FACE TO FACE WITH: CHRIS WESTON

FACE TO FACE WITH: CHRIS WESTON

FACE TO FACE WITH: CHRIS WESTON

  • Posted by Karen Coe
  • On 9th June 2020
  • 0 Comments
  • Online photography tuition

Photographer, writer, filmmaker, photo-safari leader – Chris Weston has a lot of strings to his bow and he’s just added one more: online photography workshop tutor... His brand new online photography masterclass in conjunction with TPOTY – The Complete Photographer – is a comprehensive and practical three-part series that mirrors his belief that to take great photographs you need three attributes: a good hand, an insightful eye and a creative mind. Each online class contains over 50 Full-HD videos, extensive course notes, tip sheets, numerous sample images with EXIF data plus training exercises to help you practice. Applicable to all genres and any make and model of camera, you get lifetime access, meaning you can learn in your own time, in the comfort of your own home. Parts 1 and 2, Mastering Your Digital Camera and Mastering Composition and Visual Storytelling are available now, with a special discount for visitors to the TPOTY website. Part 3 is due at the end of the year. 

In 2000, at the age of 32, Chris walked away from a career in IT sales to follow his passion for what he describes as “the extraordinary nature and remarkable behaviour of wildlife”. It turned out to be a life-defining move. Described by Amateur Photographer magazine as “one of the most dynamic wildlife photographers working today” his credits include the BBC, ITV, National Geographic, the Times, Sunday Times and Guardian newspapers, Practical Photography and Outdoor Photography magazines; he has received numerous awards and accolades; has published over 30 books on photographic technique and wildlife; and has led photography adventures in some of the world’s most amazing places. Chris is also a sponsor of TPOTY 2020 and the winner of the Travel Folio category will join him on an international photo adventure in 2021.

How did you first get into wildlife photography and when did it become a serious part of your life?

I’ve been interested in animals and wildlife from a very young age. My dad gave me a camera when I was 10-years old – a fully manual 35mm Nikon Nikkormat – and, growing up in Lincolnshire, I spent a lot of time on the coast, watching the birdlife and taking pictures. My only lens was a 50mm “standard” prime, so the pictures were pretty terrible. Then, I started to grow a fascination with animals behaviour and the connections in nature. I was intrigued by seemingly fatuous questions like, “Why are zebras black and white striped when they live in a yellow savannah?” It became a passion and I’d go and find answers, and having found them, I’d want to tell people, and, being a very visual person, I chose to do that through photography. The more involved I got, the more intrigued and passionate I became. Then, one Monday morning, I woke and thought, “I don’t want to go into work today”. As I was lying there, pondering whether to get up, a quote from one of my all-time favourite books – Illusions by Richard Bach – floated in front of me: Every now and then you should ask yourself the question, am I doing right now what it is I most want to do in the world? If the answer is ‘no’ you should stop doing what you’re doing and go do something else. With that quote in mind, I got up, had a shower, put on my suit and tie, and went to the office, and I resigned. I was 32-years old and from that day, I’ve been a wildlife photographer. 

You’ve been a wildlife photographer for 20-years and must have seen significant changes – good and bad – in some of the locations or with the populations of some of the creatures you have photographed?

In 2009 my book Animals on the Edge: Reporting from the Frontline of Extinction was published by Thames & Hudson in London. It was a visual survey of fifty of the world’s most-endangered species.

I recently re-visited many of the stories I told in the book and little has changed for the better. In many cases things have gotten worse. But there is hope. I think management of wilderness in places like Africa has improved and there is a greater awareness, generally, of the importance of balanced and healthy habitats. I would like to see faster change and much of my current work focusses on conservation. 

What has the response been to Animals on the Edge – both the book and the ongoing project?

The book received some amazing reviews, both in the press and from readers. I’m now working with some very talented people, passionate about the message Animals on the Edge has to convey, to turn the book into a film

When you’re photographing critically endangered animals, do you manage to ‘park’ your emotions relating to documenting something that may not be around much longer, and get on with the task in hand, or do you sometimes put your camera down and allow yourself that moment of reflection?

When someone asks me what I do for a living, I don’t say I’m a photographer – I’m a storyteller and I use photography as a medium. So, for me, every photograph is a story and to create visual stories, you have to observe, feel and reflect.

The camera is often a barrier to that and so I often sit in contemplation. It’s important for me to understand what my subjects want to “say” to me and so, when I arrive on location, for the first couple of days, I don’t even take a camera out with me. I never chase a shot, I always let the image come to me.

