Monday, July 19, 2010

The Importance of Personal Work

A year ago I started a personal project called Seasons of Subsistence after visiting a Yup'ik summer fishing camp up here in Bristol Bay, Alaska. After a year of shooting for this project I want to take a moment to reflect on the importance of personal work.

I don't know about you but I'm constantly making up long term projects in my head, whether its a story about the lives of my backyard chickens or the solitary existence of Indonesian raft fishermen. But making these projects become a reality requires a lot more determination, commitment, time, resources and planning than simply dreaming about them. Being able to filter out the crazy ideas from the realistic ones is key to your success and involves being totally honest with yourself. I'm all about dreaming big, don't get me wrong, but executing a long-term, or short term, personal project requires that you get your all of your eggs in just the right baskets.


Coming up with an idea can often be a real challenge, especially if you haven't quite decided what kind of photographer you are yet and the focus you want to take. I spent many dark hours mulling over a multitude of ideas as I began my photographic journey, many of them completely overambitious. Being realistic with yourself is critical.

So make a list. Put it into three sections: Dream Projects, Realistic Projects, Backyard Projects. Work out what you are really passionate about and what you can realistically achieve within a given time frame, 1 month, 6 months, 1 year. Your backyard projects are ones that you can be working on all the time. Hopefully they don't require huge amounts of resources and they allow you to begin right away. For example at the beginning of the this year I began a project photographing adventure athletes in Seattle. Its a project that I work on all the time, I shoot every month or so and it doesn't require huge amounts of time and money. Your Dream Projects are at the opposite end of the scale. They are big, ambitious, and support your overarching vision as a photographer. Whether they are realistic or not, feasible or something you hope to do "one day" it doesn't matter. More importantly they give you a focus point and set the bar for your creative endeavours. While your Realistic Projects are the ones you start to put into the research phase.


So you have a backyard project or two that you are rolling with and your Dream Projects are providing you with inspiration and a guiding force. Now you have to be really realistic with your self and begin researching for a project that you can pull off, your Realistic Project. Your research needs to be thorough. It is essential that you know as much as possible about the people, issue, location etc of your chosen project. Whenever I get an assignment I begin a very careful research process that involves gathering as much information on the geography, economics, culture, language, climate, current affairs, ecology and infrastructure of where I'm going. Of course my research process for editorial assignments differs from my commercial assignments and your research process will differ from mine. You need to find a process that fits your style. But find a process and take a systematic approach to it so that you cover all the essentials. Careful planning will save you time, money and ensure you do the best job you can.


Fundraising is really important, really difficult and really beyond the scope of this posting. Fortunately there are some great resources out there and the Blue Earth Alliance is the best place to start: and a great handbook all about getting projects off the ground:

The way you actually end up shooting your project will vary widely depending on the type of photographer you are and the nature of your project. Regardless of these variables, however, are a few things that are universal to executing your project.

Whether you are heading out to document great white shark attack victims or shooting a project on Parisian barristers getting access to the right subject matter is vital to the success of your project. It takes time and commitment to forge these necessary relationships so you'll need to draw upon all of your resources, friends, and contacts.


Money. Whether you are planning a small backyard shoot or a longterm international project you are going to need money to cover your expenses. Think about all of your possible expenses ranging from rent and office supplies to airplane tickets and special equipment. Then make a budget so you know how much your ideas are going to cost and how much fundraising you have to do. There is lots of great information on budgeting in the Blue Earth Alliance handbook, link above.


Collaboration is one of your most important skills and assets. There will often be other organisations and non-profits working on similar issues to your work. Sharing your ideas with these groups and letting them know what you are trying to achieve can be instrumental in helping your project become a reality. After working with Trout Unlimited Alaska (TU Alaska) in 2008 I came to them with my Seasons of Subsistence project. TU is now one of the fiscal sponsors for the project helping me to fundraise. They also support the project by producing gallery exhibitions and promoting the project through their marketing outlets.


At first personal projects can seem daunting. Lack of money, lack of focus, making contacts, where to start...? The list goes on. But if you are passionate you will stick at it and while getting a project off the ground can be challenging, the benefits far outweigh the hard graft. Get creative and follow your crazy dreams, as Goethe said, "Dream no small dreams for they have no power to move the hearts of men.

Here are a few reasons to persevere, stick with it and produce thoughtful and innovative personal work.

Refine your vision

You have complete creative control over your personal projects. No one telling you they want it done a certain way. You can do whatever you want. And this is why personal work is so important, because it is your own personal expression as an artist. When people look at your personal work they peer directly into your creative vision and bear witness to your purest form. Doing personal work then is essential for your personal growth as an artist and a space for you to experiment, make mistakes, grow, evolve and refine your vision.

Hone your skills

Experimenting, making mistakes and evolving are all ways in which we craft new skills. Every time I shoot personal work I discover new ways of shooting, develop new skill sets and make big leaps in my creative thinking. Its just like exercising and training for a sport. We have to flex our creativity!

