Martin Bailey Interview

October 27th, 2009 by Chris Klapheke

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Martin Bailey is a British nature photographer living in Japan. If that doesn’t get you interested in this interview, nothing will! Martin is also a member of the Outdoor Photo Gear Review Board.  This article contains excerpts from Martin’s interview by Scott Bourne.

1 – Scott: Please tell me how and when you got into photography.

[Martin Bailey] My induction into photography was a long process. My earliest photographic experience was with a Polaroid camera that Dad bought when I was around 7 or 8 years old. It disappeared from our house pretty quickly though when he realized how expensive the film was. I played with my friend’s Dad’s camera sometimes, and he let me shoot the odd frame, which was a real kick. I then had a number of basically plastic toy cameras over the years, which I enjoyed shooting with, but we didn’t have a lot of money, and so the developing costs held me back a lot. In my teens I remember asking my Mum if I could paint our bathroom black and find some way of sealing up the windows when necessary so that I could make my own darkroom. You can imagine that this conversation didn’t progress very far.

I started to really become interested in photography in my early twenties, when I started to go hiking in the hills of Derbyshire and the Lake District in England, and shot a lot of landscape images. I had a car by this time, and was earning enough to have film developed, but I was still using a plastic pretty much disposable camera, that I just kept in my jacket pocket looking for the right moment.

Then I moved to Japan when I was twenty four. With the beautiful scenery and a whole new eye opening culture to shoot, I got my first SLR, a Canon EOS 630, and a few lenses. Knowing that I’d gotten interested in photography, my brother sent me books on photographic techniques and composition, that I devoured. I never asked why he’d been so perceptive to do that. He’s not a photographer himself, but I guess he liked the odd 5×7 I started sending back to the UK. I’m greatly indebted to him for this foresight.

2 – Scott: What is your favorite photographic location or subject?

[Martin Bailey] Hokkaido, the north island of Japan. I travel there at least once a year, sometimes more, to shoot the wildlife and landscapes of this majestic island. I’m doing my second Workshop there in February 2009. I’ll be taking photographer’s from around the world to Hokkaido for a photography workshop. This year the trip is going to be nine full days of wildlife and landscape photography in a winter wonderland.

3 – Scott: Can you recall the first photograph you made that caused you to think WOW – that’s a good shot and if so, what was it?

[Martin Bailey] This was a photo I shot on my way down from the summit of Mount Fuji. I had naively thought that the decent was going to be uneventful, and had exposed all but one frame of the film that I had with me, when I saw a couple of westerners hugging under a Torii, which is a
Shinto Gate, gazing from their vantage point out across a sea of clouds. I’d placed the sun behind one of the horizontal bars of the gate, and allowed the couple and other people in the foreground to fall into silhouette. I was just so pleased with the results, and with the fact that I had one frame
left to shoot this with.

4 – Scott: Do you have any formal training in photography or a related field and do you think that’s important for aspiring serious photographers?

[Martin Bailey] I don’t have any formal training, but that’s not to say that I don’t think it’s important. I think it depends on what type of person you are. Some people need to be taught formally to really get something, and others don’t. I consider myself to be one of the latter. I learn quickly, and I learn best by throwing myself into something. I never
do anything by halves. When I decide to do something, it gets all my attention. I have and still do spend a lot of time studying about the science and techniques of photography, as well as the art and aesthetics. I consider myself an expert in this field, as do many people that have listen to my Podcast or attend my workshops.

Distant Dance

5 – Scott: Are you more of a technical or an artistic photographer?

[Martin Bailey] I’d say both. Literally 50/50. I remain both left and right brained when shooting, and I think it shows in the technical accuracy and the artistic sensitivity of my work.

6 – Scott: Which photographers if any influenced your work?

[Martin Bailey] I’m not conscious of having been influenced by anyone as such, but I look at a lot of photography. It’s one of my ways of staying connected. I imagine the work of these photographers has found its way subconsciously back into my work. The first photographer who’s photographs I remember being in awe of is Toshinobu Takeuchi, a Japanese Landscape photographer. I also had the pleasure of spending time with Hiroshi Yokoyama in Hokkaido, along with Yoshiaki Kobayashi, who’s workshops I have attended a number of times. Yokoyama-sensei’s photography has a sensitivity that I admire and he has such a wonderful personality.

I also totally admire Art Wolfe, not just his nature photography, but because he isn’t bound by any predefined photographic genres. Although predominantly known as a nature photographer, Art will turn his lens to anything that excites him, and this is how I think it should be. Art also of course is proof of the importance of travel. People will say that there are photographic opportunities everywhere, and there often are, to some extent, but you can’t shoot Japanese Red-Crowned Cranes in downtown Tokyo. You have to go where the subjects or scenes that you seek to photograph are, and I think Art helps people to understand that, at the same time as showing us stunning photography.

7 – Scott: What has been the most interesting or surprising thing to you about how people react to photography?

[Martin Bailey] Tears. When my wife sits with me and watches a slideshow of my images, on occasion she cries. She’s also my first and most honest critic, for which I’m very grateful, but at first I was very surprised by this reaction. I consider these tears to be the highest praise I receive for my work. There are few other art forms that can throw the viewer into an emotional state as quickly as photography. Maybe that’s because we shoot most often just a tiny slice of time. A fraction of a second. When the viewer gets it, they are thrown into an emotional state in just as short a
space of time. This is very powerful.

8 – Scott: How would you describe your style of photography?

