Better known to most as ‘Portrait Per Day’ on Instagram, John Mannell is a thoughtful and extremely talented street portrait photographer – so we asked him a few questions to learn more about the man behind the camera…

OM-D E-M1 Mark I + M.Zuiko 25mm F1.2 PRO
Alex – This is the photo which saw me chosen as one of the winners for Portrait of Britain 2019. Taken pre-lockdown.

Q: Why and how did you get into photography?
At the age of thirteen, my friends and I were obsessed with the film Clerks by Kevin Smith: we wanted to make our own movies, so we searched for a college course. Not sure how the search failed so quickly (probably because we were lazy teenagers) but we decided to go with the first black and white film course we could. It turned out that film didn’t mean moving images, but 35mm black and white photography – though when that first print appeared in the developing tank, we were hooked. 

Q: How did you become an Olympus photographer?
Going on a photography course without owning a camera sums up my ability to plan back then – in the first week, I was asked what I shot on and it didn’t really go down so well. A trip to Jessops in Kingston led to me meeting an enthusiastic salesman with a love of Olympus, who sold me the OM-1 with 35mm lens. That was a stunning little camera, made way before I was born – it was an absolute ninja. Small to carry, and when you finally learned how to focus your eye on the exposure needle on the left side, you were off. 

Q: What subject do you most often take photos of?
Without a doubt, street portraits. For me, it’s like a daily therapy in which I can talk to someone. Perhaps the best way is to explain is this story…

Q: How often do you take pictures?
Every single day. One thing I hate is when people say ‘just enjoy the moment’ as, like a lot of photographers, when I walk the streets you observe things almost subconsciously in search of something you could have quite easily missed. There are times I probably take too many photos, but I have seen more of the world and met more people due to my love of photography. So despite in some people’s eyes, I’m not enjoying the moment, I have made many more moments of enjoyment by carrying my camera.

Q: What’s in your camera bag?
I need to split this into various bags as there is a difference…

  • Tool bag at work or running bag – Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark I with 14-42mm Pancake Lens
  • Everyday camera bag – Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II, two spare batteries (I am the photographer that forgets to charge his battery). M.Zuiko 25mm F1.2 PRO lens. Lens cleaning kit. Pen, as in the Ink type. Spare memory cards. A Lume Cube with a light diffuser. Coffee cup and water bottle. Oh – and cards for my Instagram account, for any strangers I manage to get a photo of
  • Current bag in lockdown – as I am experimenting more, all the above plus, M.Zuiko 7-14mm PRO Lens, M.Zuiko 12–40mm PRO Lens, M.Zuiko 60mm F2.8 Macro Lens. Two Lume Cubes. Currently carrying a chocolate bar as I can get away with an extra treat in lockdown and not feel guilty.  

OM-D E-M1 Mark I + M.Zuiko 25mm F1.2 PRO
Evelyn – This was her first day outside since her husband had passed away, and she was scared to go on her own. Fate brought us together, and we had a coffee and chat as she enjoyed the sun. Taken pre-lockdown.

Q: What kit’s essential for your preferred genre, other than cameras and lenses?
Light! I take so many photos when it’s dark, and I have found the knack of borrowing light from oncoming cars, shop displays, street lighting etc. I have probably run up a big cost in borrowed electricity over the last few years to make my portraits, but when I cannot steal the light from someone else, the little Lume Cube is amazing. I used to carry a flashgun but some people get put off when that comes out as to them it becomes more intense – so I decided to stop using that unless it’s a planned shoot.

Q: What keeps you busy, other than photography?
I’m a builder by day. Well, I specialise in glazing, to be more specific. There’s definitely an irony that I work with glass in the day and then usually spend my time not working, looking through the glass in my M.Zuiko 25mm PRO. I can’t get away from it!

I worked with the charity CALM at the end of last year for their new Art Collective that promotes mental health awareness and openness via art, and this is something I hope to carry on being involved with.

Q: Do you shoot in RAW or JPEG? (and did you change – and why?)
RAW. I didn’t even know what RAW was until I took what I thought was my first good street photo in Cuba. Unfortunately, when I got back my friend asked me for the RAW copy to see what could be done in the shadows, and the detail wasn’t quite there in the JPEG version. I have not really been using Lightroom for long, but shooting RAW on my Olympus in low light has incredible results.

OM-D E-M1 Mark I + M.Zuiko 25mm F1.2 PRO
Paul and his Rottweilers – One of the kindest men I have met, but to judge a book by the cover, you could be very wrong. A lesson learned for me. Taken pre-lockdown.

Q: How do you know when one of your images is good – what do you look for?
This is a difficult question: my favourite images are usually made better by the stories that accompany them. I think lighting-wise, you know you will get a good photo before you even turn the camera on. I guess my photos are not about perfect focus, composition or even finding the “perfect” model; it’s about learning a story. When the story itself doesn’t match the preconceived image I build before I talk to that person; it kind of makes me realise how I can still pre-judge and mis-judge a person. Or secondly, it’s good if my photo can show something about the person that I admired in the short space of time I spent with them. It’s impossible to encapsulate a person’s personality in one image, but If I can show just one aspect of that then before I walk away, I know it’s a good shot.

