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Duncan Fawkes is a landscape photographer and the author of The Perfect Shutter. Duncan’s landscape photos are characterized by the moody light and subtle use of color. He’s an intelligent writer and a gifted teacher and I recommend that you check out his book – it’s become a firm favorite of mine. It’s illustrated by Duncan’s beautiful and inspirational photos and is an excellent guide to the art of landscape photography.
Can you tell us a little about yourself? Where do you live and where are you from? How long has photography been a hobby or career of yours and what motivated you to get started?
I grew up in the lowlands of Scotland, before university and then my IT career took me south to Manchester and London in England. Photography started for me as a solution to a growing unease and dissatisfaction I felt within me as I approached my thirtieth birthday in 2007. Having been promoted into management a number of years earlier, I found my creative outlets dry up as the programming I once did gave way to project schedules, meetings and report writing.
Related was a period of reflection which I think happens around big birthdays, that sort of ‘there must be more’ questioning you go through. I’m sort of rewriting history here as I wasn’t so consciously aware at the time, but I’ve since realized that I was a consumer of things, not a creator of things, and I wanted that to change, to make a contribution in some way. Sure I (with my team) would create computer software, good software even, but not the sort of software most people would ever see, use or understand, and certainly not something that provided any lasting contentment.
That’s how photography started out, as a bit of escapism from the 9-til-5, and an excuse – sad that one was needed for sure! – to get outdoors and live a more healthy and active life. After getting over the first initial learning obstacles, I would find myself wanting to go out with the camera more and more, and dreaming about the weekends. The word passion is over used and trite sounding, but it’s hard to describe something that possesses your every waking moment and which your life revolves around any other word.
Growing up in Scotland I always enjoyed wild places, mist filled glens, imposing mountains, wind swept beaches. The drama and enigma of this interaction of weather and rugged landscape enthralled me, and sets my imagination running. Mostly I would seek out dark and moody conditions in the hope of creating more evocative and moving landscapes. I try to follow my own path and do my own thing. I love being out somewhere remote and natural, away from the hustle and bustle of modern life.
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?
Oh, that is deep – and a hard one to answer!
There’s definitely something in my last answer. I find myself drawn to moody and evocative landscapes and weather conditions. There’s definitely a link between that and my personality. It’s strange because I’m generally quite a cheery chappy most of the time, but there’s clearly a darker side that comes through in my images. I think of myself as being a thinker and contemplator, emotionally sensitive and responsive to my environment. My wife maybe better sums it up as being moody! Either way my images tend towards the darker side, generally low key in nature and having a subdued and often blue color palette.
That said there are also brighter, cheerier and more colorful photographs that I have made. Indeed I often think of myself as capturing the landscape in all its different moods, and perhaps also then all of my own different moods.
Who are three of your favorite landscape photographers and what influence have they had upon your work?
At once it’s hard to narrow to three, and also to name three! I try to avoid being overly influenced, or diving too deeply into others’ work.
Certainly the most influential is another Scottish landscape photographer, Bruce Percy. I find his work beguiling and otherworldly. He has an almost uncanny knack of being able to create seemingly simple compositions out of very busy landscapes. His vision is extraordinary. His work in Iceland and more recently Patagonia and Bolivia predate what have become very popular locations, yet I see his work as an exemplar of these locations. He influences me in my search for similarly simple and original compositions in soft, often blue hour, light.
Of relevance to The Perfect Shutter, David Baker, another UK photographer, has also been a strong influence on me. He embarked on his Sea Fever project a number of years ago when I started to experiment with shutter speeds. His Turner-like images of the sea are powerful and evocative, depicting the sea in a photograph in a way that I and many others hadn’t quite seen before. I loved all of his Sea Fever images, and it gave me encouragement to continue down my own path. His book Sea Fever is well worth a look.
There are many others who influence me in various ways for different reasons. I could write down a big long list of names but I don’t think that would really mean much to anyone.
