Welcome back to the next edition of 'In Focus' and this time we get to see into the world of a seasoned landscaper. His photography stands on its own but like all of quality photographers, it has taken time to develop and there is a story or two in there along the way.
So without further ado lets spend some time with Lancashire based landscape, wedding and product photographer Andy Phillips.
AM - Evening Andy, and thank you for sparing some of your time for me. As you may know, your name has cropped up in a previous 'In Focus' interview with your wife Nancy, so it was only fair that I got to hear the other half of the story.
If I recall, we first met a few years back when you came along to Preston Photography Society and made a big influence with a group of photographers there. You shared your insight and knowledge with them, which they've absorbed and which has gone on to help them make a step-change in their approach to photography and processing. So much so, a few have picked up awards at the club and beyond. I'm right in saying that your main subject in photography is landscapes but you also indulge in a few others such as supporting Nancy with her weddings, and then there is your keen eye for the good product/still-life shot. Your landscape work is very established and well honed, with a leaning for mood and drama. It has developed enormously, so much so that you're a seasoned tutor with aspect2i, which we'll go into later. But lets take you back to your early days of picking up a camera and learning the ropes. What was it that got you hooked and how did it all come about?
AP - Hello, Alf. In 2002, I moved 'up north' from the West Midlands. I was a seasoned paramedic and practiced in mainly urban areas. I was transferred to the South Ribble area , Lancashire, and worked there for many years. It was a pleasant change, not dealing with city life and all the crap that comes with that. Lancashire was great for me. I didn’t do photography then but I steeped myself in Bluegrass music and weight training. Not at the same time though!
After 10 years, I was getting a little tired of those hobbies and needed to put my energies into something else. I was soon about to go on holiday to New Zealand so I thought I had better find out how to use a camera and record the trip. I approached 'People in the know’', who know about photography, and they put me in the direction of a local casualty porter by the name of Ian Bamber!
Ian asked how long he had to teach me before I left for the other side of the world. I told him 3 weeks! No pressure there then. I had bought a used bridge camera and a Fuji film for £80, that came complete with strap and cardboard box. Ian told me to shoot in P mode and demonstrated focused shutter release and that was it - I was off. The images I got were pretty awful and I shot video as well.
I joined Ian's camera club on my return. i.e. Blackburn Camera Club. After a short while I bought my 1st DSLR, a Canon Rebel D300. I remembered its predecessor - the 20D which a national magazine billed as, 'The perfect camera'!! Now the D300 was to be for me. I got a couple of cheap lenses - a 15-50 f5.6 and a 70-300 f5.6 and I shot anything that moved and up to 500 pix a day. I didn’t do Photoshop then but used a cheap program to do the job. I can’t remember its name now but it was rubbish.
I was in the beginners section in the club and I got a lot of help there and I learned the basics of being a club competitor. The problem with being at the bottom is that if you are lucky, then advice is thrown at you from all directions and with all due respect you need to sieve and rationalise it. In other words, be careful who you emulate! I saw a few members come and go and I made a few friends there (and they still speak to me), seasoned photographers from the film era, an era i never studied.
I found myself with the photography bug! You know when you have it because:
- You think about it constantly
- You read all the magazines ( I was on a mission)
- I entered every competition going
- I practiced at EVERY opportunity
- Google and You Tube were missing, so I did it the old fashioned way and just pursued it.
AM - So you were a full time paramedic? I'm sure, as part of that role, you have learnt a few tricks about how to deal with people in difficult circumstances, skills which you can now apply within the wedding and teaching environments. Transferable skills, as they say.
AP - I was a full time para for 40 years until I officially retired last year. (I started when I was 3 years old). I feel sorry for the young ones coming on the job now! Transferable skills to photography? Maybe. Getting a successful grip on photography is more about diligence and perseverance . The single most important thing to do is surround yourself with people who are opinionated, who will tell you the truth and mentor you. Keep grounded and don’t go off on a spur leading nowhere. Thinking about what you say, then maybe the best thing I acquired was that I always worked shifts, which can destroy family life, but which I used to my advantage, meaning you build up to not needing a lot of sleep, which as a landscape photographer is really useful! The bad side was I had the pleasure of working nights and back shifts over weekends, Christmas, bank holidays, etc. More importantly I planned and ensured I could be a full time photographer when I stopped being a para.
AM - Nice! Now that is a good return on investment. You mentioned earlier about, 'finally finding what it was that you needed'. Can you expand on that? What was it that you found in Paul Gallagher and how did he influence your approach to your landscape photography?
AP - I discovered Paul Gallagher through a mutual friend and he seemed to be what I needed so I thought, "Hang the expense" and booked him for a weeks instruction in Skye to try and break me out of the tunnel I was in .
