The following interview was given at the beginning of 2015 by Chelin Miller, editor of the Royal Photographic Society's newsletter (magazine) for the Travel Group – Travel Log. It was a general interview on how and when I started with emphasis on my close to home approach to nature photography.
How did you get into photography, when did you first pick up a camera?
My love for the natural world started before my interest in photography. I was given a camera by my parents when I was 10 years of age but it wasn't until a couple of years later when I was introduced to a local well known naturalist and photographer that it really took off. His sheer enthusiasm and love for nature and photography soon rubbed off on me and it wasn't long before I found myself photographing alongside him. From the very beginning he instilled a strict "code" that has remained with me ever since that no matter how hard you have worked to obtain images of a creature, its well-being always comes first. We spent a great deal of time together and I owe him an awful lot. Sadly he passed away ten years ago. So, I guess you could say that from the age of around 12 I was taking it very seriously. By then I certainly understood apertures and shutter speeds, ASAs (as it was then known) and depth of field. You had to. Everything was manual. There were no second chances!
When did you realise that photography was what you wanted to do for a living?
I know this sounds silly, but right from that moment I started to take it seriously, from 12. I remember at primary school having to give a talk in front of the class about our chosen project and mine was on photography. I guess from then on, I knew I didn't want to do anything else. Every waking moment was spent visiting my local park, woods and Downs with my camera, making black and white prints in my bedroom and obtaining good enough grades to get me into Paddington College School of Photography which I went on to attend from 87 to 89.
Your images of flowers, woodlands and birds are very artistic, they are not your typical nature photographs. Have you always seen nature like in such an artistic way or has this aspect developed over time?
I guess you could say I have always had an artistic streak but it's really only over the last 5 years or so that it has really become strongly evident in my work. I have never been entirely satisfied or fulfilled with producing stock images of the natural world, always feeling there was something missing. That there should be more. The internet is awash with outstanding imagery and you only have to type in something like "Robin" into Google to see many thousands of images of just this bird and so I feel it's now more important than ever to create something that stands out from the crowd. Ultimately, if I can draw the viewer in closer, to look deeper into the image and perhaps, as a result, care a little more about the environment, then I am happy with that.
The light and composition in your images are striking, what do you look for when you are scouting an area for photographs, what makes you decide where to stop for photographs?
My number one priority when scouting an area for images is the quality of the light. If the play of light is interesting (say, morning or late afternoon) I will then look for a subject to utilise that light. In my images I am looking for more than capturing a mere record and so I have to pay close attention to what the light is doing. I know this sounds obvious but this is almost the complete opposite way of working in more conventional nature photography where priority is on locating the subject
What is your creative process when you go out on your own, not when you are teaching workshops: do you normally have an idea in mind or do you simply take it as it comes and let yourself be surprised by what happens?
It really depends on the season, weather and if I am working on a project. I have quite a list of nearby locations that I can visit within 15 or so minutes and so if it's autumn and there is a heavy mist, I know of several nearby woodlands that would work well and similarly in spring for bluebells and orchids. There are other times, however, when I just see what happens and this can very often lead to a few surprises both in terms of exceptional light and wildlife encounters. I like to move very slowly and quietly and it's important that I clear my mind as much as possible. I like to work small areas for a long period and by small I mean, sometimes, as little as a couple of square metres. Last spring, for example, I spent over two hours in an area similar to this shooting wood anemones. I just sat and experimented with different focal lengths and apertures. It's a really nice way to work as you become part of the woodland and wildlife quickly accepts you.
You have many personal projects? Why are they important to you?
I think it's important both for myself and workshop participants that I am a "working" photographer and by setting myself projects it gives me focus. I am much more productive when undertaking projects since I have a specific goal in mind as opposed to simply going out and seeing what turns up though I often do that anyway in between project work. When all said and done, I'm a photographer and I continually strive to improve my work both from a technical and, more importantly, a creative aspect.
Tell us a little bit about your gear. Is there any particular gadget that you can't be without?
Aside from my first camera (Cosina) I have always used Nikon. I use a combination of full-frame and crop-sensor bodies depending on what I am shooting. The one item I wouldn't leave home without is an angle-finder. I would rather forget a lens! Cameras: Nikon D300s and D610. Lenses: 14mm, 15mm fisheye, 20mm, 28-105mm, 105mm Micro, 200mm micro; extension tubes and Nikon 5T and 6T close-up filters, 70-200mm, 200-400mm, 1.4x tele-converter.
SB800 flash-unit, Lee ND and ND grads, polarising filters, Manfrotto 055 CX3 carbon fibre tripod with Markins B1 ball head, Think Tank Airport Accelerator (overseas travel) and Lowepro Trekker Classic and Lowepro Pro AW backpacks.
What is your workflow? Do you tend to achieve most of your image in camera and then work very little in post, or do you spend a long time enhancing the image afterwards?
Having spent the first 20 years using film it's ingrained to get as much done as possible in camera. I'm not a great lover of post-processing, much preferring to be outdoors than stuck inside(!) but it's a necessity that comes with digital photography. I use Lightroom for the vast majority of my work (especially its Library) and Photoshop for 'tweaks' such as sharpening, layers and the like. One thing I do religiously is back up my images on a regular (monthly) basis. I am amazed at how many photographers don't! I use a Raid 1 system which automatically copies images onto another drive and then, once a month, I back these up onto another drive which is kept off-site.
Your photography is renowned for being local to the area where you live, what advice would you give to people who want to explore their own area?
Choose somewhere, anywhere, very near to your home which you can visit on a regular basis. It doesn't have to immediately blow you away, it could be a small patch of woodland, meadow or shore. The fact that it's close will enable you to visit in all seasons and weathers at different times of the day. This way, you will build up a picture of when and where to shoot at any given time and your images will be stronger for it.
In photography terms, what are your plans for the next year or two?
I have a number of projects which I am currently in the process of organising that involve close-to-home subjects as well as European. In between times I'll be continuing with my photography on the Kent marshes, Downs and woodlands, close to my home and, not forgetting, my local badger sett that I have been photographing at for the last 30 years.