Blog: Interviews & Features
Taking a risk with a new career is something many of us think about. Gareth Allcock did just that, left his job in the city behind and moved his family up to Scotland. The objective? Start the photography business he had always dreamed of, along with the help and support of his wife and family.
With some of the country’s most breathtaking scenery within mere minutes of his house, Gareth is known for his meticulous approach and attention-to-detail – as well as his strict working routine, developed over many years.
Here’s the landscape photographer on why a pro will always say no, unusual sun-sets and his top tips for budding photographers looking for that perfect shot.
pictureframestudio: So who is Gareth Allcock? How would you describe yourself?
Gareth: How would I describe myself? A bit of a nutter [laughs]. We set up the business 5 years ago. We have a small photography studio business that works in landscape in England, and recognised the opportunity to essentially increase our portfolio by moving up to Scotland.
So at the start we had the classic, big family discussion, of which I decided to pack in my career as a marketing consultant and become a full-time landscape and commercial photographer. We were originally based in the Achnasheen area of Scotland, which is a very Jurassic area, and now we’re based in the mountains overlooking Loch Ness, which again, is perfect for subject matter.
I prefer to be on the mountain, and rarely come off it if I can help it – unless commercial photography work drags me from it! Essentially we specialise in mainly still-water photography. That is our expert area…that mirror-type loch scenery thing…sun-sets, sun-rise or a specific time of the day. We are now also branching out into mountain based and Munro based [the mountain] work. Everyone else has sort of done it already, but our approach to link water against it is has been responded to well by our client-base.
pictureframestudio: What does your main work comprise of – what would you say is your main area of interest?
Gareth: Well, the problem with landscape work is where we sell it. You see, we were originally a natural history business, and I have to say, I walked away from the wildlife side of things, despite having it on my door-step, on the basis that the buyer doesn’t really look for the quality anymore.
They usually go to Flickr first and take it from there. We sell a lot to basically people who come to the Highlands – as well as tour operators. They don’t want to see typical Flickr-type images…you know, dull rainy days, or endless tarmac roads alongside a loch. They want creative images, and that’s why we focus specifically on one of the hardest subjects to get, which is a perfectly still loch.
To give you an example, there’s one which we’ve just published for a local community trust…it had me standing up to my lower-thigh in not quite into the cold-zone, but minus 16…or the images of where we used to live, which was minus 26…
We always go for very specific images, we like to…we’re colour-driven, so I think that’s what we always look for. We don’t want to just capture an image. I’m trying to capture a specific type of colour. For instance, it could be the saturated blue of loch Garry. Again, the sky, and the colour of the leaves which here, at the moment, are just to die for. So…it’s that kind of rich colour against a perfect reflection.
pictureframestudio: Do you have any top tips for your fellow photographers?
Gareth: [Pauses for thought]. My top tip is a really, really hard one. There’s two, actually. Both were delivered to me in a rant by my wife, who had, if I’m honest, got tired of hearing me go on and on and on…I wasn’t getting that image that I was looking for. You know, that Glen Miller sound, the tortured artist thing…so the first tip is to say “No”. Where I currently live, I have to go past a hill, and on top of this hill you can see for absolutely miles. This Glen that I live in is often referred to as the lake-district of the Highlands, because there are lots of little pockets of lochs.
I saw a guy only yesterday with a 1 series camera – which is an expensive camera – good lens, in all his gear, and he’s taking a shot of a dirty, dull, rainy day. And you sit there and you say to yourself…what the hell are you photographing? I used to be the same as that guy, is the thing…you come up here for 2 days or 2 weeks or you go on a holiday, or you go into a specific situation – say on a Sunday – and you must take your photo. Now, in this situation, you must say “I’m not prepared to take that photo,” and you’ll then get the quality – keep going back until it is perfect. It’s a very hard thing to do, but it’s often the thing that turns an amateur into a pro – a pro will say no.
