Long Exposure Photography Interview #19: Andy Brown

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Thanks for reading! Andrew.



Long exposure photography by Andy Brown

This article is part 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.

 

Andy Brown is a landscape photographer from the UK. He’s based in Devon, a county renown for its natural beauty and stunning coastline. I interviewed Andy 21 months ago (you can read it here) and thought it would be interesting to interview him again for this series.

Interview

It’s been 21 months since our last interview. What has changed for you since then? What direction has your work taken?

It’s fair to say I’ve consolidated my approach to the photographs I’m taking, both in terms of style and presentation. Black and white imagery has long held my attention, and currently I’m working exclusively within that medium with a view to building a cohesive and uniform portfolio. Like most photographers, I went through a stage of ‘finding myself’ artistically, and believe my current self-imposed restraints in terms of working in mono and my preferred 1:1 aspect ratio free me to concentrate on other creative aspects of any given shot.

I’m as enthused and enthralled by my subjects as ever, and find increasingly I strive to make a connection with the subjects I shoot while in the field. This is sometimes easier said than done, but I endeavour to really get a feel for a scene – to achieve some sort of familiarity, understanding or respect for it before rushing in. Generally I achieve this through repeat visits, or even just by taking the time to sit a while and use my senses to gauge the ‘subtext’ of a place – each one has it’s own if you are able to tune to it. I go out with my camera more and shoot less than was the case when we last spoke, but quality is far more important to me than quantity. If it takes me several trips to realise the shot I’m after then so be it – the satisfaction I get from achieving a good photograph far outweighs any inconvenience suffered along the way.

Long exposure photography – what’s the attraction and why do you do it?

Once you start, it’s incredibly addictive! I remember first seeing an article in a magazine about three years ago featuring the then relatively unknown heavy neutral density filters now widely in use, and being instantly stunned by the possibilities. I’m perhaps something of a romantic where the world at large is concerned – although I’m also a stubborn cynic, hence perhaps this unlikely pairing leads me to strive to inject a sense of the slightly surreal to the mundane. I don’t want to recreate a mirror-image of the world as seen through the human eye, I’m seeking to show something of it that might otherwise remain completely unseen – an impression realised by more than just physical vision alone. Long exposures give me greater leniency and scope to achieve this, and the effects of a great long exposure are often stunningly attractive to me.

Photography for me is a relaxation – I can’t ever see myself shooting sports or reportage as they’re too hurried and reactionary! Long exposure work is sedate, considered and all about patience. I generally have the latter in spades and find the very act of setting up my gear, of tripping the shutter and sitting out the minutes while my exposures move to completion intrinsically therapeutic.

Long exposure photography by Andy Brown

There are a lot of seascapes in your portfolio. What is the attraction of the sea for you as a subject? What is your favourite place to take long exposure photos?

Part of the attraction for me is my close proximity to it – there’s an abundance of coastline easily accessible where I live and my appreciation for it has only grown through my photography. It’s said a painter starts with nothing and must create a picture, whereas a photographer starts with everything and must seek to reduce a scene to its constituent elements. The ocean simplifies this process greatly as it provides a blank canvas allowing other key elements to take centre stage, or can itself be isolated to show off majesty and power under differing weather/tidal conditions or indeed camera settings.

Due to pure logistics (the price of petrol and availability of time!), I obviously frequent more often the beaches closer to home than those at a distance, but increasingly I travel further afar in search of new locations and subjects. Lately I’ve been concentrating more on elements found near the shore, as opposed to those actually in the water. England plays host to all manner of odd paraphernalia in the form of piers, huts and walled defences and there’s a beauty to many of them if you take the trouble to seek it out. I’ve discovered so many unique places that I’m absolutely certain I wouldn’t have seen were it not for my camera – ancient fortified remnants at Brean Down in Somerset, stone mariner’s cottages hidden at Cornwall’s many coves and harbours, the geologically fascinating rock ledges at Kimmeridge in Dorset. All of these and many more are my favourite places to shoot – it’s impossible for me to pick just one.

