I'm Alister Benn, ask me anything!

Hi NPN, I’m a full time landscape photographer and author living with my partner Ann Kristin on the far west coast of Scotland. I run workshops and write learning material focussed on the art of creativity. My passion lies in education and taking back landscape photography for what it’s good for - us and the environment.

For years I focussed on making technical and dramatic photographs of the lands ape, glorifying it and my own feelings of accomplishment. These days, I’m happier in a quiet wood, listening to the landscape and engaging with it in an expressive way.

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Any advice for a late blooming goof off who thinks he can get by just wandering around and making images of whatever just catches his eye. I try and philosophize or whatever about what I do and what it’s all about but it all comes back to what seems to be my main attribute, I seem to have a good sense of what looks right and enjoy trying to make an image that does things justice. My girlfriend says the question is how much head and how much heart?

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Hi Jeff, thanks for kicking this off. I’ve been super impressed with your images since we met this time last year. You’re someone who has totally embraced what I feel landscape photography can give us, which is an appreciation for nature, and an outlet for our inquisitive nurturing mind. I think this is one of those questions that comes up a lot: What’s it all about, what’s the meaning, what’s the story. If something comes to your mind in terms of a metaphor when you’re in the field, or in front of the computer, that may infuser itself into the image. But, if nothing comes to ind and you are content with “I like that” then I strongly believe that’s enough.

Sometime, It just is, is enough…

Happy times mate, carry on as you are, you’re doing it right…

I’ve had the fortune of visiting your beautiful country.

Is there a ‘best feature’ of the Scottish landscape, and how do you prepare to capture it?

Chris

Hi Chris, many thanks for the question. I’d say one of Scotland’s best attributes is its changeable weather. A strong influence from the Atlantic brings in fronts of weather systems. I think that variability allows us to visit locations with an open mind, rather than expectations. The latter can put a downer on a great day. The former allows us to see and resonate with what’s there, rather than what we may have hoped for. In my experiences, surprises are far more rewarding than unrealised expectations.

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Hey brother! I often find myself in a deep creative rut like today. What do you recommend to snap out of these states of mind?

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Hello Alister, thanks for taking time for the AMA. I have enjoyed your work for some time. On a recent interview or vlog (sorry I can’t remember where, so I couldn’t go back to refresh my memory, so hopefully not too far off target), you compared the act of photographing the landscape to note taking or sketching, which you then take back into the studio for final image making. I thought this was a unique point of view. Can you expand on that concept a bit?

Hi man, good to hear from you. Honestly, we talk about creativity as if it’s some rare and precious thing, illusive and to be strived for. I think we’re approaching it from the wrong angle, putting the act of creativity on the pedestal rather than life experiences, growth and development of ourselves as humans. Stripping our lives down to their essence, being thankful for the joy and love in our lives and still having natural wild places to treasure and explore. Our growth comes from our relationship with that landscape and our realisations of responsibility and a natural engagement and fascination with it. Creativity is a by-product of life and I think it eludes us when we lose sight of that fact.

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Hi Randy, well, firstly thank you very much for the kind words. for a long time now I’ve been concerned that we approach our landscape photography today in the same way we have done for a few decades. Colour slide film was the era of “get it right in camera” - That was our time to nail everything, as we had zero influence on processing. Today, a RAW file is nothing more than data. If it’s exposed well for good data, then it is not aesthetic in terms of its expressive possibility.

I do believe we make images in front of the computer, as that is the time we can have the greatest aesthetic impact, introducing feel, three dimensionality, textures and transitions between the relative elements.

I feel many people go into the field with necessary expectations up on the conditions and themselves. I can attest to that, having driven out before dawn innumerable times saying “I’m going to make some awesome photos today!”

Now, I go into the field to be there, truly be there. I rarely go to with a plan, and I am totally open to whatever catches my interest at the time, which is most often something unexpected. By removing all notion of making photographs, I’m free to sketch, or make notes as I see fit. I can get lost in puddle reflections, and that’s just great…

The analogy I used was also this. If a group go to a beach and instead of cameras they have note pads, if we all make notes of things that interest us, then who’s notes are best? The experienced note-taker, the person who has been to that beach before? No, each note is valid, as is the opinion of the note-taker. It’s super liberating and allows us to enjoy time in the field without judgement and expectation.

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A common question in wildlife photography is, “what’s at the top of your bucket/wish list?” Usually that’s referring to a species we haven’t seen or a place we haven’t explored.

Do you have a place or subject at the top of your own wish list that you haven’t had a chance to photograph?

Max

That’s a super question. I’m no stranger to the concept of bucket lists, I’ve been a birder since I was about 3 years old, and for years kept lists of birds seen locally and eventually internationally. When I got back into photography it was bird photography that appealed and I travelled a lot to get images of certain species.

