October 10th is World Mental Health Day and this year I was the photographer for the events in Sheffield city centre on that day.
As a mental health service user myself it felt like a good cause to volunteer my skills for, and I figured it would be helpful experience for me, and worthwhile.
It was actually a great day - lots of informative stalls, a surprising amount of public interest (surprising given the nature of the stigma attached to mental health issues), good weather, and some fantastic performances from a local school's drama group, and musicians. And there was fantastic creativity from some of the stalls, and tasty healthy ideas for food and drinks too.
Being there as the photographer for Sheffield Care Trust added extra elements to how I took the photographs, and what photographs I took. I was surprised by how much pressure I felt, as the photos weren't just for me, and as well as taking the photos I wanted, I had to bear in mind the photos that the Trust would want as well.
It wasn't just added stress, though. On a more positive note, taking photos for the Trust gave me more confidence to approach people to photograph them and their stalls, and a way to photograph the school children acting and singing, without being seen as suspicious, as is unfortunately increasingly the case for photographers in public.
The thing that surprised me most was the huge amount of digital darkroom work which was required on the photographs. As I was taking the photographs for other people as well as myself, I felt more obliged to make sure each image was as good as it could be. But even more than that, the weather conditions on the day meant that the vast majority of the photos needed work.
It was a bright, sunny day, which is always a bonus, but it caused some difficulties. The sky was bright enough to require stopping down to avoid (or, more likely, reduce) overexposure in the sky. This caused a further problem, mainly that a lot of the photos I took were of the information stalls and the people staffing them. Having the camera somewhat stopped down to avoid too many blown out skies, meant that the people, posters, information and everything else underneath canvas on the stalls were very frequently underexposed.
It felt a bit like I couldn't win. If I'd upped the aperture size or the shutter speed, to perfectly expose for the stalls and tent, the skies and anything white or reflective would have been totally blown out. If I'd reduced them, the stalls and the people under them would have been even more shadowy and dull. I guess filters could have been useful but I don't have any graduated ones and, given the requirements of the day they would probably not have been so practical.
So, instead, it was post-shutter that I needed to fix the exposure issues. Several weeks and 417 photos later I can attest that my Photoshop skills are certainly well practised! For each image I picked from a toolbox of curves, levels, dodging and burning, hue / saturation, brightness / contrast, and many of the other techniques that programme has to offer.
I grew to learn which of the tools was best for each problem, and how different methods can approach problems in different ways. It was really good experience for me, and I also did some good black and white conversions, and occasionally, to break the monotony, went a bit further with the image manipulation than was typical for this particular project!
I am really glad I took on this assignment. Taking photographs to document such days is, in my opinion, vital, and it is obviously a subject close to my heart. I learned a lot about taking pictures for someone other than yourself, and I learned to never underestimate how much work will need to be done long after the camera is put away.
You can see all my World Mental Health Day photos here, and my next, and final, stage of this particular job is to email all interested parties with a link to the photos of them from the day. I will then be glad to close that particular folder, for now at least!