John’s wanderlust prompted him to pick up a camera to document his travels. Originally focusing on wildlife and landscapes, today, he’s passionate about capturing the essence of his human subjects. Check out his story below.
Say hello to John:
Where are you from? Where have you been?
I was born in Blackpool, England. I spent the first 20 years of my life figuring out how to escape. A couple of weeks before my 21st birthday, I went to visit friends in the USA for a month, and became hooked on traveling. I’ve visited much of the eastern USA from Florida all the way up through to Canada, and some of Europe.
What’s your favorite place in the world?
This is a tough one, but when the weather’s good, probably The Lake District, in Cumbria, England. The landscape’s just fantastic. Everywhere you look is a beautiful backdrop to make a portrait.
You’re really into reptiles – can you elaborate on this passion?
I got into reptiles at the age of about five. My parents bought me one of those giant kids encyclopedias, and it had a picture of a Komodo Dragon in it. When they wouldn’t let me have one, or any other kind of reptile, I kinda lost the fascination over the years. After spending some time in the USA, and seeing all the wild reptiles in various states, my passion reignited. I’ve kept all manner of lizards and snakes since then, and worked with a lot of venomous ones (mostly cobras), but these days, I just have a pair of Asian Water Monitors; Darwin and Massey. I still can’t have a Komodo Dragon, but these guys are the closest thing.
You’re also a writer for DIYPhotography and a tech-expert – tell us about those aspects of your career.
I don’t know about expert, but I’ve always been a bit of a geek. I like to understand how stuff works. I’m a big gadget freak, but only with practical gadgets. I don’t get new toys just for the sake of having new toys. If I can’t actually do something useful with them, they’re no good to me. Writing for DIYP, I kind of just fell into. I’ve written for sites in the past. Sometimes about reptiles, sometimes about photography, but I never really considered myself a writer. I’m just a photographer with a keyboard.
Do you get photographer’s block? If so, how do you overcome that?
I used to, regularly. I still kinda do, but the trick I found was to write down lots of notes. I get ideas for shoots all the time. I find a new location, I get ideas right away. I’m walking down the street and I see something cool, I get an idea. I’m watching a movie, I get an idea. So, I jot them down on my phone, and my notes sync up to my other phone, tablets, computer, etc. When I’m stuck for something to do, I just look at my notes. Then, either I shoot one of those, or they inspire a new idea.
What response do you hope to evoke from viewers of your work?
I’ll tell you what I don’t want. I don’t want people to look at my work and think “Man, that’s an awesome shot!”. Perhaps the animals, but not the stuff with people on location. I want people to look at my location work and be able to imagine how it felt being there. I want them to look at it and think “I wish I were there right now”, or “I wish that were me”. I guess I want the photography to be invisible in a way, kind of like being sucked into a good movie.
What’s on your “bucket list” of visual creations?
I don’t really have much of one, at least not with people. Generally, if I get an idea that I want to shoot, I just find a way to make it happen and go shoot it. There are a few locations around the world I can’t pronounce that I’d love to photograph people at, though. I’ve got a list, and when the right person shows up for each, and the right prices come up on flights, I’ll tick a few of them off. A couple of things I do want to do, are things I wouldn’t normally shoot, which is wildlife. I want to photograph black mambas and nile crocodiles in the wild in South Africa, and I also want to finally see and photograph wild Komodo Dragons. They’ll happen one day.
How would you describe your visual style?
I’m not sure. I’ve never really thought about it. Other people tell me they can see a style to my work, but I don’t see it myself. I just know what I like the look of, and that’s a nicely lit and exposed subject on a dark background that still has a lot of shadow detail. I tend to drag a lot of the midtones down to the shadows, but I don’t crush them to complete blackness.
Tell us about your career. How did you get into it?