Prove your worth

Personal work demonstrates artistic initiative and a thirst for creativity. People who hire photographers like to see that the person they are going to hire does more than just fulfill a creative brief and instead brings a unique set of ideas to the table. Your personal work is an important part of your creative toolbox and critical to demonstrating that you are a thriving artist.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Coming down the mountain

Just before I headed up to Alaska for the summer we took a trip up to Hurricane Ridge in the Olympic Mountains/N.P. Our mission was to shoot cyclist Jimmy Anderson hoooning down the mountain with gorgeous scenery behind him - pace, energy and a bit of motion blur! If you are ever in Washington State, Hurricane Ridge should definitely be on your "to visit" list, beautiful place.

A few key objectives for the shoot:
1. High energy, which means I needed to be shooting some where around 1/80th-1/100th to get that lovely ground rush. Which reminds me of a quick note. Jimmy is such a powerful and uber fit cyclist that we were able to get ground rush in the images even when he was cycling UPHILL!!! Amazing!

2. Lighting Jimmy with a 27" beauty dish from above camera left and a bare profoto strobe behind Jimmy on a boom for some back light. See the sketch. 30mph means lots of drag and we ran into a few technical issues with the set-up, broke a magic-arm and bent some aluminium. Luckily nothing a bit of creative thinking and duct tape couldn't fix...Phew!

Sorry about the scribble above! I do my best.

3. Probably the two most important things for me to consider were composition and ambient light. Traveling at 30 mph down a mountain with winding roads meant the direction of the sun was constantly changing, as was my background scenery and the shape of the road. The sun was also going in and out of the clouds. So with this many variables to manage I needed to be pretty organised.

We limited our run to just a two mile stretch of the road. That way Jimmy, our cyclist could familiarise himself with the road and its bends. It also meant that we could get set up for specific points along the route where we knew we had good scenery, a nice bend and the sun would be in the right place. Jimmy was able to position himself a mere two feet from the back of our pace car at times making working a specific shot a breeze. We then systematically worked through a series of compositions and lighting adjustments until we found shots that worked.

I think it is important to go into a shoot like this with loads of fine-tuned ideas. Over the weeks even months leading up to this shoot I sketched dozens of image ideas and compostions as part of my preproduction. These ideas/sketches provided me with a visual backbone from which to explore. Previsualising definitely helps me to quickly and efficiently shoot the images I'm looking for. It also gives me the comfort level I need to then start experimenting and that's the best thing about being can confidently explore the unknown.

All postproduction by the ever impressive Janko Williams

Related posting: Urban Triathlete

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Latest work from Alaska + Behind the Scenes

My family and I migrate to Alaska every summer and live in a small town called Naknek in the Bristol Bay region. As an outsider and also a Brit Naknek, Alaska is a world away from anything I have ever experienced and even though this is my third year coming here the place still feels wild and wonderful. I can only describe it as Mad Max meets Little House on the Prairie or in this case Little House on the Tundra.

Bristol Bay is a pretty unique place. It is home to the largest wild salmon fishery on Earth and also home to a group of Yup'ik Eskimos who lead a vibrant subsistence lifestyle. While I'm up here I shoot for a few environmental groups like Trout Unlimited and Nunamta Aulukestai and also have a personal project ongoing called Seasons of Subsistence.

Last summer I went to a Yup'ik summer fishing camp called Lewis Point to shoot a story for Geographical magazine. Lewis Point is a rustic camp on the banks of the Nushagak River and every summer five Yup'ik families migrate downstream from their village to catch and smoke king salmon. I went back this year to make some more photographs and then on to a few other locations, the results are below.

Sadly the whole of this region is threatened by a proposed open pit mine called Pebble Mine, potentially North America's largest open pit mine. And a good chunk of my work up here involves creating imagery for the campaign fighting to stop the mine. These new images are part of an effort to photograph some of the key individuals who call this place home and depend on Bristol Bay for their livelihood. I chucked in a couple of behind the scenes images as well.

Below is a little sketch of the set-up we used. This work was shot lean and mean due to power limitations (no electricity) and what we could pack into these remote locations. I also want to point out the use of neutral density graduated filters. I use these little puppies a lot in my work and these images are great examples of when they work their magic. Of course you can always pull the skies back in Lightroom using the graduated filter tool, but nothing beats capturing the data on camera. Bristol Bay has incredible skies, something about being far north just makes them so moody and intense, and I wanted to capture this so grads were a must. Since the images are also going to be used in campaigns to raise awareness about Pebble Mine, a serious and important issue for Bristol Bay people, I wanted to generate a sense of power and moodiness in the imagery that accentuates the seriousness of the issue.

If any of you have any cool shots where you used grads I would love to hear how and why you used them...send them along!