Posts Tagged ‘Outdoor Photography magazine’

The weighty problem of airports…

September 13, 2011

Your camera equipment is never heavier than when you’re trying to board a plane. Rules may be rules, but they don’t make any sense, says Nick Smith

My story starts in one of those swish rustic safari lodges nestled deep in the heart of Botswana’s Okavango Delta. After an unpleasant overnight flight from London to Johannesburg, a four-hour delay prior to a short haul to Maun, followed by a hop, skip and a jump in a Cessna, I was exhausted. Exhausted and minus one camera.

Elephants in Botswana by Nick Smith, nicksmithphoto

Elephants in the Okavango Delta, Botswana. Photo: Nick Smith

This was a long time ago and I’ve since been told many times what a daft idea it was to put a camera in my hold baggage. ‘Always take your photographic gear on board with you,’ sniggered Martin Hartley over a beer, before going on to tell me that if you put anything of value in your main luggage you’re asking for trouble. They don’t call it ‘Thiefrow Airport’ for nothing, he said, trying to think up a daft pun on Johannesburg to go with his earlier one. ‘I know all that,’ I said, ‘but my gadget bag was overweight and the check-in staff made me take some stuff out and repack it into my hold luggage.’

I told him how I transferred my spare camera body which, as we know never made it, having been smuggled out of an international airport presumably through the same weak link in the system that allows explosives, guns and drugs in. At least I’d had the presence of mind to ditch the spare, but I can tell you I was spitting blood when the insurance company refused to cough up, while the two airlines involved in the connector flight blamed each other. But I’ll have a rant about camera insurance another day.

Over the years I’ve varied my approach to a problem that all photographers on overseas assignments face. Through trial and error I’ve managed to get the weight of my kit down, but I can never get it to under 11kg no matter how hard I try. By the time you’ve packed the laptop, card readers, chargers and all that gubbins, there’s barely room for a compact point-and-shoot.

Sunset shot through bush sage in the Okavango Delta, Botswana. Photo: Nick Smith, nicksmithphoto

Sunset shot through bush sage in the Okavango Delta, Botswana. Photo: Nick Smith

I bought myself one of those ‘Airport guaranteed’ ultra light packs, but the truth is that most airlines simply won’t allow you to go airside with more than 10kg of the tools of the trade. This annoys me for several reasons, but mercifully they don’t often check, so long as you pick up your pack as if it were as light as a feather. Once you’re on the plane the real nightmare begins because, while everyone plugs themselves into their iPods, novels, and handy horseshoe-shaped cushions, I’m just sitting there waiting for the hot rectangular tray of what they call food to arrive.

I suppose after years of feeling like a criminal something had to give, and on a recent trip to Malaysia I nearly snapped, before being on the receiving end of an unexpected happy outcome. Heathrow check-in again. ‘I’m sorry sir but this bag is 11 kilos. It’s too heavy to take on as hand luggage,’ came the bored and yet still slightly helpful voice of someone not really enjoying what they were doing. I counted to ten and decided to reason with them.

giraffe bones in the Okavango Delta, Botswana. Photo: Nick Smith, nicksmithphoto

Giraffe bones in the Okavango Delta, Botswana. Photo: Nick Smith

Ah, I said, but what about the people who take through a 10kg item of hand luggage and then buy a litre of water airside? As we all know from our physics classes the definition of a kilogram is that it is the weight of a litre of distilled water at 4 degrees centigrade. So, hah! The minute they buy their water they’ll be carrying the same weight as me. And what’s more, not only will I not buy a bottle of water, I further promise to drink nothing between now and boarding.

The woman looked at me sadly before repeating that my bag was overweight. But my check-in luggage weighs less than my cameras, I remonstrated. If you aggregate the total weight, I’m miles under. ‘It doesn’t work that way, sir,’ said the lady who, despite knowing I was morally right, had started to take a dislike to me. In frustration I pointed out that the portly gentleman she’d just let through was easily ten stone overweight, but did she pick on him? Oh no, that would be weightism. Maybe he’d eaten his cameras before arriving at the airport…

After further heated discussion where logic failed, and after more ‘computer says no’ moments, I was desperate. But somewhere in the back of my mind I remembered what a teacher of mine once told me years ago: that politeness and kindness would open more doors than any amount of swagger and bluster. ‘Please let me through,’ I begged. ‘Oh all right,’ she replied, ‘just this once.’

So next time I go to check in with my 11kg of kit – that I can’t put in the hold because someone will steal it – I’m going to be sweetness and light. If challenged, I’ll ask their advice, help and expert opinion on how to solve the problem. The cynical misanthrope in me doesn’t for a second think such flattery will come naturally, but I suppose we could all do with learning from our mistakes.

This article appears in the latest edition of Outdoor Photography magazine

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‘Shooting digital like film’, column by Nick Smith published in Outdoor Photography magazine

June 20, 2011

In the old days we took far fewer photos, normally in batches of 36. Today we don’t feel we’ve done our job unless we’ve blasted away gigabyte upon gigabyte. So what happens when we shoot digital the way we shot film? By Nick Smith

Nick Smith's daughter, Tegan Smith on the teacup ride on her sixth birthday

Teacup ride, Swansea, one of a restricted number of 36 shots taken in one day

Next time you take your digital camera into the great outdoors take a big bag of fifty pence pieces with you. Then throw away one coin for every time you depressed the shutter release button when you didn’t have to. For those of you wondering what on earth I’m talking about, this is what shooting on film was like. I can’t remember the exact figures, but it cost about nine pounds to buy and process a roll of 35mm transparency film that would result in 36 photographs: 37 if you were lucky. You simply couldn’t afford to be profligate.

