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Phototuts+ Reader Profile: Martin Lawrence

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In today's interview, we'll be talking to Martin Lawrence, a fantastic landscape photographer who regularly sells his work to magazines, collectors and publications. Martin has some fantastic advice to share for budding landscape photographers, and those wanting to make their hobby a full-time career!

Q 1. Please tell us a little about your background. Do you have a traditional education in photography, or have you moved into the field from another profession?

When I was very young, I used to sketch birds in my back garden. I admit I was not good at this. Obviously, other people noticed that I was not good at it also and my parents gave me a small camera as a present for my birthday suggesting that I may like to take some photographs of the birds instead! I found that I was much more successful at this and I gradually progressed from this small camera to a Pentax Progam A which, in those days, was quite the business.

I left school, joined the Civil Service as a clerk and lost interest in photography when I switched to golf where I became quite successful reducing my handicap to 3. After a few years, whilst still in the Civil Service, I joined the IT department ending up as a Senior Programmer. I didn't enjoy the work though really, I much preferred to be out in the open air than inside in a stuffy office.

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It was when I met my wife who was a keen fell walker and I started to take to the fells with her, that I dug out my camera from the back of the cupboard faced with some stunning scenery that just cried out to be photographed. Gradually by reading books on photography and experimenting with what worked and didn't work for me, my images began to improve. I visited and re-visited locations over and over again (and in fact still do) until the results were what I wanted to get.

I visited and re-visited locations over and over again (and in fact still do) until the results were what I wanted to get.

I soon purchased my first digital camera which was a Fuji Finepix, then progressed through to a NIkon Coolpix and finally on to my first Digital SLR - a Canon EOS 10D. Despite promising my wife that the last camera I bought would always be my final purchase, I have progressed through the Canon EOS 20D, Canon EOS 5D and on to my current camera the Canon EOS 5D Mark 2.

As my interest in photography grew, I decided to start a small landscape photography business called Lakescenes which I ran alongside my main job. As business increased, I found myself working long, but rewarding hours just to keep up with the demand. Soon I realized that I was enjoying my part time job much more than my full time one and I decided that this was where my future lay.

I decided to leave my job in IT and become a full time professional photographer. In March 2008, I re-branded as Martin Lawrence Photography and commissioned a new website to be built to enhance my on-line presence. This has successfully led to a big increase in internet sales.

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I hold regular exhibitions at the Moot Hall in Keswick and exhibit at several galleries in and around the Lake District area and in my home town of Preston, Lancashire. I supply images for calendars, websites, magazines and brochures and contribute to stock libraries. I now have a number of customers who collect my work both framed and on canvas. My love of fell-walking has allowed me to access and capture images of many of the places that visitors to the Lake District hold close to their hearts. ‘Memories on the wall’ is how I like to describe it.

As a result of many requests, I introduced One to One and Small Group Digital Landscape Photography Courses at the end of 2008 and these have been extremely successful. It seems to have filled a gap in the market for photographers looking for individual attention that focuses solely on their needs rather than those of a large group. I have had some great feedback from both beginners and more experienced photographers looking to improve their technique.

Q 2. The majority of seasoned photographers find and specialise in a particular niche. Which area of photography interests you the most, and why?

My main interest is landscape but I also enjoy wildlife photography. As I mentioned before, I am an outdoors person and I love fell walking and visiting remote areas which you can only get to under your own steam. I own and read many travel books and maps on England and Scotland. I love to sit down of an evening and pour over them looking for good locations that I can visit to get some great images and then I plan future trips around them.

Nothing thrills me more than taking images on some remote beach in Scotland, faced with a stunning seascape, where I know that no-one has walked for days. Jobs don't come any better than this.

Q 3. Could you walk us through one of your recent landscape shoots and explain some of the challenges you overcame to capture the final images?

One day last week I had given a course at Keswick which finished at 3 pm. During the course, we had visited Surprise View which gives a stunning panorama of Derwentwater, the Newlands Fells and the Skiddaw Massif. I always make it a rule not to make any of my own images whilst I am teaching, so when I dropped my participant off back at his car I went back to Surprise View but this time with my own camera gear. It was quite a good time of day to be out just before darkness began to fall.

I have visited this particular location on many, many occasions and never just managed to get the 'ultimate' image that I have been searching for.  Firstly, the location is a very popular drive out from Keswick and can be teeming with people at any time of day. Secondly, there is a huge expanse of water making it difficult to get in a good foreground and also include the fells in the background. Lastly, because the view is west facing the sun goes down behind the mountains before the effects of the sunset can be taken.

There is also a large contrast between the light sky in the background and the dark foreground. Therefore the correct use of neutral density filters is a must. Therefore ND grads are an essential piece of kit. I managed to get to the location without too many people being there and set my gear up. I took a meter reading on the dark foreground and a meter reading on the light background. There were two stops of light difference between the two areas so I therefore used a 2 stop ND grad to get the exposure correct throughout the whole image. I think the image I took looks good with good exposure and some great detail in both foreground and background.

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Q 4. Do you regularly travel to find new landscapes to photograph, or does the Lake District provide a regular source of inspiration?

