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Photographic Journeys: Skyler Bishop

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In an exclusive interview, Skyler Bishop talks about his passion for landscape and sports photography and why working with conservation non-profit groups can help build your portfolio

How did your love with the camera start?

My interest in making images blossomed following a black and white film photography course I took in college. I became interested in better understanding how to successfully execute an image the way I saw it in my head. The art of photography is a puzzle and solving a puzzle is always rewarding. The diverse facets of photography drive me to continue learning and growing: location scouting, variable weather, timing the light, perspectives, scale, equipment and processes. It is always exciting when all the variables come together, solve the puzzle and I am able to make an image of which I am proud.

How would you describe your photographic style and how did that style develop?

It has steadily evolved as my depth of experience has grown. When I look back at images I made five years ago, I see that my focus was on strong contrast, hyper-saturated colors and moody skies. In recent years, I have come to realize that the iconic, timeless photos are those that depict nature more closely to what it truly is. I understand now that I can’t force something to be interesting if the subject itself is not. No amount of contrast, for example, will make a dull scene come to life.

Now I take fewer photos than I would have in years prior. I have become more selective of what I feel will make a good image and no longer try to force a photograph to be punchy or impactful, if the subject in question is not. I feel my style today, while still full of contrast and bold colors, tends to better represent a scene.

Your commercial work sees you immersed in fast-paced action sports, yet your portfolio also showcases landscape, nature and cityscape images from travels around the world. How important is this diversity to you as a photographer?

When I started to get into photography, landscapes, nature and cityscapes were my primary subjects. As my photographic eye developed, I became more discerning and began to understand what really sets world-class landscape or nature photographers apart. To successfully compete in such a crowded and competitive marketplace, the images need all the elements to work perfectly, which requires an incredible amount of patience. Waiting for the light, the atmosphere, the animals, waiting for the flowers to bloom. All of these aspects must align to some degree to make a phenomenal landscape image, and I’m just not that patient! At least not at this stage in my life. Thus, when I started to explore working as a commercial photographer, I needed to find subject matter that better matched my lifestyle. As a former professional cyclist myself, I found a niche where my understanding of a sport and those who participate in it at an elite level, give me an edge in the field. The ability to capture the drama and beauty of professional cycling has afforded me success in the fast-paced, commercially driven sports photography industry. Even still, I work to incorporate landscapes into my commercial work. Capturing athletes in the environment is a great way to marry the two worlds of landscape and commercial sports photography.

Diversity in a photographer’s arsenal will prove invaluable over time. Photography is all about managing variables and surmounting difficult conditions to make the image one has in mind. If all I did was shoot in the studio, I might find myself in trouble if the client asks to head outside for an environmental portrait. Plus, challenging one’s self to do something new on occasion is fun!

At what point did you think ‘photography is what I want to do’?

Over the years I had visions in my head of what it might be like to be a professional photographer: see the world, travel to exotic destinations and be paid to take photos of interesting people and beautiful places! Of course, the reality of being a true working professional in the photographic field doesn’t quite read like this fairy tale. Although I have found my commercial work to be extremely gratifying, I have learned some valuable lessons as to what it really means to be a professional: forget about lunch breaks, an eight-hour day doesn’t apply anymore, and be prepared to sweat, be uncomfortable, deal with numerous unforeseen circumstances, all while producing quality work at a high rate of efficiency. There are no excuses.

The stress for me is not in the work, but in making sure my images meet the needs of the client. As it happens, I love the work and find it incredibly rewarding. Only recently did I fully realize that photography really is what I want to do!

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If we went through your kit bag, what gear would we find in it?

Regardless of the subject matter, the less I have with me in the field the better. My go-to for commercial sports photography are two identical Nikon D850 full-frame bodies. One with a Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 slung over one shoulder, the other with a Nikon 18-35mm f/3.5-4.5 slung over the other. This covers almost everything I could want and eliminates the need to change lenses on the fly. When on location, a small light stand, a few Nikon speed lights, and a simple octabox pretty much do it for lighting.

For landscapes and cityscapes I take the two lenses mentioned before, but I only need one camera with an L-bracket. From there I add a Nikon 50mm f/1.8 to the kit along with a carbon tripod with a compact, quick release ball head. A polarizer filter is helpful when shooting in a rainforest (to reduce glare off the wet vegetation), 3 and 6 stop ND filters are often necessary when shooting waterfalls.

What one piece of kit couldn’t you live without?

For landscape photography, it’s a no-brainer: a tripod. A tripod (of any kind really) is absolutely crucial to get great images of waterfalls or low-light cityscapes. You can’t take long-exposures without something to support your camera. This is coming from someone who doesn’t like to carry much gear, but I have learned a tripod is a fact of life and needs to come with me on all landscape outings.

Last year saw you visit Maui on a trip you refer to on your blog as ‘minimalist’. Can you tell us about it, how this approach came about – and what you learned from it?

