Photography first captured my attention as a child back in the early 70's. Both my Father and Grandfather where keen amateurs, and I loved their 'magic lantern' evenings when they projected their 35mm slides of our family adventures in glorious Fujicolour (or Kodachrome in my Grandfather's case) onto a big screen. Back then TV was Black & White and small. So these large, colourful images made a huge impression on me. One of my Father's pictures remains vivid in my mind's eye to this day. Taken on an idyllic Summer's evening when fishing up in the Surrey Hills, he captured Old Bury Hill Lake's mirrored surface. The lowering sun set the water afire and seared the clouds overhead. Blazing with glorious scarlets and golds, this image ignited a spark that was later to turn into my passion for photographing the relationship between light and water. On my tenth birthday I was given my first camera and it all went from there.
As a young family we holidayed extensively at Pevensey Bay in East Sussex and later, as my brother and I grew up, we went on to tour around the UK. My parents shunned busy resorts and packed tourist beaches. Preferring instead, remote bays and coves where we could fish, swim, snorkel, surf, camp and explore to our hearts content. Scotland, Wales, Norfolk, Dorset, Somerset, Devon and eventually Cornwall... It was these travels that instilled my love for the coast. Yet Cornwall was a revelation. The stunning beaches, clear sea and fantastic colours. At the age of 13, I made a promise to myself that one day I'd live there.
At school a brilliant Head of Art, Mr. Bowerman, took me under his wing and gave me free rein of the Art & Photography department. With an Olympus OM1, a well appointed darkroom and endless rolls of Ilford B&W film, I developed my camera and processing/printing skills. Experimenting and pushing my photographic and artistic boundaries, I learned to use a camera as a creative tool and not a scientific instrument. Flouting rules, I pushed it to create and capture 'fine art' impressions. When I left 6th Form, Anthony Bowerman's shining reference secured me a place at Epsom College of Art and Design, and thereafter a career in London's Advertising industry.
Art directing many leading photographers and working with top colour houses gave me invaluable insights into alternative photographic formats, approaches and developing processes. My career was my driving force through my twenties and thirties. I became a Creative Director and went on to set up my own design and marketing agency. I had a Nikon SLR and wherever I travelled around the world, it came with me. When I was 29, I returned to Scotland for the first time in 20 years. As I drove up through Glen Coe on this late April evening, I was rendered awestruck at the incredible scale and magnificence of the Highlands. The wonderfully rich, lowering light had a seismic effect on me. With eyes watering and heart pumping, I had to pull over, get out and just stand there gaping at the sheer majesty of the place. I had reached at a turning point in my life. Prior to this, I was more in to climbing mountains or going surfing. Yet I was now appreciating the beauty in my surroundings and my ropes and boards soon gave way to my camera gear.
Back at work, times were also changing. The new 'Digital' medium was rearing its head. It was 1991 and I'm in a photographic studio off Oxford St. looking sceptically at a new-fangled Nikon/Kodak DCS 100 hybrid. With its ugly silhouette, tiny 1.4mb images and eye-watering price tag (+£20k) I was wholly unimpressed. Working for blue chip brands, I refused to allow Digital Photography to extend beyond basic 'pack shot' use. Insisting on film shoots and scanning, my photographic head remained firmly stuck in 'analogue sand'.
Yet all the time the Digital Studio was evolving. Apple Macintosh computers were turning my creative department from a bustling, paper strewn garret housing an array of colourful, talented artists, into a sterile computer room. I watched on as great creativity, design, typography and finished artwork was undermined by limited computer skills, low processing power and trendy fads based around this new technology. The digital studio also heralded reduced budgets and a new streamlined production process. Soon my Visualisers, Typographers, Designers and Finished Artists were replaced by a couple of Mac Operators.
However, their skills evolved as did their hardware. The new Power Macs soon let an amazing programme called Adobe Photoshop, with its stunning graphic imaging capabilities, take flight. I was fascinated and eagerly learned my way around its labyrinth of layers and filters. For design and graphics it was a revelation and the business boomed. Yet I still steered well away from digital cameras. Apart from a couple of Sony 'point-and-squirts' for family snaps, I stuck with film for another 18 years.
So we come to the day in 2009 when and I'm hanging around for a delayed flight in Stansted Airport. Wandering down the magazine racks in W.H. Smiths, in a bad mood because I would be late for my meeting, I finished flicking through the motorbike, diving, fishing and surfing mags so I vacantly pick up a copy of a title called Digital SLR Magazine... and suddenly my photographic world changed! For I was looking, awestruck, at page after page of what I soon learned was superb RAW file imagery. While my head was in the sand, a whole new dimension in imaging brilliance and versatility had evolved. It was time for change.
After in-depth investigation, I e-bay'd my beloved Minolta semi-digital set-up (for a pittance!) and dived headlong into full frame DSLR. I invested in a Canon EOS 5D MKII, which at the time was a field leader, along with a range of lenses. Not only did this move expand my commercial design and marketing offering, but it turned my love for sea and landscape photography on its head.
