Long Exposure Photography Interview #26: Paul Wheeler

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Long exposure photography by Paul Wheeler

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.

 

Paul Wheeler is a landscape photographer from Gloucester in England. His profession is also related to the land – by day he is a geologist. His grandfather introduced him to film photography as a child and, after a break of some years he returned to photography and converted to digital in 2005. Paul runs workshops and offers one-to-one tuition. You’ll find the details on his website.

Interview

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

I am not sure I really would define myself as having a single ‘vision’ as many image makers do. I do however, strongly believe in the pre-visualised image. Photography has many aspects that blur together under the same umbrella. At the one end there is the use of the medium as a ‘recorder’; everything from simple records to reportage to weddings. Some include little artistic inputs and are more about the capture of a moment and others have some artistic presence to convey a sense of romance, occasion or emotion.

At the other end there is the artistic side where the photographic process is merely used as a tool to provide the building blocks of an imagined piece of art, in a similar way that an oil painter builds up various oils to create their vision; all styles have their rightful place under the umbrella and have their own challenges and special qualities. I believe there is a place for all forms of photography and that we should all live in harmony, but my preferred niche is the latter.

I try to create images that were not necessarily those ‘seen’ at the time of capture. I use photography as a medium of communication and create images that were in my head at the time of capture. For this reason, I need and base my work around a pre-visualised image. Before I trip the shutter, I know the composition, image aspect ratio, use of colour or monochrome, technique and even the type of paper the ultimate print will be presented on. I create things that aren’t there and I believe this is where photography blurs from a recording media to an art form.

The final image depends upon what I am trying to convey, whether it be an emotion or message of decay and isolation, or one of tranquillity and beauty. I use different techniques to achieve my goal.

Name three photographers you like and why.

As with many photographers my inspiration has come from many sources and many photographers. When starting out I viewed and enjoyed the work of friends who had been involved with photography for some time. I sat with them and they talked me through their thought and technical processes. They critiqued my work on both technical and aesthetic aspects.

Many of these early inspirers are still friends today and these sources include people like Leigh Preston who has been successful for many years on the exhibition circuit and produced his own books and Gary Waidson who has had much success in many of the Take-A-View/Landscape Photographer of the Year competitions here in the UK, and was my first true mentor; he was the first person to introduce me to mountains and wild places, as well as to coach me on how to make an artistic photographic print in the darkroom.

The ‘mainstream’ photographers however, who have inspired me over the years are photographers such as Colin Prior, Michael Levin and more recently David Burdeny.

Colin Prior’s work is pictorially, almost at a polar opposite to my style. He predominantly works in colour and the majority of his work is in a panoramic format; particularly his early work. What struck a chord with me about Colin when I was starting out in photography was his love and passion for ‘Wild Places’. He loved being at one with the landscape, being part of it and uncovering its soul, then he would wait for the appropriate light to communicate his journey.

His passion and dedication to the landscape enthralled me and it inspired me to venture to some of his locations, but unlike many when starting out in photography to ‘copy’ or ‘reproduce’ his work, I wanted to feel what he felt, and then I wanted to capture it my way; in Monochrome and in a 5×4 or square aspect ratio. I was lucky enough to meet with Colin on one occasion and we exchanged a few emails and he even constructively critiqued my early work. As a young image maker, this was a real highlight of my journey; I had met one of my heroes and he not only lived up to my expectations, but also exceeded them.

As I progressed in my imagery I discovered the work of Michael Levin, as many long exposure workers have, and was instantly captured by the stark beauty and simplicity of his images. He managed to capture everyday objects and portray them in beautiful ways. As with Colin, I later met with Michael and he also passes kind comment and useful critique to my work; even commenting “Well, I can’t teach you anything about composition. You have that already”. Again, another hero surpassed my expectations and gave me the confidence to step to the next level with my work.

Recently, I have discovered the work of David Burdeny. What I adore about David’s work is not just his use of the monochrome long exposure technique to portray everyday objects and locations, but his use of different styles and techniques to on other subject matter such as his use of subtle colours within his Traverse and Ancora series of images. He still has a distinctive minimalist style, but he has also used colours sparingly, not to record, but to accentuate the soft and delicate scenes which he has worked.