I started because I wanted to document my travels and the wildlife and locations I was seeing along the way. When I first picked up a camera, people were the last thing I wanted to photograph. It started in Florida, I wanted to photograph the wild reptiles. Alligators, rattlesnakes. I started with a Nikon N90s and made the switch to digital in 2002 with a pair of Nikon D100 bodies. When I finally settled back in England, all of that crazy wildlife was gone, and I didn’t even pick up my cameras for a year. Then one day, I decided I needed to make some use of this equipment that had cost a small fortune and decided I’d try people. I spent 6 months stalking Joe McNally and other portrait photographers I admired online to try to learn how they did what they do. Then I went to a couple of big group shoots (a dozen or so models and a dozen or so photographers) at huge locations (big enough that everybody could disappear and do their own thing without getting in each other’s way). I’d got a couple of shots in my head planned out that I wanted to try and create, and I made those same two photographs with every person I shot with that day, haha. It taught me some great lessons on how the same light can appear differently on different people, and that fascinated me. I was hooked from then on.
What is your favorite type of photography?
Well, continuing on from the previous question, now I’d rather photograph people than any other subject. Animals in the studio is a pretty close second, though. Not just the usual dogs and cats, but unusual animals. I’ve photographed a lot of birds of prey and reptiles in the studio, which is always great fun. You never know exactly what they’re going to do. They don’t take direction all that well, but the unpredictability makes it exciting and interesting for me. For people, I just find it absolutely fascinating. How people look and who they are as a person has always been interesting to me. I saw a post on Facebook the other day that asked “What’s the difference between a snapshot and a portrait?” and without hesitating, I replied “A snapshot shows you what they look like. A portrait tells you who they are”. And that’s what I love about photographing people. I want to show who they are in the photographs, not just what they look like, anybody can do that. It’s the little details that most people don’t pick up on, but those that know the subjects well, do. The random habits, expressions and personality quirks. When one of my subjects’ friends looks at an image and says “That is SO you!” I know I’ve done the job I set out to achieve.
What is the strangest situation you’ve ever faced as a photographer?
Well, there was that time a 7ft female king cobra left venom all over the front element of my lens (yes, really). I’d setup a clear plexiglass shield with a hole cut into it for my lens to poke through. We were photographing her for a magazine and, well, she wasn’t in the best of moods that day. She was constantly striking towards me, hence the shield, but sometimes you really underestimate their reach. She only made contact with my lens once, and I knew I was safe, but it scared the crap out of me for a couple of minutes.
Of the photos you’ve taken, which three are your favorites?
This is one of them. I shot this in 2010. The model, Collette, had just had her head shaved for a music video (part of the video was the actual shaving of her head). Her plan was to keep it that way for a month or so, and then let it grow back. I’d shot with her a couple of times before, but when she posted a quick snap of her stubbly head to Facebook, I sent over a message and we chatted through some ideas. We just had to shoot. I had access to this really grotty shop basement in Blackpool (thanks, Dave!). This basement happened to belong to a Sci-Fi shop, which meant lots of props. The first thing that sprang to my mind when I saw Collette’s new do was Alien 3. Everything just fell into place. We got the shots I wanted, but I just had an idea for an image I wanted to make, and this was it. We did a couple of tests just to tweak the lighting and then got this. It’s been one of my most recognisable images ever since. As a result, Collette ended up keeping her head shaved for the next couple of years. She even got a part as one of the bald aliens in Guardians of the Galaxy. 🙂
Next up… This is Thaddeus. This was part of a small group shoot around Manchester that a model friend of mine had organised. She was moving away and getting out of modelling and wanted to spend a day hanging out with her friends. Fellow models and photographers, just shooting around Manchester. For some reason, I’d decided to shoot film. Ilford FP4+ black and white in the N90s I’d bought so many years before. This was the first roll of film I’d shot in 10 years since switching to digital. I’d never actually developed my own film before, either. I’d always had a local lab do it in the past. This was also the first time I’d worked with a male fashion model who really knew what he was doing. Overall it was an amazing day, and we all got some great shots, but this is one of those images that’ll stay in my portfolio forever, I think.