I do feel a need to create some balance to my portfolio by shooting more inland scenes, and am finding I seem to be moving away from the sea incrementally by metres at a time, so this could be a long, drawn out process. Perhaps I’ll reach landlocked areas by the time we talk again.

Long exposure photography by Andy Brown

How do you ‘see’ in black and white? Can you give some tips to our readers for seeing in monochrome?

Some advice I’d offer is to look at what’s gone before, to study and understand how skilled photographers are able to forge a link between greyscale tones and those of the natural world experienced daily. This is best put into practice with recognisable subjects such as blue skies and white clouds, or city scenes with colourful shop hoardings, neon lights and suchlike – pick something familiar to you and then see how photographers have used black and white to interpret (for that’s exactly what’s happening) these commonplace subjects.

Develop an appreciation for what you yourself enjoy in the work you’ve seen of others, what you don’t and if possible the reasons why, then try to put some of that learned information into practice when shooting yourself. Modern digital cameras often have a black and white setting activated through the viewfinder that will provide the user with a base appreciation of how any particular scene may appear – although this is of course before any output processing has been taken into account. It may be helpful to use such a setting to form an initial assessment before taking an actual shot.

Contrasting colours, particularly at opposite ends of the colour-wheel, are typically strong candidates for mono conversion – as are bold patterns, textures and finely detailed surfaces devoid of any particularly strong colour bias. It takes a commitment to train your eyes to perceive black and white potential, and for some it will come easier than for others, but persistence will pay dividends. Unfortunately a lot of people associate black and white with dreadfully washed out, flat greys and muted mid-tones and sadly this is what is likely to be shot at first. Don’t give up though, experiment with different subjects and take account of light – if you have to squint contrasts are likely to be strong (most likely too strong), whereas at first light or dusk tones will render with a much more even keel. Realising how to take advantage of this and strike a suitable balance is all part of the learning process.

Finally, while it’s indeed true there are certain scenes/conditions that don’t translate easily to mono, I don’t believe there are any that won’t if not pursued passionately. One of the best images I’ve ever seen of a rainbow was in fact presented in black and white!

How important is light in your imagery? What types of light do you prefer for long exposure photography?

It’s phenomenally important – having the right light can make or break any image of course, but luckily due to the type of mood I often strive for in my work I have more flexibility regarding conditions than many. I enjoy shooting long exposures during cloudy, overcast days and this means light is diffused naturally, meaning I can concentrate on bringing out the tones in any given scene. I do take in to consideration the time of day, and any available directional light when shooting. Quite often I’ll plan a shot around this to allow me to emphasise shadow areas or highlight key elements within the frame.

I find it rewarding to capture a scene well in less than perfect conditions, hence despite being a fully paid up member of the ‘early riser’s club’ to take advantage of first light, many of my photographs are actually captured well into the day when many photographers have packed up and gone home. On a successful shoot, this benefits me by allowing me to capture some nuance of a scene that others may not bear witness too. On a bad day when it all goes horribly wrong I can console myself with at least having tried!

One difficulty of taking ultra long exposures is learning to appreciate just how quickly light can change during the course of even a single exposure. I don’t tend to meter and calculate my exposures if shooting in excess of several seconds. Experience has provided me a reasonably accurate gauge for what will and what won’t be accurate, plus I find often I’ll start an exposure in flat light, only for the sun to peek through the clouds and radically shorten my exposure length. For this reason I keep a close eye on what’s happening around me and tailor my shutter speed accordingly. There are of course exposure charts that can aid those wishing to make accurate calculations from their original metering – this is fine, but it does make the process feel rather stilted and scientific to me. I like it to be as organic and free-flowing as possible – a lot of it is about relying on what skill and perception I have.

Long exposure photography by Andy Brown

How important is visualisation for you when it comes to capturing then processing the image? Do you have a final image in mind when you take the photo, or do you let that happen in post-processing?

I’d like to be able to say every image I make turns out exactly as I envisioned before I depressed the shutter, but of course this wouldn’t be true. In reality I would estimate perhaps 75% of my finished images closely realise that which I had in mind when taking them, and the remainder (although largely faithful to my general concept) have taken something of a detour during processing. Just how much is another variant in itself.

