2020 didn’t quite turn out like any of us expected. It’s been a reminder of just how quickly things can change but I hope that you and your loved ones have made it through the year in good health.
This year has brought a lot of challenges for photographers and independent business owners and many have been forced to reinvent their business. Some have used the lockdown or quarantine periods to freshen up their portfolios and websites, improving their processing skills, or finding new ways to create content.
Alister Benn is one of these photographers. His inspiring photography and educational or entertaining video content have made these times just a little easier. That’s why I’m excited to introduce him as CaptureLandscape’s ‘Photographer of the Year 2020‘!
In this interview, you’ll get to know more about Alister’s journey through photography, what inspires him, how he’s had to reinvent his business in 2020, and much more.
Start by telling us a little about yourself and how you got started with landscape photography.
I’m Scottish and live on the west coast in a very small village with my wife Ann Kristin. I had a camera when I was a kid and more or less ran around the hills and glens of Scotland pointing it at stuff that fascinated me. I got back into it around 2002 as a way of enhancing my relationship with my lifelong passion for birds. I more or lesson specialized in bird photography until 2007 when I started to focus almost purely on landscapes.
Ironically, it was the fixation with making perfect bird images that ultimately ruined my love of birding; it became all about the shot. Once I stopped chasing them to record images, I rediscovered the love of looking at them, which is far more valuable to me.
The second irony is that now I make my living as a full-time landscape photographer and educator, I pretty much wander around the countryside pointing my camera at things that fascinate me. It seems I knew what I wanted to do with a camera at age 13.
You’ve been a full-time photographer for a decade but used to work a high-paced job in international finance. What made you take a leap into full-time photography, and how did you find this transition?
After nearly 20 years in a high-stress industry, I was all but burned out. I was exhausted the whole time, taking somewhere in the region of 100 long-haul flights a year, living in hotels, and rarely being in the same time zone for more than a few days at a time.
I have never been money or materialistically minded, and that allowed me to evaluate who I was and how I wanted to spend my remaining years.
I suppose the transition was gradual, but after I released my first eBook (Seeing the Unseen – How to Photograph Landscapes at Night) I saw that there was a financial reality that I could survive on a much-reduced salary, and live a healthier outdoor life.
Would you suggest that others who find themselves in a similar situation also quit their job and pursue their hobby or passion? If so, what are some things they should keep in mind before taking the leap?
Making a decent living as a landscape photographer these days is extremely difficult. It is a very saturated market, filled with talented and dedicated people. Stock is dead, print sales are reducing year on year, and everyone has flocked to YouTube following in the likes of the early trail-blazers. I was already committed to this industry, and at my age, it would be very difficult to find an alternative. For people who make images for fun and have other careers, I would seriously ask why they would give up that creative freedom to try and compete for market share in this industry.
I would not recommend anyone to take that step unless they have a full understanding of how to run a business and have something they believe to be unique and can add value to art and our genre. This is not a career centered on being in the landscape making images and being creative all the time. The reality is it’s like any other self-employed career, you have to be a master of all trades from accounting, marketing, advertising, PR! The list goes on. Ask anyone in this business and they’ll tell you the same thing.
In addition to photography, you play music, write, and have an interest in philosophy. How, if any, have these interests affected your photographic mindset?
Yes, I enjoy making music and writing, as much as I enjoy climbing hills or rock-climbing. My life is complete, one facet cannot be seen in isolation from the others. Creativity can take any form, from writing a fresh sentence on a piece of paper to composing a melody. Equally, finding the path up an overhanging rock face is also creativity. My art, living, writing and speech are all facets of my perspectives and how I see myself in the world.
I believe that the alternative to this is some form of compartmentalization, which detaches us from our selves, and forces us into pigeon holes and templates of living.
I value my freedom and ability to articulate how I feel on a day to day basis, regardless of the output.
There’s no doubt that 2020 has brought a lot of challenges for most and has forced artists to rethink their business. How has the pandemic affected your work and what, if any, positives have you taken from it?
Yes, 2020 has been a terrible year for many people, bringing pain and suffering to millions of families around the world. Our business was obviously hit hard, with no government support and all our workshops canceled. We had to think fast and reinvent ourselves, turning Expressive Photography into an online business to compensate for the lost revenue.
I’ll take positives from just about any situation, it’s how I’m wired, and we have actually had a good year from a business point of view. Moving forward into 2021, we are introducing mentorships and bringing new tutors into the business to extend our ability to run day and weekend trips in Scotland teaching expressive photography, plus expressive photography workshops in different locations around the world with different instructors. The pandemic has allowed us to team up with other artists who share our vision and ethics. By teaming up in this way we can promote a very harmonious form of photography, teaching creativity in the context of personal development and sustaining mental health. It’s a very exciting time actually.
What are some of the highlights of your photography career so far?
I have been very fortunate to travel a great deal over the past 3 decades. From a photographic and life-changing point of view, 7 trips to the Gobi Desert in northern China made the most impact. It was there that I developed my whole Expressive Photography approach, gaining insights into luminosity, contrast and color. The concepts of simplicity and emotional resonance with the world around us were critical in changing my whole perspective of art, creativity, and living.
I am very proud of my two most recent eBooks Luminosity & Contrast and The Colour of Meaning. I consider them a paradigm in photography learning material and the feedback from people seeking a more wholesome relationship with their creativity has been encouraging and quite humbling.
Looking at your portfolio, there’s one word that comes to my mind: harmony. How would you describe your photographic style?
