An Interview with Landscape Photographer Andy Brown

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Thanks for reading! Andrew.



Photo by Andy Brown

Tomatoes

Andy Brown is a landscape photographer from Devon, in south-west England. He captures the beauty of the area in photos that show a mastery of composition and long exposure techniques. His photos are beautiful – you can see more at his Flickrstream.

I encourage you to go look at his photos – but not before you’ve read the interview! Andy is a thoughtful photographer and he has some very interesting ideas about black and white  landscape photography and photographic composition. There are also some useful tips for anyone who wants to have a go at long exposure photography themselves.

Interview

How would you describe your photographic vision? What kind of look do you try and create in your photos?

I find the very act of searching out a promising scene, and then visualising how best to register it as an indelible image an act of pure escapism. It’s often as far removed from the ‘real world’ and its trials and tribulations as I can imagine, and as such I would hope my photographs often reflect the peace and tranquillity I feel when I capture them.

If I can instil an ethereal, slightly surrealistic mood then I consider that a success. It’s not about reality in the traditional sense, nor heightened or abstract, but a realisation that there is often more than meets the eye – you just have to see through the veils.

Typically, I look to achieve a sense of mood through strong, uncluttered compositions that will reward the careful viewer.  I appreciate simplicity and minimalism (not always the same thing), and often choose bold primary subjects reinforced by subtle, perhaps understated secondary elements.

Your work is very creative. What inspires you?

Everything around me has a bearing.  Few of us are hermits, and like it or not our influences come both consciously and subconsciously from the world about us. Those I’m directly aware of include the work of professional photographers, both past and present, along with the enticing efforts of my amateur peers.

I’m constantly amazed (and yes, envious) at the wealth of talent I see in this artistic field of ours – there are times when I feel like hanging up my camera in deference, along with the occasions when I think well, perhaps it’s worth taking just one more shot.

Although I don’t really consider myself a natural landscapist, I can’t deny the lure I feel from the environment around me. My surroundings have a huge impact on shaping my work, although I’m not seeking to record them as faithful representations to the naked eye. Yes, the camera is a tool to teach the eye to see – although I would be tempted to add the word ‘differently’ to that statement.

I’m driven to improve both from a creative viewpoint and a technical one, although the latter is solely to better realise the former! That drive forms part of my inspiration, and although there are times when nothing seems to gel and I go home disappointed, there are the wonderful times when it all comes together and everything surrounding me becomes an opportunity for a memorable image.

When did you start taking photos? What made you decide to explore photography as a means of artistic expression?

Perhaps embarrassingly, only three years ago. I’d dabbled with compacts and an old second hand Olympus SLR that came into my possession previously, but found my lack of perceived control over the final images disappointing. Few of us have access to a traditional darkroom, let alone the knowledge or requisite skill to process negatives – and I hated the idea of having no input in that side of things.

It wasn’t until I invested in a near entry-level DSLR and started experimenting that things began fitting into place. I remember disappointments though, including my first trip out where I expected to instantly notice an appreciable jump in quality from my new toy that just didn’t materialise. In truth it was my discovery of post-processing (more specifically Photoshop) that really piqued and honed my interest. Suddenly, here was a tool to aid me in creating the shot inside my head, not just the one on the camera’s sensor.

Like it or loathe it, this area of the photographic process has to be embraced if you have any intention of going digital. To the purists it may feel ‘wrong’, but even though I attempt to retain the core essence of any scene even after processing, I am interested in the finished image itself and any tools that can help me along the way. I’m open about my work, and although I don’t tend to create composite or heavily manipulated shots I see nothing wrong in this as long as the artist does so with honesty and integrity.

I think I came to photography first and foremost as an ardent appreciator. As long as I can remember I’ve been fascinated by classic black and white, by fine art and impressionistic studies in a wide variety of genres. I always wanted to be able to create something as permanent and residual as those images I saw in the books I owned (and still do). Practice may get me somewhere near given enough time!

What do the landscape and the sea mean to you? How does living in Devon influence your photography?

There’s little I enjoy more than discovering a new location, of setting off early with a sense of anticipation and expectation – not knowing quite where my trip may end or what results it might yield.