There are occasions when I have a clear idea of expression in my head during capture that just doesn’t work once in the digital darkroom. Typically such files end up either being deleted, or lurk mysteriously in the shadowy regions of my hard drive until I decide what to do with them. Every once in a while an image seems to take on a mind of its own and I arrive at a point of near-completion without really understanding quite how I got there. Does this detract from my artistic vision, creativity and overall integrity, or bear testament to them? I’m not really sure.

How important is post-processing to creating the final image? Briefly, what software and techniques do you use?

This is a question I’m often asked – and the answer is hugely important.

I loathe the idea that a photograph is ‘finished’ after being output directly from any imaging device without being processed. My camera is a tool, a working machine, a conduit to allow me to achieve a means of expression. It is a soulless box of finely engineered scientific wizardry, and as much as I cherish what it’s capable of helping me do, it does not have the sentience to knowingly create a thing of beauty. The day it does is the day I will stop shooting.

Sadly, many non-photographers have the impression that Photoshop and its cohorts are somehow inherently evil, designed to trick and beguile. In the wrong hands this can indeed be the case, but used correctly these tools are simply the modern day equivalents of traditional tools used in the chemical darkroom. Since the dawn of photography the masters have used all manner of techniques to hone and tame their images post-capture, we in the digital age should not be afraid to do the same – for me it’s as integral a part of the creative process as working with my camera and filters.

Currently, all my Raw’s are processed through Adobe Camera Raw, although I do plan to move to Capture One soon. I work on each image individually and typically will make white balance, basic contrast, saturation and clarity adjustments before correcting any lens distortion defects, aberrations or spot removal. Once happy, I import to Adobe CS4, where I’ll work though a series of localised selections – I seldom make global changes unless very early on. I’ll pay attention to curves, individual colour channel refinement, edge-clean up and extensive use of the dodge and burn tools to best prepare the file for mono conversion. The vast majority of my black and white’s are imported to Nik Software’s Silver Efex Pro (normally the first version – I seem to be in the minority as can’t get on with the second), where I’ll work extensively to create the atmosphere I hold so dear in my work. This is a very important period for me, as it’s here I gauge whether my earlier processing work was accurate or not. Lastly, I’ll finalise any necessary refinements back in CS4. I invest a great deal of time in preparing each image – usually working on the file over several extended sittings. Sometimes it can be an intuitive experience, and sometimes quite torturous, but I believe I make massive commitments to every single file and to me at least that counts for something. I’m not convinced a photograph is ever really finished either – at some point you just decide to stop.

Long exposure photography by Andy Brown

I see that you’ve received a couple of honourable mentions in photography competitions (International Photography Awards, Black & White Spider Awards, any others?) What’s the main benefit of entering competitions for you, on a personal/artistic level?

I’m still new to the competition circuit, and feel I’m just dipping my toe in the water at the moment really. I have no affiliation to any regional camera club, and as such the few competitions I’ve entered have been solely on a national/international level. It can get quite expensive as entrance fees do seem rather prohibitive at times, and I certainly don’t go out of my way to enter every competition I come across. So far my success rate has been pretty good – I would like to actually win something along the way(!), but it’s all about building a reputation and gaining some sort of recognition. I know of no other way to achieve this, and subsequently maintaining some sort of presence in competitions seems mandatory. I don’t take them too seriously though, competitions can be very subjective and often they have a brief to fulfil. Firstly and foremost I shoot to please myself – if I catch the eye of a judge along the way then that’s a welcome bonus. I think I look to seek some sort of approval, a nod of confirmation that I’m at least producing work of a certain quality and appeal, plus the resulting confidence boost spurs me on to embrace new work.

I was proud to have a commended shot in the prestigious UK Landscape Photographer Of The Year 2011 awards, resulting in my image being published in the annual awards book and printed as part of the exhibition at the National Theatre in London. Thrillingly, Charlie Waite then chose to present a short video critique of my image, in just one of six separate videos focusing on six individual shots from the competition. I was lucky – previously a magazine had approached me directly with a view to using the same shot on their front cover. In the end they ran a different image, had they gone with mine it would have been nullified from entry to the competition.

