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Mark McNeill In Focus with Alf Myers

Welcome back and this time we'll be bringing the photography of Mark McNeill into focus. Although my focus is street photography and it will be a topic we return to a lot, I also want to learn from the wider photography community and see what, if anything, transfers from one discipline to the other. You wouldn't say Mark's photography is street - it is very much landscapes, both day and night. But not exclusively so as he has also turned his hand to weddings and events.

Based in Blackpool, England, it is not surprising to see that his muse is mostly around the Flyde coast, the Lake District and surrounding areas, but not limited to the area. It's not unusual to see Mark posting on Facebook at strange hours of the day or night and in locations you've never heard of, generally with a picture of his trusted 3 Legged Thing and camera attached. The results that are shared later are breathtakingly good. He is also a part of 3 Legged Thing Pro Team)

Get to Sardinia - you can see it with your own eyes! Its the location, not the camera. (Mark McNeill).

As with Vanessa Cass, we've also talked a lot on Facebook but never really in-depth about his outlooks and approach. And so we begin...

AM - Hi Mark, thanks for giving up some of your time to chat to me about your photography. We've talked many times on Facebook already and, along with many others, I'm sure, I enjoy seeing your images each time you post them.

Its true to say you've tried a few different genres with your photography, but, correct me if I'm wrong, landscapes appear to now be your subject of choice. I'd like to go back to when you first started and understand what made you want to pick up a camera in the first place and how photography has subsequently become a more serious thing for you?

Mark out in the wilds

MM - Well I first picked a camera up when my daughter Maisy was one, over eight years ago. I started my journey by just taking photos of our little trips out together. Then going out taking photos of bugs such as lady birds, and moving on to family friends.

My skills for capturing sharp images came from weekly trips to the zoo, practicing capturing sharp images of monkeys jumping about. Then I got asked by friends to take photos at weddings.

As Maisy grew up we traveled further and stopped out later, or camped out and that’s when I got the bug for landscape photography. Waking up and seeing the sky all red/pink or watching it turn yellow at sunset, before walking home in the dark smiling.

In the beginning

AM - Thanks Mark, you've painted such a lovely picture there which will echo with a lot of peoples' experiences and I bet there are going to be a few images in the mix that your daughter will thank you for later in life. Your reason for picking up a camera in the first place was to document the life and development of your daughter, and in doing so your attention was drawn to what stirs your soul and the desire to capture it. Your landscapes.

I was going to ask you about your reason for taking landscapes but you beat me to that one, so lets change tack a little. Locations? Where are your favorite locations to shoot? What time of day/year do you like to visit, and most importantly, why?

MM - My favourite locations so far would be Glen Etive in Glencoe, Scotland and Wastwater in the Lake District. They're two locations where you could go back hundreds of times and never take the same shot twice. With Wastwater, it has it’s very own climate, very much like Glencoe. If you can get too such places you'll feel nature all around you. Even in the pouring rain both locations are still magical.

You can stand there for a hour and just forget about taking photos. At night, both locations take on even more magical themes. They're both dark sky locations so you'll see the sky is full of a billion stars.

The best time of the day? I would say around sunset to darkness. At times you can look out of your window and think, "Yes there is a good sun set". The other time is around sunrise, but you're in the dark so it is more of a guess that it will be good.

And winter, that is the best! When its frosty and misty and cold.

Flavours of Scotland

AM In your answers so far, you've mentioned the dark a few times from, "walking home in the dark, smiling", to dark sky areas, and just now, as one of the best times of day to shoot.

I know from being on holiday on a few of the Greek islands, and in Austria, that the night sky can hold many wonders. I've even heard it can bring people to tears. But in my few attempts, I've never managed to make an image that even comes close to that wonder. You however have.

Can you tell us a little as to how you go about photographing the stars, finding the Milky Way and what equipment you'd use to do it?

MM The basic settings are really easy, and once you know the settings it won't matter where in the world you are as these simple settings will be just fine. The first thing we need to do is focus, turn the lens to manual mode and then set your focus to infinity. The easy way is too turn the camera to a far off light and really fine tune the focus. The second, which is just as important, is a good tripod .

Visit during the day or use google earth to have an idea of what you want the image to look like, as in the dark it’s nearly impossible.

For your camera setting, set your aperture to the lowest f-stop. This is normally f2.8 or lower, and your ISO to between 800 to 3200. Depending on what lens you have your shutter speed will be anything from 10-25 seconds. You'll notice when you get near 30 seconds the stars start to move slightly then your image looks like it’s blurry

My equipment is a Nikon D810 with Nikon 24-70 mm or Sigma 20mm 1.4 art lens and a Three Legged Thing Winston and Brian tripods, plus a cheap shutter release cable. The tripod and cable are there to help keep it stable one hundred percent of the time. If you don't have a cable use a 10 seconds timer.

You shouldn't need to worry about light bleeding in from your eye-piece, not at night anyway, only if you shine your head torch in the eye piece.

The Northern Lights come to the The Lake District.

The Milky Way as seen in Sardinia.

And at Blencathra in the Lake District, England.

AM - Excellent, Mark. That gives a great method for stetting up your gear and what's required. After that, I think I could even set-up a shot. But as we all know, the camera and equipment is just a tool we use to make the image. It is what the photographer brings to the table in terms of vision and planning that produces an image.

