Having shot boats for over 16 years in Europe and heavily in Australia, the question I am asked the most is, ‘What is the hardest part of your job?’
I still wonder why people don’t take me seriously when I tell them “keeping my cameras dry” It may seem as a simple answer but for anyone who has taken a camera out in the rain, or let alone on a boat when the sea is rough, they will know what I mean.
Then you don’t want to get sea sick, you have to be able to stand on a boat rocking around while holding your camera with both hands hoping that your ‘sea legs’ can do the rest. You then have to download images in a rush for deadlines, have a shower, get changed in under five minutes and rush out to shoot a function or dinner, go back to the hotel and download till late at night, get some sleep and then up again at sunrise for some pretty pictures the next day. Oh and while you are at it you have to deal with bad weather, no wind, too much wind, cloud, rain, bad chase boat, bad driver, camera breaking, laptop shutting down, boat running out of fuel while a fleet of 65ft boats under spinnaker are coming towards you, etc.... What else can go wrong? Regardless of the problems that arise, there is always something, what I have chosen to do without doubt beats sitting at a desk enveloped in neon light and air conditioning any day!
As a photographer the saying: “you are only as good as your last picture” has some truth in it. Over time you build a reputation, a portfolio and hopefully a name. In the meantime the passion for what you do has to build and you have to deal with many unknowns.
When my passion became photography I can remember seeing images of Sebastiao Salgado and James Nachtwey as a kid, who are still to this day my ‘heros’ and wondering how in the world could someone take pictures like that. Bear in mind that at the time I had no knowledge of photography and I think I had only seen my dad’s camera. Yet there was something about photography that attracted me. Maybe it was also because I could not draw well so I thought that taking a picture would be the solution to express what I felt or saw.
When I was 16 my mother asked if I wanted a camera for my birthday. I clearly remember saying: what for? I guess she has already seen or understood that something was developing in my head. At the age of 19 I bought my first Canon EOS 1000. The most basic film camera I could afford.
I would shoot anything and take my camera with me on holidays like everyone does and read magazines trying to learn new things – no internet in those days!
Then one day a cousin of mine asked me to go sailing with him as they needed extra weight.... I set foot on his 470 Olympic class, slipped and landed in the water. He looked at me, shook his head, helped me out and left me on the dock. Good thing it was summer time and luckily my camera bag was safe. I shot some random images of the regatta while the boats passed by and at the end a lady came to me asking if I took pictures of her son sailing. I quickly had the film processed in a one hour lab to see what I had and sold my first two prints on the spot. She paid me enough to cover the cost of the film and processing. The rest is history.
Now, nearly two decades have gone past and I have shot everything from dinghies to super yachts. If it floats there is a good chance I took a picture of it. Even though I don’t know how to sail – and have no intention to learn – I love sailing and boats. The way they look, the way the water moves, the reflections, the locations, etc... It is simply stunning and never the same regardless of how many times you take the same picture.
When it comes to cameras the choice is wide these days. For sailing I have always shot with Canon EOS. From the basic film model when I first started to the high end EOS 1D X or 5DSr digital cameras we can find these days. The array of lenses I have access to go from 14mm to 500mm and everything in between depending on what I am shooting.
For my personal work I still use film – remember that thing? Black and White film only. Leica M and R systems (35mm format), Mamiya 7 (medium format camera), Hasselblad Xpan and Toyo 4 x 5 large format. They all have a different usage and I therefore justify the purchase of them as I am always in denial when someone asks me: do you collect cameras? Well.... Ok, yes I do, knowing very well that no camera ever took a good picture, but the person behind it does. It is a personal thing. I don’t smoke and don’t drink coffee – and yes I am Italian, therefore I can buy cameras. It is a healthy hobby. My daughter (five years old) is the only one who shakes her head when I sometimes take pictures of her on film and she asks to see the back of my camera to approve the image only to notice there is no screen... “daddy that is not a real camera” (oh yes it is dear, yes it is!). Film is not dead, but in the professional event world it has lost its place on the market.
