Antony Spencer: Making Landscape Photographs That Stand Out

All images by Antony Spencer. Used with permission.

“In a mad dash to outdo the rest of the photography world, it seems to me that landscape photographers are learning to do whatever it takes to an image to make theirs stand out in the quest for popularity, especially online.” says photographer Antony Spencer. So many of the images we see on a day to day basis are of the same locations over and over again.” When you look at his work, it’s easy to see how he’s doing a pretty good job of holding himself to that statement.

Antony started out taking pictures as just a hobby 10 years ago–combined with traveling and being self employed it eventually turned into more than that. These days he’s working with the likes of Phase One–which is part of his belief that good gear and a creative vision go hand in hand.

svolvaer fjord

Phoblographer: Talk to us about how you got into photography.

Antony: Photography for me began as a hobby in 2006. I bought a camera to take pictures of my children and it was only after I started reading the latest photography magazines that I found the landscape genre fascinating and I wanted to explore that avenue and see what I could do. I was self employed and was travelling the beautiful part of the country in which I live on a daily basis. I could take every opportunity early on, to get to locations I found interesting, at the best times for good light. The next couple of years was a very experimental section of my journey and things really changed in 2010 when I began leading workshops across the U.K and Europe and was fortunate enough to win Landscape Photographer of the year in the U.K. This gave me a massive boost and I have never really looked back.

Stokksnes aurora

Phoblographer: What made you want to get into landscape photography?

Antony: I think landscape photography for me was an easy choice. I spent all of my childhood outside exploring and I also was very fortunate in that we traveled a great deal as a family also. Being a lover of the great outdoors with a taste for far flung travel I guess it just all made sense. The standard of the landscape photographers I was inspired and influenced by in those early days had a very large impact on me also. People like Joe Cornish, Charlie Waite and David Ward were leaving me astounded by the quality of the images they were making and still to this day do. It was a very English/European style I think that they all have, a classical approach to the use of light and colour. I still pinch myself regularly that I am now in a position where I work regularly with all three of those guys and feel very privileged to be able to call them all friends.

I still think we have a similar style here now in a world that seems to be favouring more and more over processed and over manipulated images that bare little to no resemblance to any sign of reality.

Phoblographer: What do you think some of the biggest challenges of being a landscape photographer are?

river delta birds

Antony: I think the biggest challenge of landscape photography is remaining relevant. There are so many photographers around whose work is inspiring on a very regular basis. Breaking through to this world of professional landscape photography now must be almost impossible for anyone new and upcoming. I think this is why we are seeing such a rise in the levels of certain things like colour saturation, contrast and photo manipulation.

In a mad dash to outdo the rest of the photography world, it seems to me that landscape photographers are learning to do whatever it takes to an image to make theirs stand out in the quest for popularity, especially online. So many of the images we see on a day to day basis are of the same locations over and over again. For the last five or six years I have tried my best to photograph locations or make images in a way that haven’t been done before.

orange delta bend

Phoblographer: Some of your work is an interesting combination of using the mentality and approach that abstract photographers take, but with an application to landscape photography. How do you think you developed and honed this creative vision?

Antony: I love abstracts and details and always have. I think early on I would rock up to the same locations, at times, maybe on 30-40 occasions before the light would be right to make the image I am after. This is particularly true of the really big landscapes, especially on the coast. Ones hit rate is pretty low with this type of image making. As I have evolved as a photographer Ive learned that images can be made in all types of light as long as one can get to the right locations. I love making abstract images but always like to have something within the frame that puts everything back in to perspective when possible. I think that’s what I strive for ultimately.

Leoti Supercell

I also really like outright abstract images too. I’ve been spending more and more time in the air making images and I found the possibilities for unique images from above is extraordinary. I’m looking forward to many more aerial opportunities including flying over lava in the next few weeks in Hawaii.

Phoblographer: What are your thoughts on the specific and intentional uses of colours in a scene to create a more interesting composition?

Antony: If I’m honest I’d say that its not something I am conscious of when making images. I love colour but it has to remain natural and believable. I’ve photographed incredible skies over the last 10 years or so and there are times that I reflect on these images and the light knowing that it almost looks unbelievable. Lately I have found myself shooting that kind of light less and less. I still enjoy a fiery sunset or sunrise but my methods of photographing them have definitely changed.

I’m more likely to shoot away for the fierce colour or look for signs of the colour in reflections or similar. When Photographing from the air it is often colour that forms the separation and therefore form the composition entirely. The river deltas of Iceland are one major example of this. I tend to find myself trying to convey depth within a frame and I worry about colour and the separation of colours later on.

Phoblographer: Quite a bit of your work seems to be done during cloudy times. Why do you like choosing those times?

Lavender dawn

Antony: I think I’ve learned to use cloud and dull weather mostly because I’m from the U.K! The few days of the year the sun comes out we are all in shock, plus, it doesn’t last long enough to get to a location!

