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Hi! I’m Alex Nail, a self-titled mountain photographer who threw away a respectable engineering career to go hiking in the hills and take photographs – I’m still not sure my Dad approves! These days I think I’m probably known as one of those angry people who won’t stop complaining about image editing, but that’s only 90% of how I spend my time. For the other 10%, I run adventurous workshops backpacking in mountain areas, try my hand at vlogging on YouTube, assess distinctions at the Royal Photographic Society, assist with the Natural Landscape Photography Awards and battle with imposter syndrome.
I love photographing the Northwest Highlands of Scotland. I produced a book of the area and have another on the way. My home from home is the Drakensberg in South Africa, it’s a unique and wonderful place, though tinged with guilt now that climate change is here to stay. My favorite photographer is Joe Cornish, and much of my photographic understanding is indirectly derived through his work.
I’m a big proponent of grand landscapes (intimate photographers are weirdos, right?), and I’ve been hammering away at the same approach for more than a decade now in the hopes that, over time, that will matter to somebody somewhere! I’m pretty pragmatic: I cringe when people talk in flowery language, although sometimes wish I was one of those arty types all the same! I’m a big advocate of hard work and persistence, particularly in landscape photography (it’s part of the reason I hike and camp so much). Though I’m also an epic procrastinator who manages to find far too much time to play chess badly. I lack diplomacy, which gets me into trouble, but at least my ill-considered opinions are clear and ALWAYS correct.
Oh, and I love a bit of sarcasm to keep people guessing, even if it doesn’t translate well on a personal introduction for an AMA.
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Given all your experience photographing in the mountains what is your advice/experiences do you have about shooting in strong winds and what to focus on in those conditions (does it change what you shoot)? Do you focus on hand held or use the tripod close to the ground, etc?
Windy conditions are obviously something I encounter on a pretty regular basis and its certainly something you have to take account of!
One thing I try not to do is compromise my photography, if at all possible, but there are cases where the wind is so strong that can be almost unavoidable. Recently in the Drakensberg the wind was so wild that I actually found it difficult to even see what I was photographing as well as I would have liked - my eyes were streaming so badly, and sometimes in those cases I just try to make the best of it. But otherwise I will always try to keep my composition ‘as is’ even if it means the tripod is less stable.
Just occasionally I will shoot something in a different way to embrace the qualities the wind brings to a scene. So I like to experiment with shutter speeds to blur grasses/water/clouds ever so occasionally.
On the subject of techniques: We fortunately have a massive arsenal of options to deal with strong wind now. Assuming that you dont have an absolute tank of a tripod (probably your best defence!) and you can’t get out of the wind, then I do a combination of the following (in roughly this order).
Open the aperture as much as possible given the depth of field I require - Ie shoot at f6.7 not f11
Boost the ISO - I have no issues with ISO800 on my Canon R5 to be honest, but I will go to 400 immediately.
TURN ON all forms of image stabilisation. Even on a tripod I find this helps significantly for any sub 0.5 second exposures
Physically hold the tripod down
Shield the camera and the tripod from the wind. This sometimes means that I compose and then move around in front of the camera (but out of shot) to take the image.
Shoot on burst or shoot a lot of images/brackets. This really does make a huge difference. You only need 1 to be sharp!
Many of my favourite ‘grand landscape’ photographers have moved on to the greener pastures of more intimate styles, otherwise I might have said the likes of Tony Spencer or Arild Heitman. I think its hard to answer that question at all because I think relatively few people in the UK have dedicated themselves to these wider scenes in a way that I find exciting and too many have put me off with their editing approaches. So there are many whose work I really enjoy, but none that I would put on a pedestal I’m afraid. You are yourself producing some of the best Scottish work that I am aware of. James Roddie is also producing wonderful work.
Ok, here is one I can’t get an answer to. I was taught the color wheel was blue-orange, yellow-purple, greeen-red. Then I saw another color wheel that was blue-yellow, green-magenta, and red-cyan. Which is it? I asked a workshop teacher why she taught the first and not the second and she said beginners need to use the first??
I feel like I already know you pretty darn well since we literally met weekly for a year straight for NLPA, but I wanted to ask you some stuff anyways!
How did you become interested in photographing the Drakensburg and why have you decided to spend so much time there? It’s a long ways away from where you live (which is totally fine), so I’m sure it takes a lot to return. Why not go somewhere new instead? Lastly - and sorry I’m breaking the rules of NPN AMA by asking more than one question, but, what do you hope to do with your work from the Drakensburg?
I’d love to hear more about your thoughts on grand versus intimate landscapes. I still shoot both, but my work has trended decidedly more intimate in recent years, and it’s undeniable that that’s where many of the cool kids have gone. I feel like your work sometimes bridges the gap, bringing an intimacy to the grand scenes (though maybe that’s the moody Scottish weather at work). What keeps you dedicated and motivated for big scenic work, especially as you continue focusing on and deepening your portfolio of two particular regions?
Wow, thats a new question and something I’ve never thought too much about, but I do remember my Physics at school!
There are are two types of color wheels, additive color wheels and a subtractive color wheels.
