Photographer of the Month Interview: Drew Hopper | Aperture Academy

Featured Photographer, September 2015:   Drew Hopper

We want to again thank Drew Hopper, our featured guest photographer, for his time, and willingness to share his insights and beautiful work with us! Please visit his links to see more of his work, and to let him know you enjoyed this interview.

:: How did you get your start in this crazy photography business?

I was gifted my first DSLR camera on my eighteenth birthday from my parents, and since then I've been hooked. I have always been an introvert, however photography has helped me express and define my experiences with the vision that my images will impact and inspire an audience in a way individual to each person.

I was fortunate to have been able to travel with my parents since I was young and have always been fascinated with the outdoors, I wanted to make a living from working in these types of environments. Photography seemed like a great way to see the world and make an income, so I took my hobby to the next level. I studied two diplomas in professional digital photography, mastering the fundamentals and fine-tuning my vision. Although these studies didn't teach me to be a better photographer, it definitely helped me develop my business skills, something I still struggle with from time-to-time.

Perception and intuition have played a strong role in my personal development as a photographer. Perception taught me to have a creative eye for detail and has been an attentive effort. Intuition was immediate with no attentive reasoning. I feel these two factors have shaped my growth as a photographer, especially when chasing fleeting decisive moments.

:: You describe yourself as a fine art landscape and travel photographer. How are the two related? Was doing both something you set out to do, or did one lead to, or help support, the other?

Landscape photography has always interested me; travel photography seemed to have found its place in front of my lens along the way. I have always been fascinated with nature; constantly chasing the light in search for picture those perfect moments that nature provides. Growing up I travelled around Australia with my family in a motorhome. I guess that's why I have gypsy blood, always on the move and never ready to settle in one place. Shooting landscapes has taken me to some incredible destinations; it is here that my passion for travel was ignited.

:: What challenges do the travel portions of your photography bring that the landscape shooting does not? How does setting up to tell the story of a place/location/country, like you do with travel work, differ from telling the story of a particular moment the way fine art landscape work does?

As a travel photographer, I'm at the mercy of whatever conditions are presented. Usually I only get one chance to make something out of the situations that are thrown at me. I have to be a master of light in order to capture decisive moments. In a way landscape photography is simpler, once you find your subject you can revisit a location to shoot it in the right light at the right time of day. A lot of preparation goes into visiting these incredible destinations. It takes time to book flights, work out insurance and knowing when and where to be in order to make the most out of your brief time there.

:: Which country has provided the most challenges in terms of being able to represent it with photography?

To be honest, I haven't really faced any major challenges shooting in the countries I've visited. The only common challenge I've faced as far as photography goes is photographing people due to the language barrier. It can sometimes be difficult trying to get your subjects to understand what you want from them. The upside is most people know what you want when they see your camera, but there are some cultures that haven't been exposed to such technology and that can prove difficult at times. A simple smile and a nod is often all you need to communicate with people, and they usually don't mind having their picture taken.

It helps having a photo guide (fixer) who speaks the local language who can assist in getting the shots you want. I tend to work alone, but there have been a few situations where I've used a fixer to get access to less known places other tourists don't go. If you are a travel writer or documentary photographer, a fixer will also be able to ask questions on your behalf to get your story.

:: Travel photography often must include some kind of human element to help tell the do you handle people in a shot to make them a) work aesthetically, and, b) look natural and not forced?

Capturing strong, well-composed portraits of people in a brief encounter that typifies travel photography can be extremely challenging, but if it's done right the results are worth the effort. The number one rule for capturing aesthetically pleasing portraits of strangers is to show respect while photographing them. Lack of language is no excuse for mistreating people, it's important to remember they have feelings. If the situation doesn't feel right or my model objects to having their picture taken I simply thank them and move on.

I'm constantly previsualising my photos before I press the shutter by looking for interesting backgrounds that aren't busy and are within context to my subject. Most of my people photos are locational portraits of people going about their daily lives. This adds context and helps transport the viewer to that moment. It also makes my subjects feel at ease as they go about their daily routine undistracted and often unaware I'm taking their picture. This is how most of my portraits are shot and I find it one of the simplest methods to capturing natural looking images.

:: Do you have any stories where the human element made the shooting tough or dangerous? How did you deal with that?

I'm a bit of an introvert so photographing big crowds of people can be challenging. Fortunately my passions for capturing those fleeting moments outweigh my fear and I'm able throw myself into situations I wouldn't normally put myself in.

:: You are doing an assignment for Australian Geographic, commissioned to shoot the Camel Cup? What is the Camel Cup, and how did that assignment go? How does having an "assignment" differ from normal travel photography?

Yes, this was my first assignment for Australian Geographic and remains one of my favourite assignments I've been commissioned to shoot. Lasseters Camel Cup is an amazing race that is iconic, quirky and its reputation reaches far beyond Northern Territory soil of outback Australia. Held in Alice Springs this annual event attracts thousands of visitors to the region. While camels may have a reputation as dedicated 'ships of the desert', these mighty beasts are certainly not short on personality. Racing them can prove a nightmare for riders and handlers but is fantastic viewing for spectators and photographers.

