Can you tell us how you started your photographic journey?
Like most people I took endless snaps of my children as they were growing up, but in 2001 we moved, along with the children and the cat, to Florida, and that was where the journey began. A couple of years before we moved back to the UK a family of green iguanas took up residence in one of our trees; I bought a Canon Powershot and became obsessed. I also began to visit the local nature reserves which were full of birds - this was where I realised how hard I would have to work to become a proficient photographer.
What does photography mean to you?
I wish that I could draw and paint - but I cannot. I'm the world's worst, and my art teacher quickly gave up on me. But then I realised that by looking through the viewfinder of a camera I could express my love of the natural world with imagination and creativity. This medium of expression feels as natural to me as breathing, but results do not come easily, which makes it all the more thrilling when I realise that the story that I am trying to tell has come to life.
Who or what inspires you the most?
My late aunt was a highly gifted artist and naturalist. I have often felt her on my shoulder, gently urging me to shine a light on the beauty of the natural world, something that she was unable to do because of a lifetime of mental illness.
When I was starting out Leigh Preston FRPS was an incredibly valuable mentor to me, as were Alfred and Fabiola Forns, both distinguished Miami based bird photographers. All three saw something in me very early on when I was so lacking in confidence, and all three encouraged me to follow my own voice. Arthur Morris rolled his eyes at me when I turned up at one of his workshops as a complete rookie, but then showed me what it took in terms of commitment and sheer hard work to be a successful photographer.
The work of Chris Friel was a lightbulb moment for me, and it certainly took my photography in a direction that I could never have imagined. Because of my interest in his work I was lucky enough to spend time with both Doug Chinnery and Valda Bailey.
‘Lys’ by Sandra Bartocha and Werner Bollman, ‘White Nature’ by Vincent Munier, ‘Flower’ by Christopher Beane, Michael Kenna’s ‘Japan’, JMW Turner, Rothko…so many artists…also Luis Barragan and Tricia Guild, as from them I have learned about colour and proportion.
All types of dance and music, but especially the work of Debussy for its quality of suggestion and mystery and that sense of something fleeting. Also the mystic minimalism of Arvo Part and John Tavener. Here I feel a purity of expression and a joyousness. No experience is wasted.
What is your favourite subject to photograph?
I'd have to say that birds probably top the list, particularly sea birds, for their grace, elegance and the magic and mystery of their lives. Who can fail to be intrigued and thrilled by the idea of a life spent gliding the thermals and the ocean currents? I always relish photographing the sea in all its power and glory. I love to photograph flowers too and my images tap into Orkney’s rich folklore and tales of the faerie realm - it is not hard to believe in enchantment once you have experienced the sea haar, or summer fog, rolling towards the land as if pushed by unseen supernatural forces. In lockdown I have finally started experimenting with multiple exposure images again as well. I'm wondering where my subconscious will lead me with this project...
What do you consider your first successful project?
I was encouraged early on the join the Royal Photographic Society and to work through their distinction levels. I gained my LRPS in 2009 and was thrilled. Having to put together a panel of images that was also well-printed and presented was a big challenge for me and it really helped me to raise my game. I felt that it was a springboard for self-improvement and the idea of a panel of images as a way to tell a story has stayed with me. I gained my ARPS a couple of years later and was awarded a Fellowship in Visual Art in 2012, something of which I am very proud.
I love your images of waves, can you tell us more about them? What techniques do you use?
The Orkney Islands lie off the north coast of Scotland where the Atlantic Ocean meets the North Sea, so it is a windy place and there are many opportunities to photograph big waves. Much of my wave photography is taken from nooks and crannies on the cliffs, and it is always a balance between wanting to take dramatic images and staying safe and dry. I have offered up a silent prayer on more than one occasion, realising that I had hunkered down just a little too close to the action, but to feel that absolute power at such close quarters is thrilling, awe inspiring, necessary and, yes, frightening.
I have favourite locations for specific wind direction, light and weather, and if conditions allow, I will use my 500mm lens, as I like to try and get right in to the belly of the wave for that totally immersive experience. If it is very windy, I use my 100-400 lens. The kit takes quite a pounding as there can be a lot of spray, and all my work is handheld as my secret places are quite unsuitable for tripods. I use a fast shutter speed and high ISO. I find that it is great training for your speed of reaction as you have to learn how to anticipate what each wave might do. There's usually a big delete pile...
What kind of tools do you use for post processing?
I use Adobe Bridge and Photoshop CS5. With the benefit of hindsight, I wish now that I had stuck with Elements. I shoot in raw and I use levels, curves, the dodge and burn tool, the crop tool and occasionally the clone tool. I do not use layers or masks, and I never sharpen anything. I would rather be outside than in front of a computer. Having said that I recently discovered the Snapseed app... hours of harmless fun!
Which is your favourite lens? Why?
I have a much-loved Canon 5D Mk 4 and my most-used lens is the Canon 100-400mm, which I use for most of my flower photography too. It is a truly versatile piece of kit. I also love my 500mm lens. I think that I need to feel a physical closeness to whatever I am photographing…I have never been very good at the bigger picture…hence the choice of longer lenses…I think!
Have you ever been heavily criticised? If so how did you deal with it?
On returning to the UK I joined my local camera club. Whilst I learned a great deal and received much encouragement from some quarters, I also received a lot of flak for daring to step outside the box. For some, a photograph needs to be sharp and predictable. I left the club after a while, intent on developing my own voice and surrounding myself with like-minded folk, even if this meant spending more time online.
What have been your biggest challenges and achievements?
I think that a big challenge for me was figuring out how to do justice to the beauty of Orkney. At first I was convinced that I would never take a decent picture here; we don’t have the dramatic scenery of places like Harris or the Scottish Highlands and I couldn’t figure out how I was going to interpret my feelings about my new island home. I spent the first six months gazing at the sky, hoping for a bolt of inspiration I think…but then I remembered that part of my reason for coming to a place like Orkney was to make a connection to the land, sea and wildlife through the forces that have helped to shape them, so not only the wild weather, but also the myths and magical creatures that are an integral part of the Orcadian story. The challenge continues.
Something very few people know about you?
I'm a keen swimmer...I've successfully completed two English Channel relays and last year I swam the length of Ullswater in the Lake District...7.2 miles, 13C water and no wetsuit! I train in the pool two or three times a week - although not during lockdown of course - and I sea swim several times a week, all year round - another wonderful way to connect to nature.
For more information please visit https:nickigwynnjones.zenfolio.com