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Summer loving: we talk to summer shooters about how to get the best shots

D-Photo talks with a handful of summer’s best specialist shooters to get their take on creating worthwhile summer imagery.

2 November 2015


Few aspects of New Zealand life have a more deserving reputation than our summertime

Whether you like to hit the water, head to the bush, indulge in a road trip or take in any of the many other great seasonal attractions the land offers, photo opportunities abound. But just because the weather is good and it’s looking gorgeous outside doesn’t mean beautiful images require any less skill to capture. D-Photo talks with a handful of summer’s best specialist shooters to get their take on creating worthwhile summer imagery.

Life’s a beach

Craig Levers

New Zealand beaches are about as synonymous with summertime as it gets, and nobody appreciates why more than a surfer, except perhaps a surfer who also happens to be a photographer. Piha-based Craig Levers has been at both passions for much of his life. As long-serving photographer — among many other jobs, on NZ Surfing Mag during its boom period in the ’90s through mid 2000s — he travelled extensively overseas and throughout New Zealand capturing amazing surf images.

In 2008 he left the magazine, but continued his passion for shooting New Zealand’s beaches by publishing photo books. Following guidance from fellow publisher and surfer, Craig Potton, Levers formed CPL Media and has to date released five extremely popular hardcover photography books, each expressing his ardour for beach culture.

Craig Levers

“First and foremost, I’m a New Zealand surfer. I grew up under pohutukawa trees, zinc, pipis, Skellerup foamies and the associated nipple rash, and Christmas at a family bach gorging on ham and pav,” Levers recalls. “To me, surfing is just the ultimate extension of that Kiwi beach culture. The beach is every Kiwi’s playground, however we choose to enjoy the strip between earth and ocean, I think it’s a place to be celebrated and appreciated.”

When shooting a beach, Levers strives to capture the elements that comprise the unique character of each individual shore. One of his favourite techniques for this is to make huge, wide panoramic images — either with his “ultimate beach camera”, a 617 panoramic film camera, or by stitching with his Canon 5D Mark III. But be it for a sprawling wide shot or up-close detail, the one thing Levers insists a beach photographer must first do is explore the area intimately.

“I walk the beach, get away from the car, the car park, think like a local, explore the beach like a kid … try to find the nooks and secluded parts that, hopefully, when a local sees the results they think, yeah, that’s my beach.
“Most of my popular images are a result of multiple failures and revisits, going back at different times of the day and year.”

The beach never calls more clearly than on a sunny day but, as photographers know well, the harsh light of summer doesn’t always make for great photos. Luckily Levers has a particularly enjoyable solution to the problem: “Shoot in the morning, surf during the day, shoot in the evening. It sounds like a pretty winning formula, huh?”

Craig Levers

He says at some stage he grew wary of the prevalence of sunrise and sunset images and experimented with shooting at different times of day, but to no avail. “The reality is, you need that big beauty dish in the sky to provide directional light so your subject matter has highlights and shadows. This creates a perception of volume, depth and shape.

“If you shoot with the sun straight overhead at midday, sure it’s going to look summery, but everything is lit up and flattened … go surfing, shoot later.”

Another of Levers’ specialties is getting in the water to capture majestic images of waves as they break. He tucks his gear safely in an underwater housing, one with access to the controls so he can still shoot in manual mode. When the light is at least semi-constant he goes by the ‘sunny 16 rule’ for exposure — set aperture at f/16 and shutter speed to the reciprocal of ISO (i.e. 1/100s for ISO 100).

“I love using the EF 15mm fisheye in the surf because my goal is to be placed in the most critical part of the breaking wave — I want to be in the tube looking out or emphasizing the wave’s lip pitching out. I’m trying to share a surfer’s perspective when we are either paddling out or up and riding in the barrel.”

If you’re considering taking the plunge into this sort of shooting, Levers reckons you’re best to try swimming with a GoPro (or similar camera) and good-quality surf fins to begin with. If that doesn’t float your boat then you’ll be glad to have avoided the hefty price tag of an underwater housing.

“If you get the bug, well, welcome to the salty-dog club.”

Outdoor greatness

Tessa Chrisp

Beyond breathtaking beaches, New Zealand abounds with other outdoor treasures that take on an irresistible draw when summertime blooms. Award-winning freelance photographer Tessa Chrisp knows this better than most, having thoroughly explored the countryside to capture areas of enthralling outdoor beauty for many of the country’s leading magazines.

Ironically, Chrisp’s talent for working with light was born from a previous occupation that kept her totally in the dark — developing other photographers’ work as a darkroom lab technician. A hand injury allowed her to emerge into the light of day and give consideration to a change in career.

“I had seen so many images through my enlarger, it was inspiring seeing all New Zealand’s leading commercial photographers’ work, and I knew I had to be on their side of the enlarger.”