Assignment photography is rewarding for both my clients and myself. As the photographer I need to be able to interpret my clients design ideas and to communicate with them visually to best represent the brief. Clients look for professionalism, compatibility, and the right mix of technical skills and people skills for their project team, so it's important I show enthusiasm when communicating with them. Commissioned work can be demanding and stressful at times, it's not just a matter of shooting what you feel like shooting. Working under a contract means working to a deadline and delivering exactly what the client wants.

:: Your blog does a lot of before/after comparisons, which I find really a nice touch to help showcase what exactly goes into the processing side of an image. How do you plan for processing your work? Is there a line to what you will and will not do? What kinds of things are you trying to do with the processing that was not possible in the original exposure?

I like to get my images right in camera before moving into Photoshop for processing. I used to be in the habit of masking otherwise poor images with excessive editing which only stopped me from learning the proper technique of photography. As professional photographer Zack Arias says, 'If you find yourself out shooting a client and you're saying in your head, oh I'll just fix that later in photoshop, stop what you're doing and slap yourself as hard as you can.' I couldn't agree more.

:: What is the scariest thing that has ever happened to you while on a photo shoot?

I don't really have any scary memories from photo shoots. Dropping my camera in the ocean a few years ago was pretty damn scary though! It was a tough and expensive lesson in being aware of your surroundings and ensuring my gear is safe!

:: What is the most essential piece of NON-photographic equipment you carry with you when you travel?

My passport! I would be lost without it. Without a passport you're limited to shooting in your own country.

:: How do you protect your gear while out in the field doing travel work? Are there any "must-do" steps you always follow when abroad in a foreign country?

It really depends on the conditions and the environment I'm in. I carry a messenger bag with my camera gear in it, this stays by my side - it's an extension to my body and I know my gear is safe as long as it's covered and out of sight. I also use a raincover when photographing in wet environments; this allows me to keep shooting in the harshest conditions.

What about discretion? Not "looking like a photographer/blending into your environment"? Keep an eye on your gear. Always check your camera gear as carry-on luggage.

:: With the popularity of digital photography, and the masses of images available for free, or nearly free, on a variety of outlets, how do you stay competitive with your images? Given the saturation of the market, how do you help combat that problem of publishers and media outlets looking to get images from non-professional photographers for cheap or free?

This is a tough one and has been a constant battle I'm faced with as I gain more exposure of my work. I recently had an inexperienced client interested in purchasing the rights to use my images for marketing and advertising. Not only did they not know the industry standard rates, they also had other local photographers offer ridiculously cheap perpetual licenses. This unfortunately made my prices look extreme and I didn't make a sale. It's a shame that uneducated photographers undersell their work and devalue the market when they could be making a great income and keeping the photo industry alive.

Potential clients might seek out a service with an incorrect idea of what the business is about, or unrealistic expectations of cost or service level. I believe it's my responsibility as a professional photographer to educate my clients about my photography services and why my fees are what they are. A lot of image buyers have the misconceptions of professional photography, as they exist in the mind of the modern consumer.

Some things I need to explain to potential clients are:

  • Professional photography requires skill like any art form. It's not a matter of having a great camera. It requires knowledge in knowing how to use it to its full potential.
  • Professional photographers are business people. We do it because we enjoy it, but we have to eat, pay bills, etc.
  • It's not just a matter of pressing a button and being paid. Behind every great image is years of learning and experience.

:: What kind of advice would you pass on to beginning photographers looking to make a start in the travel photography industry?

Not everyone is suited to be a professional photographer though it's a great goal! Just because you may be an amateur doesn't mean you are unskilled or incompetent. The definition of an amateur is simply a person who engages in a pursuit on an unpaid basis. I know heaps of amateur photographers who are just as good (if not better) than the pros. Just the same as being a professional doesn't mean you are a better photographer.

We all started photography for the same reasons. I started purely for the love of the craft. If you love what you do than it doesn't feel like work, at least to a certain degree. Going 'pro' can change this pursuit because aspects of your photography becomes business. You spend more time trying to find clients and where your next paycheck is coming from.

That aside, the number one piece of advice I've learnt is to be sensible with your money. Don't go out and buy expensive camera gear thinking that it will make you a better photographer. Spend the money on flights to get you to your next destination. Read about other photographers and their process and style for inspiration. This can help you achieve your own style, or at least try different things.

:: You have a very unique approach to light painting. How did you come across some of the techniques you use to create these light spheres and tunnels that these images depict?

Spirographs are geometric drawing instruments or toys used to create intricate mathematical curves or the variety technically known as hypotrochoids and epitrochoids. This got me thinking how I could create my own spirograph photographs and that's when I discovered a method using LED lights to create geometric patterns.

Painting with light is no different from painting with a paintbrush or drawing on paper except the light is the paint and your sensor is the canvas. You move your instrument to create something physical. Attaching LED lights to a bicycle wheel and moving it around a curved structure like a tunnel creates these intricate patterns. It sounds relatively simple but there is a lot of experimentation requiring patience and continuity to get the best results.

:: What projects do you have coming up this year that you're excited to work on?

I'm heading back to Southeast Asia at the end of September on an indefinite trip. I'm looking forward revisiting some countries and events as well as visiting some new countries. It's an open road from there.

Drew Hopper

"Perception and intuition have played a strong role in my personal development as a photographer. Perception taught me to have a creative eye for detail and has been an attentive effort. Intuition was immediate with no attentive reasoning. I feel these two factors have shaped my growth as a photographer...."

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