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Photographic Journeys: Ben Read

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Hanging off a cliff taking pictures, being exposed to any kind of extreme weather as well as pushing yourself to the edge – all in a day’s work for Ben Read, a landscape and action photographer

You have a very impressive and diverse portfolio of images. Can you tell us how your love of photography started?

My love of photography began at a young age when I started to read through my Dad’s photo books. However, books by Cartier-Bresson and Robert Capa had the biggest impact on me and still to this day, I read them for inspiration. After studying A-Level photography I put the camera away to pursue skiing and climbing. It wasn’t until I moved to London after living in the mountains that I began to take photographs again. Mostly as something to do to keep me occupied, but also spurred on by my interest in architecture.

After 18 months in London, my girlfriend and I decided to drastically change our city lifestyles and move to Wanaka, New Zealand. And it was here that I truly found my calling with photography. New Zealand provided the perfect mix of stunning landscapes and willing subjects to photograph in precarious places!

How would you describe your photographic style?

I wouldn’t describe it so much as a style, but I always try to portray what I am shooting in the most credible way possible. 

I believe a lot of my work comes from this natural, documentary style that showcases the athletes as true as possible. However, I am partial to a big wide landscape with a runner/skier/climber performing in it!

My style is ever evolving though as I experiment with different subjects and camera formats.

From studying sports at university to shooting campaigns for clients, such as Gore-Tex, is quite a leap. How did the commercial work come about?

It does seem like an odd leap to make, but I owe a lot to my time studying in Leeds, as it was there that I joined the university climbing club – that really opened my eyes to travelling and pushing myself mentally and physically.

The commercial work started relatively recently and happened as a natural progression to the editorial work I was regularly doing. I would say about 60% of the images in my portfolio are from personal trips. I still place a big emphasis on taking the time to go on these personal adventures as it allows me to stay relevant in a very competitive area of photography.

At what point did you think ‘I can make a career out of this’?
I think like most people it was that moment when I found consistency in the quality of work I could produce. 

One moment I will never forget though was selling a ski photo to a New Zealand Skier Magazine and having it printed as a double page spread! That photo, above all others, made me believe that I could chase this life.

You are quoted saying ‘I am happiest when asked by clients to obtain the almost impossible, whether that is a summit shot or a one-week hike to a difficult location’. What is the most ‘extreme’ shoot you have ever done? Have there been any occasions where you have been tempted to eat your words?

I have always loved a challenge but there have been times when you think to yourself “why did I say yes to this?”, but more often than not you return from those trips with unique photos and the difficulties of the location are long forgotten!

It wasn’t the most extreme location or anything like that, but it was the trip that pushed me physically and mentally the most. My friend James and I decided to run around the Monterosa in the Alps, self-supported and carrying my DSLR. The trip ended up becoming a bit of a ‘suffer-fest' and culminated in a 24hr non-stop push to avoid an oncoming electrical storm. The photos from this trip are some of my favourites and they remind me to never put the camera away, no matter how much I want to.

If we went through your kit bag when you are on a shoot, what gear would we find in it? Do you have ‘go-to’ kit for specific types of work, or an item you couldn’t do without?

My ‘go-to’ kit starts with the pack. For me, the pack is as important as the camera equipment and my F-Stop Tilopa BC backpack allows me to strap skis, ice axes and all sorts to it!

My go to camera is a Canon 5D Mk III. But for large print campaigns I have recently been using a 5DSr for the extra megapixels.

Over the years, and a lot of trading with MPB, I believe I am finally close to the ‘ultimate’ set-up. I have a Canon 24-70mm f/2.8L II, Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L IS and a Sigma 24mm f/1.4 for astrophotography.

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I used to solely use prime lenses but, for what I do, I need the extra versatility and weight-saving of a zoom lens.

If I require flash, I will often use an Elinchrom ELB 400 battery pack with the high sync head and a 1m octabox, all stored safely in my MPB hard roller case.

My favourite piece of gear currently is my California Sunbounce Mini. It also provides entertainment on windy days as it doubles up as a sail!

Having travelled to, and photographed in, so many different countries, which are the locations that hold a special place in your heart and why?

Wanaka in the South Island of New Zealand will always hold a special place in my heart. It truly was the place I found what I wanted to take photographs of. It is hard to describe it but the quality of light down there, coupled with the warm brown tones of the landscape, provide endless options for a photographer.

The closest place to home where I have that same connection with the landscape would be Scotland. I have been lucky to do a few shoots up there since moving back to the UK and it has never disappointed.

What makes a great landscape or cityscape picture for you, where you just have to pick up your camera and capture it?

I think good landscape photography should evoke a mood and make the viewer feel something.

I do like to take photos that make the viewer ask questions such as “how is that athlete doing that?” and/or “how did the photographer get there?”.

Even though landscapes play a big role in my photography, I don’t class myself as a traditional landscape photographer. I don’t often have the luxury to plan where the sun will rise or set, or to be able to stick around for the optimal moment. Most the of the time I have to view the landscape as a backdrop to the person performing in it.

Can you tell us a little about the personal project you are currently shooting in Norway? How important is it to you to still make time for your own work in amongst client commissions?

I am keeping this one close to my chest as I am still in the research phase of it, but it will be a very different area of photography for me as I want to explore portraiture more.

Personal work is so important to me as it is this work that allows me more creative freedom. It can attract new clients as much as my previous commercial work, so I will always make time for it. If the work dried up tomorrow, I would still be going on these trips with my camera!

What you have achieved in your career so far is truly impressive. What piece of advice would you give to aspiring photographers wanting to develop into income earning professionals, if hanging off a cliff isn’t an option?

Hanging off a cliff and taking photos should always be an option – it’s a lot of fun!

The best piece of advice I ever received was that there isn’t a magic button. You have to go out and chase the work – don’t ever sit back and wait for the work to come to you. That may seem quite harsh, but I soon realised that if I wanted to make a name for myself shooting trail running, then I had to go out and shoot trail running and become the best I could at it.

My best advice would be to always make the effort. Rain, snow, storms, all these conditions provide a mood and, more often than not, a more attractive landscape.

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