December 15th 2012 by Andrew S Gibson
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.
Grant Murray is originally from South Africa but settled in Vancouver, Canada in 2010 with the aim of exploring and immersing himself in the natural beauty of British Columbia. This region is famous for its beautiful coastline and overcast weather, both of which are conducive to long exposure photography.
How would you describe your photographic vision? What kind of look do you try and create in your photos?
My photographic vision is one of uplifting dynamism. Anyone who knows me can attest to the fact that I am not a minimal, melancholy kind of guy. I try to create a look that makes the viewer really stop and think, with the image’s message not being obvious at first. For my waterscapes I do this by finding a strong, sharply in focus object or element and placing it very carefully in the frame. I surround it with a pleasing, often wide, tonal range, dynamic skies and silky water. With my architectural images I aim to create a powerful, precise look, often using strong leading lines or curves, very deep contrasts and dynamic skies.
When did you start taking photos? What made you decide to explore photography as a means of artistic expression?
I bought my first “real” camera in 2006, a Nikon D200 digital SLR, and was hooked from then on.
I was born and raised in Cape Town, South Africa and grew up with a classic school education, geared towards getting a great job with a big corporate firm. I also played every sport going, which left very little room for much else. I had never really been exposed (nor, truthfully, did I want to be exposed) to the arts and consequently hadn’t done anything truly creative or artistic.
When I started out, I was the typical clueless photographer who snapped thousands of thoughtless “point and shoot” images; I used my camera more like an automatic weapon than an artistic instrument. As it turns out, all experience is good experience and we all have to start somewhere. I discovered long exposure photography by happenstance about two years ago and that was the turning point for me. It made me realise that there was whole new avenue of artistic exploration available and it forced me to start taking my photography seriously.
I bought a Sony full frame camera, Zeiss lenses and a sturdy tripod and there was no going back. Photography changed everything for me and turned out to be the creative outlet that I had been missing my whole life. The beauty of photography is that it is always evolving and can never be truly perfected, which makes it so exciting. I am constantly learning something new.
Name three photographers you like and why.
My choices are derived from the photographers’ distinctive personalities and the ways in which they express them through their art. It isn’t enough to be technically proficient, as without passion and vision, photographs are just photographs.
Joel Tjintjelaar – First and foremost, Joel is one of the nicest human beings on this planet. When I was starting out, he had unending patience for my incessant “newbie” questions and shared a lot of his artistic know-how and processing techniques, which is something that not many top people in the photographic world do. Joel is the master of his art and takes precision and attention to detail in his post-processing to a whole new level with his architectural fine art work. His work makes my jaw hit the floor whenever I view it and is an unending source of inspiration.
Nathan Wirth – I have had the pleasure of hanging out with Nathan on his home turf in the Bay Area. He has a beautiful, zen-like spirit and that is conveyed through his elegant haunting, minimalist seascapes and “selfies”. His body of work really is something to behold. I love watching his art develop and I always look forward to his next project.
Cole Thompson – I found Cole’s work by happy coincidence, while trawling the Internet for inspiration. He really has finely honed his craft and his “The Fountainhead” and “Harbinger” projects really resonated with me. I love Cole’s diverse portfolio; he is never afraid to experiment and push the boundaries, as in his “The Ghosts of Auschwitz” project. Like all my choices, Cole is a “giver”; he has been very constructive about my work and is always willing to offer advice.
Long exposure photography – what’s the attraction and why do you do it?
Long exposure photography challenges both the photographer’s and viewer’s senses, as it juxtaposes light and darkness, sharpness and movement and the real and surreal. It takes a seemingly ordinary scene and transforms it into something ethereal and magical. There is no end to its artistic possibilities, which is why I love it so much.
Why black and white? What’s the appeal?
There is something about black and white photography that I find utterly captivating. The depth of contrasts, the power of light and the emotive quality of the medium seep into your soul. One of the most important features of black and white photography is that it removes the distraction of a wide colour palette and helps to keep the viewer more focused. Black and white photography also offers a greater sense of freedom for the artist, as it affords the opportunity to break colour photography rules and create a vision with fewer boundaries. To be honest, I can’t see in colour anymore, from a photographic perspective at any rate.
What do the landscape and the sea mean to you? How does living in Vancouver influence your photography?
I grew up in a coastal city and always had a deep love for the sea. I spent countless evenings, weekends and holidays at the seaside and it is a big part of me. I have always loved the smells, sounds and ever changing moods of the sea. I moved to Vancouver about two and half years ago, for a new adventure and a better quality of life. There is something very special about the Pacific Northwest, which has had a profound effect on my photography; the light in Vancouver has a silvery hue to it that I haven’t found anywhere else. Minimalist seascape scenes are available in great abundance, which ensures that I have an endless supply of material for my art.
Photographing architecture. What is the appeal? How is it similar, or different, to photographing the landscape?
Architecture photography requires a very different approach to that of landscape. It sounds obvious at first, but training yourself to look up is easier said than done. By default we tend to look straight ahead, which means we miss out on a lot of architectural photographic opportunities. Secondly, architectural photography requires particularly precise and thoughtful composition in order to create an image that doesn’t simply look like a building. By this I mean using different angles, lines, curves, focal lengths and light and cloud conditions to create something that isn’t obvious to the naked eye.
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 do a lot of homework on potential subjects and likely conditions by visiting locations and using tools like online maps, tide tables and radar and weather apps. With landscape photography I like to react to the changing scene and go with compositions that speak to my soul. I’m constantly changing my tripod height, focal length, filters and so on, to see what works best. You can’t be too rigid with pre-conceived plans and compositions, or you could really miss out on some fantastic opportunities.
Architecture photography is a different ball game and requires way more precision and planning than landscape photography. The position of the sun, light conditions, reflections in the windows, depth of shadows, cloud movement all have to be carefully thought out and aligned to create the right result. This often requires hours of standing around and neck craning to get the shot I’m after. The overall message is that patience is the key.
How important is light in your imagery? What types of light do you prefer for long exposure photography?
Light is everything for long exposure photography. However, no matter what the light conditions, you can maximise their potential by using neutral density filters. For my architectural work, I often use strong, contrasting midday light, as it provides deep shadows and accentuated highlights, which is perfect for me. For my landscape work, I prefer the low angled light in the morning and late afternoon, as it provides even contrast levels and tones. An interesting layer of cloud to go with those light conditions is a perfect match. I love clouds (essential if you live in Vancouver) and often feel pretty sad when it is a blue-sky day, as it lessens my opportunities to create long exposure images.
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 would definitely agree with your statement, Andrew. I’m pretty sure that it’s my mathematics background manifesting itself in my photography. I am always looking for balance through the use of strong elements, tonal range and interesting shapes and textures. Negative space is essential because, when used well, it accentuates the minimal elements to provide the necessary balance in the image.
Here are some more of Grant’s photos:
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.