Finally… This is where it gets really tough, but I think I’m going to go with this one. This is a Chilean Blue Buzzard Eagle, photographed in a classroom at the National Centre for Birds of Prey in Yorkshire, England. Each year, they hold an event for falconers, those who fly and hunt with birds of prey. There are vendors selling falconry equipment, some of the world’s top wildlife artists showing and selling their work, and the centre puts on flying displays and talks throughout the day in an outdoor arena. At the time, my dad had a company that sold falconry equipment. He’s been flying birds of prey for over 50 years now, and knows almost everybody that regularly attends game fairs and falconry fairs around the country. He knows the owners of the centre very well, and the topic of photographing some of the birds came up. So, one evening, after the show was over and the centre was closed to the general public, I had a classroom all to myself that I could setup as my studio, and some of the birds from their display team were brought in for me to photograph. This particular bird had a certain attitude about her that said “Ok, I’ll put up with your photography bullshit, but I refuse to enjoy it”. Within just 3 or 4 minutes, she’d had enough and wanted to be taken back to her enclosure. But she stuck around just long enough for me to get this. Despite being the most difficult to try and coax into a position that would work for the lighting, she was the bird it was most effective on. I photographed peregrines, black kites, owls and all sorts of other birds that evening, but this was the shot I kept going back to.
What’s the best advice you can think of for someone just starting in photography?
I know it’s a cliché, but quit worrying about gear. Really. Figure out what the hell you want to even shoot first. When you do buy gear, consider trying used. Sure, you may not want used, but buying used, trying it out for a few weeks, then reselling it is a lot less expensive than renting. And WAY less expensive than buying new, and selling used a short time later when you decide you don’t really like it. Other than that, completely master the equipment you already have before buying anything new. And when you do add to your kit, have a reason for buying beyond “it’s new and shiny”. Ask yourself what you can’t do with your current kit that you’d really like to be able to do. Then find the items that will let you do that. Then figure out which one of them you want to buy. Don’t just buy for the sake of it. Beyond that, just get out and shoot. Shoot anything and everything. Try different genres, different styles, get totally out of your comfort zone and shoot things you wouldn’t even normally consider photographing. While the principles of photography are pretty standard regardless, different genres and styles of photography can have very different disciplines and techniques. Learning those other techniques and being able to bring them to the work you do love shooting can be invaluable.
What was your most memorable photoshoot?
This is really difficult. Because there’s so many that are memorable for very different reasons. One thing that many of them seem to have in common though is that they all happened while camping. Several times a year, I go camping for photo shoots. Sometimes it’s just me and my subject. Occasionally, there’s another photographer and a couple of models. But they’re always special and memorable shoots. Sometimes it’s just the fun of hanging out around the campfire and chatting in the evening. Other times it’s the incredible things you see, whether it’s the milky way overhead in the middle of the night, or deer walking through the woods 20ft away from you while you shoot. The views of the surrounding landscape first thing in the morning are also amazing. Getting lost for 2 hours trying to find the spot we were supposed to camp out, giving up and camping at the backup spot, and then waking up the following morning to one of the most gorgeous views I’ve ever seen with mist rising off the lake, though, that one has to be way up there.
Who was the most unforgettable model you’ve ever met?
This is pretty much impossible to answer. I’ve worked with so many awesome models, and made some amazing friends along the way, that I can’t really pick one (and I’m not going to list several names, because somebody will be upset if I don’t include them, haha). They know who they are. 😉
How do you express yourself through your photography?
I’ve always had a love of nature since I was a kid. It was probably due to being dragged out with my dad all the time when he was flying the birds of prey. It’s an environment that just feels comfortable to me, far more than being in a town or city. The only reason I bought a house in the city now is because none of the cool middle-of-nowhere places I wanted to live could get decent broadband. Lancaster’s a nice compromise. It’s a small city, and I’m close enough to civilisation to get good broadband, but only a 20 minute drive away from the edge of nowhere. So for people, the natural world is where I like to do my photography. One of the things that always amazes me is how much my subjects start to notice going on around them once they spend time on location. The sounds, the wildlife, the beauty of the location itself. It’s almost like they’re seeing and hearing it for the first time, having spent most of their life in busy towns and cities. I want to try to capture that sense of wonder and complete comfort with the natural surroundings. It’s a feeling I’ve always felt myself, and seeing it in others is truly amazing.
Can you tell us about your gear?
