Last Light Milford Sound – Ken Wright
NZPhotographer Magazine’s Interview with Ken Wright – issue 9, July 2018
Ken, can you tell our readers about yourself and your design & photography background?
I am originally from the UK. I lived in the City of Lincoln and went to Lincolnshire College of Art and Design from 1976-80. During my four years at Art College, I studied Graphics, Illustration, Exhibition Design, and Photography. I had not encountered photography before Art college and was instantly hooked. After a strange set of events in the UK, one of which was my mother passing at age 56, we made a monumental decision to leave our home and country and move to the other side of the world. It was one of those OMG moments, what if, someone told you that it’s all over at 56? What would you do? We left everything and everybody packed 5 suitcases, and with two boys (7 and 4) and my wife Karen pregnant with our third (it was the last week that she was allowed to fly!) we came to New Zealand to start a new life. That was 21 years ago, we are now citizens and love New Zealand. I have been very fortunate to have spent 35 years in the creative industry. During my time as a senior designer and creative director, I have art directed numerous excellent photographers both in the UK and NZ. Design-wise, my claim to fame is being a principle designer and team leader for the millennium banknote. After a health scare, I left the design industry in 2011 to focus purely on photography.
What are you shooting with?
Currently, I am shooting on a Nikon D750 which is about a month old. This replaced a D610 which alongside me took a bath in the sea! Thank goodness for insurance. I have been with Nikon from the beginning and I guess it’s a bit like the Ford and Holden cliché. Out of preference I mainly shoot ultra wide-angle with a 16-35mm Nikkor lens.
Can you describe your photographic style?
I would describe my work as “in your face”. I like my images to be close to the action. I want my viewer to feel that they can walk into the image. So most of the time I am shooting from right in front of the tripod to the horizon. I believe it’s what makes my seascapes more dynamic. I said at my first exhibition “If you are not wet, you are not close enough” however, as I found, there is a difference between being close and a drowned camera. Also, I would describe my work as “full-spectrum colour”. We live in a world of intense colour and I like to bring that out in my images.
You’ve spent 35 years as a graphic designer… How did photography become your career?
During my career, I have either art directed or taken images for brochures/adverts etc. In the early days, as a designer working remote, (and I don’t mean location – I mean before computers and internet) a designer was expected to cover all disciplines so there were many occasions when there was no ‘photographer’ to hand and you just got on and did the shoot your self. How I came to be doing what I do now is another story. About 11 years ago I had a run-in with bowel cancer and this stopped me in my tracks. With several months recovering I had time to take stock of my life and what I wanted to do. It’s easy to get caught up in life’s perpetual treadmill of career, house, car, toys etc when life is really about living. I changed my working week to give me Fridays off so that I could spend time on photography. This was more to do with doctors orders to find something less stressful than being Art Director and part-owner of a Design Group. In 2009 my friends pushed me into having an exhibition which became the catalyst for change. The final push came when my wife Karen was diagnosed with breast cancer. We decided to pull the plug on life’s treadmill and step off the grid. So here I am in Papamoa running photography workshops and living a simple life with Karen (we’ve been married for 32 years), boomerang kids (28, 24, 21), 2 dogs and 4 cats!
What advice can you give to our readers who are hoping to quit their day job to pursue their photography passion?
If you are passionate about doing something else, don’t wait for something nasty to force your hand or worse stop you. Life is for living and exploring it’s not a rehearsal. There is a lovely poem on a bronze plaque at the Blue Springs walk near Putaru which sums it up – Look up “Dust if you must”, and you’ll realise how much of your time is slipping away on things that are not important. Make it happen!
What’s the best thing about your work? And the worst?
The best thing is finding new locations or routes to places beyond where someone else would venture, meeting interesting people, and sharing knowledge and locations. I enjoy spending most of my time outdoors far away from my old office life. The worst thing is the mental torture of seeing a location with a fabulous shot and not being able to find a way to get there, it’s the stuff of nightmares!
How do you find locations?
Locations come from all kinds of sources. In the early days, I had no process, now with Google maps, PhotoPills, LighTrac apps, tide times, weather etc all on my phone, it’s a lot simpler to plan a trip. When planning a road trip I will spend quite a while moving LighTrac around on Google maps so I can plan which beach to be at and what time for the best light etc. A recent location find is a secret ‘hot water’ waterfall which I saw a picture of in a book at a motel. The author didn’t give the exact location but just enough to get me started – I managed to get within 15 meters without knowing I was right. So I bought the book and found that the author had included the GPS location in the footnote, game on! This waterfall is hidden in plain sight and it’s my fave spot to shoot right now.
