Michael Collins – Photographer Talk

On Tuesday 7th May 2013, we were lucky enough to have a guest practitioner to come in and present us with a lecture followed by a hands on medium format, plate camera workshop. Our guest photographer was report photographer Michael Collins who is interested in photographing images according to the principles of record photography. Below I have displayed my research that I undertook prior to the lecture, the notes that I took during the lecture, and the notes and images that I took during the group workshop:

Extract from Michael Collins Lecture:

“The matter-of-fact appearance of Record Picture photography is actually its mystery. The very quality that was deemed its science, as opposed to its art, is the source of its wonder. Having such a plain aesthetic, being unadorned with style or effects, the photograph is able to describe rather than be the subject of its own description. Its verité is a means to an end. The more believable the photograph – the less self-conscious or ostentatious its appearance – the more ‘naturalistic’ the depiction, and the greater the possibilities for further exploration. Plausibility prompts conscious and subconscious associations for the viewer, like evocative smells or sounds. For looking is not thinking; thinking follows looking. To look is to visually experience, to let memories and feelings and other stimuli arise. This is the quantum leap of art, where the boundaries of understanding dissolve into the realm of intuition and imagination. Far from being obsolete, the long look of record picture photography is as vital now as ever it was. The long look is a slow look, not a quick glimpse or a snatched snapshot. At its most profound, photography is not a fast medium but a slow one. It is to stop, look, suspend judgment and observe; for the longer one looks, the more there is to see.”

Record Picture Photography

  • “These photographs are made according to the principles of record pictures. Originally developed in the mid-nineteenth century, this highly detailed, matter-of-fact photography was commissioned by government and industry for authoritative documentary purposes. Drawing on the fundamental property of photography to depict realistically with great precision, emphasis is placed on description rather than interpretation to produce a photograph that is “faithful to the subject”.
  • “Michael Collins admires the calm, unembellished aesthetic characteristic of record picture photography because it allows him to make pictures without a didactic or subjective emphasis. There is great freedom in a picture, particularly a photograph, which does not expose the artist’s motivations or autobiographical engagement within it – both for the artist and the viewer.”
  • http://www.michaelcollinsphotography.com

Michael Collins Lecture:

  • He is an artist, photographer, and painter/decorator – can’t make a living out of photography
  • He started the lecture with a1953 Group photograph
    • Coronation day
    • Group portrait is really just a collection of individual portraits
    • Captured people as they were that day
    • Heart of photography are the family photos – you open the lens and take a faithful picture of what is there
    • We can only make our own, subjective meanings for a photograph
    • It is a touchstone of life, you just need to give it time
    • Photographs show an actual meeting and a proper conversation rather than a faked meeting
    • Painting is not about the brush stroke as this is the vocabulary; it is the same with photography” – meaning it is not always about the technicality but the overall image
    • Photography is about looking, feeling, THEN thinking; not the other way around
    • You are shown more detail after you have taken the photo than you could have known when you took the photo
    • Plate cameras show detail – you look at the image on a piece of glass


  • A complete mass accumulated over centuries showing how we live
  • Original print is 5ft x 4ft
  • You can always see more associations with every time you look at it


Battersea Power Station:

  • Form follows function
  • Can get amazing detail with medium format plate cameras, and it is more accurate, cheaper, and quicker than commissioned artists
  • It is a fundamental quality


Birmingham Factories (Hockley):

  • Photography shows contemporary archaeologies, not just in the buildings and structure, but in the wrinkles on the face
  • No lights on – long exposure of 1 minute
  • A photographer asks a question and potentially waits for an answer to come back through their photo
  • The place has became modified over time
  • His photos are “like a Wednesday afternoon; slightly dull


Birmingham Factories (Rover):

  • Heritage of the workers were being taken away from them
  • He used a step ladder so that the camera was approximately 12-13ft off the floor – this removed the “racing foreground”
  • He likes the aftermath
    • Stasis
    • Suspended time
    • Recording traces of time that are found within things


Birmingham Factories (Jaguar):

  • Cannot erase the handprint of mankind
  • Can’t turn the environment into a machine, we’re too messy; it becomes our habitat


Potteries (Burleigh Pottery):

  • Things he didn’t expect became the most interesting
  • He likes quiet pictures
  • Focused on the lampshade which gives the picture a plane of depth



  • Want’s a dull, flat, grey light – gets rid of shadows and the colours aren’t saturated
  • There needs to be no wind – for the long exposures
  • Usually shoots in winter – no leaves on the trees that can be seen as a distraction; green is also a very hard colour to photograph




Hoo Peninsula:

 Gustave Le Gray

Gustave le Gray

  • He captures Romantic images
  • He lies capturing a picture of nothing and everything
  • Follow your own fascination
  • He believes that the viewer is the one that finishes the painting/photograph
  • Would retake again and again
  • Doesn’t want to hide the modern life
  • It’s like a piece of music that you can return to again and again







