The beginner's guide to tattoo photography

“Ich dien” is the German phrase on the Prince of Wales’ heraldic badge.

The badge and sentiment of “I serve” is used by the Welsh National Rugby team and the Armed Forces and was therefore an obvious choice for a tattoo when my father joined the Royal Navy in 1947. He loved it and my mother hated it. I grew up fascinated by the fact it would never come off and the starkly opposite opinions my parents held.

Many years later I drifted into photographing people and their tattoos, perhaps subconsciously re-exploring the interest that started as a small boy. Conventions are a great place to meet people and take pictures. They are held across the world and UK venues can be found here: tattoo-conventions-calendar/ Photographers are usually welcome, but it's worth checking in advance. I have only been refused entry once, at the Bournemouth Convention because I had a DSLR. Apparently new designs were on show for the first time and the organisers didn’t want them shown on the internet; they didn’t seem to be bothered that people were using their phones and instantly sharing.

Attitudes towards tattoos have changed and they are now far more commonplace and regarded as fashion statements more than the rebellious and shocking badges they once were, but many photographers are still intimidated by the appearance of tattooed people. Just remember, there is a perfectly normal person behind the body art and you just have to chat to them to find that out and hear about their reasons for choosing their tattoos. There is always an interesting story that adds to the meaning of your photograph.

Lighting and backgrounds are the biggest challenges to getting a good shot and thinking ahead to decide how you want your picture to look is essential. People are amazingly co-operative and will happily follow your requests to stand here, look this way, turn your head that way etc. so you just have to be ready to work quickly. Set your ISO at the lowest level you can for the available light to avoid image ‘noise’. I work on aperture-priority with the widest aperture possible to increase the light available to the sensor. This reduces my depth of field so focusing is important and I would normally aim for their eyes.

Compositionally I prefer to keep the picture as simple as possible, with no distractions and only plain backgrounds. This cannot always be achieved at the time so post-production work is often used. I tend to think of this as a continuation of the body art process started by my subject. My aim is always to enhance presentation at the same time as remaining true to the original concept for the tattoo. My workflow involves RAW conversion into Photoshop and then exploration with filters and pre-sets from the On1 suite. Quite often my ideas for the final image will change and develop as I use the software, until I think “that’s it” …and finally, have I got a tattoo?, I have heeded my mother’s wish (so far).

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