Devon is a beautiful part of the country, plus its links to neighbouring Cornwall, Somerset and Dorset are equally as rewarding. The sea is a prominent feature in the majority of my landscape work, perhaps inevitably given I’m never far from it, and that’s not something I’d wish to change.

As a blank canvas the ocean provides lots of possibilities, and its effects on the shore are ever changing. Couple this with different seasons, weather and (of course) the light, and there are as many possibilities as you care to imagine. It’s fair to say that water as an element is intrinsically restful, so you can perhaps see how I would naturally choose to portray it as a backdrop to many of my images.

Name three photographers you like and why.

Ansel Adams. Possibly clichéd as a choice and commonly cited, he was without a doubt an absolute master of the finished print, and although there are some I could mention (dare I quietly whisper John Sexton?) that rival his talent there are none who have bettered him in my view.

His photography should be required study for anyone serious about landscape, but you have to really concentrate on it to understand just how phenomenally great he was. I am awed at his control of tonality, of light and shade and grandeur on an often epic scale. Truly a photographer’s photographer.

Bob Carlos Clarke for the ability he had to shock, challenge, and scandalise people’s perceptions of his artistry as a credible medium. I remember buying a copy of his ‘The Dark Summer’ and being captivated by the gothic images within.

His was fetish erotic art, but at its best neither gratuitous nor disrespectful to my eye. I find it insightful that despite this his most widely recognised subject matter, his own personal favourite images were from his cutlery series.

Finally (and perhaps most fittingly given my own style preferences) I select Michael Levin. His appreciation of minimalist seascapes, and how best to capture these scenes in optimum conditions with subtle, smooth tonal gradations is hugely inspiring to me. I’d recommend his book ‘Zebrato’ to anyone with a passing interest in this field – you really have to see his work in print to best experience it.

Long exposures

You take a lot of landscapes using long exposures. What is the attraction of this – and how does it affect your approach to other aspects of the photo like composition and lighting?

Long exposures allow me to strip a landscape of its mundane nature and instead inject the scene with a sense of other-worldliness. Whilst I have no interest in making film sequences, I find the fact that I can instead commit many seconds and minutes of time to a single still image utterly fascinating – and at first completely unpredictable.

Compositionally the same rules apply as with any other type of photography, except that it’s important to understand how moving elements with the scene will be rendered – if at all!  It’s a popular adage that unlike a painter, a photographer first starts with an entire scene and then must strip back to reveal those elements which he wishes to emphasise.

This is never truer than with long exposure photography, as those solid (or near-solid) subjects you wish to retain must be able to stand alone amidst the blur, or non-existence of their more transient surroundings. With regards to light, many people adopting this technique wrongly think they can achieve great results by ignoring the effects of the sun.

This is a folly – good light is at the soul of any successful photograph. The known rules of when to shoot and when not to still apply and I prefer to photograph early in the morning or late in the afternoon wherever possible, although dull cloudy days bring their own opportunities.

What equipment do you use  for your long exposures and what advice would you give someone who wants to try this technique out?

In addition to my Canon EOS 5D Mark II, I generally shoot my long exposures with the EF 17-40 f4L USM lens. This combination provides me excellent clarity and creative control over any given vista. I use a Slik Pro tripod and simple pan and tilt head, although I plan to upgrade these soon.

A cable release is essential to enable the shutter lengths I shoot at – commonly two to three minutes at a time, but sometimes well in excess of ten minutes. In terms of filters, I shoot with a full set of Lee graduated neutral density resins (both hard and soft edged) so as to balance the exposure tones both sides of (typically) the horizon.

There are several options on the market to enable ultra long exposures, but my filter of choice is currently still the B+W ND110. This allows approximately a ten stop reduction in light. I happened across a magazine article describing this then new ultra heavy neutral density filter, and its effects on the landscape, a couple of years ago.

I was immediately smitten by the whole concept and ordered one straight away, and since then have struggled not to use it at every opportunity! I also use the B+W ND106 on occasion, which has a much weaker stopping power allowing for an entirely different effect. Combining both of these filters can make for some interesting results too.