Oh, I have so much. I still have the Nikon N90s that I started with and the pair of D100 bodies, a couple of D200 bodies, a D300, a D300s, and a couple of D7000 bodies. I’m one of those people that tends not to get rid of their old bodies when buying another. Their value has usually dropped to almost nothing, and for what relatively little money they’d fetch, I’d sooner just keep them and put them to use. So my old DSLRs become timelapse cameras. Even the D100’s lowly 6MP is plenty enough for 1080p video. I also have a bunch of other film cameras, including a Mamiya C330 Pro F, a couple of Nikkormat FTn bodies, a Nikkormat FT-3, an Agfa Isolette, a Canon A1, a Zenit Auto, Praktica Super TL1000, a Voigtlander something or other. I’ve also got a couple of Canon DSLRs floating around somewhere. They just seem to pile up over the years. I’ve got far more lenses than I know what to do with. Most of them are relatively old, inexpensive M42 lenses that I use for video. But there are a few special ones amongst those, like the Zeiss Pancolar 50mm f/1.8 and the Jupiter-9 85mm f/2. As for my regular kit. Since the AF in my D300s died, the pair of D7000s have become my main bodies. I was just using them for video, but they’re still a decent enough stills camera. For both people and animals, my go to lenses are the Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8VR, Nikon 105mm f/2.8D AF Micro-Nikkor and Nikon 50mm f/1.8D AF (if I’m shooting the 50, I’m rarely wider than f/8 anyway, so I don’t need anything super fast). I also use flash quite often on location. Sometimes it’s just to help augment a dull day, sometimes it’s to compliment a bright sun, and sometimes it’s to overpower. I usually take four Nikon SB-900s and four Yongnuo YN560-III speedlights with me on location, along with 2ft square softboxes, and a 4ft octabox. Occasionally, I’ll just clamp a 6’x4’ sheet of white Ripstop between a couple of lightstands and throw all my speedlights behind it firing at once as a huge soft light source that’s powerful enough to overpower the daylight.
Do you have any projects you’d like to show off?
Nothing that’s really ready to be shown off just yet. I’ve got a couple of long term things on the go. Some are waiting for schedules and good weather to coincide. One is building up to something that should be pretty awesome, but there’s a few planning wrinkles that need to be ironed out first.
What is your most life-changing event?
I had a motorcycle crash in 1996 that left me in a coma for several days, and then stuck in bed for 9 months. So, that was a pretty big deal. I still feel the effects of it today, especially on full day location shoots with a lot of gear. I always joke that if I can’t walk the next day, I know I had a good shoot. It’s still worth it, though.
What has photography done for you as a person? How has it changed you?
Photography has taken me to places, shown me things, and allowed me to meet some absolutely amazing people that I wouldn’t have otherwise known. The people are the most important thing. I couldn’t imagine my life now without them in it.
What’s something no one knows about you that you’d like to share?
I ignore new TV shows for the first season or two. Then binge watch the episodes all at once. I don’t like waiting in suspense for a week.
Who’s your biggest hero in your life?
There isn’t one, really. That’s not to say that there’s no heroes. There’s just no one big one. When I was a kid, I used to have the stereotypical heroes; the stars of my favourite TV shows. They inspired me, they made me want to better myself, and do something exciting and interesting. Then I grew up and got to meet a couple of them in person. You ever have that feeling after you meet somebody for the first time that you kinda wished you hadn’t? Now, my heroes are my friends. My friends inspire me more than anything today. They make me want to push myself and help them push themselves to improve and do better than we ever thought we could.
What’s one of your biggest fears?
Oddly, as the vast majority of my location shoots happen around lakes, rivers, waterfalls, etc. Drowning.
What will you be doing five years from now?
Hopefully living and shooting somewhere with a much more reliable weather system.
What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever done?
Deciding to spend a month in the USA for my 21st birthday with only two weeks notice. Seriously, nobody cares about 21 here in the UK because we’ve already been able to drink alcohol for three years. I had a bunch of friends at a particular university in the USA, so I spent the month crashing in dorms and partying. Went to see a Ziggy Marley concert (which was an absolute blast, a friend hooked me up to hang out with the band), and some other friends took me to an Aerosmith concert. Probably the craziest and most fun decision I ever made in my life. Wouldn’t change a thing.
What’s something you’ve always wanted to do but haven’t?
I’ve always wanted to see Komodo dragons and black mambas in the wild. They’re on the list. It’ll happen eventually.
For anyone who wants to get in touch with John, here’s some contact information:
John, thanks for sharing your story with us – it was a pleasure getting to know you! 🙂
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