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How did your love of the camera start?
Cameras have always been a part of my life to wildly varying degrees. I remember having a little Kodak Instamatic when I was a kid back in the 1970s. one of those flat ones that took the cartridge films. However, the relationship began in earnest in my twenties, when I found myself travelling to places with my work. I borrowed a friend’s Olympus SLR for a four-month mammal survey in Poland and Belarus and then bought my first SLR, a Canon 300, before going to work in Canada and then Southeast Asia. I think it was Canada that really made me want to get to know cameras better and that’s simply because of the incredible landscapes and accessible wildlife.
Describe your photographic style and how did that style develop?
To be honest, this is something that I struggle with; I am not sure I have a single definitive style, but I am looking out for one. I am still very much in experimental, or at least exploratory, mode and probably the best I could do is identify some leanings; I like to include the weather, or at least interesting skies, in my landscapes and, as a result, often break that golden rule of not having horizon lines running through the centre of the frame. When possible, I like to emphasise the play-off between light and shadow. Coming from a background grounded in ecology, whilst learning to embrace my creative side, possibly makes for some interesting tension that I sometimes see manifesting in my images.
You describe yourself as a conservation biologist with a camera. How has this knowledge and understanding influenced your portfolio and future plans with your work?
Without a doubt, my professional life as a biodiversity conservationist has been the main driver for my photography. As I alluded to earlier, my love for photography really came about as a bi-product of my work; as my work was taking me to new and beautiful places, I quickly latched onto the camera as a tool for capturing my experiences. My speciality is species conservation and so, initially, this was reflected in my photography. Knowing something about the animals I was trying to photograph, as well as the places they inhabit, certainly increased my chances of getting good images. However, it is a truism that in order to get really good images, you have to spend a lot of time strategically waiting just for the animal to appear and even more time to be there when it does something interesting.
At what point did you think ‘photography is what I want to do’?
About two years ago, after spending seven years living in the South Caucasus, developing a programme of work for a UK-based NGO, an opportunity arose whereby I could step away from full-time work for a year or so. Obviously, I took it and made the decision to spend the time not just working on my photography skills but exploring the possibility of switching careers and becoming a full-time photographer. That exploration led me to a definitive conclusion; making photography my business would be a mistake. It’s not that it is an incredibly competitive industry but it is also the real risk that to do so would actually detract from my enjoyment of the art. Suddenly, photography would not be just about finding and capturing that perfect image, it would also be about marketing and accounting, deadlines and commitments and, I suspect, eventually taking photographs would take a backseat to the business.
However, if what you are asking is when did I think that I wanted to take photography seriously, then I think I would cite two specific events. The first is actually a specific photograph that I took way back when working in Vietnam; it was a simple shot of a water buffalo tied to a stilt-house post, taken from above. Taking it had been a very spontaneous, almost throw-away thing but, when I eventually got the print back from the lab I was so blown away by it and I realised the power of the photographic image. The second event was when, several years later living in Malaysia I met and worked with a professional photographer. He was quite a gruff individual so he never officially 'took me under his wing' but, in his own way, he helped me realise the power of creating images.
If we went through your kit bag, what gear would we find in it?
My main camera is a Canon 5D Mk IV. With that, I usually have a 24-70mm f/4 lens for woodland photography and a 70-200mm f/4 for bigger landscapes, both of which I bought from MPB.com. I also use Nisi filters and will always have a circular polariser ready, as well as a neutral density filter or two. My next purchase will be a tilt-shift lens as I think that will open up a whole new dimension of landscape possibilities.
What one piece of kit couldn’t you live without?
I am afraid this is quite a boring one; my Manfrotto tripod. I used to be very bad at making myself carry a tripod and that is probably a big part of why many of my earlier images really aren’t that good. Now, I rarely leave home without it, despite its weight and general cumbersomeness. It’s not just about keeping the camera still and images sharp; it’s also about slowing down and taking the time to really consider a composition. This is another result of my transition from wildlife to landscape photography. With the former, you have always to be ready and the prime photo opportunity can appear without warning and be gone in seconds. With landscape photography it is more about a scene or a subject grabbing your attention and then working through a process to find the best way to represent it. In a similar vein, the Live View feature of today’s digital SLRs is invaluable, as it forces your mind to view the scene as it will be; as a frame confined, two-dimensional space. Once you realise that, you can start using the environment to translate what your naked eye saw in the first place.