The majority of my images are taken in and around the Lake District and nearly all my sales come from these images. There are popular spots where many visitors get to, and also an infinite number of less popular spots, some still quite remote where you can walk all day and see virtually no-one. This means that I will never run out of new locations to visit and draw my inspiration from.

I must admit though, I am increasingly drawn to the sheer grandeur of the Scottish Highlands and Islands which I am now visit more and more. There are wild and remote areas that differ vastly from the softer landscape of the Lake District. It is an exciting challenge trying to capture the beauty of the area.

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Q 5. What do you do with your photography work when completed?

Only about 1% or less of the images that I take ever see light of day beyond my own desktop PC. After a shoot, I usually upload the images to my laptop and choose which ones I think might be worth doing some work on. I then convert and work on those images and decide if any of them are good enough to go up on my website, into galleries or sell at my own exhibitions.

These I print and mount, some I frame, and others print onto canvas. I also submit images for books and magazines as a result of photo calls or for them to be held in a publisher’s own library for future use.

I back up all the images that I take onto DVD and also my current and past portfolio images onto a separate hard drive which I like to go through occasionally as you can often find some ‘little gem’ that you previously rejected somewhat harshly.


Q 6. How important are photography courses, and what can you learn in a one-to-one session that you couldn't through a website such as Phototuts+?

Personally, I only give one-to-one and small group courses for two or three friends or relatives. The one recurring comment that I get from participants is that they’ve already been on a group course and learnt very little because of the wide spread of abilities.

Attending one of my courses means that you get my undivided attention for the whole day. I can cover whatever you want to and in whatever depth you want it covered whether you are a beginner or an experienced photographer wanting to move to the next level.

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It’s the combination of the instruction and practical where the advantage of one to one sessions lies.

If you don’t understand something then you can ask me as many questions as you want to until you do. Some people find going into too much detail very patronizing and others need this detail because they don’t know the difference between ISO and aperture.

What you get from a photography course with me is an intense day’s tuition where you can not only learn but also put into practice what you have learnt in a controlled environment before going off on your own to hone your skills. I teach many people that have been to adult learning classes to learn photography but they say there is only so much you can learn from reading or instruction alone.

With one to one courses I talk to the course participant for a couple of hours, teaching them the techniques for good photography and to take their photography to the next level. We then go out into the field and put those new techniques into practice straight away. It’s the combination of the instruction and practical where the advantage of one to one sessions lies.

Q 7. Could you outline your photography workflow? What photography equipment and software do you use on a daily basis, and why have you chosen this particular setup?

I have been a ‘Canon’ man for my entire professional career. I currently use a Canon EOS 5D MK 11 full frame camera. I get many e-mails each week from photographers asking me what kit they should buy and I always give the same answer – you need to find out what lenses you like then get the best camera body that you can afford.

I always think it’s the optics that’s the most important. I therefore use 2 main lenses for landscapes, the 24 – 105mm L IS USM and the 16 – 35mm L USM. These are great lenses and are used for about 95 % of my images.

I have a Manfrotto 055 tripod with a Manfrotto 804RC2 pan tilt head. This is quite a sturdy tripod suitable for the sometimes inclement weather of the Lake District. Both the head and tripod have spirit levels which are essential when panning for great panorama shots.

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I have a set of Lee Neutral Density Graduated Filters which I use constantly and also a number of other Lee filters which I use less often. I also have a Lee polarizer which I find is essential when taking images including water as this reduces the amount of glare. A remote switch RS80 N3 helps reduce camera shake.

After a shoot, I come home and upload my images to see what I've got. What looks great on a small 3" LCD monitor on the back of my camera sometimes looks less great on my 24" monitor at home and, fortunately, vice versa. I upload my images using the Zoom Browser software that came with my Canon EOS 5D Mark 2 camera and usually do a slide show to get an initial impression of what I’ve got.

I then select which images that I’m going to convert from RAW so that I can edit them in Photoshop CS4 where necessary. I use Digital Photo Professional which is a RAW converter supplied by Canon. These images are then stored in suitably named folders. These folders and the remaining RAW images that I have not used are then ‘burnt’ to DVD using NERO software and archived for possible future use.

I make some basic adjustments to my images in Photoshop CS4 which consists simply of adjusting levels, some cropping and re-sizing and some stitching if I’m creating panoramas. I am a big believer in trying to capture the image on camera and to not over adjust using post processing software.

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Q 8. If you could give one piece of advice to aspiring landscape photographers, what would it be?

If someone wants an image that looks like a Colin Prior image then that's what they'll buy, not someone else's image trying to look like a Colin Prior image.

My one piece of advice would be to try and make your work, whether it's landscapes, sports, wildlife, or model photography, different to everyone else in that particular field. Try taking images at a different time of day, different angles, different seasons etc. than the norm to make your work stand out.

There's no point in copying someone else's work and then trying to sell it. It's already been done and there will be nothing unique about it. If someone wants an image that looks like a Colin Prior image then that's what they'll buy, not someone else's image trying to look like a Colin Prior image.

Don't re-invent the wheel. In this case, imitation is not the sincerest form of flattery. You need to try and 'move on' the image that you admire by creating your own style. I'm afraid that's the hard part - but the most rewarding - when it all comes together!

More of Martin's Photography

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