crunch time – the forecasts were poor and an evening thunderstorm rather proved the point.  I cancelled the farm as they didn’t have any boats to get up to the meadows, and hurriedly devised Plan (b).  This was, of course, the Nene Valley Railway.  It was a natural choice – I’m familiar with it, and could work around poor weather with undercover shoots if necessary.  I hurriedly blagged some Peterborough deliveries at work on Thursday and popped down via Wansford to sort out a shoot.  As always, I got terrific and enthusiastic support from my colleagues at the railway with access to the locos, yards and a bundle of useful props for the specific shoot I had in mind.

Siân wasn’t put out by the sudden change of plan, in a flurry of texts she proved that she was game for anything and looking forward to the shoot regardless.  That was a relief; it’s not very professional to change things around at short notice, but needs must in the circumstances.

Friday dawned with bright and sunny skies, ironically enough, and the forecast had changed from unsettled to bright spells with showers – which is the same thing as far as I’m concerned.  Siân arrived early, which was great – good timekeeping is a fad of mine – and turned up with a veritable Aladdin’s Cave of clothes and props.  This girl comes prepared for anything, and in a suitcase and two large bags had an entire wardrobe available to suit any kind of look at a moment’s notice.  She was accompanied by her chaperone and fiancé, Spike – who is also a photographer and occasional model.  Some photographers dislike chaperones; personally I found it useful to have people who could add ideas and enrich the shoot with their experience.  Spike in particular spotted some brilliant photo opportunities that I’d have missed, and these were fantastic shots that look amazing.  He was unstinting with suggestions and ideas that added a great deal to the shoot, and I really appreciated his enthusiasm to help me get some great pictures.

I’d planned a shoot that would be structured and themed, as this is how I create videos.  Plan the work and work the plan, always allowing for those unexpected issues that crop up along the way, of course.  Many models are photographed on heritage railways as they provide a nice, historical background for a shoot.  I was after a totally different theme; by dressing Siân in appropriate uniforms I’d picture her undertaking the various jobs we do around the railway.  When I say uniform, I should point out that I wasn’t exactly after historical accuracy here.  If the sort of people who go to model railway exhibitions point out that her cap badge doesn’t match the era of the type of tail-lamp seen in some pictures, deal with it.  Preferably a long way away from me.  Yes, there really are some people out there who notice these things, and are only to happy to wax lyrically about them ad infinitum.  I know; in a previous life as a trader at railway exhibitions I’ve met them.  My costumes would be a nod to traditional railway dress, but with a twist to make the shoot light hearted, humorous and sexy.  Imagine St Trinians on the Orient Express and you’re on the right lines.

The shoot began in the glamour of the yard amongst bits of old scrap components, boilers and machinery.  So much nicer for a model than a beach in Barbados!  Spike spotted the hand trolley beloved of old movies from the Buster Keaton era.  Indeed I discovered only on Saturday that this particular trolley had just returned from a far less exotic photoshoot of its own, as it had just been filmed for a role in Coronation Street as part of Haley’s wedding.  I don’t follow Corrie, but if you watch it that will no doubt make sense.  Siân jumped straight onto this and struck a fantastic pose without even being asked; she knows a prop when she sees one and instinctively interacts with it to create the look you want.  Indeed, as the day wore on and we got to know each other, I’d often start a sentence to suggest the next pose and she’d be in it before I’d got half the sentence out!  She’s definitely a natural model and made the shoot easy to direct as a result.  Even her throwaway moments between shots were great; so much so that I then asked her to repeat them for the camera.

From the yard we moved to the rolling stock itself.  Donning a grey driver’s jacket to go with her rakish cap, heels and short skirt, this was her moment that every girl dreams about - yes, I’m talking about driving and firing real locomotives.  First call was for some exterior shots on a class 14 diesel, mimicking the sort of pose struck by models at the Motor Show on brand new Ferraris.  The difference here was that Siân was posing on enough horsepower to give Jeremy Clarkson wet dreams for a week.  Leaving that pretty picture behind, we moved onto the Polish tank loco for some firing shots.  This meant shovelling coal and Siân got stuck right into the task.  Having earned her stripes with a shovel, she was rapidly promoted to driver on our flagship loco, Standard 5 City of Peterborough.  Siân settled straight into the role and soon got to grips with the intricacies of the regulator and brake, whilst keeping a close eye on the gauges.

A spot of maintenance beckoned, and as we passed the Fowler 4F with the smokebox door wide open, Siân asked if she could pose inside it!  It was an inspired moment on her part, and the pictures look fantastic.  How many girls can claim to have been inside the smokebox of steam loco?  One for the grandchildren, that.  Another great set of scenes were filmed around her job as an oiler on 73050, getting stuck into the valve gear with some amazing facial expressions.  Siân’s hands-on involvement with the task was now literally showing with coal, grease and general muck all over her legs and hands, so with a couple of dabs to her nose, her initiation as a railway-woman was complete.  It seemed like a good idea to break for lunch and general clean up, so we retired to Jayne’s café for sustenance and soap.

