Shooting the Breeze – Nick Hanson Interview

Nick Hanson is the current holder of the Scottish Landscape Photographer of the Year Award. David Lintern finds out more.

Tell us a little about yourself – where’s home, is photography your full time job, and so on?

I am originally from Dumfries in south west Scotland, however my family moved down to Cambridgeshire back in 1989 when I was 17. Dumfries and Galloway is a beautiful place to live, with rolling hills, forests and lots of lovely coastline. As a youngster, although I loved to be outdoors, it was more about my enjoyment of being out there rather than taking in the beauty of what I had in front of me.

Home for me is quite simply Scotland. I am currently in the middle of my second year on Skye, where I live between March and December as a photographic guide for Marcus McAdam Photography. Before I came up here to work for Marcus I was a web developer, however that wasn’t something I enjoyed and didn’t continue it on a part time basis, so I guess photography is my full time job.

You grew up in Dumfries, then moved away. You’ve said that you didn’t appreciate the landscape as a youngster. What prompted the move back north?

Yeah, for me the outdoors/landscape was more of a place for me to explore, build camps etc., like most youngsters enjoy. I gradually ended up making my way further north over the years. After living in London for two years, I moved up to East Yorkshire to study web development as a mature student (I have an IT background). In August 2015 I was heading up to the Cairngorms to do some wildlife photography with Neil McIntyre. I decided to come to Skye for a few days beforehand, and booked myself on one of Marcus’s ‘Pro Workshops’. I was pretty comfortable with my ability then, however admired Marcus’s work and wanted to spend a day learning more from him.

During the day we did the usual chatting about what I did for a living etc., and it became apparent to him that I didn’t enjoy doing web development. Marcus had already seen my portfolio of work through my website, and was impressed by the way I worked etc., that by the end of the workshop he was sounding me out, seeing if I would be interested in coming to Skye in 2016.

To get the chance to share my passion with others, and swap my office of four walls for the Isle of Skye, a place I love, was an opportunity I couldn’t resist. And of course, I get to move back ‘home’ for nine months of the year.

The Caul and Devorgilla Bridge, Dumfries, at Twilight
The River Nith runs through my home town of Dumfries, with The Caul and Devorgilla Bridge being two iconic features which locals and tourists alike will recognise. During a family visit in 2015 I knew I wanted to photograph this scene, so decided to head there for sunset to capture it during the twilight as the bridge would be lit up and I would hopefully get some nice colour reflected in the water during a long exposure.

Did you study photography at College or are you self taught? How important have workshops you have attended been to your photographic development?

I am for the most part self taught, however I’ve also spent time learning from others by going on workshops, and will continue to do so, as I believe I am always learning new things and it’s always good to see how other photographers approach the image taking process. I’d say that workshops have been very important to me and my development as a photographer. Initially I attended wildlife workshops, mainly with Neil McIntyre, who I have known since around 2003. From the landscape side, I would say that apart from of course my day with Marcus, the workshop that sticks out the most for me, is the day I spent with Mark Littlejohn in the Lake District in October 2015.

I was on my way up to the Cairngorms, to spend some time with Mark Hamblin, to shoot autumn landscapes, and decided to break up the journey by spending a day with Mark Littlejohn. I didn’t necessarily learn anything new in the way of techniques from Mark, it was more about his thought processes when taking photographs. For me, Mark is a master of taking woodland photographs, an area which I struggle with. However, since that day with Mark, I feel a lot of the woodland shots I have taken have been influenced by that day in the lakes.

Who are your photographic heroes or mentors, past and present? Have they changed over time?

I’m not someone who has really studied the work of the photographers of the past, more enjoying the work of photographers of the present. To keep the list short, I very much enjoy the photography of, and in no particular order: Those previously mentioned, Claire Zaffin, Lizzie Shepherd, Jon Gibbs, Verity Miligan, Dave Fieldhouse and Greg Whitton. Rather than change over time, the people whose work I enjoy viewing has simply grown. I wouldn’t say I have any photographic ‘heroes’ really, however mentors include those who I have already mentioned (Neil, Mark and Mark), as well as Andy Howard, Doug Chinnery and Dennis Bromage; all people I have been on workshops with.

Quiraing First Light
Taken in May 2017, this is a composition at the Quiraing, here on Skye, which you don’t see so often. It’s not a hard spot to get to by any means, and I sometimes take clients here, however I had only photographed from it once before and wanted to improve on my previous attempt. I camped overnight on The Table so that I only had to walk five minutes or so to the location, shortly before sunrise.

How does landscape photography differ from wildlife photography, and how are they similar? What skills are needed in common, and which are unique to each discipline?

For me there are more similarities than differences between landscape and wildlife photography. The main difference is that a lot of wildlife shots are created from the pursuit of trying to get close to your subject, whether that be from stalking, or being in a certain location at a certain time, in the hope they will appear.