  • Although you make photographs according to the principles of record photography, which, according to the definition, is a very precise form of documentary photography, do you in any way edit your photographs to divert the viewers from the raw reality?
    • 2 parts to the question
    • First part
      • Take a picture that doesn’t make you look in a certain way
      • Good for advertising
      • Doesn’t influence the viewer
  • Second part
    • Never tempted to rearrange something as he see’s this as messing it up
    • He is aware of certain visual things such as distractions and weirdness
    • Occasionally Photoshop things out – such as visual aberrations
    • The messier the photo, the better and more natural
  • Do you have a set criterion for things you like to shoot?
    • Criteria doesn’t usually work
    • Best pictures are the unknown
    • Doesn’t use preconceived ideas as it’s a representation of the idea so it will never be as good as the actual idea itself
    • It isn’t always about the criteria but about the life of an image
  • Was it hard getting access to some of the places?
    • Real issue
    • Work with museums and galleries to make areas slightly more accessible
    • Would trespass on occasions but would meet the landowners to let them know his intentions
    • Everything in Britain is privatized
    • Would prefer to get access as he doesn’t like looking over his shoulder – it’s not a nice way of photographing
  • How much does the whole process roughly cost?
    • Sheet of film = £15 approx.
    • Process the film = £6-8 approx.
    • Almost £50 per exposure (approx.)
    • Drum scanner use = £100 approx.
    • Overall amount = £250-300 approx.
  • Did you ever use any other type of camera or was it always the medium format?
    • Began using medium format camera
    • Took him 6 months to get his first picture
    • Feel too distracted using a digital camera – no hood
    • Good for landscapes which is what he likes shooting
    • Has familiarized himself with the equipment

Large Format Camera Tutorial:

  • When setting up the 5×4 plate camera, make sure it is placed on a secure and sturdy tripod
  • If something doesn’t adjust when setting it up, it means that it is locked in position and either a lever or a knob needs to be turned
  • To open:
    • Loosen both cogs at the back by turning them equally in different directions
    • Press the button at the front and lift up
    • To lock it in place, tighten the knobs again
  • To lift up the lens:
    • Undo knobs on either side of the bellow
    • Pull the knobs forward – this moves the bellow forward
    • Push the knobs up
    • Adjust the height of the rising front so that you just hide the red dot
    • Tighten up the knobs
    • Level the camera before pulling the lens forward
  • To pull the lens forward:
    • To unlock this movement, pull the two levers down that are found either side of the lens
    • Move the switch found in the centre of the base platform to the middle
    • Use this switch to pull the lens forward
    • Push the switch back to the side and push the levers back up to lock it in place
  • Putting in the lens:
    • Take off the back lens cap
    • Make sure the lens is the right way up (aperture and shutter speed settings at the top)
    • Slot into position
    • Lock it in place by pushing down the panel
    • Take the other lens cap off
  • Putting in the cable release:
    • Screws in to the hole to left of the aperture
    • Make sure you don’t let the cable release dangle as it is very heavy – either hold it or twist it around the tripod
  • Opening up the plate screen:
    • Unlock the little catch on the left hand side at the back
    • Push down on the door and it should pop out
  • Putting the hood over camera:
    • Can hold in place using paper clips or hair grips
  • Open the lens using the black lever on the front
  • Focus knobs are found on the bottom at the front of the camera
  • If the image cannot be focused, move the lens forward a bit
  • Plate cameras can have a large depth of field so if you want the image to look more 3D, you should focus about a quarter into your subjects depth of field
  • After you have focused, double check that the camera is level
  • If you want to drop down the image, you can drop down the lens
    • But be careful as if you drop it too much, some of the film may not be able to catch the light and will therefore not be exposed due to the angle – this is called vignetting and shows more effect with a larger f/number
  • Focus the camera again
  • To lock the focus, push the lever found on the left hand side of the platform, near the focusing knob, backwards
  • Take a light metre reading from what looks like the middle brightness or zone 5 of the subject
  • Need’s to be on a ¼ of a second – this has something to do with the distance of the subjects and was calculated by our lecturer and workshop leader
  • Move the aperture and shutter speed dials to the appropriate settings
  • Shut the lens (close the aperture) before putting in the film – push the black lever button, near the shutter, downwards
  • Loading the film:
    • The film was already loaded into the holder
    • Get someone to hold the tripod
    • The white bit at the top of the film holder shows that it has already been exposed – if it is black, it hasn’t been exposed
    • You can expose two images from one film holder
    • Open the film slot up by pulling the lever found at the back of the camera
    • Slide the film holder into place (black side facing the lens)
    • Shut the back of the camera by putting the lever back into place
  • Cock the shutter:
    • Push the silver knob all the way to the side then let go – it should ping back into place
  • Take out the dark slide:
    • Turn the wire either down or up to loosen the dark slide
    • Pull out the dark slide making sure you hold on to the other slide so that it doesn’t come out
  • To take a photo:
    • Hold the cable release
    • Push it down in one slow and smooth motion
  • Once the photo is taken:
    • Put the dark slide back in and lock it in place
    • Take out the film holder from the camera
    • Work your way backwards to put the camera away
  • Developing your exposures:
    • We have not yet been given a workshop on how to do this, but there will either be a demonstration online or somewhere that will be able to do this for you