Q: What’s your workflow like?
As most of my work is for my own mental health and wellbeing, I don’t put pressure on processing images in a set amount of time. Luckily for me, the whole theme of my ongoing project Portrait Per Day is a good incentive to take that lunch break I don’t always get in order to find a photo. But if I have had a bad day, then the image processing will wait.

I guess workflow summary is

  • Take photos on dual card slot, as means I have to back up less often if I’m away from a computer
  • When I do put them on my laptop, they go on the external hard drive and Dropbox.
  • Then I process in Lightroom, export in JPEG (TIFF if required)
  • Then add these to my hard drive and Dropbox.
  • I usually upload my portraits to Instagram with a story, and the ones I like most I set aside for competitions and make sure I get permission to enter them first.
  • I usually give my card to anyone I take a photo of as part of my project, and then create a temporary dropbox link where they can download the files too.

Q: How much editing do you do after you’ve taken your photographs?
I use Lightroom, and time is minimal if I’m honest. But that doesn’t mean that some images don’t have lots of alterations. I have saved my favourite pre-sets so with some photos, I can edit a photo in about 30 seconds – but the alterations can be huge. Images I spend the most time on may have the least visible difference. I have created presets for different light types, incandescent, warm natural light, low light images and close up photos – all to help me reduce screen time.

OM-D E-M1 Mark I + M.Zuiko 25mm F1.2 PRO
Yasmine – I love this image, but what I love most is the ketchup from the burger she had been eating that’s still on her face. Always makes me laugh. Taken pre-lockdown.

Q: What do you do with your photos once they’re finished?
The portrait ones get uploaded to Instagram, but at the moment I have been taking a little rest away from social media. I try to get permission to enter my favourite portraits into photography competitions. Luckily I was one of the winners for the Portrait of Britain Award 2019, and would one day love to see one of my photos in the Taylor Wessing – just to know even for a brief time one of my photos was in the National Portrait Gallery.

My interview with BBC News has led me to do some talks at photography clubs and mental health awareness talks too, which is something I would like to do more of.

Other than that, I use them mainly for my own photo books as a keepsake. As I am not a professional and it’s done for me, I guess I don’t really push getting them into the world as much as a lot of people do.

Q: What’s the best feature of Olympus kit?
This sounds very odd, but it’s the fact it is Olympus. I could have said a number of things – it being small and lightweight, image stabilisation, the clutch on the Pro lenses etc, but it is the brand. I have shot on Olympus since I started. The quality of the OM-1 was amazing. I built a love for photography back then, and when I shifted to digital it was the OM-D E-M5 Mark I, as it resembled the analogue style I was used to. Then when I had my low point with my mental health, that’s what I hid behind to get myself back outside. It is like my comfort blanket. For me to have a bit of kit I love is like an artist using their favourite paint, or a chef using their favourite produce.

Q: What’s the most useful piece of photography advice you’ve ever heard?
Can I pick two…?

Well – one was my counsellor when I was unwell, who challenged me to go and take a photo every week as a way to get outdoors and try to overcome my anxiety. The tip was to go take photos where there weren’t a lot of people, so I could slowly conquer my anxieties. Without this, I wouldn’t have started taking photos or lived the full life I have since.

Second is actually a video by Jamie Windsor on YouTube called “Wabi-sabi: When BAD PHOTOS are BETTER”. I used to be obsessed with the perfect horizon or straight vertical lines on walls, which would mean spending an extra few minutes per photo. Now more often I just accept the photo for what it is – and the less time editing gives me an image I am much more pleased with.

OM-D E-M1 Mark I + M.Zuiko 25mm F1.2 PRO
Freddie the Fox – When life gives you lemons, let them be brought to you by a fox. Taken pre-lockdown.

Q: Who or what inspires you?
Anyone that does something they find challenging. Portrait wise, I really love the style of Misha Taylor.

Q: Aside from photography, what do you wish you were really good at?
Freehand spray paint.

Q: If you could only have one lens on your camera, which would it be?
Currently the M.Zuiko 25mm F1.2 PRO lens – it is simply stunning. The clutch for manual to autofocus is genius. I don’t know why a lot of photographers are often so determined to manually focus, but I’m one of them. If I am struggling to get a shot sharp and time is important, within a fraction of a second I can switch to Auto Focus without slowing the model down any more than I have to. And it is such a fast lens: F1.2 makes life in low light very easy, which bearing in mind I take so many photos in winter after I finish work when it’s very dark, is essential. 

Q: What’s next on your wishlist, kit-wise?
This is really tough. I love my OM-D E-M1 Mark II and was tempted by the 17mm PRO lens. But I also wanted a camera that can fit in my pocket for when we can finally get out after lockdown; to the pubs, football or wherever it may be – so I think it would have to be the Olympus PEN F with the 17mm lens. Will be about as close to me going back to when I started taking photos on my OM-1, I reckon. 

Q: Where can we see more of your photos?
I use Instagram, which at first I couldn’t bear, as I was a Flickr fan – but it’s a great ‘free’ way to share your images. When I started my project Portrait Per Day it seemed the easiest way to get my photos out there. I have started to think about a website in lockdown, so who knows. But for now, you can find me on Insta under @portrait_per_day 

Q: Can you point us at an Olympus-using photographer who deserves more of a spotlight (and tell us why?)
Charlie Pragnell. He takes some amazing landscape shots – follow him on his Instagram @charlie_pragnell