My new camera can shoot 36 exposures in less than four seconds, and because it’s digital, think of all those fifty pence pieces I’m saving. Storage is cheap and plentiful, and if Moore’s Law holds – essentially that digital technology doubles its capacity and so halves in price every two years – they’ll be giving gigabytes away with petrol soon.

But what you gain on the swings you inevitably lose on the roundabouts, because we all end up paying through our teeth in lost hours peering into the screen when it comes to the edit. If you think that this is somehow an absorbable cost or it doesn’t really matter, try throwing a fifty pence piece out of the window for every five minutes you sit at your computer.

I don’t know about you, but I loved it when my trannies came back from the lab. I’d put them on the light box and reacquaint myself with what was really going on, rather than just delete stuff. Editing then seemed to be a process of selection rather than of mind-numbing elimination.

But then it occurred to me that I might be looking back with misguided affection. How could it have been better then? By any objective measure cameras and their consumables today are better, cheaper, lighter, faster and funkier. Well, maybe. But one thing I am sure of is that digital is responsible for a torrential surge in mediocre photography. It’s everywhere. Don’t believe me? Put your hand up and offer to judge your local newspaper or camera club photographic competition.

I decided to investigate if we really do shoot better photographs when we do it batches of 36. The rules were simple: I could take as much kit as I liked with me to the Gower peninsular and shoot anything I fancied. The only thing I had to do was stay within the frame budget and complete the project in one day.

Off to the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust in Llanelli one glorious Easter day. The sky was the colour of bluebells and there was more cherry blossom in the April breeze than you could shake a stick at. It was with an optimistic heart that I set out to fulfil my task that day of a portrait of my daughter (it was her sixth birthday), a wildlife shot (hence the drive to the wetlands) and a sunset, which would involve a short, sharp hike up a small mountain. I arbitrarily allowed myself 12 shots per project, which was a bit more daunting than sounds, not least because I was going to shoot the portrait on the teacup ride at the Easter fair, birds (for me at least) are notoriously fickle sitters and sunsets are not common in a land where it never stops raining.

By nine o’clock I’d downloaded my 36 compositions into Lightroom, and to my surprise my first reactions were all positive. First, it took no time to physically transfer the files because there were simply so few of them. Second, I suddenly found myself doing a positive edit rather than just moronically hitting the delete key. Third and most important of all, the proportion of decent shots was much, much higher that I would normally get from blasting away the megabytes. I was able to select three shots quickly – one for each project – that were above my quality threshold, and perhaps even more importantly, was tucked into a pint of Brains bitter well before closing time.

As I lubricated the tonsils I reflected on what my experiment had proved. I think this is what may have happened. I’d definitely spent more time thinking about what I wanted to shoot rather than pulling the trigger. And I was much more conscious of getting the basics right in order to avoid wasting my virtual roll of film. This had a further advantage, because when I came to review my work I found it much easier to evaluate how successful the images were relative to my intentions, simply because I could remember taking each exposure. I’d also had more fun, and as I polished off my pint I decided that wandering around South Wales musing on the glories of the natural world was simply a better experience than filling up flash cards with machine-gunned gunk.

This article first appeared in Outdoor Photography magazine

 

Trigger happy in Antarctica… too many penguins?

May 24, 2011

Let loose in one of the last pristine wildernesses with an open brief can lead to an embarrassment of riches. But you can take too many photos, says Nick Smith

Chinstrap penguins in Antarctica by Nick Smith nicksmithphoto

Chinstrap penguins in Antarctica

When I told a photographer friend of mine in a pub in London last November that I was heading off on assignment to Antarctica he was suitably impressed. Why wouldn’t he be? After all, for many of us outdoor photographers, the chance to visit the White Continent, to see what the likes of Shackleton and Scott saw only a century ago, is the stuff of dreams. The chance to tick off my sixth continent was also alluring, leaving a relatively pipsy Australasia last on my list. ‘Don’t forget to take plenty of pictures of penguins,’ was his considered advice.

I won’t bore you with how far away Antarctica is. Two days flying – London, Madrid, Buenos Aires, Ushuaia – followed by three days sailing in a converted Argentine navy ship across the fearsome Drake Passage. But it would all be worth it, I told myself, as my three cabin mates vomited their way to the South Shetlands, when I see my first penguin. Not that I’d been commissioned to photograph penguins specifically: my helpful editor on the national newspaper I was on assignment for had merely told me to ‘get some nice shots.’

gentoo penguins in Antarctica by Nick Smith nicksmithphoto

Gentoo penguins in Antarctica

Well the news is, for anyone who’s not been there, in Antarctica you can get ‘nice shots’ a-plenty. To be honest, it’s hard to go wrong. Once you’ve passed the Convergence (where the Southern Ocean and the Atlantic meet) it’s pretty much plain sailing: cobalt blue skies, lagoons as smooth as glass and smoked salmon skies. I’m not going to say that it’s warm, but I was there in the Austral summer, and chilly though it may have been at times, it beat the pants off winter in London, camping at Heathrow and the Eastenders Christmas Day special.

