Photography first captured my attention as a child back in the late 60's. Both my Father and Grandfather were keen amateurs, and I loved their 'magic lantern' evenings when they projected our family adventures onto a big screen in glorious Fujicolour (or Kodachrome in my Grandfather's case). Back then our TV was a small black and white affair, so seeing these big, colourful images made a huge visual impression. One of my Father's pictures remains vivid in my mind's eye to this day. Taken on an idyllic Summer's evening when we were fishing up in the Surrey Hills, he caught Old Bury Hill Lake's mirrored surface as the lowering sun set the water alight by searing the clouds overhead. This image sparked what was to turn into my passion for photographing the mesmerising relationship between nature, light and water. On my tenth birthday I was given a 35mm Kodak camera and it all went from there.
As a family, we holidayed extensively around the UK. Shunning busy resorts and beaches, my parents always sought secluded shorelines where my brother and I could swim, snorkel and fish to our hearts' content. Sussex, Norfolk, Dorset, Somerset, Devon, Snowdonia, Scottish Borders and eventually, Cornwall; our adventures instilled a deep affection for the coast. Yet Cornwall was the revelation. With its vast golden beaches and crystal clear sea, I immediately fell in love with the place. I was 13, and when it came to going home, I made the precocious promise to my parents that one day I'd live here!
At school, Mr Bowerman the brilliant Head of Art, made this my favourite subject. He took me under his wing and soon gave me free rein of the Art & Photography Department. With an Olympus OM1 SLR, a well appointed darkroom and endless rolls of Ilford B&W film, I developed my camera and processing/printing skills. I was free to experiment in extending my photographic and artistic boundaries, I was taught to use a camera as a creative tool and not a scientific instrument. To flout the rules and extend the taking and developing processes to create my photographs. When it was time to leave 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.
Here I art directed many leading photographers and worked with top colour houses. I gained invaluable insights into alternative photographic formats, approaches and processes. My career was my driving force and I soon became a Creative Director and went on to set up my own design and marketing consultancy at the age of 28. I travelled extensively and always carried an SLR with me. Yet in truth, in constantly overseeing and doing studio shoots, where every highlight and shadow could be controlled, I was not inspired by this sterile environment and the edge was taken off my passion. Soon a burgeoning interest in mountain and sea sports took over, and apart from occasional bursts, my photography took a back seat.
That was until 1987 when a mix-up with a girlfriend's passport curtailed a much anticipated, all expenses paid trip to the Cannes Film Festival. On a stroppy whim, I hefted her bag into the boot and we headed for the M1 in a stony silence. I had decided we were going to Scotland.
There's a colourful story about the evening a 'yuppie' in a red Porsche pulled-up outside a pub on the outskirts of Kinross and went in with Filofax in hand to ask for a room. For despite a frosty reception, let's just say the outcome was surprisingly good and after many hours with a crew of hard-drinking locals, I emerged next morning with an incredible route around the Highlands that I was to retrace for the next five years. It was an inspired tour that was distilled from the many vocal suggestions of some lovely people who knew their land and kept us off the tourist trail. Just a few hours after saying our farewells, as I drove up through the Pass of Glencoe, I was quite honestly awestruck! The magnificent scale and beauty of the mountains. The vast lochs and rushing rivers. And the wonderfully rich atmospherics that swathed the rugged vastness had a profound effect on me. With eyes watering and heart pumping, I had to pull over, get out and gape open-mouthed at the simply breathtaking majesty of my surroundings.
I had reached at a turning point in life. Prior to this, I was in to the exciting adrenaline rush found in surfing, diving or climbing. Yet after this first Highland tour, I found myself fundamentally moved by such wonderful surroundings, and my boards, tanks and ropes soon gave way to my camera gear.
Thereafter, I constantly yearned to be amongst the Highland wilderness, camping, climbing and trekking. When I couldn't, I often headed for Cumbria and importantly, Cornwall, where I reacquainted myself with the county's stunning coastline. Looking at it in a new light through my viewfinder.
