Photographer Interview: Spencer Clubb

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New Zealand landscape photo by Spencer Clubb

Spencer Clubb is a New Zealand based photographer. Originally from the UK, he lives in Wellington and travels around New Zealand to photograph its mountains, landscapes and wildlife.

In response to the recent earthquake in Nepal he held exhibition of his work in Wellington to raise funds for the Red Cross Nepal Earthquake Appeal. If you’d like to help out by buying a print, Spencer’s contact details are below.

Interview

Can you tell us a little about yourself? Where do you live and where are you from? How long has photography been a hobby and career of yours and what motivated you to get started?

I live in Wellington, New Zealand. I grew up in the UK but moved out here when I was 30 in search of a better quality of life. I love mountains so it was a natural place to settle. About six years ago I started to realise that I was missing out on a lot of opportunities to get some great photographs as I would hike into this beautiful scenery with just a cheap point and shoot camera. I decided to bite the bullet and get my first DSLR – a Pentax K20D – and take landscape photography more seriously.

How would you describe yourself and your personality? This may be bit of a deep question, but how does your personality affect the way you take photos?

I would describe myself as outdoorsy, but not into fitness per se. I enjoy being sociable in the outdoors and would much prefer to be taking in beautiful views and having a relaxed and fun time than climbing harder and harder peaks. I am motivated by a deep love of nature and the natural landscape. This translates into my photography quite strongly as I mainly seek to take images that are beautiful and that make people appreciate how amazing nature can be. I enjoy shooting with others, scoping locations together, and including photography within a wider adventure. That said, I will travel and shoot alone, and sometimes walk away with my best shots that way.

Who are three of your favourite photographers and what influence have they had upon your work?

Most of my favourite photographers are the friends that I shoot with. However, I do have some more famous favourites.

I am a big fan of Marc Adamus. While recently he has developed a very strong look to his images, I admire the way that he pushed himself into the wilds of America and dedicated so much time and energy to becoming a better landscape photographer. I do think he is a master of composition and he knows how to wield a wide angle lens.

I am also a big fan of Rafael Rojas. He has a more artistic interpretation of mountainous landscapes that I find appealing.

Closer to home Andris Apse is a very talented landscape photographer with a penchant for panoramic images. While he can now afford to helicopter in and out of amazing places, he used to do it the hard way. Perhaps I admire people who have the drive to go the extra mile and who back themselves to be good enough to succeed in their craft.

New Zealand has a wide variety of climatic conditions and landscapes. How does living in a country with such variety affect your approach to landscape photography? What are the challenges – as well as the rewards – of photographing the New Zealand landscape?

The challenges are easy! Many, many trips to remote locations with nothing to show for it. Cloud, rain, high winds. The weather in New Zealand is very unpredictable, and can often degenerate in just a few hours, particularly in the mountains. Clouds building in the west often kill particularly promising sunsets. Many of the best locations are a long way from Wellington, so weekend trips are the norm, which can be frustrating.

On the plus side, if you can’t take a decent landscape photograph in New Zealand you are probably never going to be able to take one. There are many classic viewpoints that almost guarantee a good image. I enjoy shooting these icons as much as more out of the way places. It’s still possible to get original images and there’s no shame in nailing a classic composition in nice light.

Finally, there is so much variety in a relatively small space, and year-round shooting is possible just about anywhere. With a car and some time on your hands the possibilities are enormously diverse.

How would you describe the quality of the natural light where you live in New Zealand? How does it change with the seasons, and how do you use this in your photos?

The light is very strong in New Zealand and there is very little haze. For much of New Zealand the seasons are also less extreme and less distinct and the weather highly variable. So it’s very difficult to plan in advance to shoot atmospheric condition to order – like early morning mist in a forest, or snow in a landscape. You have to be adaptable and have a shot list that includes scenes for a variety of conditions, from wet forest interiors to epic sunrise shots. I personally love shooting during the blue and golden hours for wider landscapes, prefer wet and overcast weather for bush scenes and will often shoot black and white when the sunlight is harsh and the compositions more graphic.

New Zealand landscape photo by Spencer Clubb

You recently held an exhibition of your work to raise money for the Red Cross Nepal Earthquake Appeal. Can you talk us through the process? What gave you the idea, how did you organise it and how successful was it at raising money?

I wanted to exhibit a number of my favourite images in one show. Because I have a good job outside of photography I didn’t need to earn a living from the print sales, so it was an easy choice to donate all of the profits for a good cause. I was lucky enough to have a very generous printer and framer, and a free exhibition space, which allowed for the final pricing to be affordable to a wider range of people, while still making a surplus for charity. I was influenced by a conversation I had with Craig Potton, who had just finished a fundraising campaign for Nepal, by selling a lot of his work and donating the profits.

I spent two months in Nepal trekking in the Himalayas. Along with New Zealand it was one of the most beautiful places I had been to, with the most humble and friendly people. I knew how poor the villagers are and how badly built the houses are. It was an obvious choice to want to give something back to them. I also felt that New Zealanders would find a connection between the mountainous landscapes and empathy with the earthquake, having had some terrible ones here in Christchurch.

So far I have raised over $2,300 for the Red Cross Nepal Earthquake Appeal. I still have some framed prints to sell so I am hoping to get this up to over $3,000.