Most of all I try to resist the temptation to follow the work of others too closely. Whilst yes we stand on the shoulders of giants, I think it’s important to find your own path and vision. Certainly I know for myself that when I’m on a photograph-heavy diet that I find myself becoming confused, frustrated and doubting myself. For all its benefits, social media can be hell if you’re going through a tough time creatively. It feeds all of your doubts and fears. So generally I try to keep a healthy distance, aware but not consumed by what others are doing. On a side note when I do look at others work I would prefer to do so in a photo book than online.
You recently moved from the UK to Australia. How different is the light and the weather in your new home? How has this influenced your landscape photography?
As you might expect it’s really quite different! We live in a beautiful and relatively remote town on the East coast. Yamba is a pretty close approximation of paradise! Photographically the Australian stereotype is mostly true, we have a lot of beaches and a lot of clear blue skies which is a particular challenge for me and my dark and moody style. Being closer to the equator the sun rises and sets much quicker, so I’ve renamed the Golden and Blue Hours as the Golden and Blue 30 minutes.
Generally I find that I have a smaller window to shoot in, and fewer days where the conditions seem to keep giving all day. I was never much of a daytime shooter but I’ve pushed myself to adapt and find new ways of making photographs that represent my new environment.
One technique I’ve adopted is infrared photography using my Fuji X-T1. The light of the harsh sun creates strong contrast, with deep shadows and I found that IR allowed me to exaggerate this even more to make a stronger image in these conditions than I’d otherwise be able.
We certainly do have our days of bad weather – often worse but shorter lived than in the UK – and I try to make the most of them. In bad weather I have the landscape to myself; I won’t see another soul on location. Overall I really enjoy the hot weather, but it’s hard to beat the elemental exhilaration of rainy, windy days on the rocks, sea spray in your face.
The greatest challenge is actually one of geography. The country is vast. There are so many places I want to visit and photograph, but a cursory look on Google Maps will tell me it’s a full 24 hours driving to get somewhere – and that’s in the same state! A trip to the more unusual looking landscapes in the centre, Western Australia or the Northern Territory feel frustratingly close yet might as well be a million miles away!
That said, I’m very blessed to live on a quiet and relatively unexplored stretch of coast with a good number of really beautiful National Parks nearby. I have Yuraygir National Park which at 70km is the largest undeveloped stretch of coastline in NSW. Within a few hours drives I have Gibraltar Range, Washpool and New England NPs that sit up in the mountains of the Great Dividing Range. Here I find peaks to climb and cooling and ancient rainforests. Having such diversity close by is really wonderful.
Better yet it is all relatively un-photographed, so every time I go out it feels like a fresh and personal adventure rather than following others tripod holes. It gives me freedom to photograph a relatively unexplored landscape how I like.
You give landscape photography workshops in Australia. What locations do you visit on your workshops, and what do you teach your students? Perhaps you could describe your typical student – what type of person comes on your workshop and what are they hoping to learn?
I started teaching workshops about four years ago in the UK and found that I really enjoyed it. Quite naturally I suppose, I worried at first about having enough to say or pass on to people. But the experience was quite the contrary. My enthusiasm for the locations and the subject meant that my biggest challenge was learning to keep my excitement in check such that I could explain things simply without leaping too far ahead!
When I spend a day with a lovely group of people, out in nature and talking photography, I feel really blessed. And when I see how much people develop in a relatively short period of time, it’s incredible rewarding. I don’t take any photographs on my workshops, but get an equal sense of satisfaction if somebody nails it.
Most of my workshops are local to me. The low population density here (and in Australia as a whole) makes it more difficult than in the UK. But I wouldn’t feel comfortable running workshops further afield that I haven’t visited myself several times such that I have a strong set of images and experience to show people. So I’m focusing on the coast and the national parks nearby, naturally expanding as I adventure and spend time in other locations.
Attendees are a mix of experience, but biased towards those less experienced. Most students have bought a new camera or had a camera collecting dust and they want to know how to use it. Some will have tried books and magazines and still found themselves scratching their head, so I make it a priority that they leave a workshop with a firm understanding of the fundamentals – exposure triangle, histograms, focusing, etc.
Some students have a good grasp of the operation of the camera, but find it a struggle to “see” shots. So we spend more time on composition, trying to understand their vision and what they want from their photography. I always make it clear that coming on a workshop is not about making photographs like mine, but to give you the tools to make your own photographs.