Is there one particular image you have taken so far that stands out for you? Can you tell us why it means so much to you and the story behind it?
Last year, whilst living in a different part of France, I came across a small waterfall about 30 minutes’ drive from our house. There was nothing particularly special about the waterfall as a whole but, at its base were three rocks which broke the flow of the water just before it hit the pool. As soon as I saw these shapes and the way they interacted with the water flow, I became obsessed and, over the period of six months, I visited the site several times in order to try and capture the essence of what I had seen. I tried various times of day, camping there one night so I could get last and first light, and even drove there during a thunderstorm in order to see how that particular kind of light would influence the image. I had also recently started playing with long exposures and was experimenting with different shutter speeds to see how that affected the water. Eventually, just days before leaving that area of France, I captured the essence and the image, Grendel’s’ Lair, was created. I am very proud of the image, probably because it was one of the first photos that I had such a clear vision of and which I pursued so tirelessly. I have entered it into several competitions but with no success; I guess its beauty is very much in my eye.
What makes a great landscape picture for you?
Any scene or landscape that grabs my attention, that makes me say wow, will be a candidate for photographing. Even when I am in the car simply going from A to B, if I catch sight of an amazing view, or even an attention-grabbing subject, I will try to waypoint it so I can visit it later with my camera. My phone is full of obscure waypoints like 'cool tree' or 'amazing peak'. I don’t always make it back, of course, but just the act of marking it helps keep me on high alert. If I had to focus solely on one kind of landscape though, it would be mountains. They are such a dominant feature of any landscape they are in and yet, are so detailed in their form that pretty much any perspective of a good mountain offers myriad photo opportunities.
Do you favour working on projects or focusing more on individual images?
This is another concept that I am currently trying to assess. I am, and always have been, someone who thinks in individual images; I am looking for single moments that capture the essence of a place and when (if ever) that is achieved, I move on to the next. I guess in that way, I am more a responsive photographer, reacting to the world around me one image at a time. However, I do recognise the benefits of thinking more in terms of projects, or themes, and thinking about it now, this maybe also a good way to begin developing that style.
What are your preferred post-processing methods?
I use Lightroom for all my post-processing, though I am now beginning to explore Photoshop for its more nuanced capabilities. I try to limit myself to the kind of post-processing that merely enhances the picture; to augment the essence that I originally saw. I see a lot of videos made by photographers who really push image manipulation and, whilst I appreciate that this is their choice, I prefer to avoid it. It is easy to be self-righteous about such things though and sometimes removal of unwanted items, for example, can’t be avoided. So, to actually answer your question, I tend to always crop my images to a 16:10 aspect ratio (as this seems to best represent most landscapes) and will usually play around with highlights and shadows to maximise tones. I also boost clarity and sharpness to help isolate subjects. Nearly always experiment with black & white.
What does the rest of 2018 have in store for you?
Well, in terms of photography I have a couple of objectives for this year. In June, I will be travelling to Iceland. I also plan to do a photography trip to Scotland, possibly involving this new North Coast 500 route that has been set-up there. In terms of outputs, I intend to submit a portfolio of images to the Royal Photographic Society, of which I am a member, in order to obtain one of their distinctions. Oh, and there is the South Caucasus book, of course. However, all this is tempered somewhat by the real need, now, to get back into the world of full-time work. This hiatus in France has been invaluable in letting me really focus on photography but, nearly two years on, the real-world beckons.
What piece of advice would you give to aspiring photographers wanting to develop their skills and passion?
That really is simple; get out and take photographs. As with everything, it is a process and, I think, the first thing that you have to do is get the technical stuff sorted; basically, figure out how to use the various settings to get the exposures you want. Then, move on to mastering the more creative side, particularly composition and how to use the various elements of a scene to guide the viewer’s eye to the right places in the image. A good place to start for that – other than the internet – is a book by Molly Bangs called 'Picture This', which goes through some basic graphic design methods in a very clever way. Finally, and I think that this is where I am now, figure out what you want your photographs to say to others; what story you are trying to tell. It is a long, but endlessly enjoyable and rewarding road. The best tool you can apply to the learning process is to find someone who is further along than you are to try and guide you. Feedback is good, but critical feedback is priceless.