Evening light over Mt Fishtail and Pelorus valley from The Lookout, Bryant Range, Mt Richmond FP, Nelson Photo Shaun Barnett.
NZPhotographer Magazine’s Interview with Shaun Barnett – issue 17, March 2019
Shaun, would you care to introduce yourself?
I live in a Wellington house, nestled among trees, at the end of a path with 80 steps. The lounge windows outlook over the Remutaka Range and Cook Strait. My wife, Tania, and I have lived in the house for the last 20 years, and are raising our three children here who had to learn to walk uphill from a very young age! For the last 23 years, I have been a freelance writer and photographer, specialising in nature and the outdoors.
How and when did you get started in photography?
My first camera was a cheap, crappy Kodak one that came free with the Pink Batts when my parents were building a house. It took tiny strips of 110 negative film which produced very poor quality prints. Nevertheless, I got a taste for taking photographs, and by the time I went to university, had decided to get a decent 35mm camera, my first being a Pentax P30. After completing a science degree and parks and recreation diploma in the early 1990s, I began working for the Department of Conservation, and at the same time started selling photographs – initially to Craig Potton Publishing for their diaries and calendars, and also through the Hedgehog House Photo library run by Christchurch photographer Colin Monteath. In the mid‑1990s, I converted to Nikon cameras, starting with an F100. For most of the 2000s, I also shot medium format transparencies using a Mamiya 6X7, but started a bit late… digital was already starting to be a game-changer.
What equipment are you shooting with now?
I bought my first digital Nikon, a D700, in 2009. Recently I purchased a D850, which I love. It’s beautiful to hold, even one-handed, and I find Nikon cameras especially intuitive to use. I have a variety of lenses, mostly Nikon, and a carbon fibre Really Right Stuff tripod which is excellent for lugging around on a tramping pack as it is stable but light. I use graduated neutral density filters to hold back the exposure in bright skies, and – sparingly – a polarising filter when there are unwanted reflections.
You have a passion for tramping and travel… Tell us how that started.
I started tramping as a teenager, living in Hawke’s Bay, and have since tramped all over New Zealand, including a piecemeal traverse of the Southern Alps from St Arnaud to Milford Sound. As a young man, I was solely interested in New Zealand, but after meeting Tania, who loves to travel (and had been doing trips with her parents since she was a young girl), I began travelling too. We spent eight months in Alaska, the Canadian Rockies and South America in 1997–98, tramping, kayaking and travelling. And in the year we got married, we trekked the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal. Tania opened my eyes to the world. We’ve since taken our children overseas, to California, Italy, the UK and Ireland. My most recent trip was to Iceland, helping Rob Brown lead a group of photographers around there. A remarkable country, scenically diverse and striking, but also with a fascinating history, discovered by Irish monks who went there in tiny boatskin coracles.
How would you describe your photographic style?
I like to work slowly, usually on a tripod, but as I also like to move on and tramp to new sights and places; I don’t quite have the patience of my friends Rob Brown or Craig Potton – who will wait at the right location for the right light longer than me. I’m not a purist in the American nature photography tradition, in that I often include people, or tracks, or huts in my images. I like bold colours, but don’t favour HDR, and I think many landscape images are overprocessed. I’m guilty of it sometimes too. I’ve been influenced by nature photographers: the American masters like Ansel Adams and (my favourite) Eliot Porter; and also New Zealanders Craig Potton, Andris Apse, Rob Brown and Colin Monteath. Other New Zealand photographers I greatly admire are Brain Brake, Jane Ussher, Marti Friedlander and Ans Westra – especially for their skills at photographing people. Landscape photographers whose work I also appreciate are Tasmanian Peter Dombrovski and Scotland’s Joe Cornish. I’ll confess to being pretty ignorant about younger photographers. I’m not a perfectionist, nor especially technically brilliant. I mostly want to capture something of the flavour of my outdoor or travel experiences. That’s more important to me than getting something pristinely perfect. I like rocks and water, patterns in nature and have been experimenting recently with stitching together portrait shots to make landscape panoramas – inspired by my fellow photographer and friend Peter Laurenson. I also like being able to use my photography for a purpose. I’ve donated images to help with conservation campaigns – taking a leaf out of Craig Potton’s book, whose career has combined photography and advocacy to help stop native tree logging and to get national parks created. I think that’s a significant reason why his photography has been so enduring. He’s not only a great photographer but has a real passion and deep commitment to nature. I guess I’m saying that photography should sometimes be concerned with more than just making a pretty picture.