Back at work, times were also changing and the word 'Digital' had entered the creative vocabulary. Since 1985 I had been using digital retouching suites (costing millions), that took an hour to do what film photo-comping would have struggled to do in a day. In 1991, I was in a photographic studio off Oxford St. looking sceptically at a new-fangled Nikon/Kodak DCS 100 hybrid camera. Even though it boasted 'immediate' results popping-up on to a laptop screen - so no more polaroids and film processing - with its ugly silhouette, temperamental performance, shabby 1.4mb JPG images and eye-watering price tag (+£20k), I remained wholly unimpressed. I was working with blue chip brands and refused to allow digital photography to extend beyond 'pack shot' usage. Insisting on film and high end scanning, my analogue photographic head was not for turning!
Yet the 'Digital Studio' was evolving. In just a few short years Apple Macintosh had turned my creative department from a loud, bustling garret housing a colourful array of talented artists, into a grey, sterile basement computer room. I watched on as dynamic creativity, talented design and inspired typography, was undermined by limited computing skills, low processing power and trendy fads based around the software limitations of this emerging technology. Yet Digital was destined to win. For while it was driving down creativity, it was a far, far cheaper option and the 'beancounters' loved this. So a new entity called the 'Human Resources' department was formed in agencies, seemingly to hand out P45's in the Creative Department. I had reached the lowest point in my career and a couple of tough years followed.
However, it was not doom and gloom for long because digital hardware and software evolved incredibly quickly. New Power Macs soon let an amazing programme called Adobe Photoshop take flight, and its phenomenal image processing capabilities, quickly made the multi-million pound digital retouching suites obsolete. I was fascinated and eagerly learned my way around its labyrinth of layers and filters. For creative graphics and imaging, Photoshop was a revelation. And along with some talented colleagues and valued clients, my newly set-up 'creative hot-shop' in Covent Garden boomed.
Digital also hinted at what was to come for my personal photography. For now all I had to do now was get my 35mm film processed and contact sheeted. Thereafter I could scan my negatives using our desktop, flatbed scanner. Then, after taking them through Photoshop, I could print my images using the new inkjet printer. Without the need for film processing, contact sheets and colour houses, I was back in control. Yet I still steered away from Digital SLRs, and apart from a couple of Sony 'point-and-squirts' for family snaps, I doggedly stuck with film for another 16 years.
So we come to the day in 2009 when and I'm hanging around for a delayed flight in Stansted Airport. In a bad mood because I would be late for my meeting, I am browsing the magazine racks in W.H. Smiths. Having flicked through the latest Motorbike and Diving mags, I move on to Photography and vacantly pick up a title called Digital SLR Magazine... And my photography world was rocked!
For I am looking at page after page of superb 'Raw' file imagery. While my photography head had been wrapped up in film, a whole new dimension in digital imaging brilliance and versatility had evolved and it was time for change.
After in-depth investigation, I e-bay'd my beloved Minolta semi-digital/film set-up (for a pittance!) and dived headlong into Full Frame DSLR. I went for 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 landscape photography into a passion!
For I was now completely spontaneous down on the tideline. My DSLR now put me in complete control. I already had all the digital hard & software assets to get the best from Raw, so 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 wanted. What's more it was all in glorious Adobe RGB Colour and I didn't look back. A new window of opportunity opened-up and I jumped through headlong. I quickly 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 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. Yet I never present composite or HDR images, as I see such images as 'computer graphics'. Instead I capture what is presented before me 'in camera', through manipulating manual settings and advanced filtering and lighting techniques. Then, using only considered, refining, post processing, I create high resolution fine art images suited to reproduction at the large sizes I prefer.
For my Seascapes, Digital Raw has no equal. There's no more hesitation and missing 'the shot
' because the mental shackles of frame counting are gone. No more loading film on a storm-swept beach. No being tied to a particular image that the film ISO can achieve. Now I can change the ISO at will... what a blessing! The Exposure Triangle is wholly manipulable at any time. Composition, filtering and lighting considerations now came to the fore and the exciting spontaneity really gets the adrenaline flowing. What's more, the gear is so robust. If it gets drenched or frozen, it's rugged enough to cope.
