Chris Swan talks to Stuart Low
SL: Congratulations Chris. How does it feel to be the runner up in the first ever Scottish Landscape Photographer of the Year?
CS: It feels brilliant, a real honour. Especially now that I’ve seen the quality of the other images in the book!
SL: Tell us a wee bit about your background and when you first start taking photography seriously.
CS: I was born in Edinburgh and moved to England when I was very young. We always came up to Scotland and the Highlands for holidays and something about the landscape always captivated me. I can vividly remember craning my neck to look out of the window at the mountains as we passed through places like Glencoe and poring over maps, fascinated by the gaelic names of the peaks and glens. It was this love of the highlands that led me to spending more time amongst the hills when I returned to Scotland to study Landscape Architecture at Edinburgh College of Art and soon photography became a key part of the time I the spent in the highlands.
SL: Has your photography been influenced by any particular photographer or artist?
CS: I’d always been interested in photography and my Dad taught me a lot, not just the basics of using a camera (which was film back then – so a steep learning curve!) but more importantly about studying the play of light on the land and the principles behind forming interesting compositions. Another photographer who has influenced my work is my dads best friend Andy Hall. Andy produces wonderful images of Scotland and has made a number of really great photobooks. I have been lucky enough to go on a few trips with him where he has shared his insights into photography with me. Iain Sarjeant is another photographer who I really admire. Not only his images of the highlands which are stunning but especially his Out of the Ordinary series which focuses on the hinterlands of Scotland’s towns and cities, highlighting the beauty in what could be seen as a mundane places. He regularly posts these on twitter and I’m always excited to see what he’s come up with. I’ve found Flickr and Twitter to be great for inspiration – it’s a nice community of folk in the landscape photography world – everyone is very supportive and there is some real talent out there.
SL: Lets talk more about your competition images. What’s the story behind them?
A Glencoe Morning
This image was one of those spur of the moment things. I’d say my images are split 50/50 between planned compositions, which are made at a specific time to catch the right light and mad dashes to capture fleeting light as the sun darts out from behind the clouds. This was one of the mad dashes! After a dreich weekend in Bridge of Orchy, my partner and I were traveling home via Glencoe. As we drove through the glen, the clouds began to break up and the early morning sunlight streamed along the flanks of the Aonach Eagach reflecting in the still water of Loch Achtriochtan. I’d been to this location many times before and therefore knew the composition I wanted to make, so it was just a case of setting up the tripod and getting the shot before the light faded.
From Umber to Amber
I came upon this woodland whilst roaming around near the David Marshall Lodge near Aberfoyle. I hadn’t been before, and had no preconceived ideas for shots. Sometimes those days can be frustrating when nothing jumps out as an interesting photo, and it was looking like one of those days. However, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s better not to feel pressurised to come back with a great image from every trip, it’s far better to just relax and absorb the landscape rather than desperately rushing around trying to find a shot. However, this day didn’t look like it had much going for it – there hadn’t been an interesting sunrise and the light was flat. On days like this you can turn the conditions to your advantage though- if the day is overcast like in this shot, the diffused light helps to saturate the colours. The deeper I went into the woods, the more interesting they became and in this image I was struck by the contrasts in form between the straight larches and pines and the gnarled beech tree. The hint of a path through the trees added a touch of mystery to the scene.
This is an example of a pre-planned shot – I had visited this location at Loch Tulla a number of times but the light was never quite right. On this day however, the combination of low sun, fresh snowfall on the hills and the clouds scudding across the sky created the exact view which I had envisioned. It was an amazing experience, as I stood by my tripod watching the light change, a herd of deer trotted along the road behind me. This was one of those times which I will always remember, and is a case in point for slowing down and absorbing the place rather than firing off a shot and zooming off to the next location. Always wait – the light may get even better, and if you are still and silent the wildlife will come to you!
SL: When you’re out shooting, do you know when you’ve captured a great shot?