Do you interact with any of the animals you photograph? Are there any eye-to-eye moments when you’ve felt a connection, however fleeting?

Photography is about capturing the moment and it’s my belief that to capture the moment you have to be in the moment. By definition, that means interacting with my subjects – in a non-intrusive way. I was in India recently when I came across a female elephant with a calf. I was in a jeep about 50-metres away, just watching. The calf was curious and would start towards me but the mother would wrap her trunk around it and pull it back. I’d be learning the martial art of Tai Chi, which is all about the movement of energy, so I tried an experiment. I took a few deep breaths and envisaged moving energy into my heart. As I did, the calf took a step towards me and, this time, the mother didn’t intervene. So the calf kept coming. It came right up to me, reached out its little trunk, and kissed me. It then withdrew an inch and blew warm air over me, before wandering back to its mother. Back at camp, one of the biologists I was working with told me that, in elephant language, blowing air was a greeting between elephants of disparate herds that meant, “Now we’ve met, we’ll never be strangers”. It’s for these moments, I do what I do.

You have said you like photographing big carnivores. Inevitably there’s a degree of potential risk. I believe there was an occasion where you were in a ‘cage’ to photograph a charging lion and then realised the flaw in your plan?

There is always risk but that risk can be managed and minimised if you approach the job in the right way. There isn’t a single mammal on the planet that see humans as natural prey – the three most-dangerous animals in Africa are all vegetarian – so most attacks on humans are defensive responses to something we have done. Of course, that doesn’t mean you don’t encounter the odd scary moment.

The lion ‘incident’ happened when I was photographing for my book Lion Country, which accompanied the ITV series of the same name. I wanted to get a side-on image of a lion running. I was working with a ranger who came up with a plan of putting me inside a wire cage, from which I could photograph a wild lion running past. We built the cage out of 2-metre high chicken wire, held up by three posts and a tree, in one corner. I went inside and waited.

When the lion ran past, it did a double take and, rather than continuing on its path, stopped dead. It looked at me, then looked up at the tree. The one thing we hadn’t considered in our plan was that lions can climb. That was the one and only time I’ve ever found use for a monopod, which have become forever known to me as lion repellent sticks.

We could ask about the kit you use, but you’ve already covered it perfectly on your website (https://chrisweston.photography/cameras/) So, instead, we’ll ask what non-photographic equipment – or at least something that’s not regarded as ‘traditional’ kit – do you always take with you, and why?

This is going to sound a bit obvious but I think the most important bit of “kit” we often forget about is our mind. To photograph effectively, to find the hidden story in any scene or the essence of a subject, you have to be mindful. Yet it’s so easy to get caught up in judgement – the light’s not right, the subject’s boring, etc. – or to lose a connection with the subject because your mind is on the equipment or camera settings, that the picture taking process becomes a mind-less action. So I take away with me things that help me connect to where I am and the subjects I’m photographing. Music is a great activator for me, so my iPhone and a pair of headphones is essential kit in my camera pack.

How do you protect your kit when in extreme climates – and have you ever had any disasters or near misses where the elements or human error (yours or someone else’s) have come into play?

Keeping my kit in good working order is important to me and it’s mostly just common sense stuff. In dusty environments, like African and India, I have good quality (B+W) UV filters on all my lenses, and I clean my gear at the end of every day’s shooting. In the field, I try to change lenses with the camera inside a “clean” environment – a bin liner is ideal – to prevent dust penetrating the sensor chamber. In wet weather, I use camera covers. In extreme temperatures I avoid moisture build-up by keeping my gear at a steady temperature. I always carry essential gear onto the plane when I’m travelling. Of course, things sometimes go wrong. I once had a lens hood trodden on and crushed by a rhino!

What’s your workflow from the moment you get back to your tent/lodge or hotel to the minute you end up with an image you are content with?

When I get back to camp, I immediately download that day’s images to a portable hard drive. I keep the images on the memory card until I get back to the studio, so I always have a back up. At the studio, I transfer all the files from the assignment to my main hard drive, which has built-in redundancy. I then transfer everything into Adobe Lightroom, adding caption data, and cull any obvious misses. I then select the images I want to work on and I use a combination of Lightroom and Photoshop to complete processing, depending on the intended output, e.g. gallery prints, magazine editorials, etc. Some of my favourites I’ll put out via social media (Instagram and Facebook, mainly). Then it’s on to the next assignment.  In the From Vision to Print film on my website I visit the Scottish Highlands, starting my journey with an end in mind, revealing along the way the camera skills and compositional techniques I use to turn a visualised idea into a gallery-ready print.