What we are naturally drawn to and what we look for in a photograph are different, that’s the individuality that you need to communicate in your photographs. So whilst I obviously share what I find interesting to photograph and how I photograph, I am more interested in supporting people to find and photograph what they find interesting.
Some people shoot away quite enthusiastically and I see it as my role to slow them down a little, think through their intention and pay attention to their technique. Others find themselves lost, overwhelmed by the location and its too many or too few opportunities. Here I take a bit more of a hands on role, pointing out what I see to them, helping them to set up the shot. In these cases the light bulb moment is particularly rewarding when they see how a fairly insignificant rock or line can transform a photograph.
The Perfect Shutter
What is the perfect shutter? Why did you choose this as your book’s title?
The Perfect Shutter is, perhaps obviously, about the use of shutter speeds. Often times it feels like shutter speed is a secondary consideration in landscape photography, often a choice between a normal or whatever it needs to be shutter speed or a long exposure of waterfalls and the sea. I make the case that the effect of shutter speed is perhaps one of the most evocative creative tools in a photograph and that appropriate use of shutter speed can help carry the mood of a photograph.
The title was actually the easiest part of the book. Several years ago I was enjoying a beer with my good friend and very talented photographer Pete Bridgwood. Like I, Pete is very much about the feel and mood of a photograph. Our conversation touched on the subject of shutter speeds whilst discussing some of my images from a recent trip to the Scottish Highlands and Pete made a telling statement, “You know, it seems like for every photograph there’s the perfect shutter speed that evokes the exact feeling that we’re searching for”. This stuck in my head and so when it came to writing the book the title very much decided itself.
The idea came about after several years of playing with shutter speeds myself. I once found myself in the it’s either a short exposure or a long exposure camp. But through experimentation I developed a more nuanced approach to shutter speeds, to subtly reduce or add detail into water that matched the mood I was going for.
So instead of defaulting to, say, a five second exposure for silky smooth waterfalls, I played with shorter exposures of half a second or less that would better reveal the churn in the plunge pool. Which to my mind felt more wild like the waterfalls and cascades I would be photographing in the little corners of my world.
Similarly I played with the effect of different shutter speeds on waves and at different focal lengths to see how that would effect the feel of the image. A very short shutter might freeze frame a wave, or a long exposure would turn the sea to a foamy milk. But both of these interpretations lacked the kinetic energy and power I often experienced in the presence of the ocean. What I call short long exposures around and below the half second mark brought some blur, and with it the energy, I was looking for whilst keeping the form of the wave recognizable.
Over time I found that for most of my photographs shutter speed was often the creative tool I would consider ahead of all others, trying to match the effect to the mood I was trying to build into the photograph. The book basically shares that journey and my findings, encouraging others to take a similar view and to help them with the techniques in doing so.
Can you talk to us a little about the creative process behind it, from gestation through to publication?
I guess the seed for the book was sown during that talk with Pete. That afforded me a moment of clarity that, yes, this was something I was spending a lot of my creative energy on. Often it takes another’s insight to alert you to something that may have been hidden in plain view.
I started outlining the book during the middle of 2016 for no other reason than I felt I’d had this idea bubbling away and thought that now was the time to go with it. A lot of my photographs in the 18 months prior were of waves here in my home of Yamba and so I’d put a lot of effort in to improve them and my technique. After outlining the book, I quickly filled out a few chapters as thoughts came to me to make sure that the book had substance beyond an idea.
It was in the very early stages that I approached David at Craft & Vision with my idea and very rough draft. Looking at the C&V library, other than your own book Slow, there wasn’t really anything in this area so I thought it would be of interest to David and gladly it was.
The rest of the project was quite organic. I created a notebook in Evernote with a note for each section I’d outlined, and then populated them as ideas came to me, often provoked by an experience I’d had whilst out in the field.
Before I knew it the accumulation of all of these little notes came together as a book. Sure, some chapters were a struggle to get my words out how I wanted, but in some regards the book wrote itself. I found this approach worked really well for me, writing as the ideas appeared rather than sitting with writer’s block trying to force words onto paper.