Gentoo penguins in Antarctica by Nick Smith nicksmithphoto

Gentoo penguins in Antarctica

Ever mindful of my friend’s advice, when I finally got ashore at Aitcho Island, I decided that penguins were the order of the day. At the South Shetlands you’ll be lucky to see anything other than chinstraps, gentoos and adelies, so I considered myself lucky indeed to find all three in the first rookery I visited. The light wasn’t great, but it was my first landfall in Antarctica and so… bang. Eight gigabytes in one hour. As I was shooting RAW images on a full frame sensor camera, that’s not too bad I told myself, but I knew that not one of the 250 shots would be a keeper. Safely back on the mother ship I duly downloaded and tagged the whole lot. I was right: there were no keepers, but these might be my only sightings.

In Antarctica there are strict rules when it comes to interacting with the wildlife. The penguins effectively have a 5-metre force field around them. You don’t enter their personal space or you risk negatively modifying their behaviour and causing stress that could ultimately lead to parents abandoning their young. However, they are inquisitive birds and if you sit still for long enough, as they have no fear of humans, they will simply come to you. And they did. And for first and perhaps the only time in my career I used my pride and joy 135mm f/2 prime for photographing birds. Seeing the results on my laptop later, I was amazed by just how well what’s fundamentally a portrait lens performed in such circumstances. You won’t find the manufacturer recommending this lens for penguin photography, but part of the fun is making your own decisions about kit.

penguins in Antarctica by Nick Smith nicksmithphoto

Gentoo penguins in Antarctica

A week into my voyage around the Antarctic Peninsular I found myself sick of bloody penguins. Not because I don’t like them – I think they’re tough, gutsy little animals that command the respect of all of us – but because I’d got 2,000 of the buggers in my laptop and I was getting extremely bored with editing, night after night (except it never got dark) what were essentially the same photos. And then it happened. Error message ‘Start-up disc almost full’, which if you are a Mac user (and I suspect that’s nearly all Outdoor Photography readers) is the one error message you don’t want to read. It means your computer has reached its capacity. Warning: your laptop is full of penguins, icebergs, clouds, reflections, mountain range silhouettes… all the ‘nice shots’ my editor had asked for.

Given that no photographer’s computer should ever each this point, something was going seriously wrong. I was, to put it simply, taking too many photographs and not spending enough time considering the lilies. I’d made a basic schoolboy error of being trigger happy, seduced by the beauty of my surroundings into taking so many trivial variations on the theme that I’d become over indulgent.

gentoo penguins in Antarctica by Nick Smith nicksmithphoto

Gentoo penguins in Antarctica

On the leg home from Buenos Aires to Madrid, I opened for the first time, as I so often do, the guidebook to the place I’d just visited. ‘Leave nothing but footprints’ it intoned with environmental piety, before reminding me to ‘take nothing but photographs.’ Perhaps it should have said: ‘before taking any more photographs, ask yourself if you’ve already met the editor’s brief. Do you really need more?’

This article first appeared in Outdoor Photography magazine… without Nick’s photos of penguins

gentoo penguins in Antarctica

Gentoo penguins in Antarctica

Nick Smith’s interview with pinhole photographer Nick Livesey in Outdoor Photography magazine

February 10, 2011

Patagonia through a pinhole

Nick Livesey is best known as an Emmy-nominated maker of short films and documentaries. But he’s also a leading exponent of the art of pinhole photography. Nick Smith hears his story…

nick-livesey-by-nicksmithphoto

Nick Livesey looks up at his pinhole camera. Photo: Nick Smith

A Lancastrian, Nick left school at 16 and went to his local art college in Blackburn. At the age of 19 he was accepted by the Royal College of Art and became on of the youngest ever to graduate with an MA. He moved to New York for a year where he started making moving images, as well as embarking on a career with Ridley Scott Associates that represents him to this day.

Although widely known for his short films, commercials and documentaries, Nick is an avid exponent of the pinhole technique. His camera is ‘a bunch of MDF’ that cost him about £40, put together by a ‘garden shed genius.’ On his extended honeymoon he took this camera around Chile, trekking for days off the beaten track. The result was the intriguing and popular ‘Patagonia through a Pinhole’ exhibition at the Royal Geographical Society.

With pinhole photography ‘you’re at the mercy of the elements’ says Nick. And although he’s equally comfortable with digital technology, there’s something about the stripped-down aspect of using basic wooden boxes with film in them that he likes. ‘It’s such a basic communication and fundamental way of composing images.’

Nick Smith: When did you realise you were going to become a photographer?

Nick Livesey: It was more of a quest. I was frustrated and wanted to understand light while I was making films. I was working with Directors of Photography and was really curious as to what they were doing.

NS: What was your first camera?

NL: Nikon FG-20 that I bought at a flea market in New York in 1993. It felt like an investment. It was something like $130. It’s just a great 35mm camera.

NS: What formal training do you have?

NL: I went to the Royal College of Art where I did an MA in graphic design and art direction. I pretty much lived in the dark room when I was there. At the end of the first year they asked me if there was any reason why I wasn’t working in colour. They said ‘why don’t you work in colour in your second year?’ So I did.

NS: How important is it to specialise?

NL: It’s great to specialise to the extent that you can get a handle on the subject. But I do like working in so many different areas. If you specialise too much you can start to wear blinkers.

NS: What is the best assignment you’ve been on?

NL: I did a pinhole piece for a fashion magazine in Moscow. That really freaked out the fashion label. They kept saying ‘we need to see stuff’ and we kind of said ‘well we’ll send you a contact sheet.’

NS: What’s the worst thing about being a professional photographer?