Introspective and expressive would be my two adjectives, but I think it’s dangerous to put all the emphasis on the actual images themselves. Yes, for viewers, the image is all there is, but as a person and photographer focusing on self-development, the experience itself is of the most value. The practice of engagement with a mindful perspective is therapeutic and vital to our mental health.
I also hope that my recent photography inspires people to explore the anonymous and the ordinary. Beauty is everywhere and the missing step is giving ourselves permission to believe that it’s valid.
Can you take us through some of your thought processes when capturing an image? Are there particular things you’re looking for?
LOL, I have to confess that not a lot of thought goes into my image-making. I don’t look for compositions, I am merely open to recognizing things in the landscape that fascinate, interest, and engage me. If it wakes up the little kid in me, then I’m all in. I don’t need to think, I just need to allow the innate to kick in and it takes care of itself. We have to be free of rules, templates, expectations, and any form of blinkered “vision.” If you go out looking for something, you’ll likely walk past the dozen things that would have been better and unique.
The second key point is to have an absolutely pure relationship with the aesthetics of time. Shutter speed is an atmospheric variable. Anything that is moving will have various aesthetics based on the length or shortness of the shutter speed. Again though, I don’t overthink this, I allow my intuition to guide me.
How important is post-processing for your photography? Are there particular techniques you tend to apply more than others?
My relationship with processing has changed hugely since 2014. At that time I was pretty adept at blending multiple images for focus and exposure. Like many of my peers at the time, the idea of making images look as close to reality was the goal. Unfortunately, the destination of that path became heavy manipulation of reality, enhancing the ordinary to make it extraordinary, or even manufacturing false events. A line was crossed that I felt ultimately uncomfortable with.
These days I’d say most of my images are single exposures, typically with an 80-400 and require very little time to process. I care about the consequences of color and contrast; impact versus ego.
I can still delve deep with LAB color space, the history brush, and luminosity masks, but they are all geared towards expressive articulation and mapping my emotional relationship with the photograph.
I don’t think viewers care if an image took 5 minutes to process, or 5 days. We don’t get extra points for the complexity of the processing.
You run a great YouTube channel where you educate, interview, and discuss various aspects of creativity and photography. Tell us a little about your channel and what you want to achieve with it.
Thanks for the kind words, I appreciate that. The channel was born out of necessity really. With all our workshops canceled we had to make a living. Growing the channel seemed the fastest way to bring a new audience to my work and to sell eBooks and Videos. I made meaningful education the focus from day one rather than the more usual vlog style, which I think is more entertainment than education.
One section that has proven to be very popular with viewers and fun for me is the Vision & Light Interviews. These started with my good friend Adam Gibbs and I having a chat and recording it. People like it. They are really casual and not scripted with the typical questions that we tend to answer all the time. I like to have a chat and dig deep into each guest’s heads! Some have described it as a bit like therapy! Thankfully I have some really good mates, and getting people like Marc Adamus to do them is kind of rare.
My goal is simple; I want expressive photography to be a thing. I want people to put their own personal development and mental health first. The danger of relying on external validation for our own feelings of self-worth is that it’s harder and harder to get it. As I mentioned above, this is a competitive field and I don’t believe competition and creativity are complimentary in any way.
We have a number of people signed up for our membership program and I make a private video for them every week. These Expressive Photographers are an excellent and enthusiastic group who embrace the concept and reject the status quo.
How important is it for photographers to put themselves in the spotlight in order to build a career around their images?
I only know of a small handful of photographers who don’t use social media to promote their business. It is a vile, yet sadly necessary evil that I would happily abandon if I could afford it. The tightrope that needs to be walked is the one between creative integrity and popularity. The latter is rarely associated with quality, and the most exciting work out there today is not being produced by those with the biggest followings. Personally, I believe creative individuality and moral fortitude are our best allies in the development of a small niche in this contemporary scene.
What are your top three tips for someone who’s just getting started with photography?
LOL, you sucked me in!
- Don’t believe anything you read in a top tips lists
- Don’t think that a template approach to creativity will make you creative
- Subscribe to the Expressive Photography YouTube Channel!
On a more serious note.
- Be yourself and believe your creative voice is valid
- Presets and other people’s repetitive workflow is not creativity.
- If you love it, it’s good work! External judgment is rarely of any value.
What is one accessory you always have in your camera bag?
I don’t have any. The entire contents of my digital bag are:
- Nikon D850
- Nikon 80-400
- Nikon 24-70
- Kase Wolverine Filters
- 2 lens cloths
My Film Bag is:
- Hasselblad 501cm
- Carl Zeiss 80mm + 150mm lenses
- Cable release
- 2 x Film backs
- Kase Wolverine Filters
- Sekonic L-858D Light Meter
Tell us what’s next for Alister Benn.
Ann Kristin and I are committed to growing the Expressive Photography brand through expansion of the online learning programs and a tentative increase in physical workshops. I plan to release my first printed photo book in 2021, which will feature my images from the Gobi Desert and an exploration of the emotional aesthetic.
I’m also working on my next video releases and a new eBook idea. Basically, busy!
Plus, healthy living, a good diet and exercise. I love climbing the Scottish mountains, rock-climbing and to get out birding. I have ambitions to finish the Scottish Munro’s and to see over 400 birds species in the British Isles.
Finally, I want to inspire people to embrace the idea of being unique and self-validating. The power of landscape photography to help ground us and to enter a flow state is huge. Sadly, the pressures of external judgment, social media, and the plague of popularity pretty much kill that and we end up like Lemmings rushing towards the cliff edge of extinction!
Thank you again, Alister, for taking the time to let us get to know you better. Make sure to learn more about Expressive Photography on his website, subscribe to his YouTube channel, get his Fine Art Prints, or follow along on Instagram!