Her editorial work has appeared in such publications as NZ Life & Leisure, NZ House and Garden, Next, North and South, and AA Directions, and she’s won many awards for her ability to capture the unique character of a location while on assignment. The affectionate, joyful images Chrisp produces are a direct reflection of the appreciation she has for a job that allows her to seek out and travel to such beautiful areas.

Tessa Chrisp

“I’ve always been humbled by some of the places I photograph, I’m genuinely happy to be documenting and thrive on the hunt for that shot when you are at your location. I guess I’m always looking for the beauty: maybe it’s the time cooped up in the dark that makes me search this out.”

The photographer says there is no simple formula to follow in searching for the splendour of an outdoor location — it’s a coalescence of light, a sense of space and place, and an ability to find the simplicity within a situation. It’s not the sort of thing that can be rushed, which is why shooting outdoors in the summertime can work to your advantage. “The good thing about summer, although it’s long days shooting, is that you do have a little more time.”

Chrisp says managing the time of a shoot properly will allow you to avoid the harshest sunlight and have a location’s finer aspects lit beautifully. Interpreting the light is where she finds her inspiration, with particular attention to the way it is cast on surfaces. But to truly capture the essence of a summer destination, it is important to avoid the lighting clichés.

Tessa Chrisp

“Light is the most magnificent thing. I always find it funny when people think I should be out there for a sunrise, but I’m more interested in what the sun is going to do just after.”

Along with vividly-captured character outdoor locations, Chrisp is also adept at shooting people within their surroundings, naturalistically interacting with and enjoying their environment. To create narrative-rich images like this, the photographer says both research and, depending on the situation, collaboration with your subjects is important.

“Sometimes I give direction, sometimes not. Often my best results are when it is all just happening with a tiny bit of direction.”

When the action you’re trying to capture happens to be of the more active variety, as the summertime has a way of inspiring, the key to getting the images you want is being prepared. Understand what’s likely to happen before you start to shoot and be sure to shoot double takes, or more, for safety, Chrisp advises.

As important as your technical preparedness is, there’s no substitute for truly connecting with a place in the moment — if you can’t do that the photographer warns you run the risk of creating images without romance. It comes down to being fully aware of your environment and staying alert.

“Really, as a photographer, hawk eyes are needed, and there is nothing more exciting than absolutely all the elements combusting in your vision all at once — it is a privilege when that occurs.”

Tell your tale

Stephen Robinson

It’s not difficult to be inspired by the deep-blue skies or vibrantly- blossoming flora of summer, but it pays to remember every other photographer is also being motivated by the exact same trappings — as they have been for countless summers before. If you want to avoid taking summer images that are simply regurgitated takes on well-worn summertime tropes, the best way is to use the camera to tell your own, unique story of summer.

It’s something Stephen Robinson has a lot of experience in, having produced an array of photography books across a wide range of subjects over his decades as a professional photographer. Many of these photography books have fixated on iconic elements of a Kiwi summer — baches, beaches, hidden holiday spots — and all have been the product of the photographer’s reverence for concept-driven storytelling.

For Robinson, the genesis of a good image happens before the camera is in hand: a photographer needs to be thoughtful and clear in intent. All the technical know-how in the world will not help improve an image that does not have a purpose. The underlying idea doesn’t have to be overly complex, and for many of his projects looking at iconic summer subjects Robinson’s drive was very simple: “I want to give you a sense that you’re there.”

Simplicity can be a virtue on a project, but it’s also important to operate within a creative framework to ensure you’re producing the images you require, rather than losing direction because your starting point was too vague. “I work on the concept, I visualize it and then I make it happen,” Robinson says, describing his own mental workflow.”It should have a beginning, a middle and an end.”

Stephen Robinson

Your story might be a straightforward documentation of a summer holiday, a fine place to start, but you can also work with non-literal ideas, giving you a chance to flex your cognitive muscles. As an example, in the book Rural Delivery, which combines imagery and poetry dedicated to New Zealand farms, Robinson began with an exploration of childhood memories.

“As a small kid I’d gone to a farm for the holidays, and I just wanted to expand on the idea of going back there … It was fantastic. I never went back to the actual farm I had been to, it had been sold. But I turned it into a fabulous story about going back to a farm.”

Whatever the story you decide to tell, the most important element is to slow down and properly consider your shots, advises the photographer. “Are you just viewing your environment through a thin sheet of glass and metal, or are you actually thinking about an image, as an actual photograph?

“I relate it to film shooting — always imagine the frame you have in your camera is the last frame you have. And never take more than three photographs, or you’re trying too hard.”

While he values the lessons learned during the film era, Robinson is also enthusiastic about the virtues of digital technology, which allows for a lot more flexibility and experimentation on a shoot — he particularly loves the way being able to change ISO is like “taking 20 different types of film in your backpack”.

His ultimate advice in creating your masterful story of summertime is simply not to get mired in the detail and trivia: “Keep it simple, take your camera, look through the camera, take a photo.”