Mark Roberts: Finding Inspiration in Landscape Photography

Sessøya

All images by Mark Roberts. Used with permission.

Photographer Mark Roberts is an English photographer based in Lapland–more precisely right on the arctic circle in Rovaniemi, Finland. Mark got into backpacking due to his love of the wilderness which eventually turned into the creation of his blog, Backpacking North. This is how he combined his love of photography with hiking.

His photography work and knowledge eventually turned into him leading photo tours–which is a big leap from his humble beginnings of working in the darkroom in high school.

Mark’s knowledge of shooting landscapes is incredible and helped him overall become a better photography by not really chasing the light, but making it work for him.

Mark tells us “If I sat around waiting for golden hour on a backpacking trip I wouldn’t get very far. It’s far more important to exercise your skills and take photographs at all times of the day, and more importantly in all conditions.”

Our interview with Mark is after the jump.

Phoblographer: What got you into photography?

Mark: I was lucky that in my high school there was one teacher who had set up a darkroom next to the chemistry lab. I think that was my first experience of processing 35mm myself, and the beginning of something more than a passing interest in photography. My first “real” camera was Olympus OM–30, but I soon sold that and moved on to a Nikon F801s, which I took to Romania when I worked there as a volunteer. That was when things started to get really serious. Romania had it’s own film production company — Azomures — and their black and white Azopan film was quite OK. Development chemicals were also readily available, and almost as cheap as beer (though not as tasty). I spent about three years there, eventually travelling all over the country shooting anything and everything. I had some really amazing experiences there, such as getting invited into a Tziganes wedding, and visiting the monastery where Vlad Tepes’ (a.k.a. Dracula) head is supposed to be buried. I think my photography really took off there, and when I returned to England I decided to study it at university.

Phoblographer: How did you first get into shooting landscapes?

Koivusaari, Rovaniemi, Lapland

Mark: My first subject was always the landscape, even as a teenager. I’ve always loved hiking and walking — I grew up in Dover, England, and walked a lot around the North Downs, and went off shooting around Kent.

But I have to say that studying almost killed off my landscape photography. My course was very theory-intensive, which I really enjoyed, but shooting beautiful landscapes didn’t really fit in anymore unless I could find a viable way to shoehorn in some socialist commentary!

The BA had a profound impact on my life as an artist and photographer. But when I finished the course and moved to Finland, I was pretty much photographically exhausted. I stopped carrying my camera around, and if I did see something I wanted to shoot, I found myself questioning the reasons why, and coming up short with any justifiable answers.

River and moutnain detail

More recently, with the arrival of super high quality digital cameras that far exceed the quality of 35mm film and the functionality of SLR cameras, I found that I wanted to start taking pictures again. So I decided to partially release myself from the self-criticism of critical theory and just go out and enjoy myself shooting a nice landscape photo. It’s a technique I like to think of as “shoot first, ask questions later”. I still have a separate, more focused art career (I make large scale moving image installations), but I allow myself the pleasure of enjoying photography for photography’s sake.

There is a challenge in finding a spectacular landscape or environment, and trying to capture something of it; an emotion, a mood, the drama, the scale. I like to try a represent the awe of being in wild places, so it helps that my other interest is long-distance hiking, which allows me to get to hard-to-reach places, and find some connection with nature on the way. I hope that that comes across in some way in the landscapes I shoot.

Phoblographer: Many folks often shoot during the golden hour and only then, but many of your images seem to be from other times of day. What tips do you have for shooting during these other times?

Mark: If I sat around waiting for golden hour on a backpacking trip I wouldn’t get very far. It’s far more important to exercise your skills and take photographs at all times of the day, and more importantly in all conditions. Certainly golden hour produces nice colors and beautiful light, but to only shoot during golden hour is an incredible waste of perfectly good light.

Mountain View with glacier

Out of necessity, on long trips I’ll be shooting all day. As I often have a tight schedule to complete the trip, hanging around waiting for perfect conditions would severely affect the timing of the rest of the trip, and potentially cause problems getting back to the trail head in time. So you really have to find ways to shoot at all times of the day and work with what you’ve got.

A lot of this comes down to pre-visualization, knowing the limitations of your equipment, and imagining what the final result of an image might be after post-processing. I know that my Nikon D800 has a wide dynamic range, so I can do a lot with the RAW files even in scenes of fairly high contrast. I’m also quite happy to lose shadow detail if exposing for the light will create a dramatic image.

There are lots of ways to shoot at different times of day. In the midday sun you might find a way of filtering the light through something else, or emphasizing the particular qualities of light. For example, try heading into a forest at midday. The leaves of the trees filter the sun and create a dappled light on the floor. Alternatively, shoot with the intention of converting to black and white. The harsh light and strong contrast of midday is perfect for dramatic skies in black and white photographs, and this can be emphasized more with a polarizing filter to really darken the blue sky.