The additive wheel is relevant to light and is named after the additive quality of light. The colors used are somewhat arbitrary since the electromagnetic spectrum is continuous, but monitors emit red, green and blue, so those are the commonly talked about ‘primaries’ with other colors made by combining these ‘lights’ in often counterintuitive ways. For example Red plus Green equals Yellow, the yellow being tonally brighter than either red or green.
The subtractive wheel refers to pigment. It is subtractive because the pigments absorb certain wavelengths of light and do not reflect them, therefore the light has been subtracted from the spectrum. This are the wheels that people generally have a better intuitive sense of, although again there is not ONE wheel. The two most common wheels use primaries of Red, Yellow and Blue or Cyan, Yellow and Magenta.
Although photographers are concerned with light (the thing that we capture) we are most interested in the subtractive color wheel based around Yellow, Red and Blue. It is this wheel which most ‘color theory’ refers to since this is the wheel painters work with.
I actually ended up going to the Drakensberg after cancelling my original plan to go to Baffin Island (Marc Adamus announced he was going there and I just didnt want to be seen to be following his lead, particularly given the expense and logistical issues!). So I made plans with Hougaard Malan to go hiking there after he had shown me a couple of his images. Ive done around 20 weeks of hiking there now, its an amazing place.
There are many reasons why I go back there, and to other places (like Iceland and NW Scotland) in preference to going somewhere new. I do take my role as an outdoor guide fairly seriously an an intimate knowledge of a place is certainly helpful for adapting tours to conditions. I’ve also become quite good at anticipating the light and weather which is again helpful from a workshop perspective. I’ve built many relationships there over the years and I am excellent friends with my local guide out there, Zee, and the team of porters who help on the workshops. I value loyalty very highly and I wouldnt drop those relationships unless I had to. My tours provide a huge proportion of their annual income (between 1/3rd and 1/2).
Lastly I really enjoy a completionist style approach to landscape photography in photographing areas really thoroughly and trying to represent them to the best of my ability. I think the only way I can really add something to this over photographed world (aside from a highly debatable ‘personal style’) is to be persistent in my approach to create bodies of work that would be disproportionately difficult to reproduce. In the Drakensberg only the late John Hone has a more extensive portfolio.
As to what I hope to do with the images…get well known enough that I can sell 1000 copies of a future book, the point at which it becomes commercially viable.
Thanks, I’ve never really thought of my work as bridging a gap between intimate and grand, but perhaps thats me trying to be a bit understated with the grandeur? I’m not sure!
To be honest I think in a world oversaturated by images its only natural that people will try to find an individual voice, particular if they identify as ‘artists’, and that means finding avenues that allow for more personal input. Intimate scenes definitely do allow that, though I have to be honest in saying that many of the images that are in vogue today seem to me to be ‘pretty patterns’ and whilst there is nothing wrong with that, I also don’t see it as a particularly personal direction. There are some photographers who take intimates in fascinating and beautiful directions, often entirely transforming the subject matter, and I have a lot of time for that approach. In fact its possibly my favourite style of imagery, I just don’t see it done brilliantly THAT often (David Ward is my no.1 in this area BTW!) and I feel like the patterns are dominating the genre right now.
But the reason that great intimates and great grand landscape are still a rare thing is the same…both are incredibly hard. Grand landscapes often because of the physical effort and problem solving involved in forming a truly outstanding composition (I’m not suggesting I do this either!) and intimate landscapes because of the creative leaps required to reimagine a subject and the same problem solving afterwards.
As for why I have persisted with Grand Scenics…partly I just don’t care if people think I am an individual or an artist. But I also think that the truly great photographers, and artists for that matter, persisted with their approach, often outlasting their contemporaries who ‘moved with the times’. I don’t know if this will work out in my case, but I think there is something to be said for stubborness! At the very least I enjoy what I do, and I find great value in the difficulty of what I do too, even if I’m not always successful!
I think that’s valid and, in all honesty, when it comes to bigger scenes away from roadside locations or more ‘local landscapes’, I don’t think you have a direct competitor - certainly in Scotland.
It’s not that others aren’t taking those kinds of photos (they clearly are), but no-one is doing it so comprehensively (outside of the guidebook market) and at the highest standard. I wonder if that says less about the ability of individual photographers in the UK and more about the time/ effort required to be prolific and original as a photographer specialising in mountain landscapes.
That brings me onto another question. What are your thoughts on originality in grand landscape photography? Is it inherently difficult to ‘make your mark’ in the grand landscape genre relative to other genres (as is often cited as the reason to moving to intimate landscapes)? And what value do you place on originality in terms of location/ composition/ etc? Does it matter or is it more about the being there?
Thanks Brian, thats kind, but certainly I put it down to hard work, time and to a certain extent affordability. If I hadn’t started running workshops/tours to do the photography I WANTED TO DO then the entire approach would be pretty unaffordable. Obviously there is a balancing act there that I sometimes can’t shoot my own images, but much of the time I can.
Originality is hard in any subgenre of photography I think. I think it’s easier to create the impression of individuality with abstract/intimate scenes, but I’m not sure how REAL that really is unless you really really work at it.