I love cloud and all types of it. The more cloudy the sky, the more balanced the lighting is across a scene. This is perfect for abstracts and details that would normally be uncontrollably contrasty in full sunlight. When I’m travelling you have to be able to use all types of light and weather. I’ve found recently that I end up liking the images I’ve made in flat light better on many occasions. This may simply be because I’ve adapted to shoot in this light and it happens more often than broken perfect clouds and colourful skies.

Phoblographer: How do you go about choosing your locations to photograph? It must require a lot of research.

Lake Powell Aerial

Antony: There are definitely some locations that require a great deal of research. Especially when really trying to get off the beaten track. There are several locations I’m looking at currently that are proving logistically challenging for sure. Many of the locations just involve rocking up and exploring and that’s always fun, I love not knowing what I will discover and exploring for myself. I have dozens of locations across Arctic Scandinavia that have never been photographed before that I love to revisit from time to time. Normally these trips involve further exploration also.

I try to avoid going to places that have been photographed by the masses, it’s always going to be difficult to be completely unique and provide a fresh perspective.

Phoblographer: Talk to us about the gear that you use. We know that you’ve been using the new Schneider Kreuznach for the Phase One XF system.

Kiruna Trees

Antony: Ive been using Phase One systems since 2010. In this time there have been many improvements. I have to say though that the new XF system is revolutionary for me and my approach to landscapes.

The build quality of the cameras, backs and lenses have always been good and the systems have worked which is far more than I can personally say for other manufacturers systems in the medium format field. The newest system however, the XF is nothing short of incredible. The build quality of the camera and the lenses are better and the functionality of the combined package is game changing. The two new lenses (40-80 and 75-150 blue ring) are both par focal which is rare in standard zooms. This means when focus is set to infinity like I need for photographing aerials the focus point for infinity is the same at the wide end as it is for the longer end and everything in between. The margin for error when using a sensor like the 100mp is zero and this really works, every time, like a dream. Both the new lenses perform like primes across the focal range, I will be able to travel with only two lenses that are truly world class from 40-150mm. That’s probably 95% of all my images covered.

Iceland Delta Panoramic

Couple all this with the XF systems ability to remember a hyperlocal point you have previously pinpointed and you cannot lose. I can go through the simple menu system and set a hyperlocal point that will be remembered the instant I focus automatically whilst using the hyperlocal focus mode. Its amazing. Quite often when photographing with a zoom I have to be incredibly careful with my focussing. When over a very abstract scene such as a river delta the system will hunt for an area of high contrast in which to lock focus. Not any more. The camera will remember the hyperlocal point and automatically ensure you have as much distance in focus as possible to infinitely, even when using wide apertures.

If I suddenly need to focus closer than the hyperlocal focus will cover, I can swap to the automatic focus that I have calibrated using the focus shimming option to ensure that when autofocus locks on, the results are truly sharp, as sharp as they can ever be. I always thought autofocus was autofocus until I used this new system. The fact that the camera remembers where to focus the lens means that even in pitch black the lens will be focussed properly. I do a great deal of night photography and this is just another godsend!

Iceland crater pool

The XF camera has the ability to remember each individual lens you own so that it will always have the focus shimming and the hyperlocal points ready. As soon as I swap my lens over the camera knows exactly what I need it to do.

It is features like this that the team at Phase One have come up with, they are simple to use and actually when you think about it, simple to implicate yet no other manufacturer offers these simple but crucial touches that make life so much easier for photographers in the field. From a landscape photographers perspective, features like these are priceless.

Phoblographer: What’s more important to you: gear or creative vision? Of course, I’m sure you feel that your skillset is more than good enough to compensate for gear, but how do you feel gear helps to get the images that are important to clients?

Hveravellir Sunrise

Antony: It’s essential for me to obtain the best image quality I can when I make an image. When light and location are perfect I need a system that will give me the finest of details, and capture the full dynamic range of the scene. I need a system that will work time after time and flawlessly. I feel like I have that now, a system that is beyond all of my expectations. Of course without creative vision there is no image in the first place. Once the vision is there having the finest of tools to capitalise on that vision is essential.

Phoblographer: Where do you see yourself in a year as a photographer and how do you plan on getting to that stage?

Ersfjorbotn abstract copy

Antony: I guess I’ll still be doing the same thing really. Hopefully I will be visiting more of the locations I have on my ever growing list and discovering more new locations. The equipment I am using will keep me very happy for years to come, I can’t see how it can get much better than it is right now. There are other projects in the pipeline, things I will get around to eventually but for now, I’m very happy with life and the opportunities I get to make photographs around the world. Maybe I’ll have a bigger printer so I can see more of the details in the images I am now making! 🙂

Delta Patterns

Bobcat small

Chris Gampat

Chris Gampat is the Editor in Chief, Founder, and Publisher of the Phoblographer. He also likes pizza.