Freed from carting rolls of assorted film stock around. Or sorting through endless contact sheets and shelling-out on expensive colour prints that I had limited control over. My DSLR now put me in charge. I already had all the studio hard & software to truly get the best from RAW and now it felt like I was back in the 6th Form dark room. I could shoot as many exposures as I wanted, and 'develop' them just the way I liked. A new window of opportunity opened-up and I jumped through headfirst!
I expanded my gear with a superb EOS 1DS MKIII and my commercial and personal work boomed.
I'm not interested in conjecture around which format is better. I learned my craft using Film, then evolved and migrated over to Digital. I got to grips with manual camera operation using the constraints of film and now extend this knowledge and skill through the expansive freedom of digital RAW.
For my seascapes, digital RAW simply has no equal. No more hesitation and missing the shot because of the 'mental shackles' of frame counting. Or reloading film on a storm-swept beach. Now I am able to change the ISO at will... what a blessing! The 'Exposure Triangle' is wholly manipulable all the time! And if it gets splashed, or frozen, the camera gear is tough enough to cope.
When I'm giving a talk at a camera club, what I do say to those who protest digital can make a bad shot good, is that they can't have seen what colour houses did with film. In much the same way as top photographers manipulated their film imagery in developing, I will consider every tool available in my digital studio. However, I don't do HDR, cut & paste, or use Stitching (other than for the occasional panorama). What I do, is use a range of manual handling, flash and filtering techniques, to capture the image 'In Camera'. Then I 'refine' it using post-processing, paper stock choice and print settings, to render the image as I saw it.
As for my choice of subject matter, I hark back to my childhood days. After years of 'sterile' shoots in commercial studio environments, the great outdoors now draws me like a magnet. Moreover, water and particularly the sea, with its infinite moods, states, and interplay with light, fascinates me. And maybe it's a reaction to those magic lantern evenings and the childhood impressions that are so deeply engaged in my mind, but I never shoot for black & white. I love the colours in nature and I want to extol them in my work. Also, my EOS 5DSR, with its 50mb capability, lets me produce artworks at the size where they come to life. I like to create large imagery that stands a second look. So I like big vistas, challenging composition and dynamic visuals. I also use a powerful flash gun to enhance my seascape images. It is a revelation just how a burst can bring out the true colours of a scene, especially through the golden hours. It can be used in tandem with varying ISO's and F stops to add definition and balance shadows. Add to this a wide selection of filters and processing techniques and my seascape approach is ever evolving.
My horizons have also broadened and I've been lucky enough to travel right across the UK and extensively abroad, to shoot some fabulous locations. Yet through all my wanderings, Cornwall's magnificent coastline and Scotland's glorious Highlands & Islands inspire me most. A thrill runs through me every time I set out with my cameras to wander across a deserted beach, or through a remote Highland glen. I love to spend days on end amongst these stunning surroundings, seeking new perspectives. Climbing towering peaks, wading deep margins or perched on surf-battered rocks, waiting with my camera... watching... hoping for that split second when the elements to come together and... 'Click'... Magic!
By the very nature of my subject matter and approach, I usually witness such moments in wonderfully detached solitude. Therefore I strive to impart the same feeling of splendid isolation in my images. To draw the viewer, 'in'
to the picture by conjuring the same sense of tranquility or visual excitement on a singularly exclusive level. As if You
alone where there to witness the event. Hence I rarely feature people or structures prominently in my pictures. Because such detail dilutes the seclusion I seek.
Talking of my approach, nothing excites or challenges me more than when watching nature play-out in my viewfinder and trying different ways of capturing it. Going back to Mr. Bowermen's teachings, this considered experimentation means my photography is still more creative freedom than a strict, technical exercise. I enjoy trying to capture the texture of a rushing wave... or a sun-lit crest frozen as it explodes over barnacled rocks... or the billowing ranks of clouds scudding high overhead as a storm brews on the horizon... Composing with the light, reflections, colour and textures... All coming together in a single, fleeting moment. This is what inspires me.
Back in 2011, I was delighted to win the annual 'Cornish Point of View' photographic competition. The first I had ever entered. This spurred me on and in 2012 I had encouraging success with my first solo Seascape exhibition. All this along with growing sales from my website, pushed me ever onwards. In February 2013, keeping that promise I had made to myself as a boy, I left London and the home-counties behind and moved to the tucked-away village of Crantock on the Atlantic Coast of Cornwall.
I pinch myself every morning when I look out my studio window. For each day offers new photographic opportunities and to have such magnificent locations on the doorstep is a true blessing. As is going out to explore new places around the county's remarkable coastline. It was this unfettered access that helped towards my being shortlisted for Outdoor Photographer of the Year, two years in a row.
Today my commercial photographic activities now often go hand-in-hand with my passion for land and seascapes. Much of my work appears in photo libraries, travel directories and in the marketing and communications materials I create for my clients.
In line with my move to the Cornish coast, alongside my commercial commissions and fine art print sales, I run One-to-One, B&B Workshops for photographers wishing to develop their own Seascape skills. This has proved hugely rewarding, both in personal and business terms. Many clients, of all ages, abilities and experience levels have left with some stunning images and fond memories. For me, nothing could be better!
© Chris Simmons - 2019