The main similarity for me is the time of day it is best to photograph the subject, which is usually either end of the day when the light is at its best. Similarities also extend to skills needed, which would be first and foremost ‘knowing your camera’. If you don’t know your way around your camera you are likely to miss the shot by fumbling around trying to find something in the menu, or not knowing where a button to perform a certain function is. Then there is composition, as it’s about creating a pleasing image which draws the viewer to the main focal point, whether that be from how you place the subject in the frame, the use of leading lines or foreground interest, to how you use the available light. Also, understanding light is important, as a shot can be made or broken due to improper use of light on the subject.

Do you do a lot of planning to catch the right moment in time, or is it luck and lots of time out and about? Which web sites (weather, sun position, wildlife, tides or other) help you, if you do plan.

Nowadays I do as much planning as I can to get a shot, and there are some shots I have been trying to get for a while now, as all of the elements have not come together yet, which is down to mother nature. As I am currently working on my map reading skills I like to look at a map and try and envisage how it looks in reality (if I haven’t been to that location already), and whether a shot can be made from a certain viewpoint (I also use Google Earth for this). Once I know what a location looks like I will use various tools to find out when is the best time to photograph it based mainly on the suns position, and/or the tide if it is a coastal location. For weather forecasting I use websites/apps such as xcweather.co.uk, yr.no, and of course the Mountain Weather Information Service. For the suns position I use a mix of desktop and mobile applications, including The Photographers Ephemeris (TPE) website and the PhotoPills iPhone app. TPE recently brought out the TPE 3D app which looks set to be my go to app. It allows you to view the landscape in 3D, and scroll through each day to see how the light hits the landscape at any particular point. For tide times I use the MyTideTimes app on my iPhone.

Yes, luck can play a big part in getting a shot, as you can simply be in the right place at the right time. A lot of times when I am just out walking I will most likely have a camera in my backpack, as you never know what may happen, however I would say my favourite images have been taken after some form of planning.

As someone who works in the Western Isles, are you able to expand on the role the weather plays in your photos?

If you look at the Isle of Skye gallery on my website, you will see my images have been taken under a variety of conditions. Here the weather can change quite quickly, and for the most part I try and anticipate those changes, choosing my composition ahead of time to try and capture what I think is going to happen. However, sometimes you simply have to react to that sudden change. On the whole I prefer conditions which give mood and atmosphere to my images, so have started to become more choosy as to when I head out on my own. Saying that, at times I just want to get out there with the camera, even if the forecast suggests it’s going to be a blue sky morning for instance.

Rain Passes Through
This image from March 2017 was taken from a spot at the Quiraing which I often take clients to, as it works well to discuss composition and the use of different focal lengths. Although I have images of this composition with more light hitting the landscape, I prefer this one as rain passed through behind Cleat, adding more mood and atmosphere to the shot.

What’s so special about Skye, for you?

The uniqueness of the landscape and the quality/variety of light is what draws me to Skye. In the north we have the Quiraing, Trotternish Ridge and Old Man of Storr, which are unlike any other landscapes you will find in the UK. Toward the south you have Glen Sligachan where you will find the magnificent Cuillin along with a variety of rivers and waterfalls. As well as the many other other well known spots, Skye also has lots of great coastline to shoot from.

Can you pinpoint a key moment in your photographic development over the last 3 years (and if so what was it and why)?

In 2015 I had an image highly commended in Landscape Photographer of the Year, which was my first time entering the competition, then in early 2016 I was awarded runner up in the 2015, The Scottish Landscape Photographer of the Year. These two moments were quite key, as it affirmed that my images were liked by my peers, which was a confidence booster for me.

Before The Rain (Dùn Dubh)
This images was taken in 2015, a couple of days after my workshop with Marcus, and ended up being in my runner up portfolio for SLPOTY 2015. The day after the workshop I headed up on to the Trotternish Ridge in search of something a bit different, where I saw the impressive Dùn Dubh sticking out from the ridge. I knew that if the forecast was going to be good, that as the sun came up it would light up the face of Dùn Dubh. The forecast was promising, with the possibility of rain, however strongish winds from the south. I headed out in the hope that it wasn’t going to be constant rain, which it wasn’t, with only light spots to begin with, however I did have quite a strong head on wind. The light eventually made an appearance, hitting my subject perfectly, allowing me to get my shot. Minutes afterward the rain had made its way toward me and quite heavily in fact.

As someone who takes clients out, what’s your view on so-called ‘honeypot locations’? Are we in danger of seeing the same shots over and over, or is it more important for clients to have the experience of being there, regardless of the images. How do you manage those expectations?

This is a very good question, and it pops up on social media quite a lot, and even more recently with regards a certain competition and images not making it through due to them being taken at a ‘honeypot location’.