What has been your biggest challenge as a photographer?
Adapting to the digital age. Like many photographers who had learned the difficult art of mastering slide film, I found the switch to digital painful. It was like confronting a new language. Raw files need lots of work to get anything like the saturation and contrast of a well-exposed transparency. I’m a late adopter of technology, because I have no great love of it, except as a tool to record what I want. So when I finally went fully digital in 2009, I was way behind the game and had a lot of catch-up to do. I still don’t feel I’ve mastered how to process images exactly how I would like (I use Lightroom), but I’m getting better. I do concede that the advantages of digital now largely outweigh film: the dynamic range, the option to choose ISO per shot, the ability to get immediate feedback are all great attributes of digital. However, those attributes have flip sides. With digital, you tend to shoot too much, and not think enough about composition, like you had to with film, because it cost to take every shot. And I see some people spending too much time checking their screen, even when the light before them is going off! Then, back at your computer at home, the temptation to over-process is so much greater.
Where are your favourite places?
I love Wellington’s South Coast (where I live) more each year. I also have a particular fondness for the mountains of Hawke’s Bay, where I started tramping, partly because of nostalgia, and partly because they are under-rated. The biological and geological diversity of Kahurangi National Park makes it a pretty special place too. Overseas, I have a particular fondness for Tasmania, having spent seven weeks tramping and taking photographs there. Patagonia and Alaska are wild, huge landscapes with astonishing mountains, where I would like to return. The Skellig Islands, off Ireland’s south-western coast, are one of the most amazing cultural sites I’ve visited. Irish monks lived there for 600 years in conditions of abject poverty and hardship, existing in tiny stone huts. I was also mesmerised by a visit to Iceland in 2016, and I hope to return there next year with Rob Brown to lead a trekking group.
Tell us about your photographic and writing career… How did it start and where are you today?
For a couple of years early on I recorded my adventures using print film, with mixed results, but still took it seriously enough to use a tripod. However, it was a pivotal trip in 1990 with my friend Rob Brown that saw us both switch to slide film (this was then the standard if you wanted to get published in colour). On a weekend trip around the Pouakai circuit in Taranaki, Rob and I challenged each other to get the best images. This sparked healthy competition between us, which has continued as co-operation and friendship to this day. We both started selling photographs at roughly the same time in the early 1990s and would both lug enormously heavy packs with a 35mm and medium format camera (Rob took a large format 4X5 view camera), plus a range of lenses, flash and tripod, often having 8+ kilograms of camera gear each – plus food and gear for whatever trip we were doing. We did a month-long tramp from Mt Cook to Arthur’s Pass, and both carried packs weighing more than 32 kilograms. Back in those bad old days of film (we used 50 ISO film because it had the finest grain) taking a tripod was essential. If you got it right (not always guaranteed as you didn’t know until it was too late) side film like Fuji Velvia gave crisp, richly saturated images with fine grain, which was usually impossible for any amateur hand holding their camera. Now, the huge reach of instantly changeable ISO digital has eroded much of that advantage away. After working as a DOC ranger for four years, I decided to give freelance photography and writing a go. I wrote articles mainly as a way to be able to sell more photographs and contributed to local newspapers and magazines such as New Zealand Geographic, Forest & Bird, and Wilderness Magazine. I also contributed to Geo Australasia, Action Asia, and some UK travel magazines. After Tania and I got back from South America, Rob Brown told me he wanted to work together on a book, which was our first, Classic Tramping in New Zealand (1999) – published by Craig Potton Publishing. It combined photographs with thoughtful essays on some of the harder of the well-known tramps and won a Montana Book Award in 2000. About that time, I also got a lucky break when David Hall, publisher of New Zealand Wilderness magazine, asked me to be editor, which I did for three-and-a-half years. Rob Brown and I continued to work together, and have since completed two more books, Shelter from the Storm (2012) and A Bunk for the Night (2016), with a mutual tramping friend, Geoff Spearpoint. I have also written three guidebooks, a book on New Zealand natural history, and Tramping, A New Zealand History (2014) with Chris Maclean. I also edited the Federated Mountain Club’s Backcountry/FMC Bulletin for 10 years. In between times, I sold photographs to a range of calendars, overseas publications, books, and have had over 1000 articles published. Occasionally I’ve done commercial photography, such as recording the annual Wellington marathon, but it’s not really my strength. Recently I’ve begun instructing outdoor photography with friend Richard Young (New Zealand Photography Workshops), who is a talented teacher and much better with technology than I am. I’ve learnt a great deal working with him, and loved seeing the results that people can get with a bit of encouragement and tuition. I’ve also just completed a book with Chris Maclean called Leading the Way, a centennial history of the Tararua Tramping Club, which celebrates its 100th birthday this July.