This was a fun experiment. My wife and I had been working long hours for months and had been looking forward to a vacation in Maui, Hawaii. I went through my usual routine of packing my bag with a few cameras, a host of lenses, filters, tripod and accessories. We were just minutes from leaving for the airport when I sat down and realized I needed a break. We had been on the go for so long and this vacation was supposed to be just that – a vacation! Taking all this gear would inevitably put some constraints on our trip as I would be looking to shoot sunrise, sunset and change the emphasis of our trip. It took all my will power to decide, there and then, to leave the camera bag ahome, grab a single body and lens, and enjoy the vacation!

What I grabbed won’t make sense to you, but at the time it was my newest kit and I hadn’t played with it much. I figured if I just grabbed a few photos here and there it would be worth it, and the rest of the time we could relax. It was a crop-sensor camera (Nikon D500) with a small Nikon 300mm f/4 lens, a focal length equivalent to 450mm on a full frame. Not exactly what you would think to bring to an iconic landscape destination!

What ended up happening was really amazing! I shot landscapes, hand held, at 450mm and the results were photographs I’d never seen of Maui. The Haleakala crater, for example, begs to be shot wide angle to capture all the cinder cones and clouds below the summit. But I only had my light-weight 450mm kit, so the depth of field was very compressed, foreshortening the compositions dramatically and altering the sense of scale to something almost otherworldly. Later in our trip I shot bamboo forests from across canyons yielding almost abstract images of canopy with no landmarks to orient the viewer. Other images included waterfalls cascading over rocks, with no beginning or end visible, or tree bark images so close-up it almost looked like a landscape itself.

Our vacation ended up being the relaxing break we needed and I had fun learning a new photographic technique.

What makes a great landscape picture for you?

The play between light and atmosphere is most compelling. When fog or low clouds are illuminated by low-angle light, magic can happen. I am always inspired by a beautiful sunrise or sunset. Add to it some atmosphere and I am scrambling to figure out how to make an image, even if it’s just with my phone!

Do you favour working on projects or do you focus more on individual images?
Perhaps, referencing back to my lack of patience, I do better with a project rather than a single image. I find that approaching a location with the intention to convey the entirety of the location’s feeling in a single image can be a daunting task. By focusing on creating a series of images to tell a sense-of-place story, I will end up finding that one image to summarize it all. It is through the process of shooting a project where I discover the individual image, rather than starting with a single image in mind.

What are your preferred post-processing methods?

My post-processing workflow has developed from my desire to be out shooting more and editing at the computer less. As a result, my workflow is streamlined for efficiency. I import everything into Lightroom and quickly flag them as potentials or not. From there I parse through the flagged images more closely and pick the handful of compositions I deem worthy to process; balance exposure, white and black points, contrast and color temp. Occasionally I bump vibrancy or clarity and rarely do I take an image into Photoshop. Despite my emphasis on efficiency, I have never used presets or actions. I figure every image is different and requires a different touch, so there is no one formula.

As a commercial sports photographer, this quick turnaround approach to image editing has proved invaluable, as I am able to share with a client in short order the result of a shoot.

Over time I have become more proficient in my use of these tools, improving my post-processing methods. Trial and error, along with online resources, have been my teachers. I am impressed by those who are very talented with post-processing methodology, specifically those who seamlessly merge multiple exposures to better represent a scene. I will continue to develop my post-processing toolkit with an eye toward clean landscape images with well-balanced highlights and shadows without losing that strong contrast I like so much.

What does the rest of 2018 have in store for you?

I am very excited to be volunteering in east Africa this May with a wildlife conservation non-profit that focuses on the health and preservation of mountain gorillas. My time will be used to assist the organization with both still photography and video to support their conservation, educational and fundraising goals. My academic background in environmental studies and natural history, as well as my professional experience in the fields of habitat management and environmental restoration, make this partnership the perfect fit.

After that it is back to Europe for a commercial campaign, photographing a professional cycling team preparing for the Tour de France as they compete in a World Tour stage race. Finding that balance between commercial projects for which I’m uniquely qualified, and volunteer work that I’m deeply passionate about, has proved to be incredibly rewarding and I look forward to continuing these types of projects in the second half of 2018 and beyond.

Later in the year, my wife and I will be setting out on our next landscape photography adventure.

What piece of advice would you give to aspiring photographers wanting to develop into income-earning-professionals?

If you want to be a commercially viable landscape photographer, explore opportunities to work for groups that need those types of images. Volunteer with a parks department or wild land management group, by providing photos that will support their conservation and outreach efforts. Donate a print to a silent auction to benefit the local wildlife preserve. These are ways to test the waters in the field you hope to work in.

I volunteered my time with Team Africa Rising, a non-profit in Rwanda focusing on developing African cycling talent. I provided images to the organization to support their fundraising efforts and, as a result, made many new friends while supporting something I believed in. Not only does volunteering help build your portfolio, but your work will make a positive contribution to a cause you believe in. These are the experiences that cultivate connections that will help pave the way for commercial success down the road.

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