Personally, I don’t think there should be a problem with seeing the same shots over and over. First and foremost I take photographs for myself and it’s something I suggest my clients also do. You may see the same composition over and over, however you will never see it in the same light or conditions.

There are a few factors which come in to play when deciding where to take my client for say a sunrise shoot. The type of workshop my client is booked on comes in to consideration. If they are on a beginners workshop, then it doesn’t really matter where we go as it should be more about the learning, however I still choose a location where they will hopefully get good images. The clients level of fitness also has to be taken in to consideration, as they may not want to walk up to certain parts of the Quiraing which are not photographed so often. The weather forecast is also a factor, as there can be a big difference within a ten mile radius on Skye. A lot of overseas customers have a bucket list of locations they wish to visit, so who am I to stop them from seeing the Quiraing or the Old Man of Storr? The amount of times I hear a client say ‘wow’ when walking along the path of the Quiraing makes a big difference, as I know they are going to head home having experienced something which will stick in their mind for a long time to come.

What’s your motivation for photography, and is that motivation different for landscape, and wildlife photos?

The main motivation for my photography is the hope of being able to capture an image which shows the beauty of my subject, whether that be a landscape or wildlife subject. My love of the outdoors also lends itself to giving me the motivation to being out there with my camera. I wouldn’t say the motivation differs between photographing landscape and wildlife as it’s all about being out there and enjoying the landscape/countryside around me, wherever that may be.

How difficult do you find the editing process? Is this more difficult for wildlife photos, or just different, to landscape shots?

For me, the editing process is fairly straightforward, in that I tend to process my images in a sympathetic manner. What I mean is that I generally don’t go to far beyond what has come out of the camera, so there isn’t much difference in the way I edit a landscape or wildlife image . I’m not saying there is anything wrong with some extra processing, and there are photographers who manage to do that in a way that either compliments the image or in a way that you are actually unable to tell they have done it.

Sgurr na h-Uamha

Are images made or are they taken?

I would say images can be made or taken. Images ‘made’ for me would be the ones where I have put in the groundwork to go to a location at a particular time under certain weather conditions to ‘make’ the shot. Images ‘taken’ for me would be the ones where I happen to be in the right place at the right time and ‘take’ the shot.

What’s next for you photographically?

At the moment I am happy being on Skye working for Marcus, and there is the potential for a few things to happen for me over the next couple of years should I come back. My girlfriend (a previous client) lives all the way down in Wales, so that may pose a problem in the future, as it’s pretty hard already, being so far away from each other. I will be spending the winter months with her this year, which will give me the chance to check out north Wales, as it’s somewhere I haven’t photographed before. Who knows, in a few years I could be running workshops there.

The Spider Woods (nr. Aviemore)

Can you talk us through your winning 2017 SLPOTY photos – where and how was it made, part of series, the background and preparation to the photo

My portfolio of images for SLPOTY 2017 were taken in three different parts of Scotland, which for me is good, as I didn’t want all three to be from Skye. One image is from Skye, one is from near Aviemore in the Cairngorms, with the third one being from Glen Affric. All three images are independent of each other, with only one similarity being that two were taken in autumn, however on different years and at different locations.

Glamaig Reflection: This image was taken in late April of 2016, just after we had a fresh fall of snow on the Cuillin. I was doing some location guidance for a client, and with the weather forecast suggesting no to very light winds, I knew it would be good for reflections images. You don’t see this loch from the roadside, meaning it’s not overly photographed, so it’s not an image you will see that often. In fact Glamaig usually appears in images taken from down by the river next to the Sligachan Hotel.

Loch Pityoulish In Autumn: This image was taken in October 2016, and is one that you could say was ‘taken’. As Skye doesn’t have much scope for autumn images, I decided to pop over to the Cairngorms for sunrise, one day last year. The forecast looked good, so my first port of call would be Loch Garten, where I would hopefully get some nice reflections of pre sunrise colour. Unfortunately that didn’t quite happen for me as initially you could hardly see anything as the loch was covered in fog. After a couple of hours at Loch Garten I was heading to Aviemore when I noticed the light was starting to burn through, and a mist was dancing on top of Loch Pityoulish. I ended up spending quite some time here, playing about with different compositions. I say this image was ‘taken’, as it certainly wasn’t planned, it was a case of being in the right place at the right time.

Autumn in Glen Affric: This image was taken in October 2015, whilst I was on a landscape workshop with Mark Hamblin. We headed to Glen Affric on a warmish/damp day, so there was some patches of mist lying round in between the light rain showers. I had initially dismissed this shot when I saw it on the computer, however discovered it again whilst looking for images to submit to SLPOTY. I decided to do some processing on it, and it came out nicely and as I remember the autumnal colours being on that day (saturated by the moisture).

See more of Nick’s work at: www.nickhanson.co.uk

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