David also uses the ICM – Intentional Camera Movement technique in his ‘Drift’ series; a technique I have loved and used for many years but very often is overlooked by the photographic masses. Many believe it is just luck and simply a case of moving a camera with a slow shutter speed and hoping that something ‘good’ comes out. For anyone who has tried and used this technique, will testify, it is not simple and it certainly requires persistence to make it ‘great’. David has achieved this and has captured the landscape in its simplest of forms; removing the structure of the landscape and leaving an impression of its soul, using nothing more than light and colour.

Long exposure photography by Paul Wheeler

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

As a geologist, the career I read at university and have worked in ever since, I look at the landscape in timescales that are different to most people’s concept. I investigate processes that shape and form the planet; some in the short periods of time and others over geological periods and eras. The landscape we are presented with today has evolved and I have always tried to capture this sense of time and evolution within my work, and the long exposure technique is just another technique, or tool, that I have used to communicate this; accentuating the long processes of erosion and deposition from wind, water, fire and ice.

Many people have denounced the long exposure technique in recent years and suggested that it has become overused, and in part I would agree; for it is a technique that attracts many for its stark beauty. But as with many ‘tools’ and ‘techniques’ it can become abused and used in the wrong context. Many people use it because it is a ‘fashion’ rather than using it to convey and communicate an emotion; often not questioning whether the technique will benefit or add anything to the image.

However, for those who shun it because ‘they’ were doing it two, three or even four years ago and now think it has been ‘done to death’ I say this. Long exposure monochrome photography is one of the oldest forms of photography there is. The early processes required the light sensitive coated papers to be exposed to daylight until an image was formed. Later in its history, chemists devised chemicals to accelerate this process and called them ‘developers’. These images were of course all monochrome. So in its purest form, it is simply the basis of what every photographic image we create today is based upon. The ‘father’ of all photographic imagery. We are merely going back to basics.

Of course the advent of digital cameras has allowed many to explore this technique easily, but my initial foray in the technique started over 20 years ago on film, and that was both a costly and time consuming, but led me on an interesting voyage of discovery.

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

For me both colour and monochrome have their important place and it entirely depends on what I am trying to convey as to which medium I use. I find working in monochrome much easier than in colour as a medium to work in. By working in monochrome you instantly remove reality and take an image down to its raw elements. It is easier to convey mood and emotion, because these come through without the distraction of colour – without the distraction of reality.

My approach differs very little between the two mediums. I use the camera to capture the raw data. I use the ‘shoot right’ technique to capture as much tonal information as possible. Shooting as Raw files digitally and exposing for shadow detail on film, then processing for the highlights. Either way the camera is just a data capture device; the more data I have, the more I can do with it in post-production. I do not try and get it nearly right in the camera and then perform a few tweaks in post-processing; either on the computer or in the darkroom. For me the post processing is the place where the ‘magic happens’. It is where locations and images become mine; they become personal. It is where I give them a piece of my soul.

I often see comments such as “This has not been Photoshopped” and for me this is like a red rag to a bull. When creating art, there is nothing wrong with post processing; either in software or in a silver based darkroom, as this is the creative stage of the process.

How do you decide whether to shoot in colour or black and white? Do you make up your mind at the time of shooting or during post-processing?

I believe in the pre-visualised image and I always decide before tripping the shutter. Some days I will go out and shoot only monochrome images, other days I will shoot only colour. It depends on how a location, the light and the presence of a place effects me; what emotions I have at the time. Within my monochrome imagery this may be communicated in dark, heavy almost oppressive images and other time light, airy and open images.

I do sometimes shoot both for colour and monochrome images from a location, but this can be really hard as I need to spend a little bit of time getting my ‘eye in’ to a style. Often when shooting both, I find that I leave a scene empty handed. I prefer to focus on one medium at a time. I often simplify this further by shooting with one lens too and very often a prime, fixed focal length lens. I like to do this particularly if I am struggling to get my eye into a location or if I have hit a bit of a ‘flat spot’ within my photography. By going back to basics really forces one to look hard for images; the harder you look, the more you will find. The process is broken down into its simplest elements and you can then build it back up from scratch.

Long exposure photography by Paul Wheeler

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?