I learned more in a week than the previous 5 years!
At the end of the week we went for a farewell Indian meal and Paul offered this:
If he taught me post processing and landscape photography 1-1, personally, over the next few years, would I come and work for him as an international workshop leader?
My answer? Well I recall what Elizabeth Taylor , the actress, said when the press hounded her about being the first actress to be paid a million dollars for a film. She replied, “Well, if they're stupid enough to offer it then I'm not stupid enough to refuse it!”
So the journey began. I was now learning from a master. Paul's been in the game thirty three years and has an enviable worldwide reputation in his black and white creations. He's written numerous books and is the darling of the magazines.
He wasn't precious with his knowledge, nor his gear, and would willingly share both without question. He has a business partner, Michael, with whom he started the market leading company aspect2i. Michael and Paul shared similar professional backgrounds - they were both top of their trees when they decided to start up the company.
I went back to basics and started building upon a foundation that I could expand on instead of running down a tunnel of someone else's making. I was encouraged to study past masters of landscape work and to try to see what they saw.ie John Sexton and Ansel Adams.
John Sexton penned a book of landscapes called, “Quiet Light”. They are monochrome medium format plates of magnificence. All the images were taken in the last 10 minutes of light on long exposures, including plants! Quiet light.
I learned to see, not look. Observation is critical in this genre and you need to develop the ability to break the scene down in front of you into individually crafted images. But (I was going to put, 'At the end of the day' and decided to avoid it for obvious reasons!) you need to physically get out there and just explore. I recall we had flown into the top end of Sweden not that far from Murmansk in Russia to do business there. After that was concluded we had a few days before flying home so we drove southwest for a few hundred miles to investigate /recce North Lofoten in Norway.
We drove around this amazing archipelago in search of wonderful shooting....we found it! Be prepared to dive down yellow metalled roads from your maps, especially if they are dead ends.
Gradually, I removed myself from iconic shooting and immersed myself in investigating potential landscapes.
If I had to sum up what I gained, then I would choose subtlety. I have learned 'less is more' and to appreciate the beauty in mid-tones. Now I slow right down and use more consideration, and craft my images instead of throwing them together without planning and forethought
I not only got education from Paul, I also assisted with him on recces within the Arctic Circle where I gained experience in not only finding the locations but appraising the infrastructure of that location i.e. setting up and dealing with hotels, eateries and local laws.
Since then I have taught workshops in many places but Scotland will always be that special place to me. I holiday there too. Photography holidays, of course!
The photographic journey in landscaping is 50% photography and 50% post processing. You need to shoot in Raw and set your camera up so you take full control for everything and do not allow the camera to make any decisions. Shoot in maximum capture. I use Adobe Camera Raw and Photoshop.
Set your computer in ACR to Prophoto RGB. This will ensure maximum gamut from your raw files. You are now ready to start! Photoshop is a steep but enjoyable learning curve .
Here are some useful links :
- https://www.yr.no/?lang=en - Norwegian weather forecast for the world
- http://www.mwis.org.uk/ - Mountains weather forecast which includes weather at different altitudes
AM - That was one opportunity you were given there from Paul. He must have seen something in you in that first week to invest that time and effort in you, but I suspect he has been rewarded many times over.
The idea of 're-setting' and going back to basics would put a lot of people off. However it is something that we should all do, no matter the discipline. In doing so, it helps to remove those bad habits that we slip into. And the basics are our foundation, after all.
Before I ask you about your last comments about processing can we talk a little about gear? For your landscape work, what do you consider the key items one would need if you were starting out down the landscape route?
AP - Most people buy or receive a present of a camera with a kit lens and build up slowly but with that considered, if I had to advise anyone what to buy, I would ask them to consider these observations:
Think and google carefully about the system you invest in because you are most likely to be stuck with it unless you win the lottery.
It appears the days of the DSLR are numbered and a lot of togs are going down the mirrorless route. But hang fire, I'm not changing - I can't afford to. But it does mean plenty will be off-loading their gear on eBay at the right price - just saying.
Mirrorless cameras are lighter because they are smaller, which means everything that physically won't fit on the camera now goes into the menus. Will this suit you?
I don't carry all my gear at once. I pre-think my day and carry only what I will need and I'm never more than a mile away, so having lighter gear that's going to cost me £20-£30k for no improvement to my work is a no brainer.
Maybe it would suit you to have light gear. My friend Mike Prince is a retired mountain rescue leader in the Lakes and is now a professional landscape photographer. He really goes for it and will hike/climb all day to get one image - fit as a flea! Now he uses mirrorless - he has to!