If the sun is lower, say a couple of hours before golden hour, it still has a really nice quality. Below 45º or so you can use the surface of a lake (or a snow field) as a reflector to bounce sunlight upwards onto a subject. Where I live now, in Rovaniemi on the Arctic Circle in Lapland, even at midday in midsummer the sun’s elevation is only around 49º, so the light is never as high and harsh as it is in more southern latitudes. The shadows cast at this angle can be quite geometrically interesting, especially if architecture is featured.

Upper Rapadalen

But for the landscape photographer, bad weather is the best thing that can happen. If I’m on a backpacking trip in the wilderness, I’ll have my camera attached to my shoulder straps all day long, ready for action. The time of day is irrelevant, because at any moment the weather can change and add more drama to a scene. If it starts chucking it down with rain, I’ll be smiling because I know that I’ll get great dramatic clouds and a sense of distance when shooting rain falling in veils over the landscape. If it’s midday and the sun pokes through, that’s perfect — it’ll create a spotlight on the landscape, and further define the cloud outlines. Plus, the filtering effect of the rain will create a kind of liquid light that is very special. I’ll take that over golden hour any day.

Alternatively, on cloudy days, you get a tremendously diffused light. Clouds are basically enormous diffusers, eradicating most shadows. This can be used to create minimal compositions that accentuate barren landscapes, or highlight a splash of color which would be lost against a bright blue sky. Also, cloudy days are great for shooting details. On dull days I’ll often pay more attention to the ground; you can get nice, evenly lit shots of trees, undergrowth, or natural textures and patterns.

Rainbow in Sarek

In Lapland, because of high latitude, we get really long golden hours. In summer it lasts from around 10pm to 5am, and in winter from 9am until 3pm (before the sun disappears for a couple of weeks in December), so it’s not hard to find great light. When you combine that with the extreme cold of winter, you can get some really interesting atmospheric conditions that create a vivid and surreal light.

Phoblographer: How do you prepare for going out and shooting landscapes for a while? It’s surely a lot of leg work and if you’ve got a lot of gear on your back you’re bound to get tired.

Mark: If I’m heading out on a week-long hike into the wilderness, I carry the absolute minimum of gear. As a backpacker, I’ve adopted a technique called ultralight backpacking, which essentially means that my total pack weight, including food, would be about 10kg for a 4 or 5 day trip. There’s a lot of lightweight clothing and camping gear that really reduces what you need to carry on long treks without sacrificing safety of comfort.

Sarek Dreamscape

As a photographer, I find this approach has enormous benefits. If I were carrying a 30kg pack (which I often see other hikers carrying) I would probably think twice about adding another couple of kilograms of camera gear. But a lightweight pack means I’m happy to carry a decent DSLR and get exactly the shots I want, rather than risk compromise with a lesser camera. I know there are a lot of great mirrorless cameras out there, and smaller full-frame cameras like the Sony a7, but I know I won’t be disappointed with my D800.

As far as physical preparation is concerned, I walk a lot every day, run, cycle, and do shorter hikes regularly, and I find that is all that is needed to keep me trail fit for longer walks. I don’t have any rigorous training programs, but just keep in shape through regular daily activity.

Dark Glacier

Before each trip I carefully calculate how much energy my food will provide. You expend a lot more energy hiking throughout the day, so it’s important to make sure you consume more calories than you would normally. But you’d be surprised how far your legs will carry you, and when you’re out there in a beautiful landscape, the kilometers just fly by. I’ll usually cover around 27km in a day. It helps to think that with every meal you eat, your pack gets a little bit lighter. The biggest problem is usually blisters forming on the feet, so I always wear in shoes before a trip so I know if they are likely to cause any problems.

Winter brings a different set of challenges, but I rarely go on trips longer than a day or two when the temperature drops below –20ºC. The advantage of winter is the ability to pull all your equipment behind you in a pulk as you ski – and you need a lot of equipment if you plan on camping out in those conditions.

Phoblographer: How much of your time is spent scouting locations vs actually shooting?

The Path

Mark: It depends. For long backpacking trips, I might be aware of a particular location I want to visit from photographs I’ve seen online. But usually I’ll plan a route based on a topographic map. If I see lots of closely packed contour lines I’ll know there’s a rugged mountain or gorge that might be interesting, and you can get an idea of how the light will fall on it at any time of day from the map too. So that might be one way I’ll choose to take in a particular location.

For day-to-day, more general shooting, yes — I might scout a location that I see in passing, or have heard about, and then return at a specific time. I much prefer to come across things by accident though. Certainly in the wilderness you can never know exactly what you will find, and maps don’t usually help with the smaller details. Also, the weather will often determine the shot. I might have a plan to shoot a mountain only to find it shrouded in mist, in which case I’ll make the most of that, and maybe return on another trip.

On the whole, I’d say I scout far less than I shoot, as I like to react to the landscapes and conditions I encounter.

Phoblographer: When composing landscapes, what do you feel attracts you to one composition over another?