I love the sea and oceans and that is another reason why I use the long exposure technique, in particular at the coast. I love spending time quietly thinking and taking in the calm and spiritual side of that magic place where the energy from the ocean is transferred to the land. Long exposure times allow me to sit and enjoy the spirit of the place, rather than running around like a headless chicken trying to ‘take’ pictures; I relax and ‘make’ images. I often leave a location feeling refreshed and calm as the coast is a refuge from the day-to-day grind of life. It is my prozac, and long exposure photography is my method of administering it.

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

Photography, in its most basic interpretation is “writing with light”. Light is the single most important aspect of the process; great locations will just look bland without the right light. The light is the magic element and it is the one thing we cannot control.

My favourite lighting conditions, and in particular for long exposure photography is overcast with no shadows. The strong contrast produced by bright sun is the bane of all photographers and this is no different for long exposure workers.

Even on overcast and dull days I love the early morning and late evening light as it often has a beautiful luminosity; particularly when reflected on to calm water. The sea often goes ‘glassy’ and has a luminous and almost carved quality to it. The long exposure technique accentuates this and results in delicate, yet crystal like images. When these conditions occur, I get excited like a child on Christmas morning when opening their presents.

Long exposure photography by Paul Wheeler

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?

Composition is the photographer’s friend. It is the structure, or framework, on which the image will hang. It is also a tool we can use to control the viewers of our images; we can lead them to the places that we want to take them within an image. We are in control.

Space is the place where we can hold those viewers; particularly in a landscape. Landscapes and seascapes are by their very nature, often open expansive places and confining the viewer within them is like caging an albatross. Space can be used to balance a composition too and giving a sense of airy, anonymity to an image; leaving the viewer to ‘fill in the gaps’ to a story.

I am a great fan of comfortable compositions and the ‘rule of thirds’ is the classic example. This rule works because of the way our brains are programmed to work as human beings. We like to control everything and every item and object has a place or home; a place we create. Nature does not always abide by these rules; for example nature abhors straight lines. But we as humans love straight lines. We like to simplify elements and tie things down. It makes us feel comfortable and stable. These things can be used in an image too. Placing an object on the third. Having a strong base. Not putting a highlight too close to the edge of the image resulting in the viewer leaving our ‘controlled area’. We like balance and composition is all about balance.

I use often use ‘lines’ to lead the viewer into and around my images; whether they be straight lines or curved. I also use textures to give a three dimensional feel and tactile quality to my images. I also ensure that when a viewer gets to the main focal point of the image, there is enough space for them to dwell a while, before leaving the image.

Often what is left out of an image is as important as what is in an image. Any distractions for the eye will disrupt the viewers journey and result in a random and disjointed path; I want the people viewing my images to relax and ‘stay a while’, feeling comfortable in the place I have put them; if not they will not wish to return to my images as they will be treated as uncomfortable and unbalanced places.

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?

Most of my images are shot in a square format and this is for two main reasons. Firstly, squares are balanced and easy on the eye. Squares are composed of lots of triangles and triangles provide stability within an image. It all comes back to the human’s brain requiring simple, stable and balanced compositions.

I started my photographic life shooting on medium format (square), and latterly large format 5”x4” film cameras; I never owned a 3:2 aspect ratio camera until I bought my first digital SLR a few years ago. Working within these formats taught me how to use these shapes and look for them in nature; even now less than 1% of my images are composed as ‘full frame’ 3:2 ratios; to me it feels clunky and uncomfortable. Again this is probably just down to how our brains are conditioned as humans.

My images are about communicating an emotion or message, along with composition, the square is the simplest platform on which to present this message. Simple, clean and effective communication.

Links

Paul Wheeler’s website
Flickr
Twitter
Google+
500px

Photo Gallery

Here are some more of Paul’s photos:

Long exposure photography by Paul Wheeler

Long exposure photography by Paul Wheeler

Long exposure photography by Paul Wheeler

Long exposure photography by Paul Wheeler

Long exposure photography by Paul Wheeler

Long exposure photography by Paul Wheeler

Long exposure photography by Paul Wheeler

Long exposure photography by Paul Wheeler

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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3 Responses to “Long Exposure Photography Interview #26: Paul Wheeler”

  1. Superb in depth interview Paul, a really great and informative read.
    I love this new work too that you have recently done on the French coastline with the “Pods” Class work.

  2. David Frutos says:

    Great, great words here, Paul.
    Excellent interview!

  3. Grant Murray says:

    Superb body of work and great information on your approach and vision, Paul.

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