The second thing is…focus on one element of a landscape. For instance, the loch. Loch Ness, for example, is an absolute nightmare loch to photograph. It’s like a long river, which means that you rarely see the sides. So you don’t get a nice, converging image. So, how’d you break that up, how’d you do it? You work on something that is so specific in the foreground that it leads the rest in…so I go around, for instance, looking for stones that are protruding from the water…I only want two stones, or a single stump…something that causes you to focus on a single image. Rather than just trying to take a photo of a wonderful great big landscape where you might say “I can’t see anything here…” you focus on an image and, if necessary, break-up an image into a series of views.
The other thing, I have to say, is buy the right gear – and you have to research this. For many years, I tried to use polarisers…now I only use glass polarisers, and I have to import them from Germany. They’re two-hundred-and-eighty quid a time…it can be painful…especially when you put one on for the first time, don’t pay attention and it smashes…my wife’s the accountant, she didn’t have a good day that day [both laugh]. I didn’t understand gravity: she called it stupidity. Getting the right things matters…using filters which don’t distort colours, that kind of thing.
There’s only so much you can do with a landscape, and then you have to start controlling the light. For instance, contrast and distortion. If you haven’t got the gear – the right gear – you won’t do it….you’ll always be sitting there thinking it’s not quite what I thought.
And the last thing that I’d say, having said get the right gear, is that 98% or my work is research. I have a folder that is absolutely full with notes. Now I can’t really go wrong: I live in a weird place, where landscape is literally everywhere. But I can’t easily take a photograph today, because it’s bloody awful. But I know that I will go to a certain waterfall, and stand on the left-hand-side on the right day, and I’ll have a perfect landscape waiting for me. Because of the notes.
So I continually research…I never stop. In the evening, with a glass of wine, I build up a catalogue of views, by location, and even by suggested time, and time of year. So with the time, it’s quite specific. You don’t get it quite so much in England, but up here for instance I had to go and shoot a loch in a place called Brailbain, which is about ten miles off the coast, right at the top, not far from a certain nuclear power station. And the client wanted this because they were an estate owner, and this was on their estate. And I got there, and it was in March. I got back in my car and drove straight back. Said “No, can’t do it.” And they said, “well, I’ve got a photograph, you can do it.” So I said “when did you take it?” and they said, “oh, in June time.” So I said, “exactly, we’re in March…and the sun rarely leaves the horizon, is pure white and is in the lens in March – so we went back in June!”
But for instance we have other little problems. For example, direction. Lochs, for us, east/west determines which end we will take a photograph. Well Loch Ness, you can have a great scene, but, believe it or not, the sun rises here aren’t that brilliant. It’s the lack of pollution in the sky. We get cracking sun sets, though…absolute to-die-for sun sets. There was one only last week. The only way of describing it was a mustard yellow sky with varicose veins. It looked really weird, and where was I? In a car, travelling from a commercial shoot without my gear…so I was kicking and screaming. Happens all too often. So sun sets are great. Thing is, sun sets means westerly views, so if I find a great view and it’s pointing East, generally I don’ think again – it becomes a nice to have, rather than I must add it to the catalogue view and image [sic].
For instance, Strikers Castle that took me 9 years to get the photo I wanted. Dedication, or stupidity as my wife might say – I can’t work out which. And actually, the day I took it, it was completely out of character to what I wanted, but I happened to be there with my little girl, and I said “let’s just go and have a look and see if I can get it.” And there it was, it came out perfectly.
That’s the thing about this. It’s purely luck. You can put all the research in place, then it’s luck that often makes the image!
The research side I picked up quite quickly when I was a semi-pro, because when you’re in the right place, the loch works for you. It’s a matter of saying “is it going to work for me today?” If you try and rely purely on luck, and just driving around, you won’t do it. It’ll be worse in England than up here, because you have to be in a location with some fantastic views. When I was in Stafford for instance, it’s a lot of canal work, so it’s about getting those misty mornings. You can’t just turn up and think it’s going to happen. You have to already have researched and worked out the image, have taken the gear, and know that all you’re waiting for is mother nature to have done the job. I wish somebody had told me these things when I was starting out! The disappointment did used to hack me off.
