Robert Llewellyn answers questions about photography in general, his approach to it, and how to be a better photographer.
What is your home studio like?
I live on the Rivanna River outside of Charlottesville, Virginia. I have 60 acres of land so I could go out my door and collect nature samples. My studio is half of my house. I like working at home.
How does your process and approach to shooting differ in your studio and in outdoor settings?
Many things I do bring into the studio to isolate them and get closer. The forest is a challenge because when you look through the frame there are an enormous number of things to put in or take out.
Going into the forest, with a camera, is a different mindset. First, don’t complain – about anything. There is no good light or bad light, just light. Find a way. There are no bad subjects. I can make a photograph of anything. There is no good weather or bad weather – just weather, all the time.
Do you prefer digital or film photography?
Digital by far. Digital is sharper, has greater tonal range and can be easily edited in Adobe Photoshop®. Photoshop reminds me of when I used to make black-and-white prints in the darkroom. Photoshop is the new darkroom.
With film, you are at the mercy of the characteristics of the film.
How do you keep it fresh each time when you shoot the same sorts of things?
I call it the “elseness” exercise. What else is it? What else is it? What else is it? There is no end.
I think being a photographer is a wonderful way to visit earth – a great adventure. There is always something new to see and photograph. There is always more to see and learn about trees, for example, and about everything else.
Photography has infinite possibilities.
What time of day is best for photographing outdoors?
Some say you cannot make good photographs at noon on a clear day. Some photographers only go out in first light or last light. So you get maybe fog and red skies. I don’t think there is a best time. You can make a photograph no matter the time of day or the weather.
I like to go out in what people call “bad” weather. Rain, snow, freezing rain, fog, wind, clouds. Whatever. Play the conditions, as they say in sports. The landscape changes with the weather and seasons. The Norwegians say “there is no bad weather, only bad clothes.”
Look straight up and you might find, say, an awesome backlit forest canopy.
How do you protect camera equipment from the elements?
I know they make cases to go on cameras and lenses that are waterproof. I change lenses so often they are not good for me. They are good if you shoot wildlife and you are sitting in rain all day with a long telephoto lens, waiting for wildlife to appear.
I use an umbrella. I have many. All different sizes. I can put them on a stand or over my shoulder or down my coat in the back so my hands are free. I almost always use a tripod. Because of wind, don’t tie the umbrella to a tripod.
Carry a piece of clear plastic from your dry cleaning with you. It's very light and you can cover you and your equipment at the same time. It's also disposable.
I also bring lots of towels.
How do you capture photographs of wildlife?
Sit in the rain all day and wait for wildlife to appear. Actually except for puppy dogs and kitty cats, although I am not sure about all the cats, animals do not like humans and will run away or bite you.
Real wildlife photography is an enormous skill that I greatly admire. It usually requires thousands of dollars in big telephoto lenses. Remember, they don’t like you, so you need to be far away.
You may have to wait days to get the image you want. You may wait days and get nothing. Go into the wild and see what happens. What finds you.
And be ready. You may only have a moment.
What role does observation play in photography?
The skill of observation is vital: moving from looking to seeing. At a party, you can just mindlessly chatter with people, or you can really see them — what their bodies, gestures and emotions are communicating. Labels and names get in the way of seeing things as they are. Stop labeling things or worrying about what they are called.
As with meditation, just relax into observing, to embrace things as they are.
What are some good photo composition strategies for capturing landscapes?
I have heard there are rules of composition. My personality does not resonate with rules. As Ansel Adams said “there are no rules, just good photographs.” Go out and see what calls out to you. It will wave, “over here, do me!”
The test is would it hurt if you left it? Then explore it with your camera, with no idea what the image will look like. Make lots of images. You learn from each one. And you grow. The one you will like the most is the one you could not have possibly imagined.
A photograph has a frame with things inside and outside. Make sure there is nothing inside you do not want. Things at the edge create tension. Things in the middle create calm.
Be wild. Be bold. Do the “elseness exercise”. What else is it? What else is it? What else is it? Lie on your back. Crawl on you belly, etc.
What should I take with me for a day of shooting in nature?
A camera. Actually any will do. You can make great photographs with your telephone. The iPhone® has a great camera for the size of the sensor. In fact the small sensor gives you amazing depth of field.
Depending on where I am going, I bring a wide selection of lenses, from 14mm to 1000mm. I make lots of photographs. I even make several frames at different distances and stitch them together in the computer for more sharpness depth.
Actually there is one animal in the forest that really likes humans. Ticks. They will bite you. Very, very dangerous wildlife. Wear repellent. Put it on everything, even clothes. I have a small blanket treated with permethrin that I use when I want to be on the ground.
Lastly bring more batteries, water, food, towels, and clothes than you think you will need. Bring a phone for emergencies.
Do you use a tripod?
I shoot most photographs with a good tripod. I have a really heavy one for windy days. I think the tripod is a two-edged sword. It does steady the camera for sharp images. I handhold the camera to frame what I want and then I move the tripod under it.
There is a school of thought that hand-holding a camera gives you way more freedom to explore and see new things. It is also good if you like backgrounds out of focus. The downside is that your photographs may not be really sharp. Most unsharp images come from camera movement during the exposure. Human error. Oh, that beating heart!
Are the pronounced patterns and shapes in your work a byproduct of your subject matter, or by design?
Humans are attracted to patterns and rhythms. They create vibrations that are viewed as very active. Humans are also drawn to light things (like moths?). Being a photographer is quite simple. You start with a frame. You then must decide what to put in the frame and what to leave out. You also must decide where to put things in the frame. Often shapes at the edge create tension. Shapes in the middle are calmer.
I don’t think there are rules for photography. But the images can have similar effects on the human viewer.
How do I make my images stand out from everyone else’s?
Do not make any photographs that look like everyone else’s. If it looks familiar it is not new. You want to make “new”.
“Wow” is the word that humans utter when they have seen something new. Go for “wow”.
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