The second most popular question I get when doing presentations is: ‘what makes a successful picture?’ Well this is a very personal question as my answer will probably be different to what the general public would say when viewing my portfolio. When taking a picture it is often hard to be emotionally detached from the image. I remember how hard it was to get a shot, what the conditions were like, etc.... But the viewer has no idea of what happened behind the lens before the ‘click’ happened.
Sometimes I leave my home or hotel room with an idea in mind, knowing very well that if the weather conditions don’t allow the shot to happen I have to look for something else. In my opinion anyone can take a good action shot when there is wind and rough seas. Those days where everywhere you point your camera something is happening are great days and it gets your adrenaline going, but it is not always like that. Actually it is rarely like that. I have covered events lasting seven days and only had maximum ‘gusts’ of 10 knots all week....challenging to say the least. But the client wants and needs pictures regardless of what the weather conditions are so you have to deliver. Early morning dockside is a good place to start before everyone is up and about. Reflections, geometry, nice low light...are all key ingredients to a successful image. I once remember being on the phone with someone and saw a reflection in the water. I lifted my camera and took a couple of frames. I was soon busted as the person on the other side of the line said: I will continue talking when you finished shooting... In the end a successful image is one which you look at over and over and continue to discover new elements to it, or a picture which after a month you look back at it and say: Wow I took that?
When shooting you go through different phases and your style changes as you grow in experience. Now, for example, when it comes to sailing, I am into looking for images which are almost abstract or not that obvious causing people have to stop and look at the image to understand what is happening. It is a bit of a gamble as many things are out of your control and you just have to be on your toes at all times. I once set up a shoot from the stern of a boat at sunset and I was waiting for the perfect light combination between the sun and lights onboard. The client was standing right next to me asking what I was waiting for...I had to block out his voice and concentrate on what I was doing. It was worth the wait. A classic picture with pretty colours that in the end was the money shot for them.
Another important element of sailing is the crew. Without them the boats just float. Some crew action shots or posed pictures are also important to give a human element to the sport. Then other times you just try new things. Filters, slow shutter speeds or using a really shallow depth of field, but it should all done in camera, not in Photoshop !!!!
Which now brings the question, a question which has the whole photographic world in turmoil regardless of what you shoot... Should you ‘Photoshop’ your pictures? Personally I am old fashioned when it comes to editing my images. First of all I am a firm believer that if you have a nice image you don’t need to do anything to it. The new technologies that Photoshop offer us often distract from the image itself. If you cannot compose an image properly no Photoshop skills will help.
So to keep it simple, my answer is: if you cannot do it in the darkroom (the old fashioned way) then you don’t do it in Photoshop. But I have noticed that when I give this answer many people have a blank glaze over their face and have no idea of what I am talking about. Darkroom? Why do you work with the lights off?
Oh dear people....photography did exist before digital cameras !!!!
You sharpen an image, get the white balance right, crop if needed, adjust the levels (or curves) and that should be all you need to do on a picture. If you start using HDR or are making the colours look ‘fake’ then I think the image is not worth keeping. I know I will get hard reactions from these comments but this is my personal point of view. Photoshop has its place and it should be embraced because it is a part of the progress and evolution of our job but there is a place and time for everything. It is a question of style and taste. For me, I think the use of Photoshop should be limited.
What else does a photographer do in his spare time? Well I shoot my personal projects (all on B&W film), do corporate jobs, portraits, events and travel to take pictures for pleasure.
Travels have taken me around the world and sometimes to very remote places. In 2008 I went to Pakistan for the first time to shoot a three day polo festival in the northern part of the county. A beautiful trip and an adventure that opened for me a new positive view on the country, a country that is always in the news for the wrong reasons. I returned again in 2009 for a commissioned job and then in 2010 I established 'My First School Pty Ltd', (www.my-first-school.org) an Australian charity which promotes education in the area of Gilgit-Baltistan (northern Pakistan). My yearly trips since then have allowed me to return with funds raised in Australia, and from overseas, with which I can buy much needed goods to improve learning conditions and through a sponsorship program get young poor children into school. The aim is mainly to help young girls get into school. I use my photography to promote this project and raise funds when selling prints, books and doing exhibitions.
It if far from my comfort near the ocean but keeps me grounded and allows me to do something very different, photographically speaking, and give a hand to those who need it.