But I’ve probably been more disciplined up here because…well, where do you go? I mean it’s literally anywhere and everywhere. I mean, this is my season now, theoretically. My season starts around September, through to about February, and I might get an extension of it because of the hour going back, where the light is perfect.
The big determinant for me is the ribbon test – I put a ribbon on a tree and if it moves I don’t go out. Now, I can have a perfect sky, I can have a perfect time, but if I’ve got any wind, and I haven’t made a note in my research that says there’s a shallow piece of water which will allow me to get that perfect reflection…also, I won’t shoot landscapes, generally, more than about a foot off the water. If there’s a ripple, that’s an easy photograph. But that doesn’t interest me at all – anyone can take a ripple. Now the fact that you haven’t got a ripple means that it’s been thought through. It could be either milked, if it’s a certain time of day, or better still, the water becomes a very, very thin white line in the distance.
The higher you are, the more you can see of the loch. The lower you are, the more you see of the foreground. And I’m standing in the water generally, so all I’m seeing is pure mirror. If I know I’ve got that, and my ribbon test is working, then I’m out like a shot. We don’t milk a lot of water, because it’s a technique that I think is a bit over-done these days – that’s where you put it on a low-shutter speed and hope that all the waves disappear, by the way.
pictureframestudio: And how about presentation: how do you like to see your work framed?
Gareth: Mike [from Picture Frame Studio] and I spent a long time discussing this. Purely a snow-white background, mainly, and a minimalistic frame. Because we’re working on colour, it only ever works on two formats – one is jet-black, the other is on white. Now, the problem with the black is that some landscapes can work extremely well. If it’s a mainly black picture, like in a sunset, however, then you have to push it onto white.
pictureframestudio: I’m sure some people are wondering who your favourite photographers are. Care to elaborate on that?
Gareth: Anyone that takes a good shot, I really do appreciate Colin Prior, I’ve got a lot of respect for that guy. There are others, but I’d say Colin…he looks for the colour, he looks for the structure and the composition. Very impressed by his work.
pictureframestudio: How did you get into photography? Where did it all begin?
Gareth: As a lad, I’d always done it. It’s just always been with me: my parents bought me an old Olympus OM, I was about 15 or 16.
pictureframestudio: Social media has grown immensely over the last few years, so what’s your take on it? How important do you think it is?
Gareth: As an ex-marketing consultant or as a photographer? [Laughs] Frightened by it totally, because it’s grown for all the wrong reasons and not the right ones. So I’m torn. I think it’s very important for my business, but Facebook, Flickr and so on definitely need to grow up when it comes to images…and therefore I don’t lose lots of money. So I’m looking at it from a commercial point of view. The fact that I can point a load of people to my web-page is great…I’ve got a few on Facebook and Twitter, the fact that none of the images are protected…I look at it from this point of view: Flickr structurally remove meta-data, so I find it very important to my business, but at the same time I’m absolutely terrified for it.
What upsets me [about social media] is that there doesn’t seem to be any discipline anymore. I know, or have heard about some people who have no qualms whatsoever about approaching someone on Flickr, rather than approaching a professional photographer. They’ll go to a Flickr person to give them a little bit of notoriety, without paying for it, and have no problem with copying or part copying the images.
To me, social media, lovely when it works, but I don’t see any of the engines trying in any way, shape or form to protect a content artist, and the new copyright laws that have come through in the UK don’t exactly provide us any real protection. In fact, it promotes the idea of taking, I think.
pictureframestudio: Lastly, how can clients book your services?
Gareth: The easiest way is to go online and do it that way, or, some of my clients have displays in hotels. A lot of our business comes from holiday makers wanting to re-imagine that vision of the landscape in their home…we get a lot from America. We even get a lot from China.
Another thing is, some people send us their images and ask us if we can improve them for them. Usually we have to say No, because the structure’s not there in the first place. Or you can have a go yourself at taking the images – we launched a guide recently on each image – where it was taken and how – all you have to do is follow the instructions and have a crack. Then give us a bell to discuss it if you want!
pictureframestudio: Thanks for talking to us today, Gareth.
Interview by Chris Pink.