NL: There’s no downside. There are so many plus factors. Maybe it would be nice to not smell of dark room chemicals. So you do have to wash occasionally.

NS: Film or digital? Why?

NL: They complement each other. I’m looking into ways of cutting the front off an Ixus and replacing it with a pinhole. I think it would be interesting to see what you could get with a digital pinhole.

NS: What’s the most important thing you’re learned from another photographer?

NL: Just stand back from it all. Get close to the subject when you’re shooting it, but when you’re arranging a show, learn to stand back from it all. Try to look at everything in its entirety.

NS: What does photography mean to you?

NL: I feel like a conduit. I love taking photographs, but the only point of that is if people want to see them. I’ve always been hungry for creating images. I also love the quiet world of the dark room.

NS: What makes a great travel photograph?

NL: It’s all about the reaction of the person viewing it. If you can see someone’s reaction to your photo in a detached way – say at a show – then you’ll know what they really think.

In Nick’s gadget bag

Cameras: Wooden pinhole camera, Canon 7D, Arri 435 (movie camera), Red and Sony (digital movie cameras)

To see more of Nick Livesey’s photography visit www.nicklivesey.com

 

 

 

Nick Smith’s interview with Georgina Cranston in April 2010 Outdoor Photography magazine

March 23, 2010

Out of Africa

From gritty reportage on social issues to highly original travel photography, Georgina Cranston has a stunning and diverse portfolio. Nick Smith hears her story…

Women displaced by post election violence in Kenya, including one who fled a torched church where at least 18 people died. Photo: Georgina Cranston

British Photographer Georgina Cranston began her career in 2000, focusing on documentary photography of humanitarian issues. For the past decade she’s travelled the world on assignments for NGOs such as UNICEF and broadsheet newspapers such as the Daily Telegraph and the Times.

Working on a diverse range of subjects including slavery, leprosy and communities living in exile, Georgina has a personal interest in women’s issues. Recently working in the Congo’s gold mines she focused on the extreme conditions faced by women working as ‘human mules’ deep inside the disused mines, carrying up to 60kg of rocks on their backs, at times when eight months pregnant.

Georgina became a professional photographer as soon as she graduated from university and has worked in the industry ever since. She is currently based in London having lived in East Africa for the past three years, working across the continent.

Nick Smith: When did you realise you were going to become a photographer?

Georgina Cranston: I always had a camera with me when I was younger. After university I had this idea I wanted to work in the charity sector, but I ended up a photographer working in social issues. As I started getting more jobs and I thought maybe I could make a living at this.

NS: What was your first camera?

GC: Other than a point and shoot? It was a Minolta Dynax 500Si 35mm SLR. The first one I got the hang of was a Nikon F100. I took it with me on my first job, and every time something flashed I had to dive behind the sofa to read the manual.

NS: What formal training do you have?

GC: I’ve got a degree in psychology, but as for photography I’m self-taught. I learned on the job and also did assisting to get an insight into different types of photography.

NS: How important is it to specialise?

GC: I do think it’s important, but in order to survive in the industry as it is at the moment you need other strings to your bow to earn a living. But I am going to specialise in women’s social issues.

NS: What is the best assignment you have been and so far?

GC: I went with a newspaper to see the gorillas in the Virunga National Park in the Congo – tourists don’t get to go to the Congo at the moment, so to see the gorillas there was pretty special. The millennium celebrations in Ethiopia was special too – it was bizarre to celebrate a second millennium in my lifetime.

NS: What’s the worst thing about being a professional photographer?

GC: The thing I probably struggle most with is spending a lot of time on my own – airports, computer and so on. I don’t think that’s healthy. Having a balance is probably the essence – if you’re always doing assignment photography you’re always on the move.

NS: Film or digital? Why?

GC: I use digital and it helps in the work I do – transmitting images to newspapers from overseas. Logistically it makes life easier. When I taught photography in Kenya I used film. I miss the way of working with film, not knowing what’s in the camera at the end of the day.

NS: What’s the most important thing you’ve learned from another photographer?

GC: A friend of mine once encouraged me to show my work to him. It took me a while to pluck up the courage, but once I’d done this I realised how beneficial it was. It makes you look at your work in different ways.

NS: What does photography mean to you?

GC: I’ve always been fascinated with people and cultures and photography has been a great way to learn about them. Maybe that’s why I did psychology at university. An important thing for me is to capture emotions or the essence of where you are. But it’s also about transmitting these things and evoking emotion in the person who’s looking at it.

NS: What makes great travel photograph?

GC: The thing that I think that makes a good travel photograph is the energy of people or places – peaceful, highly excited, whatever. The great ones are the ones that give me that feeling.

Georgina’s golden rules

1) photograph what you’re fascinated in

2) establish relationship with subject

3) shoot RAW files

4) research your subject

5) don’t be afraid to have fun

Georgina’s kit

Cameras: Nikon D3, Nikon D700

Lenses: 17-35mm f/2.8, 28-70mm f/2.8, 80-200mm f/2.8, 85mm f/1.8

Check out Georgina’s work at www.georginacranston.com

Nick Smith’s interview with wildlife photographer Henry MacHale in Outdoor Photography magazine

February 24, 2010

Beating about the bush

Most people dream about giving up their day job to become a wildlife photographer. But Henry MacHale went one step further and turned the dream into reality. Nick Smith hears his story…

Adventure and wildlife photographer Henry MacHale. Portrait: Nick Smith

Adventure and wildlife photographer Henry MacHale. Portrait: Nick Smith

Henry MacHale read business studies at Edinburgh University, but in his holidays he spent much of his time in east Africa. In Kenya he took the first steps from being a burgeoning amateur to entering the world of the professional. Over the past decade he’s lived there, worked as a guide, managed a game reserve and got to know his way around the bush. ‘I can speak the bit of the language and so I just get in my Land Rover and go.’