CS: That’s a tricky one! Yes and no..I tend to get a bit overexcited when looking at the LCD screen on the back of a camera and think it’s a cracker. I find it’s good to leave the processing for a few days to put a bit of distance between your immediate emotions and a more critical analysis.
SL: Tell us a little about your cameras and lenses. Why did you choose them and do they influence how you work in any way?
CS: I’ve recently moved from a Canon 5d to the Fuji X System. It was a tricky decision as I’ve always used Canon cameras and have never had a problem with the image quality. However the weight of the whole kit was putting me off taking my camera with me all the time, also the price of the top quality Canon zooms was out of my price range as well! I had heard a lot about the Fuji system and took the plunge last year, selling my Canon gear. I now use the Fuji X-T1 with the 18-55mm and 55-200mm zoom lenses and the 35mm prime. I’m really happy with them, Fuji make really sharp lenses and the smaller form factor is quite liberating. The image quality is excellent and after a few initial problems finding my way around a new menu system I’m really pleased with the new set up.
SL: Do you use any post processing in your work and if so can you tell us about your workflow?
CS: I’ve always used Apple’s Aperture 3 software and I’m annoyed they’ve stopped updating it because like all Apple software it’s very simple to use. I don’t tend to do that much processing, it’s normally just a case of cropping, removing dust spots, adjusting contrast and sharpening.
Do you have any personal favourite photographs of your own and can you tell us more about them.
CS: The first image I’ve chosen is one of my earliest photos, when I was first really getting back into photography. It’s from one of my favorite places in Scotland – Harris. We were camping at Horgabost, which has an amazing campsite in amongst the dunes behind the white sandy beach. The views are breathtaking from here, turquoise blue waters lead the eye across to Taransay and the North Harris hills. This shot was made on our last night at the site and was one of the most breathtaking sunsets I’ve ever seen.
The second image I’ve chosen is of The Black Mount – a much photographed location but one which I still return to – there are always new angles, changing light and different conditions. When I arrived on this day the mountains were barely visible, cloaked in snow clouds. I got set up and waited for sunrise, hunkered down in my jacket with a plastic bag over my camera as the next snow storm poured in from the west. It began to pass and as it did so the dawn light began to glow pink and the raggedy edges of the clouds turned to shades of blue and mauve. It felt great to be there seeing this and I was grateful that luck was on my side. If the snow hadn’t cleared exactly when it did, I wouldn’t have seen a thing. It’s these fleeting, transient moments which makes landscape photography so special. It’s about unique experiences like this. I sat there for a while, long after I’d made this image.
The third image I’ve chosen is called ‘Mimic’ and was made in the car park of the Co-Op Supermarket in Broadford, Skye. A car park might seem an odd choice of location for a landscape photographer, especially one in Skye where the landscape is a photographers playground! But sometimes scenes just appear, and I really enjoyed making this image. The way the line of the mountain behind flows seamlessly into the building roof jumped out at me like an optical illusion! I mentioned the photographer Iain Sarjeant earlier, this is an image which has been influenced by his work.
SL: Do you have any new projects on the horizon? Have you set yourself any new goals and where do you see your photography going in the next year or two?
CS: I’ve been working on a project for a few years now, and I’ve not shared it publicly until now! It’s a photographic companion to the story ‘Kidnapped’ by Robert Louis Stevenson which is a childhood favorite of mine. It’s a brilliant story and takes in a wide variety of Scottish landscapes from the lowlands, to Mull, and through the southern highlands. I’m currently about 70% through the project, but I’m not in any rush to complete it, it’s one to work on for a while and get just right. Hopefully the final output will be a photobook and an exhibition. Other than the Kidnapped project, I’m going to Lewis in May and have a few images in mind for that trip and of course getting my images ready for the next Scottish Landscape Photographer of The Year competition!
SL: Lastly, are there any specific tips or techniques you can share with our readers?
I’d say the key thing I’ve learned is when you get to a location where you are planning to make an image is to leave the camera in the bag for a while. Just stop, relax, absorb the landscape and think about what it is that makes this landscape special. Don’t rush to photograph the whole scene – look at the view and decide what you can leave out.