Once fortified, it was a change of outfit for one of the most important railway jobs – signalwoman.  Our regular signalman doesn’t often sport white high heels, but once he’s seen the set I hope that this might signal a change of direction at the NVR.  Together with an appropriate tie and dinky waistcoat Siân set off to learn another new job in Wansford Signalbox.  This would be quite a tricky shoot for me, being indoors but backlit with daylight streaming in through the ‘box that is entirely glazed on three out of four sides.  It took a while to do this bit of the shoot, as I took many identical photos at different settings to cope with the lighting.  Some fantastic pictures came out of the box; I particularly like the reflections in the mirror, the close up headshots and the raunchy pose taken opposite the ‘box as she stood on the window sill giving me a ‘don’t mess with me’ look.

One task remained; one of the most prolific railway jobs available.  This was, of course, Guard.  I had a rake of coaches available and the traditional task of waving the train off with the green flag suited Siân admirably.  She had some interesting moments placing the tail lamp on the bracket, as it was far heavier than either of us expected.  She doesn’t give in, however, and created a great look by swinging the lamp in a pendulum movement to get it in place.  She also managed to get herself onto the headstocks and pose ballet style next to the gangway – no mean feat, I can tell you.

Siân had never been inside an old ‘proper’ train like the Mk1 coaches and was really keen to take a look inside.  She adored the compartments, and instantly presented me with a great photoset that I hadn’t considered.  Discarding her hat, waistcoat and kicking off her shoes, I got a great end-of-the-shift look as she languidly stretched out and reclined on the seats.  These are lovely, natural photos and really capture the moment of ending your duty after a busy day and relaxing ‘on the cushions’ as the train returns to the depot.

That was the main shoot of the day completed, but Siân was eager to carry on modelling; she has real passion and enjoys her work immensely.  I was surprised as modelling is incredibly hard work and thought she’d be ready to drop by now.  There is a general assumption that modelling is easy, simply a case of posing whilst having your picture taken.  Well, I am happy to dispel that myth.  During the day Siân had clambered in, out, under and on steam locos, old boilers, piles of ash and coal, dirty and greasy machinery and balanced one legged on a bufferstock.  Throughout this she’d had to hold and change pose time and time again, and have the same photo taken several times at different settings.  The idea that models are airheads was also totally turned on it’s head.  Siân brought incredible concentration to her roles, and as we walked around the site she was constantly looking for and suggesting ideas or props that could be used.  She gives herself totally to the shoot, and throws herself into roles with great enthusiasm.  She enjoys new things; well she certainly got that!

The shoot ended with a bit of freestyle modelling in the fields near Wansford Station, where Siân put on her own clothes and posed as if on a picnic in the countryside.  We tried some ball games for action shots and ended with some relaxing poses next to the river.  To add in a really authentic British picnic feature it began to rain at that point, although in fairness it was the first rain we’d had all day.  We carried on shooting in the rain for ten minutes, but then it turned into a deluge so that was that.

Surprisingly, the shoot had gone for eight hours, but where the time went I just don’t know.  It was great fun, particularly working with Siân who loves modelling and has incredible energy and dedication.  The nerve racking came bit at home when I uploaded the 753 photos I’d taken – would any of them actually be any good?  Fortunately the overall result was pleasing, and I ended up with around 350 pictures that I like.  I got good and very complimentary feedback from Siân and Spike, particularly about my creativity regarding the locations, theme and style of pose.  I have a penchant for full-length shots of a model, sometimes taken from a striking angle.  I favour a model to be pictured in a setting so that she becomes part of a scene as a whole and not just standing in front of something.  In many of my scenes Siân is interacting with various props to create striking poses that look in keeping with her surroundings.  I went for a teasing look to the railway set to suit the idea of a young girl taking on the traditionally male dominated roles of the industry, and with Siân’s impish facial expressions and natural coquettishness this came across beautifully.

Overall I found the entire experience a fantastic challenge, extremely creative and great fun to undertake.  It has taken my photography to a new level that I would like to develop further.  Both Siân and I have many ideas for great shoots in the future; indeed I was so impressed that I immediately rebooked her for a second shoot the following week.   Perhaps our initial brief encounter could become from here to eternity!

These sample photos clearly demonstrate Sian's enthusiasm and versatility as a model.  A good selection from her extensive portfolio may be seen here.

Update: The full set of photos from this shoot may now be seen in my Modelling Portfolio.


  1. Your description is really very fascinating and interesting. Thanks for sharing this information with us and please keep sharing.

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  2. I loved your account of your first experience of using a model, especially in a preserved steam railway setting. Some good wit in there too! I've always wanted to do something like that myself but I couldn't conceive how to go about it, or how to find a willing model, and worry that I'd just finish up irritating the model and feeling stupid and amateurish, especially if the model was experienced. It was great you found a model who was so understanding, and so much fun, and took a lot of initiative with ideas herself. Her personality showed through well, which I would value more than someone who just does standard anonymous poses. I agree completely with your conviction that for this kind of photography you want to have a dual approach - the model in the scene, not just the model on her own. I've tried a few things along similar lines with a friend and uploaded them to https://www.flickr.com/photos/brize/albums/72157647095857493, but it would be good to work with a model too. All the details of your 'photographic encounter' really help me to think about doing something similar to you some time. (I'll follow up your links shortly.) Thanks and all the best for your future photography.


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