Mark: For me, it’s all about capturing the mood, or the feeling of being in a particular place at a particular time. If I’m being hammered by rain, I’d like to try and convey that feeling in an image. So the composition has to work for the emotion.

“Certainly golden hour produces nice colors and beautiful light, but to only shoot during golden hour is an incredible waste of perfectly good light.”

Classical composition strategies can be useful – leading lines, the rule of thirds, but there’s always a risk that using them results in a clichéd image. So as much as possible I try to look for unusual compositions. I like to use negative space and minimalism as a framing mechanism. Often there is just so much detail in a landscape it results in sensory overload. It helps to try to exclude some areas, or expose them in such a way that they frame something else.

Eye of Sarek

I’ll often zoom in on a specific area of interest just to exclude some of the less interesting or distracting details. It can create a more painterly effect that reduces the landscape to shapes and colors.

Lastly, I’ll often shoot in vertical orientation. This works very well for skies that transition through gradients from light to dark. It also helps to create an enhanced sense of vertical scale.

Phoblographer: Talk to us about the gear that you use.

Lapland

Mark: My primary camera is a Nikon D800, which I absolutely love. It requires a much more diligent shooting discipline, but the results are just spectacular. As I mentioned, for backpacking I try to take the minimum equipment I can get away with, so typically I will only take one lens on a long hike, and that’s the Nikkor 28–300mm f3.5—5.6. It’s not the most amazing lens in the Nikon FX lineup, but it’s a great all-rounder, and with care and a little post work, it produces excellent results. I don’t want to carry a bunch of lenses if I can carry one that performs well. There’s a B+W Polarizer attached to that most of the time, and I also carry a Formatt Hitech 9 stop ND filter should I want to make some long exposures.

Until recently, I just took a tiny Ultrapod II (I hesitate to call it a tripod), which just about manages the D800 and that lens. Most of the time I shoot handheld; the high ISO performance of the D800 makes that feasible, and over the years I’ve developed a steady hand. I’ve recently invested in a Gitzo GT1542T and ball head (they’re selling them cheap now that a new version is out), and that will be coming with me on future trips.Apart from a spare battery, lens pen, cable release, and waterproof Ortlieb V-Shot bag, that’s about it.

For other shooting on my photo workshops or when I travel by car, I have a couple of classic primes (85mm, 50mm), a Samyang 14mm (which I use primarily for northern lights photography), and a beautiful Zeiss 21mm Distagon, which is my all-time favorite lens.

Frosty Lapland

Back home it’s Lightroom for basic processing, Photoshop for and more advanced work like luminosity blending, and Nik Collection for some additional tweaking if necessary.

Phoblographer:  A lot of making a landscape photo pop has to do with the post-production. What do you feel makes for a great landscape photo?

Mark: I think it all starts with original scene. When you take the shot, you have to have some idea of what you want it to look like in the final rendering. What you want it to be at the end will have an effect on how you shoot the scene, so you can get the most out of post processing it.

I like to try and capture some aspect of mood or emotion in the images. That might be the feeling of being in a remote place on a really grim day, or the sense of awe I might feel in a particular location. When you’re out in the wilds, you connect with the landscape in a different way. You become subject to it’s wishes. You’re not really in control anymore, and you have to be prepared for the unexpected. I think the drama of imagery comes from communicating that aspect somehow, and if you can have a vision for how you want to do that when you press the shutter, it helps a lot when it comes to post processing.

I’m strongly opposed to over-processing and the creation of over-saturated, hyper-realistic images. There are aspects to HDR photography that can be useful, but in unrestrained hands it only results in photos that are somehow nightmarish and completely flat.

Misty Island

At the other end, I don’t feel there is any benefit to not processing, in some belief that you are maintaining the purity of a scene. It’s a photograph, not a pure rendering. So the best I can achieve is to re-create what it felt like to be there.

Phoblographer: You’ve got quite the portfolio. I have this theory that every photographer has to maintain the balance between craft and creativity–where creativity is the idea for a photo and craft is the actual means of going out there and creating it. What do you do to make sure that you always maintain the balance?

Ode to Ansel

Mark: I think they are intertwined and co-dependent (as is probably clear from my previous answers). You have to see a scene, and know how you can capture it to produce a desired result, and both craft and creativity are at work in that process. You use your skills and knowledge of cameras, light, software to create the images you want.

I would maybe add a third element: emotion. Craft and creativity have to work towards communicating something, and perhaps that something is the emotion or experience of being there. I often feel it’s important to take the time to be aware of being in a place too. Sometimes you have to stop and just be aware of your presence in the landscape; to feel the place, the moment. There are things the camera cannot capture, but if you can convey them through creativity then your images can be even more powerful and meaningful.

Wilderness view, Lapland

On Tverrfjellet

Backpacker in winter landscape

Cold River

The Midnight Sun

Midnight sun over Tromsø