I would advise anyone wishing to give this a go to be prepared for much trial and error, and to be patient. You tend to take a great deal less shots than most digital users do when you’re shooting at these speeds, so it’s not something for the trigger-happy. To aid you, there are exposure charts available that will calculate the necessary settings although I don’t advocate them. I believe you, and not a piece of paper, should decide when to stop the exposure.

It’s also best to avoid strong winds, and remember that if shooting on beaches wet sand does not make a stable platform ! I like to shoot on an incoming tide, and it can be useful if your tripod doesn’t have spikes to spread its weight on three flat objects.

Also, don’t be afraid to trial new areas.  Most of us (myself included) are still tapping in to the potential of this technique and gravitate to coastal or architectural subjects. There are other possibilities too when you stop and think.

Composition

Colour or black and white? Which do you prefer and how does your approach differ for each medium?

Ultimately – black and white. I’m in something of a hiatus at the moment and have been feeling pressure to commit solely to this as a medium in order to develop a uniform style. However, I believe both have their merits and for the time being I’ll continue to select whichever medium is likely to give me the best results.

With black and white, I look for strong contrasts or smooth tones throughout a scene that may serve as a neutral backdrop. Mono does tend to lend a scene a classic, timeless feel and if the scene I’m shooting has little contextual evidence then I may gravitate towards this format.

I’m not a sunrise or sunset specialist by any means, but there are occasions near dawn and dusk when the light brings on hues too glorious to ignore. I have photographs which would be ruined were I to reproduce them in a black and white colour space.

You crop some of your photos to the square format. Why do you do this and how does it affect the composition? How important is aspect ratio for you?

For some time now I’ve struggled to frame and compose in the standard landscape format. I tend to ‘see’ a scene in portrait mode first and foremost, and find it easier to show a sense of depth to a scene this way – which I often find more attractive than breadth. If I do shoot in landscape I generally stick to panoramas, but made from a single exposure and cropped to 2:1 rather than stitched from several different RAW files.

Recently the majority of my work is cropped to a portrait styled 5:4 crop, an orientation and aspect ratio I personally find very appealing. It’s a strong frame, and I much prefer this to the commonly used wider 3:2.

The square format is a wonderful tool when used correctly, as it adds tremendous strength to an image. There is no bias to either the X or Y axis, hence it’s down to the photographer’s compositional skill to decide how to direct the viewer’s eye through the frame. For strong, powerful imagery this 1:1 ratio is the ultimate choice.

I tend to use this format for much of my ultra long exposure, in part I think because I am striving to create that that I consider to be fine art, and the square format really makes me think about composition and subject placement more so than the rectangle. Of course, I have to crop during processing to achieve this which does give me some margin for error, but I am conscious of what sections of the frame I can delete during the capture.

There is a strong design element in your compositions – an awareness of geometry, graphic design and negative space. Do you agree? How would you sum up your approach to composition?

I think so yes. Composition is fundamentally about design, and personally I strive to introduce elements to a scene that are carefully arranged within the frame. If I don’t succeed in doing this it’s not through lack of application as it’s something I pursue diligently!

I prefer to use where possible an odd number of elements – one or three rather than two for instance, purely because aesthetically this works much better. I tend to dislike crowded compositions where there seems to have been little thought given (or notice taken) of what’s been included within the frame, and so negative space is indeed an essential tool I employ.

Deciding what to leave out is just as important as what to put in, and space provides a backdrop and foil to counteract the effects of strong elements – it accentuates them and lends them greater prominence.

There are many well know approaches to composition, as well as a great deal of theoretical conjecture. Whilst I’m aware of this and do by and large adhere, if I’m able to create a scene that works where all the rules go out the window, then so much the better!

Links

Andy Brown at Flickr

Photo Gallery

Photo by Andy Brown

Sea Sentinel

Photo by Andy Brown

Succession

Photo by Andy Brown

Monopoly

Photo by Andy Brown

The Cobb

Photo by Andy Brown

Ebb

Photo by Andy Brown

End of the Road

Photo by Andy Brown

Huts

Photo by Andy Brown

Ladder

Photo by Andy Brown

Fast Moon

All photos Copyright Andy Brown. Please contact the photographer for permission to use in any way.

Square

Square by Andrew S Gibson

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If you would like to learn more about the square format, then you need my ebook Square. Click on the link to learn more.

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