When I got more seriously into landscapes, I did the same, US, Canada, Australia, Tibet, Iceland etc. I’ve been hugely fortunate and have travelled and photographed many amazing places, but now don’t feel the same way as I once did.

For me now, I realise that a lot of my bucket list travel was feeding my inner desire; seeking adventure, risk and reward. Today we went a walk into a local Oak wood near our home and I was intrigued by the moss covered limbs, green and lush even in the dead of winter. It rained and there was a rainbow. We were joyful and I didn’t carry a camera. But the experience has shaped me, and has fuelled seeds of creativity.

Are there places I’d like to experience either for the first time, or again, definitely. The south west of the US, the Australian outback, the Sahara. But there is no desire, no longing, no sense of collecting images, I want to feel that emotional connection when I see a new landscape, marvel at the geology, flora and fauna. I want to live, photography and creativity is a by-product.

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Hi Alister, I have been fortunate in recently doing one of your workshops, which I have to say was fantastic for many reasons, and I thoroughly enjoyed your approach to photography and life. One thing which I am sure many of us have noticed in recent years is photography, in incredibly simplistic terms, dividing into two groups. Those who love the natural world and use photography as a way of showing its beauty and those who just want personal Instagram fame and don’t care about the environment. We have seen places trashed by thoughtless photographers and all heard horror stories about rare wild flower meadows being destroyed, lavender fields trampled, wildlife frightened away etc. So my question is how do we show the beauty of our environment whilst protecting it at the same time?

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Hey @Alister_Benn.
First thanks for the AMA.
@Matt_Payne already touched the creative rutt question, and i think a solution could be create a long term (1year long p.e.) project. Do you have any advice for coming up with such project?
Thanks, cheers.

Hi Alister, always a delight to hear your musings! This is pretty open-ended, but I’d be very interested in hearing any thoughts you have on using nature and landscape photography to express dark emotions. (See the recent NPN article by Antonio Aleo.) I’m especially interested in the thought process in the field, rather than on the computer. How do you think about the full range of expressive possibilities in a landscape beyond “wow” and “beautiful”?

Hi Alister!

As you are someone who has traveled frequently I’m curious how your creative approach differs from a location that you’ve visited many times versus a location you’re visiting for the first time?

Hi Alister! Great fan of your type of not-overly-in-your-face photography.
Lately there has been a shift for me from shooting outdoors activities to more and more shooting landscapes (wilderness), which I enjoy way more. I’ve found the transition quite hard however, because I often struggle finding focal points or compositions that are interesting enough without the help of human elements.
I don’t personally know anyone who does landscape photography so I don’t have super much opportunity to discuss the topic offline. I would however love some input from someone as yourself, who makes a living and has heaps more experience in this field!

Below is a link to three images that I currently think are some of my strongest photos.
I would love if you could take a look and perhaps share some thoughts on where there is room for improvement. Please don’t hold back, I think unfiltered criticism is the best way of getting an idea across!

Thanks for taking your time!

Hi Alister! You mentioned that you now prefer to engage with the landscape in an expressive way, and you’ve named your new company Expressive Photography. How would you define engaging in an expressive way, or making an expressive photograph? Is it purely whether you feel that the image expresses something within you as its creator, or could it be defined as something perceived as expressive by the beholder? I ask because I know some viewers may personally feel more moved by the dramatic style you employed before your transition to quieter/expressive imagery.

PS: I’m very much looking forward to diving into these ideas on our Scotland workshop!

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Hi Alister! Thank you so much for answering our questions.

In anticipation of this event I’ve spent some time getting to know you and your work through your website and YouTube videos. What I’ve learned is that you focus on what is important to me: the creative process and how to realize one’s vision. I’ve become a huge fan in a short time!

In your video on creativity you define creativity as, “Noticing what you connect with and feeling it,” which I can really appreciate. This definition takes external experiences and processes them internally as emotions to express through the art of image-making. Thought of this way its a way to elevate photography as an art of emotion. Many of us strive for such an outlet. It could also be a catalyst to press through creative blocks through the act of feeling.

I’m curious how you developed this definition and how you would describe your own creative journey as a photographer before and since you defined creativity this way.

Hi Alister - Thanks so much for sharing your knowledge with the NPN community. I have really appreciated all of your positive contributions to the field of nature photography and am glad to see you here participating in this community.

In your intro to this AMA, you mentioned that a lot of your teaching and writing focuses on creativity. “Creativity” can be such an elusive and slippery idea with so many ways to approach the concept (an example: I recently heard someone say definitively that shallow depth of field is a way of making more creative photos; to me, that seems like more of a technique rather than a path to creative enlightenment and is thus an example of how the term gets diluted and sometimes feels meaningless). In your photography practice, what does it mean to be a creative photographer or to express your creativity through photography?

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