Can you tell us a little about why you made the switch from using digital SLRs to the Olympus system?

I used to shoot with two cameras. A Pentax DSLR and a Canon high-end compact. Once I realised that I wanted to get more serious and travel with a full photography kit and tripod into overnight trips in the mountains I started to look around at options for a single system that had the quality of a DSLR but was lighter weight. The recently released Olympus EM-5 seemed just the ticket. While I do miss having an optical viewfinder, the Olympus has so many great features that it is a superb all-round camera. Being able to get highlight warnings, have a rotating screen, great image stabilisation and some nifty features like livetime during long exposures really added up to a compelling package.

Considering that many landscape photographers use full-frame cameras for their work, how would you say the Micro four-thirds format holds up in comparison?

In terms of image quality, compared to a state of the art full frame like a Nikon or Sony, there is definitely a difference. The dynamic range is not quite as good, and the shadows can be noisier when doing some heavy lifting in post production. That said, the only time that I have been really disappointed is for long exposure in very low light, when more noise creeps in to the shadows making it harder to work the image if some shadow or exposure adjustment is necessary.

How large are the prints you can make from the photos taken with your Olympus cameras?

With the 16mp Olympus I exhibited 560mm wide prints with absolutely no problems whatsoever. I have printed larger than that with no issues. Sure, at 100% on screen they might look a bit rough at a pixel level, but prepared and printed well they look fantastic!

What advice would you have for photographers wondering what gear to use for landscape photography?

I have recently been experimenting with a second hand Sony A7R. The files are beautiful but overall the camera and shooting experience is nowhere near as good. For most people, you are better off saving your money and getting smaller, lighter gear. You can still sell your work and exhibit it with just about any modern camera these days. If you are not loaded, at least wait until you work out if you love the hobby and are getting sufficiently good at it before really splashing out!

What lenses do you use with your Olympus camera for landscape photography?

I love to shoot wide-angle so my favourite lens is the Olympus 9-18mm (18-36 equivalent). While not the sharpest lens it is very light, takes filters, and has a handy range of focal lengths. You have to watch it in the rain though as it is not weatherproof. I also shoot with a wonderful 12-40, a very small, fast and sharp 45mm and a 40-150mm kit lens. I’m actually surprised at how many good images I get from the telephoto kit lens given how small, light and cheap it is.

I thought it would be interesting to talk about three of your photos. Do you mind talking us through the stories behind these images?

New Zealand landscape photo by Spencer Clubb

Two seals

This image was taken on a photography workshop that I was running on the Wairarapa coast with my fellow photographer and friend Richard Young. I don’t generally shoot for myself during workshops as I like to keep an eye on what the students are doing, but on this particular occasion everyone was happy grabbing late afternoon shots of seals sleeping, feeding and playing on the rocks. I got my camera out and started to look around. Directly into the sun I could see two seals rubbing up against each other in an interesting and dynamic composition. I quickly changed the shutter speed to expose for the highlights and managed to nail a few backlit shots before they moved off behind some rocks. Post processing was relatively simple – dropping the shadows to black, pulling in a dark vignette and warming up the colour balance a tad to give that nice orange rim light. This photo was recently highly commended at the New Zealand Geographic Photographer of the Year awards.

New Zealand landscape photo by Spencer Clubb

Moonrise over the Richardson Mountains

A few years ago I started taking regular winter photography trips of one to two weeks. I love the lack of tourists, interesting weather conditions and extra sleep that winter trips offer! Normally I am pretty well prepared for moonrises, as I like to use The Photographer’s Ephemeris, but for one reason or another I was caught completely off guard on this occasion. We had just finished a pleasant but unspectacular sunset shoot and were driving back to our lodge at Kinloch near Queenstown when the moon suddenly rose out from behind the Richardson Mountains, just on dusk. I hurriedly pulled the car over and set up the tripod to shoot the moon before it got too high in the sky. I like the simplicity of this shot and purposefully did not crop it to a panoramic format. I darkened the foreground a little in post to keep the image simple.

New Zealand landscape photo by Spencer Clubb

Taranaki sunrise

This is one of my most popular images. It has sold well as a print, appeared in a landscape photography calendar and won a couple of awards. I like it because of the triangle of interest created by the two large tussocks and Mt Taranaki. I also feel that there is a nice symmetry with vegetation coming in to the bottom corners. I nearly didn’t make this shot as I woke up to a rattling, wind-blown hut with rain against the windows. I hit the snooze button. Luckily I managed to drag myself out of bed and up the hill just in time for the clouds to part for this wonderful view. I highly recommend the Pouakai Range for classic shots of Mt Taranaki.

Links

You can see more of Spencer Clubb’s work on his website and at Flickr. If you would like to buy a print for the Nepal Earthquake appeal then you can get in touch via the contact page on his website. You can learn more about photography workshops with Spencer in New Zealand on his website and at Richard Young’s website.

Photo Gallery

Here are some more of Spencer’s photos.

New Zealand landscape photo by Spencer Clubb

New Zealand landscape photo by Spencer Clubb

New Zealand landscape photo by Spencer Clubb

New Zealand landscape photo by Spencer Clubb

New Zealand landscape photo by Spencer Clubb

New Zealand landscape photo by Spencer Clubb

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