In one of your posts you mentioned that you like photographing places abandoned by man. Can you expand on that a little? What’s the appeal – and what are some of the interesting places that you have found?

It’s difficult for me to fully explain the connection, but yes, I do have an attraction towards these places. Perhaps oddly, castles and other ancient historic buildings normally leave me relatively cold – I’m fascinated by the newly deserted, the overlooked, the ramshackle and utilitarian nature of huts, outhouses and structures of recent times. Britain is filled with these if you know where to look, and I think there’s a challenge to portray them in an appealing way, to promote the underdogs and show the intrinsic beauty they possess. I also very much enjoy the atmosphere that seems to permeate these places. Quite often there’s a melancholy, a slight disquiet almost that hints at how quickly nature can reclaim ground once man has abandoned it. Conversely, sometimes these sites are still frequented, or provide a working function in some fashion – yet oddly they don’t feel tamed somehow. It’s almost as if these places mark the fluctuating edges between our common habitats and those we leave undisturbed.

One such location I’ve visited recently is an automated lighthouse at St Ann’s Head in Pembrokeshire, Dorset. It’s next to a row of five empty cottages currently all up for sale, and only yards from a second converted lighthouse now used as a holiday let. Quite possibly one of the most remote spots I’ve explored, my ‘Generator Room’ photograph was captured there.

Long exposure photography by Andy Brown

You also talk about goal setting in one of your posts (such as being published in a magazine, setting up your own website). How important is setting and realising goals for you in your development as an artist?

Are they important? Yes, I suppose so if the intent is to broaden the reach of my imagery. There’s something of a paradox in that I genuinely shoot to please myself first and foremost, yet I still desire the approval of others. No man is an island.

I can be quite remiss where some of these things are concerned, despite feeling a type of benchmarking is necessary to gauge my progress as a photographer. I had fully intended to have my own personal website up and running almost a year ago, but have consistently put this back. I have periods of self-doubt regarding the validity of my own work, alongside times where I feel very proud of it. I want my site to reflect me from the outset, rather than a constantly changing debacle that puts people off. However, I get a lot of enquiries through my main presence on Flickr as to my own site, and have reached a level where I appreciate it’s fast becoming a necessity. Watch this space.

I’ve been very lucky to have been published fairly extensively in magazines, indeed I’ve just achieved my first front cover with the December issue of Advanced Photographer magazine, along with an eight page feature, which is a huge excitement. I’m building a little pile of magazines I’ve had the good fortune to be interviewed by and published in – something to either bore or entertain my future grandchildren with once I’ve hung up my camera perhaps!

Links

Andy Brown on Flickr

Photo Gallery

Here are some more of Andy’s photos:

Long exposure photography by Andy Brown

Long exposure photography by Andy Brown

Long exposure photography by Andy Brown

Long exposure photography by Andy Brown

Long exposure photography by Andy Brown

Long exposure photography by Andy Brown

Long exposure photography by Andy Brown

Long exposure photography by Andy Brown

Slow

Slow: The Magic of Long Exposure Photography ebook by Andrew S. Gibson

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.

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2 Responses to “Long Exposure Photography Interview #19: Andy Brown”

  1. Great interview Andy,
    I was hoping you’d be on this series, and knew if so, it was going to be on the long side, and you certainly didn’t let me down. It was a great read and great to read your thought processes and how you go about creating your great work.
    I agree 100% with you when you spoke about the importance of Post Processing and “Sadly, many non-photographers have the impression that Photoshop and its cohorts are somehow inherently evil, designed to trick and beguile.”
    The temperature starts to rise rapidly when i get the same questions, and they get the same answer as you, but in a slightly less polite fashion.
    I’ll be sharing this on G+ and FB.

  2. DavidFrutos says:

    Just fantastic interview, Andy!
    Beautiful words here.
    I enjoy looking your excellent images.
    Congrats, my friend!

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