Is there any one image that you look at now and think that even if you had the opportunity to go back and take again, you wouldn’t change a thing? 

I often think of photography as the pursuit of the Holy Grail. On the whole, I think the “perfect” image is unattainable because your emotional response to any image or creative work changes as you change over time. However, a couple of years ago, I captured an image of the great wildebeest migration in the Serengeti in Tanzania, which I have on my wall in my home. Every time I look at it, I see another story. It’s like a great piece of music, formed of multiple layers that, when they come together, create something more substantial as a whole. The image won that year’s Manhattan Arts International “ArtHaus” Award. 

Putting you on the spot here – if you had to be stuck in one location, and with only one species of animal to photograph, where and what would be your ‘desert island’ choice?

Choosing a favourite animal is a little like choosing a favourite child! It’s so hard to compare between species, they are all so different with different traits and characters. For example, if you had to socialise with primates, with a gorilla you’d play chess but with an orang-utan you’d go down the pub for a pint of beer. And I like both chess and beer, so how do you choose. However, if I had one last shoot, I’d go the Katmai National Park in Alaska to photograph the grizzly bears. I have a special connection with bears and, for me, Katmai is the last best place on Earth. 

What have you yet to photograph that’s top of your bucket list, and why?

I would love to photograph humpback whales, which I think are the most graceful, intelligent and empathic creatures on Earth. I’ve never taken an opportunity to do so because I have a very real phobia of deep water. But I’ve written into the Animals on the Edge film script a sequence involving whales, which is going to force me to face my fear. So maybe I’ll get to live that particular dream in the coming months. 

You’ve lead photography workshops and safaris in many fascinating locations. How do you managed to ‘turn off’ Chris Weston the photographer and ‘turn on’ Chris Weston the tutor, when in the field with fabulous wildlife to photograph?

It’s part of the job. When I’m photographing, I’m a photographer. When I’m leading a trip, I’m a guide and teacher. In some ways, it’s easier for me because I’m not a prolific shooter. Because I photograph stories, unless I have a story in mind I’m happy to put the camera away. But I also think that, if you have a group of clients who have paid you a lot of money to help develop their photography and learn new techniques and approaches to photography, it’s incumbent on you to deliver that service. Photo safaris shouldn’t be a way of getting other people to cover the cost of your photography, they should be about helping other photographers to grow.

What do you find most rewarding about tutoring photography?

When I see a client’s image making developing from grabbing record shots to creating insightful, emotional visual stories, personal to them, there is no better feeling. There’s a seismic shift between capturing the semblance of a subject – what it looks like – and capturing its essence. When I have a client make that shift, I feel a true sense of pride.

When did you get into film making, and why?

You know, it’s funny, but I remember the days when photographers viewed video as akin to the work of the Devil. Now, every stills camera has video capability and a lot of development in digital camera technology is all based around improving its video functionality. I fell into video almost by accident a few years ago, working with an ex-BBC cameraman on a completely unrelated project. I started to help out in the edit suite and instantly recognised how, as editor, you are the storyteller, working with lots of individual components – video clips-  that you piece together in a coherent way, exactly the same as a writer taking individual words to form sentences, and sentences to form paragraphs, paragraphs forming chapters, etc. I’m not at all interested in video filming but I do love to build stories in the edit.

Obviously the physical editing process for video is a different experience to stills photography. And with film you’re creating a narrative from all the elements you choose to use, rather than an individual still image that may sit within a set but also stands alone. What’s your approach to editing footage?

It really depends on what I’m working on and the length of the project. Just like any story, a film edit has a beginning, a middle and an end. For short films, I tend to work in that order but for longer projects I may work separately on individual sequences and then pull it all together once everything is completed. I always have an “energy” or pace in mind, so I’m often working to a particular piece of music, which helps me manage the “flow”. I work on the main story first, then I add the cut aways, then finally the sound effects. I start with a rough cut, slowly fine tuning it in each new edit – it’s amazing how taking a single frame out of sequence can make a huge difference to the flow and energy of a piece. 

Obviously the physical editing process for video is a different experience to stills photography. And with film you’re creating a narrative from all the elements you choose to use, rather than an individual still image that may sit within a set but also stands alone. What’s your approach to editing footage?