After college Henry worked in a well-known financial institution in the City, but after a year it was clear that it wasn’t working out for him. He wasn’t enjoying his job and the call of Kenya’s wide-open spaces was too strong. And so at the age of 25 he turned his back on a lucrative career and a jet-set lifestyle and set off with just one camera and two lenses.

Success came quickly for Henry, who within a year had his first exhibition of his evocative black and whites in London. Called ‘Images of East Africa’, Henry’s work can also be seen online.

Nick Smith: When did you realise you were going to become a photographer?

Henry MacHale: I’ve been taking photos seriously since I was about 16, but the moment I realised I wanted to become a professional was about a month before I left my job. I thought: I’ve got an eye for photography. I love Africa. That’s it. I’m going.

NS: What was your first camera?

HM: A Nikon F65 film SLR. Quite basic, but I liked the control and the way you could take real photos with it.

NS: What formal training do you have?

HM: I went to London School of Art for four months where I did a crash course on the marketing side of photography. This was hugely helpful, not so much form the creative side of things, but from the business angle.

NS: How important is it to specialise?

HM: It’s important to me. I’ve always been interested in Africa. I’ve got a huge competitive advantage out there because I’ve spent so much time in the bush and know my way around.

NS: What is the best assignment you’ve been on?

HM: Gorillas in Rwanda. I think I enjoyed it so much because I’ve only done that once, and there was a novelty factor in that it was a very different kind of photography from what I’m used to.

NS: What’s the worst thing about being a professional photographer?

HM: I’m away seven months of the year and my friends are in London. So I’m saying ‘no’ to weddings and parties. But you can’t have it both ways. Also you tend to worry about where the next pay cheque is coming from.

NS: Film or digital? Why?

HM: Digital. It’s cheaper. You save all that money on processing. I suppose the equipment is more expensive, but you’ve got that ability to edit in the field.

NS: Which photographers have had the most influence on your work?

HM: One of the photographers I most admire is Sebastião Salgado. His work isn’t wild or wacky or crazy, but it’s beautiful and simple. He’s done quite a lot in Africa and so that links in a bit. Peter Beard shot exactly the same areas that I photograph now, and so I’ve always been interested in his work. Nick Brandt’s stuff is really cool too.

NS: What does photography mean to you?

HM: In twenty years time Africa will be a different place – some of the people and wildlife will simply not be there in the same way. It’s important to try to capture this moment in a skilful and beautiful way. It’s impossible to capture an African landscape as you see it sitting on a hill. But I want to get as close as possible to that.

NS: What makes a great outdoor photograph?

HM: Everyone knows what a wildebeest or a Maasai looks like, and so what you’ve got to try to do is make the familiar look beautiful, perhaps with the light, or the dust or the way they’re standing.

Henry’s 5 golden rules

1 You can shoot a 1000 shots but don’t

2 Be patient and willing to sit there for five hours

3 Be prepared to throw yourself into it

4 Spend a long time on location just looking

5 The unusual is not always a good photo

Henry’s gear

Camera: Canon 1DS MkIII

Lenses: Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 IS, 24-104mm f/4 IS

Check out Henry’s website: www.henrymachalephotography.co.uk

Nick Smith’s column ‘A shot in the dark’ – Outdoor Photography, February 2010 edition

January 22, 2010

A shot in the dark

When he was asked to report on night kayaking on a phosphorescent lake in November, photojournalist Nick Smith thought that someone was pulling his leg…

One of the great things about being a photojournalist is you’re never quite sure what’s going to happen next. One minute you’re embroiled in a public spat over the latest Arctic ice-thickness statistics and the next you’re being flown to Ireland to take photographs of people kayaking in pitch darkness.

Let me explain. The phone call went like this. ‘We’re looking for a photographer to cover one of our tourism attractions’, chimed the mellifluous tones of a sophisticated West End PR lady called Kath. It turns our her client, Tourism Ireland, was flying a gang of UK newspaper journos to do some kayaking in Lough Hyne, a marine lagoon west of Cork. Would I like to take the photos?

Well, when anyone asks me if I’d ‘like to take the photos’, I tend to answer in the affirmative without so much as a second thought. But this sounded like it could be a poisoned chalice. I asked Kath to tell me more, and after a long conversation it boiled down to this. She was asking me to take photographs in the middle of November, in the dark, in Ireland where you could wager the shirt on your back that it would be raining. ‘But the good thing’ said Kath, ‘is that the lake is naturally phosphorescent, which should make your photos even more special.’

There’s something magical about arriving at Cork airport in the late afternoon with the autumnal sun setting in the west. The almost horizontal rays skimmed across the idyllic countryside and instinctively I started to write stuff in my notebook along the lines of ‘it’s not called the Emerald Isle for nothing’. But, by the time I’d got off the plane the coppery sun had given way to a ‘soft day’, which roughly translates as a slate grey sky with precipitation in the form of stair rods.

As we drove west to Skibereen – famous for its famine burial pits – I started to realise the magnitude of my task. To add to the rain, it was now very dark, and I was beginning to entertain no hope of getting any photographs at all. Rubbish, I said to myself. As my mentor Martin Hartley tells me – there’s always something a professional photographer can shoot. But what if he’s wrong?

