November 15th 2012 by Andrew S Gibson
This is the first of a series of interviews with long exposure photographers to celebrate the release of my ebook Slow. You can keep track of the interviews by clicking on the Long Exposure Photography Interviews link under Categories in the right-hand sidebar.
Russ Barnes is a photographer and workshop leader based in Coventry in the UK. His website is title ‘art of the landscape’ and that sums up his approach to landscape photography perfectly.
If you’re anywhere near Warwickshire on the 24th November this year you may like to know more about Russ’s free event for photographers. It’s the first of a creative location based workshop programme – the details are on his Facebook page (you’ll need to scroll down and look for the relevant post).
How would you describe your photographic vision? What kind of look do you try and create in your photos?
My vision is simply to achieve something genuinely artistic with my photography. I know that’s pretty loose as a goal (especially as art can be so personal and subjective) but I rarely set out to make an exact record of a scene – I utilise a lot of creative tools and techniques to elicit blur, narrow depth of field and similar effects.
To this end I work a lot in mono. I have spent a great deal of time working with long exposure and I love the additional possibilities my tilt-shift lenses bring to my creative process too.
In terms of an overall ‘look’ it very much depends on the subject matter, but I’m interested in the play between form, light and texture. I find colour can often get in the way of this vision for me and although there are times when only colour will work in a given scene or it’s too beautiful to ignore, I prefer to concentrate on the contrasts and tones of light which gives me pretty wide possibilities in determining the final look.
A fine example of what I’m trying to describe here is in my image Fantastic Voyage I captured recently on Deal beach in Kent:
I absolutely love the rough dark texture of the shale beach which runs into the corner, against the serene sky and stillness of the sea, but in this case I love the stamp of humanity on the image with the lone ship which was heading into Dover. This is all about converting the vision – it’s not always easy to ‘see’ these shots but that’s what comes of developing your eye and vision. For me, it’s been a journey that’s actually lasted all of my life.
Name three photographers you like and why.
There is a huge amount of talent out there these days, but actually this is a pretty easy question for me to answer because I don’t think I’ve made much secret of this before now…
In no particular order, the first to get a mention here is Chris Friel. You want an example of artistic vision within photography, then look no further than here. Chris has an eye and execution that leaves people pondering “How?”.
His portrait and people photography is as brilliant as his landscape interpretations and actually if you want to look at contemporary photographic art in the UK today then Chris has a must see collection. I have drawn huge inspiration from him and he is as genuinely charismatic in person as his art suggests too.
Another photographer I have keenly followed is the highly talented Antony Spencer, winner of Landscape Photographer Of The Year in 2010. Although he shoots pretty much exclusively in colour, I find his sense of composition and style exceptional but I know how driven and determined he is too.
His images don’t just happen by accident, he has relayed stories to me how he drove for four hours a day in the middle of the night for five days running returning to the same location until he got the light he was after and it shows in the end result. He’s certainly true to his art and I hold him in high esteem as a result – I’m positive he will be considered to be a British Landscape Master in time.
Last, but by no means least has been my mainstream inspiration for working in mono and long exposure and that comes from Joel Tjintjelaar. He sets a benchmark of perfection and craft that few can achieve which has been rewarded with some big international awards in recent years.
I know and fully understand what he puts into each of his images and why that translates into success. It’s a model that any photographer should aspire to, but once again as with Chris Friel and Antony Spencer, he has a very likeable personality and approach – he has always been hugely supportive of my work too, often helping me with a critical eye.
I would like to think that I try and take a little something from each of these great photographers – Chris’s artistic eye and alternative take on the environment, Antony’s superb sense of composition and Joel’s benchmark blend of craft and style. Of course my own view of the world is there too, culminating in something that I feel at ease with these days.
Long exposure photography – what’s the attraction and why do you do it?
This comes back to my vision. I often want to simplify a scene, remove elements and strip it back to a smaller number of component parts . Dramatic waves and puffy clouds all have their place, but to my eye they can often add distraction as much as they play a part in a scene. Take the image below I titled Salvation as an example:
I wanted this composition to be all about the pier shelter, so a long exposure flattened out the sea nicely, lowered any distraction in the sky and brought the focus forward into the middle of the frame onto the shelter.