Certainly with grand landscapes the problem is that the landscape itself tends to do the talking and the photographer has to take a back seat. I’ve never really minded that, but I was also fortunate with timing - when I started this approach (a lot of hiking and camping) back in 2010 it was very unusual indeed, so I was notable, and so I never really had to worry about being relevant or having an identity because that part found me.
However, as you have already pointed out, there are relatively few people persistently building grand landscape portfolios, so anyone who did that, and did it well, would almost immediately ‘make their mark’ at least with me!
I definitely place some value on originality in the locations and compositions that I shoot, but in all cases someone will have been there with camera before me I imagine, I just try to avoid the REALLY popular stuff, largely because I can.
On the flipside I ran a workshop with Arild Heitman in Lofoten a few years ago and we went to all the popular spots with the group and chased the aurora. Honestly everyone was having a great time and (aside from the carbon side of things) I thought “there’s nothing wrong with this, this is great!”. So for many photographers I think its a question of motivation rather than what you SHOULD do. I think if you want to be seen as an individual artist its relatively important that you don’t go around ‘stamp collecting’ but otherwise photographers should just focus on enjoying themselves. There are far too many photographers taking themselves far too seriously…I should know, I’m one of them!
Hi Alex, thanks for hosting this AMA. I’m a fan of your work and your pursuit of adventure. I have been wanting to print my work at home for a few years now. I see printing as the completion of the image’s story if you will. How important do you consider printing one’s work and what qualities do you look for in an image to know that it will make a great print? Thanks!
Greetings Alex, thanks for taking the time to answer some questions. I am curious about your backpacking trips that you showcase on your YouTube channel. How do you prioritize your gear? Will you sacrifice certain lenses or heavy tripods in your pursuit to still stay somewhat lightweight? Also, how would you go about planning a backpacking trip?
Hi Alex. Thanks for taking the time to answer all these great questions. I’m a big fan of your work and really enjoy your videos on the YouTube channel. I would like to know how you handle high dynamic range scenes both in the field and in your post processing.
I guess whether printing is important is a very personal thing. I rarely printed for the first 10 years (only for exhibitions or when selling prints) but that changed when I brought my own printer and I started to get a lot of satisfaction from printing my own work. That said I can go months without printing anything for myself, and then print a whole load at once. I don’t necessarily see it as the end point in quite the same way as other people, I don’t shoot thinking “this is my next print” but I do almost always prefer a print over any other digital display method.
Unfortunately I’m a bit of a realist so when you ask “what qualities do I look for” I suppose the answer is: the qualities that will look good behind a potentially shiny piece of glass! For me that means an image that is relatively bright that does depend on shadows looking rich and contrasty. Astro images for example look pretty average in print if you ask me, particularly if there are any reflections involved!
The rest of my thoughts on prints are more related to size that an image is being printed at. There are definitely some images that look better smaller and some that really benefit from being printed 1m across.
For myself I mostly print for my own portfolios though. I’ve recently got involved in book binding and making clamshell boxes etc, so its been fun printing for those!
its pretty important to me to keep my camera gear down to the essentials. That’s partly a weight consideration, but its also a recognition of that fact that having more kit can actually just complicate things. I think its important that you have the focal length ranges that match your vision for a scene, but I have almost always worked with just two lenses. For a long time that was a 16-35 and 70-200, both f4, although recently I’ve switched to a 24-105 and 70-200 with the 16-35 still in my pack, but ultimately ending up as dead weight. I think I’ve quite enjoyed forcing my compositions into a 24mm frame and I havent missed the ultra ultra wide look (though I do wish a 21-70 existed!). I’ve found fairly little difference between my Gitzo 1 series and 2 series in terms of performance in wind, so I think you’d have to go way heavier to get a meaningful benefit, so that just isnt on the cards at all. I’m 35 now and if anything I need to lighten my kit further. At least advances in cameras are increasingly making tripods unnecessary and whilst I plan to always carry one, its nice to know that I dont need the heaviest tripod out there any more!.
As to your last question, could you be more specific please? That’s otherwise a pretty ambitious question to answer!
Hi Ted, no worries and very kind of you to say you like my work!
In the field I’ve been exposure bracketing since 2006 and I’ve never owned a grad. When I’m shooting into the light I will try to make sure there is no sunlight on the front element by blocking with my hand. If the sun is in the frame I usually take a bracket with the sun, and then one with my hand covering the sun to make sure I have a flare free image. Usually I bracket with just 3 shots with a 3 stop range (each shot is 1.5 stops brighter than the previous frame). I exposure based only on the darkest exposure to retain the highlights, but only just! The other two exposures are just…brighter.
Editing wise there are some examples on my YouTube channel, but in short I ‘Merge to HDR’ in Lightroom and do most of the heavy lifting with a combination of the Highlights and Shadows sliders, Sky selection (I can get up to half a stop back without it looking weird) and Gradients. I find this an incredibly fast process that almost always gives me the exact results I want. Its a far cry from when I started when I had to manually paint pixel perfect masks in Photoshop!