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BCA News: Summer 2019

Landscape and Nature Photography:
The Challenges and the Rewards

Gigi Williams, FBCA and Robin Williams, FBCA

When we both retired from full-time work a few years ago, leaving behind lifelong careers in medical and scientific photography, we decided to re-kindle our interest in landscape and nature photography, something we hadn't done in decades. Photography is photography right? Our skills should be easily transferable. Wrong! The transition from medical photography to landscape and nature photography showed us just how different both genres are. We had always respected the fact that specialist photographers were good at what they did because they understood their subject – food, fashion, cars – or in our case medicine: but we were unprepared for how steep a learning curve it was going to be. The challenges would be significant.

On occasions we hire professional guides to give us safe access to locations or to help us find particular species – in this instance an expert in Costa Rican hummingbirds.

When we worked as medical photographers we had to work in a highly controlled and standardized way – the accuracy and repeatability of the images of a patient across time with different photographers was paramount. This required us to be in control of every aspect of the process – subject positioning, lighting and so on. This turns out to be the opposite in landscape photography where we have no control of the subject, or the light, or the weather! We have spent our careers in studios, clinics and operating theatres where we totally controlled the lighting –its angle, quality, colour and so-on. In landscape photography you're never in control of the light – despite it making the difference between an average, and a great, photograph. We can get ourselves into the right location, at the right time, with the right gear, but at the end of the day it's the weather and the light that will make the difference, and this we can neither predict nor control – all we can do is mitigate with good technique and embrace a skill we never had in the fast-paced medical environment – patience. We often have to allocate several days to photograph a location, waiting for the light. On occasions it never materializes (we recently turned up seven mornings and seven evenings in a row to photograph a location in Tasmania with no result) but when it does it's truly exciting and creates a very special image.

Although our scientific training was one of our biggest impediments it also was one of our greatest strengths; where our thorough technical knowledge has enabled us to use specialized techniques on a routine basis. We routinely use a whole range of photographic techniques that are part of the basic training and arsenal of the scientific photographer and apply them to landscape and nature photography. From high-speed to Infrared; from macrophotography to HDR and tone mapping; from multi-image panorama construction to astronomical photography and perspective control all these techniques give us a measure of control over the final image that many of our contemporary peers in landscape and nature photography do not have.

One of Gigi's best sellers – an infra-red image taken near El Chalten in Argentina.

In addition to the impediment of our pre-programmed scientific approach, there are many other new challenges we have had to face in landscape and nature photography such as logistics, the weather and other people.

When it all comes together, as here with dawn in Patagonia, it makes everything worthwhile – a true creative high – no drugs required!

Getting to the location – both ourselves and our gear can be quite challenging in itself. Since starting our new venture we have been fortunate to travel to some very remote destinations such as Iceland, Namibia, Costa Rica, Patagonia and many places within our own country, Australia. As such it almost always involves airline travel and the strict restrictions on hand luggage means much of the very precious and delicate equipment needs to be put into the cargo bay. The amount of equipment can be significant especially if macro lenses, super telephoto lenses, lighting equipment, tripods, computers and chargers are all required. So it doesn't leave much room for clothes!

Preparation is the key and we spend many weeks researching our destination and producing very comprehensive itineraries containing all the information we need such as sunrise and sunset times, tide tables, moon phases, maps, references and so on. We prefer to travel on our own rather than on organized tours but do use expert guides on occasion to get us safely in and out of very tricky places such as the ice caves of Iceland or the deep gorges of Karijini National Park in Western Australia.

Gigi in the 'high fashion' look of layered thermal clothing – photographed in Iceland in mid-winter at – 18˚C (not including wind chill).

The weather is another significant challenge. From our experience long-range weather forecasting is notoriously unreliable. We often find ourselves taking photographs in adverse weather conditions: in the wet where we need to keep our cameras dry, in sub-zero temperatures where we need to ensure our equipment will not freeze up (especially batteries),  in hot tropical conditions where humidity can be a major problem,  and also hot deserts where we need to protect our gear from wind-driven sand and plastic melting temperatures. Special 'gear' for both photographers and cameras is a must for many of these conditions.

We often find 'other people' a challenge: social media has played an important role in letting people know where to go to take interesting photographs, and social mobility means they get there! Now in even the remotest parts of the world there are literally queues of people lining up to get the best vantage point. When we went to Mesa Arch in Utah we arrived well before dawn only to be met by a wall of photographers who had arrived there in the night and taken almost all the available spots. Another problem is that many of the hordes of 'photographers' we encounter are tourists looking only to capture the obligatory 'selfie': they often have no understanding of the landscape, and therefore don't respect the beauty of the very place they want to see, so just trash it in the process. Landscape photographers used to have the pleasure of showcasing the wonder and beauty of our planet to people who would never otherwise experience it; now it seems that the very act of posting a photograph of an interesting place on the web, or social media, is a guarantee that it will be destroyed! Many landscapers are turning their lenses on the destruction of our world in a desperate bid to conserve and protect it.

As self-funded retirees, serious landscape photography is a very expensive activity and we are therefore attempting to sell our work to offset some of the costs. We have an extensive e-commerce enabled web-site, retail representation, lab and framing partners and all the paraphernalia of running a small business. In trying to make money from our landscape work we face other challenges: most particularly people's perceptions of the value of photography. One of the most common and annoying perceptions that works against our ability to sell our work is the belief on the part of the majority of people that they could get pictures just as good as ours if only they had a better camera. It's truly insulting. It's like going to a dinner party where the host presents a wonderful meal and you compliment them by saying that was a fantastic meal – You must have a really good set of pots and pans. Unfortunately the world is full of images. The days of the paid stock library have gone. There are literally millions of high-quality landscape images available to editors and publishers for nothing – often not even a credit! Photography has been seriously devalued; it is for this reason that we have concentrated on selling our work as individual bespoke fine art pieces. We are enjoying modest success: our work is selling and we are winning significant awards.

One of Robin's most popular images – tumbleweed in a pink salt-lake in Northern Victoria after the sun has gone down.

With all these challenges to overcome you might be asking why we bother – why don't we cruise the Rivers of Europe, or play golf, like other retirees? We have to say that there is nothing more rewarding than standing in some remote part of the world, with the one you love, as the scene you envisaged, and hoped for, unfolds in front of you. After months of planning and arduous travel, fully prepared and in command of your equipment and technique, you record the image of the moment. It is a moment of true creative flow – an extraordinary 'high.' We hope that in this brief article we've given you some insight into our new life and our wonderful adventures. We've spoken about the challenges we face and that the rewards that outweigh them all. In summary it's all about Planning, Passion and Patience.

If you'd like to know more please take a look at our website: www.robinwilliamsphotography.com

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