Any funny or interesting stories you would like to share?
I had this idea to purchase a GoPro to film some of the more remote locations that we visit. So GoPro purchased, I’m off on an adventure with my friend Steve Allan who tags along for the ride – He is not into photography but loves the outdoors and I take him for support in remote places, helping me to cross rivers, passing me gear in precariously balanced positions etc. So the idea was to have Steve film these events but then he pointed out that the moment Karen, my wife, were to see where I was going and what I was doing I wouldn’t be allowed out to play any more! So, I have the most unused GoPro in the business!
What was it like owning the Lightwave Gallery?
The gallery was a pipe dream that we made happen. I wanted a space to exhibit my images. Initially, we exhibited at The Cargo Shed in Tauranga. This opened the door to a group of like-minded creatives that also needed a quality space to exhibit. We had the gallery for two years and it was a blast. We undertook projects that I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to do otherwise. I created a large photographic piece of the Matapihi Rail Bridge (seven canvases bolted together) which is now part of the civic art collection and hangs in the ASB Arena. Sadly, owning a gallery is not what it seems, the romantic version is very different from reality. The reality is two-fold, once you stop being a photographer and you become a shopkeeper, the other is a financial reality, in a seaside town you make money during the summer then use it to stay afloat during winter. In the time we have been in the Bay of Plenty we have seen numerous galleries close for similar reasons. Don’t get me wrong it was a great time in our lives and we wouldn’t trade that experience for anything.
What has been your proudest moment in Photography to date?
This has to be being asked to be the guest speaker at the 2015 PSNZ National Convention which was held in Tauranga. It was an honour to be on stage with Christian Fletcher (Australia), Guy Edwards (UK), Juliane Kost (Adobe USA), and Kevin Clark (Christchurch). I must say I did feel slightly “the poor relation” but their work inspired me to create better images. I have also made lasting friendships with people at the Tauranga Photographic Society who often ask me to speak at club nights.
‘Painting with light’ certainly sums up your work – what tips can you offer our readers for capturing such stunning scenes?
Firstly, can I say, I’m not in the business of selling ‘photographs’, I’m in the business of selling art, capturing the light is the starting point for my images which I call “painting with light”. Early on I got frustrated with not being able to capture all the information in one frame and that’s because in extremes of light the exposure difference between the sky and foreground can be numerous stops. Even with expensive filters you still get “blow out” around the sun so inevitably I would need multiple exposures to capture the whole dynamic range which then gets reassembled in Photoshop to give a higher dynamic range. Most cameras only capture about half the dynamic range that your eyes see. I have my own way of doing HDR using layers and multiple exposures which has now lead me onto image stacking using a series of short exposures to record the travel of a wave as it spills and crashes over the rocks. Layering all the images tells the story of what happens in that location. This is where a 5-second exposure would turn water to mist but 10 half-second exposures or less layered up will show the dynamic movement of the water. The black and white image of Otarawairere Bay waves is a combination of 5 images. The morning that I took this workshop there was very little wave movement and a flat sky, I showed my students how to take a series of images like a time-lapse. Each wave exploding or spilling with a view to blending all into one image. The sky was about 30˚ to the left so after the wave we rotated to capture that image, the sky was there it just wasn’t in line. This is an exercise in creating a piece of art in a location that’s not playing ball. Christian Fletcher summed this up with his sky replacement argument. If you have gone to Iceland and you’ve paid a fortune to get there and there is terrible weather or lack of a good sky at the waterfall you want to shoot, do you not bother or do you shoot it with intent to add sky later and save the image? With this in mind, I managed to save an image from Thailand of James Bond Island, 10 days and no sunrise or sunset, just a milky grey sky. So using his technique I salvaged a handheld 5 image panorama with a new sky and a desaturated look to create a dynamic image.
What else do you want to share?
I think it is only right to acknowledge some people that have helped me significantly and supported me through my transit from designer to photographer. Firstly, Karen my wife who I have known for 38 years. She has supported me, has been a friend and soul mate through thick and thin. Lindsay Keats and Lance Lawson both professional photographers based in Wellington, thank you for your support and advice. Tony Gorham and Richard Brooker for helping with the trial runs for workshop scoping.
NZPhotographer Magazine’s Interview with Ken Wright – issue 9, July 2018