Feeling that I was sliding into the photographic equivalent of the valley of the shadow of death, I decided to cheer myself up by getting my brand spanking Canon 5D II out of the bag. I reasoned these babies can take photos in the dark, and since this is exactly what I was commissioned to do, I’d obviously bought the right tool for the job. Although I’d never ramped it up that far, the 5D II has an ISO upper limit of 6400, which lifted my spirits. I rootled around in my gadget bag for the lens with the widest aperture (Sigma 24mm f1.8) and screwing it onto the body thought life couldn’t be that bad after all. What with a little noise reduction here and a tad of sharpening there, we’d be in business.

Lough Hyne, as I later found out, is one of the most beautiful places on earth. But when I arrived in the bible black darkness and thick drizzle that penetrated every layer of clothing, I was too miserable to care. We strapped on our headlamps, got in our kayaks and paddled out onto a phosphorescent lake that refused to phosphoresce. I took my first look through the viewfinder. Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Big fat zero.

This was just before I found that you can’t direct a torch, use an off-camera flash cord and press the shutter at the same time. The idea was that I’d illuminate another kayak, get a fix on the autofocus and get shooting. By now you’ll realise that this was a bad idea for so many reasons but the main one is that if the autofocus can’t see anything it can’t autofocus. In desperation I switched to manual focus, shoved the aperture on F8, set the focal length at infinity, and blindly accepted whatever shutter speed the camera decided to give me while in aperture priority. Please don’t write in and say I’m an idiot. I knew that the moment I got on the plane to Cork.

But then I broke what for me is a cardinal rule. My first commandment is, if you don’t know what you’re doing, stop and think. But I didn’t and I carried on regardless and over the next hour I blasted away and filled an 8GB card. Back in the hotel, after several much needed restorative glasses of Jamesons I reviewed the evening’s carnage. I’m not proud of this at all, but there were enough salvageable shots to put a small set together, and the results have already appeared on several national newspaper websites.

And the moral of the tale? Well I’m not sure, but talking the PR boss of Tourism Ireland on the flight home to London I tried to manage his expectations. ‘You see the thing is’ I explained gently, ‘cameras can’t really take photographs in the dark.’ Of course not, said John. That would be silly.

Visit Tourism Ireland at www.tourismireland.com

Nick Smith interviews BBC wildlife photographer Doug Allan in Outdoor Photography magazine

December 1, 2009

Into the cold, wet world

BBC wildlife cameraman Doug Allan spends his life in remote, freezing places, quite often underwater. All in the pursuit of that magical image. Nick Smith hears his story…

Doug Allan is a freelance wildlife and documentary photographer and cameraman working underwater, on land and especially on the polar ice. Born in Scotland, he graduated with a degree in marine biology from Stirling University in 1973. This was to propel him into a career in field science that gradually transformed into one of wildlife photography. Today he is one of the leading wildlife photographers of his generation with a feast of credits including the BBC’s  ‘Blue Planet’ and ‘Planet Earth’.

Doug was working as a diver on an Antarctic research station when he met David Attenborough in 1981 while the BBC was filming polar sequences for ‘The Living Planet’. For Doug that was the ‘decisive moment’, as it dawned on him that the cameramen he was watching weren’t doing anything physically that he couldn’t. With his specialist knowledge and prodigious abilities as a diver, all he had to do was ‘work on my photographic skills’. And so a career-long relationship with the legendary presenter was launched.

Much of Doug’s wildlife photography involves physically overcoming the environmental harshness of some of the world’s wildest places and then waiting for his subject’s behaviour to reveal itself. ‘I do like working in really wild situations’ he says. The advent of digital has improved his life no end – he can spend more time underwater without having to surface to reload film. As for processing, he remembers Kodachrome film taking a year to get from Antarctica to a UK lab and back.

Doug has won the underwater category in Wildlife Photographer of the Year twice as well as the Royal Geographical Society’s Cherry Kearton Photography Medal. He has also won Emmy and BAFTA awards for his moving images.

Nick Smith: When did you realise you were going to become a wildlife photographer?

Doug Allan: When I first went to the Antarctic in 1976 I was thrown into an overwintering environment with only about 15 other people on base. Most were photographers and some had a very good eye. With the penguin colonies and the seals on my doorstep a serious interest was kindled.

NS: What was your first camera?

DA: A Petriflex given to me by Dad in 1971. It was a very simple SLR. I don’t think I had a wide- angle lens, just a standard 50mm. For underwater photography it was the old faithful Nikonos II – it was the most advanced then, but no electronics at all.

NS: What formal training do you have?

DA: I didn’t have any. I feel almost more in need of formal training now with digital than I did back in the days when we used to do our own processing. Now there is so much you can do in post processing, and you have to be careful if you want your digital files to be around in 30 years time.

NS: How important is it to specialise?

DA: I’m a specialist in wildlife and wild places with an even narrower niche of cold weather environments both underwater and topside. I don’t shoot weddings. Well, I shot a wedding once as a favour and it was the most traumatic thing I’ve ever done in my life.

NS: What is the best assignment you’ve been on?