Then the hard work of editing this collection of notes started, drafting and redrafting over and over before sending it to Cynthia and the team at C&V for review, edits and suggestions. We then went to and fro a few times until it started to come together.
One of the hardest parts was actually finding and selecting images for the book. Trying to find the perfect image to both convey your message and show your best work can be tricky, especially when you’ve got thousands to choose from. Add onto that how they work with different page layouts and so on it was definitely the bit I struggled most with!
What camera equipment is required for photographing landscapes? What lenses do you recommend?
There aren’t really any equipment requirements for landscape photography per se. Most landscape photographs fit within the parameters of general purpose so most cameras are up to the job. More expensive lenses may offer you better sharpness, or different creative options but even an entry level SLR with its kit lens does the job.
I don’t follow the logic that there are lenses for particular purposes or genres. I’ve successfully photographed landscapes at most focal lengths between 10mm and 400mm. Nonetheless, I think when starting out it’s helpful to constrain yourself to develop an eye for seeing photographs at certain focal lengths.
I regularly recommend students get used to using a 24mm lens as that is a good classic landscape wide angle focal length which I think is good to master. It doesn’t have to be a fixed focal length of course, just set your zoom to 24mm and resist every temptation to change it.
Instead change your physical position to compose the photograph – low and close is often the order of the day. You’ll quickly develop an intuition for using that focal length which will help you to understand the effect and purpose for other focal lengths as you broaden your skill set. Like everything, there is no rule; it’s just helpful advice I was grateful of many years ago.
How do you find good locations to work in? How important is local knowledge in finding the best places for landscape photos?
I enjoy looking at maps. Google Maps, The Photographer’s Ephemeris (to get an idea of sun/moon positions), topological maps, etc all help to give me an awareness of possibilities. You can also look at photographs of an area on the internet. That can be something of a double edged sword as it can overset your expectations. The old adage is true, “Things seen cannot be unseen”. It is hard to look beyond the other photographs you’ve seen in order to make your own.
Ultimately there’s no replacement for actually physically being in a location, scouting and shooting it in person. I take something of an issue with the current location, location, location trend in landscape photography. Often it seems like location (combined with an amazing colorful sky) is the be all and end all.
People flock from all over the world to Iceland, Lofoten, Patagonia, and so on and whilst, yes, these are beautiful locations, the photographs posted from them show relatively little variation. It’s incredibly difficult to look beyond the obvious epic image when time is short.
I have exactly the same problem. I feel like we’re all missing a trick and ignoring places closer to home, places we can frequent and see in different light and seasons and have a personal connection with. Maybe not epic but beautiful in their own right, those places that become special to us where we escape to. Of course I’d love to adventure to some of these wonderful locations, but I will go much further creatively working my local area.
Long exposure photography is a current trend in landscape photography. What are your thoughts on this? When photographing seascapes or waterfalls should we automatically reach for our ten stop ND filters, or is there another approach we can take?
Yes, it’s been a trend for some time I think. Hey, I love long exposure photography. I love the otherworldly aspect to it, that hint of surrealist magic that it brings to an image. There are some real masters in that arena, and it’s much harder to do well than people think.
The problem, as with most things, is that the effect is over relied on to carry an image. The temptation is to turn up on location, put on a Big Stopper, and hope that it looks good. Instead I think it’s about using the technique mindfully and with intent, and perhaps sparingly.
Think about the photograph you want to make, the mood, the energy levels you want to convey in it. Then think about how best to do that through your choice of filters and resulting shutter speed. That is pretty much the purpose of The Perfect Shutter – to encourage this approach, to help people understand the options and what they need to do to make use of them.
I thought it would be interesting to talk about three of your photos. Do you mind telling us the stories behind these images?
The Falls of the Lady (Sgwd Gwladus in Welsh) are located in the Brecon Beacons of Wales. This is known as Waterfall Country due to the large number of good sized waterfalls in the area.
Being something of a waterfall lover, I spent a long weekend there doing long walks to photograph as many of the waterfalls as I could. This was my first at the end of a 40 minute walk from Pontneddfechan. We’d spent the day travelling down to Wales by car and the light was starting to fade as I approached the waterfall. There had been widespread flooding across the country during the previous few days and this was evident from the huge cascade of water coming over the fall. Stood in the amphitheater below, the noise of the water crashing over the 10m drop was both deafening and awe inspiring.