When giving a talk, what I say to those purists 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 'refining' tool available in my digital studio. Then I select a paper stock and print settings that render my 'fine art' Seascape image exactly as I saw it in my mind's eye.
As for my choice of subject matter, I love to be out on the coast. For here the sea draws me like a magnet. With its infinite moods, states, and interplay with light, it fascinates and mesmerises me. I can watch it for hours and I feel at home here when alone with with my cameras. 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 visual tranquility or dynamism on an exclusive level. So they too witness the moment 'alone'. Hence I rarely feature people or man made structures in my seascape photography. Because such detail dilutes my visual message. Technology also evolves and my EOS 5DSR with its high definition 50MB capability and Photoshop CC, lets me produce incredibly detailed works where natural colour comes to life. I use it to create large 'vista' imagery that stands more than just a second look. So I like stunning, unspoilt locations and dynamic, graphic composition. Likewise I like to focus in on the waves themselves. The raw power and energy in churning water, or the fluid, flowing textures and reflections create an image in itself. So I employ a long lens (70-200mm or 100-400mm) and my EOS 1DS MkII, with it's high image capture/processing rate, along with a gimbal head on a tripod, to catch the light, energy and motion.
Regarding Colour vs Black & White. Maybe it was those childhood magic lantern evenings that are so deeply engraved in my psyche but I never shoot for black & white. I love the colours in nature. Mother Nature never messes up her palette and I want to extol them in my work.
As for camera handling, nothing excites or challenges me more than when nature is playing-out in my viewfinder and I'm exploring different ways of trying to capture the energy, atmosphere and dynamics. Going back to Anthony Bowermen's teachings, this considered experimentation means my camera handling is still based on creative freedom rather than a strict, technical exercise. When waves are rushing in as clouds scud across the sun, there's no time to look at histograms and I expose to the slightest flicker of my 'highlight alert'. I enjoy trying to capture the texture of a rushing wave... or a freezing a sun-lit crest as it explodes over barnacled rocks... or detailing the billowing ranks of clouds as an Atlantic storm brews on the horizon... Composing with the light, reflections, colour and textures... And composing with the rhythm to the sea, knowing there is a regular pulse that can be manipulated to find order amongst chaos... Watching the elements meeting the tidal state and predicting and preparing for what will be happening in a few hours, minutes and seconds... All in the hope of everything coming together in a single, fleeting moment. So I will manipulate ISO's and f stops, to gain infinite detail and exciting motion. I use a whole array of filters to reduce overpowering sunlight, balance daylight, and hold colour. It is filtering that helps to create and capture mood. I also harness the power of a flash gun, to reduce harsh shadows, present natural colours and selecting 'Rear Curtain Sync' helps pin a rushing wave on the sand. Bounced flash strengths can be used in tandem with varying ISO and f stops to add definition, freeze action and bring forward foreground details. All this manipulation opportunity and capability is what inspires my camera handling.
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 always call me back. A thrill runs through me every time I set out with my cameras to wander across a deserted Atlantic Coast beach, or along the shores of a Highland sea loch. I love to spend days on end amongst these stunning surroundings, seeking out new perspectives. Climbing towering peaks, wading deep margins or perched on surf-battered rocks, waiting... watching... hoping for those split seconds when the elements to come together to create a bit of visual magic!
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, I concentrated on seascapes and in 2012 I had encouraging success with my first solo exhibition. All this along with growing sales from my website, urged me onwards. In February 2013, keeping that promise I had made to myself as a boy, I 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 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 activities now often go hand-in-hand with my passion for seascape photography. Much of my work appears in stock libraries, travel directories and marketing and communications materials. And in line with my move to Cornwall, alongside my commercial commissions and fine art print sales, I run One-to-One Cornish Seascape Workshops for photographers wishing to further their own camera, post processing and printing skills. This venture has proved hugely rewarding and many clients, of all ages and experience levels, have left with stunning images, expanded skill-sets and fond memories. For me, nothing could be better!
© Chris Simmons - 2020