I even softened the horizon so that there were no competing harsh lines, a technique I learned from the great Michael Level in one of his rare workshops. In my view, without using long exposure here the focus of the image would have been in danger of being lost with too many competing elements.
Why black and white? What’s the appeal?
It’s really the same answer again. Colour has its place (not very often in my photography) but I prefer to concentrate on contrast, textures, form and light. Colour often feels like an additional element that I cannot really exert the same will over, though there are times when a scene needs colour because of its complexity.
One of my favourite colour images is In An English Wood, a shot I took with my Nikon D700 in Spring 2012. This scene only works in colour – despite the softening of the background by using a narrow depth of field, there is still a huge amount going on in it. This image gets completely lost in mono – colour provides all of the references here as to what time of year it is and what we’re really looking at.
I believe you live in Coventry, yet there are a lot of seascapes in your portfolio. What’s the attraction of the sea for you and how is it influenced by living in an inland city?
I think you’ve almost answered that one for me because it’s true. I’ve lived in a city all of my live within the metropolitan West Midlands so I can’t take the coast for granted. I just love the endless possibilities it brings, stuff I just don’t see every day.
I’m fortunate in that I do at least live very close to some beautiful countryside, Warwickshire and the Cotswolds are both in easy reach, but I am completely land locked and often long for time at the sea. Some of my family live in Kent split between Canterbury and Whitstable (also the home town of Chris Friel!) so I’m there a fair bit visiting the area which I know very well.
It’s provided me a low cost outreach to explore the coast but equally living in the Midlands gives me pretty good access to much of the country. I need to spend more time in the North – I love the Lake District (it’s a long, long drive though) and want to get to the North East for some image work in places like Whitby which has a wonderful pier.
Of course the irony of all of those road miles is that I was recently commended in the 2012 Landscape Photographer Of The Year with my image Departure which is of course a scene from the centre of Coventry. I’m immensely proud of the fact that I achieved an appearance in the awards book with an image from my home city which will also be shown at the National Theatre Gallery in London between 12th November and 12th January within the official awards exhibition.
Tell us a little about the Arcadia series. What are you trying to express in these images?
Actually the series is titled Arcadian and I’ll explain why that distinction is important. To be Arcadian has Utopian connotations. To put that another way, the land of Arcadia was referred to in European Renaissance Art as an unspoiled perfect world. I’m not trying to recreate Arcadia but I am constructing, piece by piece, my own version of the modern world, which could be described as Arcadian in its style. It’s the art of taking real places and giving them that simplistic, near perfect unspoiled aesthetic.
The headline image in the series seen above, itself titled Arcadian, is this minimalistic landscape from the Norfolk coast. I shot this at Wells-Next-The-Sea and perfectly encapsulates my vision for this world. I love the fact there is no real reference to scale or what it really represents too.
What is your approach to long exposure photography? Do you plan the shoot first, and try to take an image that matches your vision? Or do you go out without a fixed idea, and respond to what you find?
I often plan a trip based on locations but rarely have a fixed idea about what I want to do with them. I spend a lot of time at a scene reaching for different focal lengths, I move around a lot too and try and make the best of the light. A case in point is a recent trip to the Dorset coast where I shot Durdle Door and Kimmeridge.
I love this composition of Durdle Door, it fits the Arcadian series perfectly, the heavy seas had piled up the shale on the beach so there were some great shapes to be had in addition to the famous limestone arch. In this case I had for once pre-visualised the image to fit the series but in the end it turned out better because I think the beach makes it.
A second image from this same trip was taken of Clavells Pier at Kimmeridge which I titled Kimmeridge Steps:
I had gone to Kimmeridge to shoot some of the great rifts in the sea bed which get revealed at low tide, but I went on the wrong day – it was a neap tide that never really went out. As a result I was at risk of making a wasted trip and instead was forced to adapt my plans so I made my way over to Clavells Pier within the bay and grabbed the best of the light there with this long exposure.