If money is a concern I would buy a used DSLR and a Nifty 50 1.8. If, as a raw beginner you are willing to invest then buy :
- wide angle lens
- telephoto lens
- 0.6 hard grad filters
- wide angle polariser
- solid tripod
But before setting foot out of that door, go study the masters.
AM - To round this topic off. What is now in your camera bag?
AP - An American F-stop 'flight friendly' carbon-framed travel bag which opens face up so when I'm on the beach, I don't get wet sand on my back once finished. You'll also find :
- Nikon D850 which is THE landscaping camera Nikon produce
- D700 Infrared converted
- Lenses- Nikon 24mm f 3.5 PCE 24/70mm f2.8 16/35mm f4 70/200mm f2.8 . 15mm Fisheye 35mm f1.4 85mm f1.4
- Filters LEE 105mm Circular polariser
- Hard/soft grads 0.3 0.6 0.9
- Shutter release cable
- A Huff filter
- Roll up waterproof – Pancho style PVC to cover EVERYTHING
- Chamois leather
- 1/25000 OS landranger map
- More batteries than you can shake a stick at + spare SD cards
- Hoodman Loupe-for viewing your images on bright days in camera
- Mobile phone for stop watch timer
- Heavy duty black bin liner (Andy's seat)
- The most important bit of kit - bog roll!
- Pen knife, coin, specs, wet wipes
AM - That sure sounds like a heavy load, at least to me, as a street photographer, it does. But for the budding landscape photographer you've given some food for thought when it comes to making that leap. Also, should landscape not be their thing, the basic set-up is so transferable into other genres of photography. Along with studying the masters I'd add another thing into the mix, which we've mentioned before and this is - practice, practice, practice. And reflect.
Oh, and get to know your gear before you move on.
On to your own bag, I really like a few things in there such as: the poncho-style PVS; your heavy duty black bin liner, and bog roll. Or in other words, it doesn't matter about the gear you're slinging around if you're not comfortable.
My next question could be a little more intriguing, about post processing. When it comes to landscapes how important do you think post processing is?
AP - My belief is, to craft top drawer Oxo gallery quality landscape prints then you have to :
- shoot in raw
- shoot in max bit
- set all to manual
- set your camera up so YOU make the decisions not the camera
- set your processor to working Prophoto RGB for maximum recognised gamut
- post process to show what you saw on location
So, if you are doing the above, the file on your screen will be lack lustre and below par so there is no other choice but to post process. I understand there are togs out there who don't post process. In wildlife competition, image post processing is restricted. But I do images for me.
I had to smile when I heard my boss reply to a customer who asked if it's ok to use presets. He stated thats fine, if you want some 19 year computer programmer from his bedroom telling you what your photograph should look like, even though he has never seen the scene like you did.
Post processing is vital for me. Camera work is only 50% of the journey so that leaves 50 % to be done on your screen! Don't rely on sliders. Learn to make a battle plan for post processing. The two most common errors I see in my workshops are over saturation and over sharpening. Post processing is not new. Exactly the same was done in film days, we just leave less of a carbon footprint now.
AM - I'm curious, what is it that you are attempting to do to the image with the tools of choice that you use?
AP - Photoshop is my software of choice for landscape photography. A lot of togs use Lightroom. Bear in mind they are both designed by Adobe and have their own uses. Lightroom was designed for wedding photographers utilising the catalogueing system plus block processing under similar lighting conditions. I can spend 15 minutes to a week on one image so do the maths!
Some people are wary of Photoshop because it was produced for graphic designers and can get quite complex. As a landscaper I just use the tools / techniques I need, which are very few. I select small sections of the image and improve them until the whole photograph is maximised. I utilise:
Adobe camera raw (ACR) as my raw converter. I use this for most of my global alterations and constantly re-open the file from Photoshop.
Selection tools – Lasso Polygonal lasso Quick selection Feather
Curves adjustment layers – This tool is the ultimate photoshop weapon of choice for me. Learn to use it properly and you will find it is amazing. I quote from Mr Google:
"The Photoshop Curves command is your most powerful tool for adjustments to brighten, darken, add contrast and shift colours, yet many users choose to avoid it. The problem is, despite being the most effective, it's also one of the most difficult commands to get to grips with."
Blending modes – I use these when applying a curves adjustment layer to a colour image (not monochrome).
Sharpening – There are many ways to sharpen and the choice is image dependent. Sharpening should be done after you have resized your image, and the last thing you do
I don't make big major changes to an image. I don't replace skies. I just make lots of small improvements which brings out the best in a photograph.
Images by Andy Philips and friends