It really depends on what I’m working on and the length of the project. Just like any story, a film edit has a beginning, a middle and an end. For short films, I tend to work in that order but for longer projects I may work separately on individual sequences and then pull it all together once everything is completed. I always have an “energy” or pace in mind, so I’m often working to a particular piece of music, which helps me manage the “flow”. I work on the main story first, then I add the cut aways, then finally the sound effects. I start with a rough cut, slowly fine tuning it in each new edit – it’s amazing how taking a single frame out of sequence can make a huge difference to the flow and energy of a piece. 

Do you see yourself moving more into film in the future or will still photography always hold the bigger place in your heart?

Seeing myself as a storyteller, rather than identifying specifically as a photographer or writer or filmmaker, I will always choose the medium most suitable to the story I want to tell. However, for me, there is still something very special about the power and impact a single image can have, and the skill needed to capture in one frame a complex narrative.

Moving onto the online masterclasses, what made you start on this project?

I love teaching photography and hosting “live” workshops and seminars but, of course, the number I can run and the people I can reach is limited by time and geography. Online learning is the perfect solution. The videos are carefully planned to give students as close to an in-the-field experience we can give, they can be accessed in the comfort of home, in your own time and at your own pace, there’s a full student-support facility available through a private community group, and there’s the added benefit you can continually dip in and out of the lessons, as a refresher.

TPOTY Online Photo Tuition
TPOTY/Chris Weston Photo Tuition
TPOTY Online Photo Tuition
TPOTY/Chris Weston Photo Tuition

Are they aimed purely at wildlife photographers?

No. Although my specialty is wildlife, the technicalities of photography and composition and processing are generic across all genres. A compositional style that works for wildlife, for example, or the relationship between shutter speed, aperture and ISO, is as relevant to portraiture or sport or travel or landscape or street photography, etc. These courses are designed for all photographers, whatever their favourite subject might be.

What level of photographer are they suitable for?

Because the courses are very well structured, broken down into individual lessons within modules, they’re suitable for all levels, from people just getting into photography to more experienced photographers. 

You cover an immense amount of detail in these videos – it’s clearly a labour-of-love and also a great feat of organisation! Is there a hand-drawn (or computer generated!) flow chart somewhere that you created to plot all the threads needed for such a comprehensive endeavour?

It certainly was an undertaking to ensure we covered every aspect of camera technique and composition, and every nuance in between. I started the process by, essentially, writing a book version of the course. Then, working with a visualiser, we turned the book into a script. Once we had the script, we scouted locations and storyboarded the entire course. Then we set out to film all the sequences to make up the videos. Once we got the footage into the edit room, and built the sequences, we had to create all the graphics. It was a monumental task but a huge amount of fun to do and I felt a great sense of achievement when we played the whole course back, once it was done. 

How long has it taken to create these courses?

It’s been a huge learning curve, for both John and me. We made a few mistakes in the early stages of filming, which meant we reshot a chunk of material. It also took a while for me to get comfortable in front of camera. So the first one took longer than second and, on average, from concept to completion has taken us about 9-months of work for each course. 

We particularly like the fact that the course modules are in digestible ‘chunks’ and that you illustrate everything with example images. When creating the courses did you find yourself ‘splitting yourself in two’ – i.e. tutor and student?

That’s a great, great question! I think one of the hardest things for a teacher to do is go back to a point in time when the didn’t know what they’ve since been practicing for years, and put themselves in the shoes of the student. I think one of my strengths as a teacher is understanding that, and being able to mentally retrace how I learned particular techniques and skills, which enabled me to start very much at the beginning and work forward. It means I have empathy with the student and allowed me to produce the step-by-step style and structure that all the lessons are built around. 

Did it take you a while to adjust to being in front of the camera for a change?

I think I’m like most photographers, my natural place is behind the camera. And I can certainly say I’m far more appreciative now of the skills of good television presenters. At the same time, I’m a Leo and I’m naturally drawn to performance, so, once I get warmed up, I learned to enjoy the experience.

Do you plan any more online courses?

Yes. First, there’s the third part of this trilogy to complete. I’m also working on a wildlife photography course, some more detailed courses on the use of light, and I’m also working with some other photographers in specialist fields to create genre specific courses. My vision is to have a suite of courses available that support other photographers through the process of becoming the very best they can be.

BUY YOUR ONLINE PHOTOGRAPHY COURSE THROUGH THE TPOTY WEBSITE AND SAVE: Each online course is available at an online discount of 35% if you use this link out from our website. Alternatively TPOTY site visitors can buy both together for a further discount giving you both online courses – 100 video tutorials – for the normal price of one.