I had hoped the surrounding trees would still have their autumnal coats on, but any remaining leaves were stripped by the high winds that accompanied the floods. With very very little color in the scene, and the rock in the shadow of the overhang I felt that the scene would be well suited to a black and white treatment. I wanted a long exposure to reduce the appearance of detail and accentuate the graceful arch of the falling water. The resulting 30 second exposure was easily achieved with a 3-stop ND filter in the failing light beneath the canopy of tree and rock.
Back home most of the post-processing was done in Lightroom, playing with the available tone and clarity controls to plunge the blacks to completely isolate the waterfall and create something a bit different at a popular location.
My grandparents used to live on the Isle of Skye so I have fond memories of many summers spent there. Returning as a photographer, it’s a place that always gets my creative juices going with its mix of dominant mountains (the Cuillins) and harsh and changeable weather conditions. Fantastically moody!
Scotch whisky drinkers may recognize the name Talisker which is distilled at nearby Carbost, from where the single track road runs down the glen towards Talisker Bay. Like much of Skye it’s a wild and windswept place, and that’s how I found it on this particular morning as heavy squall after heavy squall rolled straight in at me from the Minch.
The beach is flanked on both sides by tall sea cliffs, with several sea stacks prominent at the south end of the beach as can be seen in the photograph here. The top reaches of the beach are made up of black volcanic sand with black boulders being exposed further down the beach with a lower tide.
The tide was quite high when I first arrived, but it fell as I was there until some of the lower lying rocks started to reveal themselves. It was several of these rocks, embedded in the black sand, that caused the water shapes that you see in this photograph.
When photographing a sandy beach I often look for something that disrupts and slows the flow of the water for added visual interest. Timing was crucial here. If the wave is coming in, the rock is fully submerged and registers no impact on the photograph. If the water has drained too much, the rock is fully visible perhaps with some white foam skirting around it.
I didn’t want to particularly reveal the rock to create a more unusual and mysterious effect so I timed this shot almost as soon as the water started to run back down the beach. The 1.6 second shutter was long enough to streak the water, but no so long that the water would lose detail or that the rock would be revealed.
In terms of composition I was keen to include the sea stacks as they are iconic of Talisker. I placed the stack and the rocks in opposite corners to create some tension between them and was keen to have the water streaking out of the bottom left corner.
In terms of post-processing, again most of it was done in Lightroom. The most noteworthy thing is the addition of a significant amount of the Clarity slider which I find is invaluable in bringing out the streaks and texture in water.
However, applying a high degree of Clarity globally often has a terrible effect on other elements of the image so I find it’s best applied in a higher degree more locally, using either the Adjustment Brush or Gradient Filter tools.
In contrast to the previous two photographs, this location required much less effort to get to; it’s in the mangroves on the side of the main road into my home of Yamba here in Australia. Whenever I drive past these trees I think they are full of character but with so many trees in the background competing for attention it was difficult to isolate the trees for a successful composition.
The solution was to use infrared photography, by fitting a Hoya R72 IR filter onto the end of 55-200mm lens on my Fuji X-T1. The Fuji X cameras are just sensitive enough to infrared light that infrared photography is possible without having to adapt your camera. Although typically I find I’m shooting at ISO400 for 20 or 30 seconds at f8 or wider, which is what I used for this image.
What I love about infrared is in how it renders tones differently to what you normally expect, often separating them by creating much stronger tonal contrast. For example if you were to take this photograph using the visible spectrum and then convert to black and white you would likely find that the green of the leaves and the brown of the bark would be similar grey tones. There would be nothing to separate those elements; it would probably look like just one big mess.
With infrared however the green of the leaves turn white as they absorb a lot of infrared light, and the trunk of the tree remains very dark as it absorbs relatively little.
The result is that the trunks becomes a much stronger element in the photograph, lying on top of a background of light tones. The motion blur induced over the course of the required 30 seconds further contrasts the steadfast trunk with the moving foliage.