From your point of view, what makes a great landscape, seacape or starscape? Also, what is it that you're looking for when you're setting up a shot?

MM For my planning, I just use the weather apps, BBC and Met Office. Location wise, the better I've got, the more I realise that planning is just as important as the taking of the photos. I use Google Earth. I also have a look at Flickr to see other peoples' ideas on certain locations but for me, I think in my photos I want to have emotion, and mainly I like to capture weather good or bad.

The lone tree in Buttermere can look different in a hour or Windermere in 20 minutes just by the changing sun or clouds. I climbed Loughrigg Fell, it took 50 minutes only to find not a cloud in the sky and the images, in my eyes, looked rubbish. I enjoy moody wet clouds with the sun breaking through.

For me, a good photo is one that replicates the view that is in front of you. If the weather or view isn’t good, then the photo normally isn’t. You can be in the best location but grey, flat weather, and you may as well go home.

AM - You pick up on a very important point there and that is, that great images need to contain emotion, and also, for me, a narrative. So much so, that they trigger something in the viewer. The other strong point there is about the subject. If it isn't interesting then it is unlikely that whatever your sensor records is going to produce an image that will be exciting, no matter how much post-processing you do.

The mantra 'get it right in camera' springs to mind and that is back to your planning. That being said, the processing of an image can really make or break the end results. What are you thoughts on post-processing and to what extent do you use it?

MM - My thoughts are a little old fashioned. I tend to try get my photography right on location even if it means a second or even third visit. Also, when it comes to editing, I can’t use Photoshop well - only to put a logo on - so I tend to only do minor adjustments in Lightroom. Darken the highlights, lift the shadows and remove the odd dust spot, that’s all I ever do.

For example in this image I used a graduated filter on camera to be able to expose for the jetty, without blowing the sky out. i put my logo on it and basically that’s it, no other editing at all.

The Jetty

AM - That shows your camera craft.

MM - Thank you, I just think it’s better to post a photo I took not one I made, if that makes sense.

An unedited image direct from the camera

AM - That is impressive photography and as you say, from the 'old school' - get it right in camera. This links to my next topic, I guess. I'm always interested to hear if there are any photographers that inspire other photographers be they old masters or not so well known people.

Who are yours and what is it about their work that makes you look up to them? I assume you have at least one photographer out there whose work has influenced you. Can you enlighten us on who and what it is about them that you admire?

MM - I like Thomas Heaton, Simon Baxter, Nigel Danson and Melvin Nicolson. But for landscapes and astro you can’t get better than Stephen Cheatley. I am his apprentice!

I joined a Facebook landscapes page and it kind of made me sad, so now I try too do what makes me happy. It made me sad because when I posted my image I had people, who don’t really post many photos, taking them apart. The critics are good but to me its a little old fashioned now. Thing like saying, "oh your leaf isn’t in the bottom third" or "your tree is a little blurry" seems harsh.

I am a member of the Royal Photographic Society, that came about as I did an Open University Degree which was run in conjunction with them. As a result I'm now leading up to the next step of applying for the LRPS or FRPS. I think the degree slowed me down and basically taught me better composition. That and to take your time to learn the basics.

Though I was a photographer, I was self taught and the tiny basics just polished me a little bit more. And for landscapes, learning that a good tripod is essential is just as good a tip as you can get. I bought about 4 £60 Amazon tripods before I bought my first Three Legged Thing. And the results looked even better because of the extra quality and stability the results at f8-f11 are so much sharper.

A three image stitched panorama.

AM - Thanks again Mark, but unfortunately we've come to our last question. I feel I've learnt a lot from your answers and gained an insight into your work, approach and thought processes as you're taking a photograph. The big tip for me being - use that tripod!

So to that final question and we'll end where we began. What piece of advice would you give to someone who is just starting out with photography?

MM - What I would say is simply forget what amazing images you see on Facebook and other social media - take photos that make you smile and nobody else. The amazing pictures come with time and hard work. Going home after a day out and not getting one decent photo is something everyone does but they just don’t tell you!

I had some of the most relaxed nights taking photos of dandelions blowing in the wind at Warton Marsh. Its not the most glamorous location you ever heard off, but like anything, you need to start at the beginning!

I traveled up to Glencoe, 6 hours to arrive, and its raining! I then drove back home sulking, it happens.

AM - I think its safe to say we all learn in different ways and what fits one person, may not be right for another, but we all learn from our failures. Which is what I think is the point you're saying here. Or, learn from your failures and share your successes. Why are all the Facebook group images so good? Because it's their best work. I hope people take your message to heart.

Thank you again for your time, insight and especially the images. I hope you enjoyed the experience as much as I did.

You can find more of Mark's work here -

Glencoe Buachaille Etive Mor
Sardinia and the Milky Way
South Stack Lighthouse, Anglesey, Wales
Glen Etive
Northern Lights over the Lake District
The Milky Way over Blencathra
Ashness jetty at sunset Derwent Water, Keswick, the English Lake District
Ashness jetty at night, Derwent Water, Keswick, the English Lake District
Derwent Water at night, Keswick, the English Lake District

Comments

Jean Greenwood - "Beautiful." Via Facebook
Rachel Wilson - "Fantastic interview, excellent photographer."
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Alf Myers
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In-Focus Q&A with Mark McNeill an Blackpool based Landscape photographer

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