What wisdom can you share about getting photos published?
The key thing about getting published is developing knowledge of the publication, and trying to establish some sort of working relationship with the editor. That’s really hard when you start out, and something you have to renew every time a magazine changes its editor too. The best piece of advice I can give is: don’t be casual about making a submission to a magazine or pitching a book idea. Find out what the magazine or publisher needs. Read the magazine. Know the publisher’s previous work (the worst thing you can do it pitch an idea that they have just covered). Think hard about what the readers might want, edit your own work hard, and don’t expect a quick response. Editors get hundreds of submissions. In this online age, I also think people are too willing to present all or most of their work online when that effectively kills the surprise or the originality of a fresh shot. Print magazines and book publishers like to have an impact by first presenting something in their pages, and only later having it reproduced online on their website or your website. Old school thinking, I know. That brings me to the whole conundrum of online versus print. What you can earn through photography has greatly declined over the last 10 to 15 years because many people are willing to put everything online, and to sell it for nothing. For that reason, photo libraries are almost dead. Websites are a great tool for showcasing your work to the world, but by saturation (excuse the pun) and devaluing the work photographers do, we are making it harder and harder to earn a living from it. There are lots of parallels there with the music industry or any other creative pursuit. If photographers are to make a living, we have to value our work more than that.
Any inspiring words to leave us with about following your passion?
Collaborate. Work with other people, and adopt a co-operative rather than a competitive attitude with other photographers. You’ll learn more, have more fun, and probably develop your own style faster. Diversity. You have to be willing to shoot what people want. Creating the most artistic beautiful image in the world might be a valid goal, but for magazine and books you need to shoot lots of different styles, and to some degree meet an audience’s expectations. To survive as an outdoor photographer in New Zealand you have to be diverse and adaptable. Shoot what you love and learn about it. To get good images of anything, I think you need some empathy with the subject and some knowledge of it. What is that alpine flower? Who is that person, and what is their story? What is the history behind that hut? Others are better judges. It’s hard to evaluate your own work because you were there when the photo was made and you know how hard you might have worked to get that image. But that doesn’t mean anything to someone viewing the image in isolation from the place where it was made. My publisher Robbie Burton, while not a photographer himself (and perhaps that helps), has a very good aesthetic sense, and I’ve learned to trust his judgement implicitly. He’ll often choose an image I had disregarded, or reject something I thought was really good. Know when to put the camera down. Photography can be the greatest avenue to arouse curiosity, to unleash creativity, or to record what you care about. But it can be intrusive and can destroy an experience. Once, I grew frustrated trying to photograph a Robin, which would not stay still long enough for me to get a decent shot. Then I realised my attitude was wrong. I needed to put my camera down, stop trying to shoot the bird, and instead enjoy the experience of interacting with a friendly native creature. Similarly, when travelling overseas, sometimes it is just not appropriate to treat the locals as photographic subjects, and if they don’t want their photo taken you should respect that. I think we can fool ourselves that just because we have a camera, we have a licence to shoot whatever we like.
Do you have an overall favourite photo?
One of my favourite shots is one I took on slide film during a snowfall at Harper Pass Bivouac, in Canterbury’s Lake Sumner Forest Park. It’s the only shot of my own that I have printed and framed on the wall at home. It’s possibly a bit grainy, but I like the tracery of the slow shutter speed snowflakes streaking over the background, and the almost painting-like effect it has with the leafless trees behind. And of course, the orange hut provides a contrast with the brooding colours of a forest in bad weather.
NZPhotographer Magazine’s Interview with Shaun Barnett – issue 17, March 2019