Although this also makes a great mono, I do love the colour in this scene – for once the caramel coloured wet rocks seemed to work particularly beautifully against the cool sea green hues to my eye and this was probably better than anything I had planned for this location.
How important is light in your imagery? What types of light do you prefer for long exposure photography?
Above all, what we often do as photographers is simply capture light. But I have a mantra I stand by – there is no such thing as bad light in landscape photography, there are merely different light conditions we need to adapt to.
I take many of my best images in what most people might even describe as poor light on overcast days and I always think it’s sad when I overhear or read photographers bemoaning conditions I revel in. I really don’t feel the need for every scene to be flooded with streams of sunlight, nor do I expect it – as a British landscape photographer you certainly wouldn’t have many days to shoot each year if you don’t revel in overcast conditions!
There’s also some great advice which is always at the forefront of my mind; every time you head out to shoot you should lower your expectation. It’s very easy to pre-visualise those Landscape Photographer Of The Year winning images, capturing them is quite another challenge altogether. The British weather is rarely predictable or plays ball around when you’re available, so having different creative approaches in your locker (and a small umbrella in your bag) is the way to go.
Despite favouring the Lee slot filter system, it’s a bind to use in high wind (it turns into a huge sail on the front of your camera) or rain (within seconds you have rain spots all over your filters) so I always carry a couple of optional screw in filters and just as importantly the lens hood to keep the rain off. That way I can even keep shooting in wind and rain – it usually moves off after a little while anyway.
I did however enjoy some staggeringly beautiful early morning long exposure conditions at Hartland during mid summer, the balance of the sky and sea were near perfect – lower contrast scenes definitely work best for long exposure, I’d pay money for conditions like this again!
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?
Yes, I think I would agree with that appraisal. I think that comes from my approach to wanting some simplicity leaving more obvious elements to be enjoyed. My recent image Kentish from Broadstairs seems to demonstrate what you’re describing perfectly:
This scene is really nicely balanced for me – the white chalk cliff is offset against the strip of white cloud, the dark concrete textured promenade against the smooth waters of the English Channel, the dark brooding November sky completing the black and white mirroring – I really love all of that working together; there’s a whole rough and smooth feel going on here again as well.
The graphical element is of course the line from the bottom left corner here and is a super strong lead through the frame. It’s another image I absolutely didn’t set out to capture but when fleeting light and textures present themselves in this way, it’s second nature for me to want to capture them.
Tell us a little about your book ‘Art of the Landscape’. Why did you decide to create it and what have you learnt from the process? Would you recommend Blurb to other photographers?
It’s something I felt compelled to do at the time and a project I think I will revisit at some stage, though a sizeable solo exhibition is certainly a more pressing objective at the moment. I wanted to have a record almost for myself, something to chart my progress by maybe and it works well with that sort of objective in mind.
With regard to Blurb, I have mixed views about them – their performance and quality has been a bit random for me because they use a wide number of third party printing firms to fulfil orders and more than once my mono printing has come back with magenta or cyan casts which doesn’t look pretty.
On the more positive side they do seem to have a no quibble approach to sorting these issues out and so when problems did occur they were very quick to order reprints at no extra cost. Would I rush to do this again soon? Probably not, no. My next objective would be to try and land a commercial photography book deal with a professional publisher, but probably only once I hopefully achieve a national or international landmark in a competition; I believe I have the endeavour and passion to eventually make that happen. Well, we can all dream can’t we!
This interview with Russ Barnes is the first in a series of new interviews with photographers who use long exposure techniques in their work. You may also like to read the following interviews. They were written some time ago, but are also with photographers that use slow shutter speeds to create their images:
If you’d like to learn more about long exposure photography, my ebook Slow takes you through the creative possibilities of using slow shutter speeds, from blurring motion with a shutter speed of 1/30 second all the way to long exposure techniques using shutter speeds of five minutes or longer.
All photos in this interview are protected by copyright. Please contact the photographer for permission to use in any way.