DA: It’s hard to pick one or two. What I’m interested in is ‘difficult-to-get-behaviour’ from genuinely wild animals. That’s where I get the buzz – being in the wild and seeing things happening for real. What turns me on is being in the company of big mammals. You can’t hide from a polar bear – he hears and sees as well as you do, and yet his sense of smell is better than a bloodhound. In those situations your body language, behaviour and even what you’re thinking are ultra important. It’s like you have to talk to your subject in a non verbal way.

NS: What’s the worst thing about being a professional photographer?

DA: It can be frustrating if you’ve put a lot a lot of effort into a shoot and you feel it’s not been given the best chance on screen because the editing or production is sloppy or misses the point. But, mostly I’ve had the chance to work with high class production teams.

NS: Film or digital? Why?

DA: Digital encourages experimentation and as a stills photographer the field is absolutely wide open to interpret whatever you see in whatever way you can imagine. Shooting with film teaches you  the basics very well, with each press of the shutter having an associated cost. There was no alternative when I started. Digital frees you up creatively and the sky’s the limit.

NS: What’s the most important thing you’ve learned from another photographer?

DA: I just went the classic route – the base I was on in the Antarctic subscribed to National Geographic. We’d look at the pictures and admire them. I’ve always preferred the wide-angle from up close rather than the telephoto. I liked Ernst Haas with his long exposures to experiment with blurring movement. We used to try that on base and quickly realised it was much harder than it looked. Also the early Jacques Cousteau and Hans Hass books influenced me a lot – the idea of exploring the undersea world with a camera.

NS: What does photography mean to you?

DA: I realised after 10 years in Antarctica that photographing and filming animals encapsulated so much of what I enjoyed doing. Travel, adventure, being part of a team, doing something you think is worthwhile – all those things come together in what I do.

NS: What makes a great wildlife photograph?

DA: You have to take yourself to exciting landscapes or put yourself in front of inspiring animals. Unless you’re really interested in your subject you’re not going to catch that special magic.

Doug’s 5 golden rules

1 Look around and find out what impresses you

2 Ask yourself what your shot is trying to convey

3 Stand on the shoulders of the great photographers

4 Get out into inspiring landscapes

5 Underwater, remember: the closer the better

Doug’s gear (stills)

Canon EOS 1Ds-Mk II,

Lenses: 14mm f/2.8, 17-35mm f/2.8, 24-105mm IS f/4, 100-400mm IS, 600mm IS f/4

Seacam housings

http://www.dougallan.com

 

Nick Smith interviews fine art photographer Stuart Klipper in ‘Outdoor Photography’ magazine

November 6, 2009

The art of outdoors

Stuart Klipper is an American fine artist who shoots the world mostly through a Linhof Technorama 617. He tells Nick Smith about his search for the ‘wide-field’

New York’s Museum of Modern Art, the Victoria and Albert Museum, Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Photography, The Library of Congress, The National Museum of American Art… just a few of the many organisations to have exhibited or collected Stuart Klipper’s photography.

An American fine art photographer with an international reputation, Klipper has spent decades travelling the planet in order to ‘seek out order’. His vision is expressed through a battered old Linhof Technorama 617 that he keeps in a battered old gadget bag. He wears rings of turquoise, sapphire and Navajo silver on every finger. He says the weight of the rings ‘helps to keep my trim on an even keel.’

Stuart Klipper doesn’t take photographs. He prefers to use the word ‘make’ in the way that an artist makes art. His images are panoramas in the 617 format, which he shoots on film. When asked why he prefers the ‘wide-field’ format he simply says ‘because it’s wider’. Sometimes he shoots verticals, but most of the pictures – from North Pole to South Pole and (even rarer) all 50 states of America – are horizontal panoramas.

Nick Smith: When did you first realise you going to become a photographer?

Stuart Klipper: Photography was a hobby among many. I went to college at University of Michigan and I read [John Van Druton’s] ‘I am a camera’. I realised I had a predisposition to seek out some sort of order. I realised I am a camera and so I decided to use one.

NS: What was your first camera?

SK: My dad documented my life with excess beyond even a presidential documentary photographer. Cameras were everywhere, mostly Kodak. My first real camera I got at 13 with my Bah Mitzvah money, a Rolleicord twin lens reflex.

NS: What formal training do you have?

SK: I’m pretty much an autodidact, but I hung around after my degree and took a few courses in the art school there: Phil Davies taught a very technical introduction to photography. There was another fellow that taught the aesthetics and design end of the spectrum.

NS:  How important is it to specialise?

SK: Of all the things I’ve been called in life one of the things I enjoy most is ‘a generalist’. I look at everything with equanimity. I don’t think anything is intrinsically more special than anything else. Everything’s fair game.

NS: What is the best assignment you’ve been on?

SK: Give me some assignments please. About a dozen years ago someone from the New York Times commissioned me to shoot a story about a small city in South Dakota that was remarkably economically successful. I was just going around town photographing street scenes.

NS: What’s the worst thing about being a professional photographer?

SK: You travel a lot and you mostly travel alone. There are certain aspects of the unsought solitude that can get to you. It’s finally started to become a bit corrosive, but you do your work no matter what.

NS: Film of digital why?

SK: I’m not a Luddite and I’m not old fashioned. Film is what the Linhof uses. A consignment of film arrived recently and the rolls all tumbled out. I was surprised by the feeling of looking at all these photographs waiting to be made.

NS: What’s the most important thing you’ve learned from another photographer?

SK: The two photographers that sum it up in one sentence are Ansell Adams and Garry Winogrand. For over 30 years I’ve been a close friend of Lee Friedlander. We hardly ever talk about photography, but there is something osmotic coming through about how to live life as a photographer.