[Martin Bailey] This is tough. I should have a quick snappy answer, but I don’t. I’ve started to be known as a “Master of Bokeh”. Very shallow depth of field is becoming my “signature style”. I use my lenses wide open or close to it for much of my work, because I love the dreamy feel and atmosphere that the out of focus areas add to my images. I am very conscious of where the blotches of colour or tonal contrast fall within my bokeh, and this shows in much of my work.

9 – Scott: How do you go about “seeing” a photograph?

[Martin Bailey] Once I’m where my intended subject matter is located, I do two things to “see” where the photographs are within the scene. First, I look for special light, illuminating something special. Filtered light pouring through the gaps in trees or falling on the scene at a certain angle. Diffused light from an overcast sky, or light from a clear sky in the
minutes after the sun has dropped behind mountains or some other obstacle, can be very special.

Once I have found the light, the second step is to frame a part of the scene. This of course means selecting a focal length that will crop, essentially editing out, anything that doesn’t add something to the image or even detracts from the main subject. I usually start by surveying the scene by eye, but then when I have an idea of how much or how little of the scene I want to include, I select a lens, and start to frame and compose the shot through the finder. I can be looking at a larger scene that doesn’t look that great, but trusting my eye I look through the viewfinder, and a whole new world just pops out at me, waiting to be photographed.

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10 – Scott: Of your many projects, which is your favorite and why?

[Martin Bailey] Wow! This is another tough one… I’d have to say that it is photographing the Red-Crowned Cranes in Hokkaido. The reason this is my favourite, is because it’s so damned hard to complete as a project. There are so many variables that prevent you from getting really good shots easily. The weather is the first. You need low temperatures for mist on the river, or frost on the trees. You need just the right temperature and angle of light to catch the breath of the birds bellowing out of their mouths. You can have the right conditions, but then when they do the dance and the honking, just as you are about to get the photo of your dreams, another crane walks in front of your lens and snatches the shot from you. I’ve travelled to the right place before dawn morning after morning, and I’ve stood out of the snow for days at a time, looking for the right conditions, and I’ve shot thousands of photographs of these beautiful birds, but still only have a handful that I’m really happy with. I think the project to get a lot of good quality images of these birds, enough to do a book say, is going to take me back to Hokkaido again and again, probably turning into a life work. That has to be a good thing.

11 – Scott: Is there any photographic discipline that you wish you knew more about?

[Martin Bailey] I would have loved to have done my own developing and printing in a dark room. I’m never going to get into that now, but I think that would have helped me in some way, even in the digital age. At the very least, I think it would have been a nice memory to get all nostalgic about.

12 – Scott: After all these years as a photographer/teacher and author, do you ever find it hard to remain passionate about your work?

[Martin Bailey] Nope. Being incredibly busy I sometimes find that my energy levels drop so low, that I can’t shoot as often as I’d like, but even when I’m not actively shooting, I am doing something photography related. My passion for photography remains at boiling point every waking minute.

13 – Scott: Everyone will ask me why I didn’t ask this question if I don’t – so here goes – What cameras/lenses do you use and why?

[Martin Bailey] My main camera is a Canon EOS 1Ds Mark III, and I have a 5D that I use as a second body when necessary, usually for wildlife work. As I like to shoot wide open with lots of bokeh, I’ve invested a lot in bright lenses, owning 10 primes and 3 zoom lenses. I have from 14mm to 300mm covered at F2.8 or wider, and a 600mm F4 for wildlife, though I have shot landscapes with the 600mm when the location requires.

I should mention too that I swear by Gitzo tripods and Really Right Stuff ball-heads. The Gitzo Carbon 6X range of tripods are amazingly sturdy and easy to use. The Really Right Stuff BH-55 is not only the best ball-head I’ve used to date, it is a beautiful piece of engineering.

14 – Scott: What’s the biggest mistake you made when you first started out as a photographer?

[Martin Bailey] For a number of years, I was very narrow minded when it came to retouching photos. I still spend a lot of time getting it right in camera. I find the right angle or lens to exclude distracting elements, and I will walk away from a scene that is filled with power lines, rather than remove it later in Photoshop. There are however times when the shot is too good to pass up, and could be great, if I just removed the odd annoying element. I passed up a lot of these over the years, and I wish I hadn’t. If you are making art, not straight documentary shots, then go for it. I don’t do this much, and I personally still never do composites, even just as art, but I learned to not get so hung up about removing the odd annoyance every once in a while if it can make an image better.

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15 – Would you like to give any final words of advice to photographers who want to improve their photography?

[Martin Bailey] Absolutely — here’re ten!
1. Get closer, it will improve 90% of your shots.
2. Use a tripod unless there’s a good reason not to.
3. Keep your eye on your bokeh. Just because it isn’t in focus it doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter.
4. Look for the right light and use it.
5. Travel. Very few people live in places where everything is on your doorstep.
6. Mega-pixels do count. It’s how the details are recorded.
7. Get up early. It’s beautiful just before dawn.
8. Don’t be a fair weather shooter. Overcast skies are big diffusers. Rain saturates colours as well as yourself. Harsh conditions make dramatic images.
9. Print your work as often and as big if possible. It not only feels great to hold a quality print, but it shows up flaws in your images that aren’t always obvious on screen.
10. It’s easy to find reasons not to do something, or for why something didn’t go as well as you’d hoped. At the end of the day though, it’s all down to you. You make your own success.

To find out more about Martin, visit his website: http://www.martinbaileyphotography.com/

For information on Martin’s workshops visit: http://www.mbpworkshops.com/

Martin is also on Twitter here: http://twitter.com/MartinBailey

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