NS: What does photography mean to you?

SK: I have an extremely broad range of interest, and if there is one place where I can synthesise what I know about the world it’s through photography. It’s the most important way of getting a handle on the world, how we all can.

NS: What makes a great photograph?

SK: Photography isn’t about photography; it’s about the world. I just make pictures. There are no rules. Find your own vocabulary.

Klipper’s 5 Golden rules

1)   Find your own vocabulary

2)   Photography isn’t about photography

3)   Know who came before you and what they did

4)   Your equipment is only the toolbox

5)   There are no rules

Klipper’s gear

Cameras: Linhof Technorama 617, Mamiya 7, Konica Hexar

Film: Fuji Provia 100F 120 roll film and Provia 35mm film

Stuart Klipper’s new book of panoramic photography The Antarctic: From the Circle to the Pole has just been published by Chronicle Books and is available on Amazon.

 

 

Nick Smith interviews extreme photographer Gordon Wiltsie in Outdoor Photography magazine

October 15, 2009

The Call of the Wild

Dangling off a craggy cliff face in the name of work is not a daunting prospect for adventure photographer Gordon Wiltsie. Nick Smith hears his story…

After more than three decades as a professional photographer, Gordon Wiltsie is known as one of the best adventure and expedition photographers out there. Brought up among the wide-open spaces he started off as a keen mountaineer studying chemistry, before a chance meeting with Galen Rowell lead him to his true vocation. He quickly switched his academic interest to the creative fields, but before long realised that he simply wanted to be in the mountains with his camera.

After a ‘long hold-out to film’ Gordon switched to digital two years ago and says he’ll never go back. But it’s not as though he’s a newcomer to digital because he’s been scanning his old transparencies for a decade now, in order to supply them to magazines, and to build up his photographic library – Alpenimage – a famous resource for art directors on the lookout for unusual adventure images.

Gordon has ‘done a lot of work for National Geographic and Geo’ as well as broader cultural photography, and has recently won the 2008 Lowell Thomas Award for best Magazine Travel Photography for his piece in National Geographic Adventure on Russian reindeer nomads called ‘Vanishing Breed’. He has contributed to many books, and his most recent is To the Ends of the Earth: Adventures of an Expedition Photographer.

Nick Smith: When did you realise you were going to become a photographer?

Gordon Wiltsie: When I was 17 I met a guy called Galen Rowell. He wasn’t even a famous photographer at that time, but he’d had stuff printed in various magazines, and I thought: ‘wow, if this guy can do it then so can I…’ To make that kind of assumption was a bit ridiculous.

NS: What was your first camera?

GW: I got a Brownie when I was 8 and I had some ancient Kodak bellows camera from the 1920s. But finally my parents bought me a Pentax Spotmatic and I’d say that was my first real camera which I had until I accidentally backed my car over it.

NS: What formal training do you have?

GW: I started off as a political science major and then I became a chemistry major and then I wanted to go to Nepal, which was a life dream. So I changed my major to creative writing and photography. But I’d say I’m largely self-taught.

NS: How important is it to specialise?

GW: It’s important to be known for something. For a long time I was known for ski, mountain and adventure photography. Going to really wild places that no one had ever really been before was my niche. If it was cold, miserable and dangerous, editors would send me.

NS: What is the best assignment you’ve been on?

GW: There are two actually. My assignment to Queen Maud Land in Antarctica was probably the best adventure because it worked so well for me as an expedition leader as well as photographer – it was my first cover story for National Geographic. The other one was a story I did of a migration in Mongolia. It was an unbelievable human story experience.

NS: What’s the worst thing about being a professional photographer?

GW: Uncertainty. Because I’m freelance my employer is me. Also, with the advent of digital photography and easy-to-use cameras the supply of photography outstrips the demand and as a result quality falls off as some magazines realise they don’t have to pay so much for photographs.

NS: Film or digital? Why?

GW: I used to always shoot film because I thought that it gave a better image in the long run. I do a lot of lecturing and I thought slide shows using real film looked better than digital. Bt the latitude you can get out of digital compared with film is astonishing.

NS: What’s the most important thing you’re learned from another photographer?

GW: I went on to assist Galen Rowell and he became a bit of a mentor. I learned a lot from him, but the most important thing was always ‘be ready with your camera set to go’. Other photographers who really inspire me are Steve McCurry, Reza, Bill Allard. They’re all trying to capture a moment in time with their own different way of seeing things.

NS: What does photography mean to you?

GW: For me it is a means of communicating a human relationship with a natural world that is beyond description in words. People sometimes call me a landscape photographer, but I’m not. I’m a people photographer.

NS: What makes a great travel photograph?

GW: Two things here: one is a travel story where there are ten different pictures that add up to something. But a single great photo needs a human element, it has to make you want to me there – or not want to be there – and it has to have some emotional component to it.

Gordon’s FIVE golden rules

1 Use the simplest lightest gear

2 Be prepared and ready for action

3 Simplify things – home in on what is important

4 Patience is important – wait for the shot

5 Build trust rust is important in cultural photography

Gordon’s gear:

Cameras: Nikon FM-2, Nikon D200

Lenses: Nikkor 12-24mm f/4, 35-70mm f/2.8, 80-200mm f/2.8, 400mm

Accessories: remote switch, monopod, polarising filter, split ND filter, flash

***

To the Ends of the Earth: Adventures of an Expedition Photographer by Gordon Wiltsie is available on Amazon