Interviews

Chris McLennan

An established figure for almost three decades now, New Zealand based adventure photographer Chris McLennan has long set the standed both photographically and commercially for a generation of photographers to aspire to.  With such a long history of photographic assignments all over the globe, Chris has developed an amazing portfolio of work and long term relationships with many of the industry’s top brands.


Welcome to intrepid.photos Chris!  You grew up in the rural farming community of Riversdale in the South Island of NZ ?   Can you explain what that was like as a boy and do you think a small village upbringing gave you head start as an adventure photographer?

As a boy I grew up very involved in the outdoors, whether it was riding motor bikes in the mountains, going motor racing with my dad, diving around the rugged South Island coastlines or skiing in Queenstown.  Everything was about getting outside and enjoying life!  I was very fortunate to have an amazing family around me who were into adventure.  This gave me the passion for the outdoors but growing up in a small rural town possibly made the photographic journey a little more difficult.  There was no opportunity to study it at school and certainly no internet.  My journey has been one of personal discovery and my photography is totally self taught.

 You began your official photography career as a wedding photographer; how do you think that influenced your style and do you recommend it as good training for people interested in starting a career in adventure photography?

I started out in weddings and portraits but really only stuck to that very briefly, maybe a year?  I knew straight away that it wasn’t my style nor what I really wanted to be doing.  Hence the move to Queenstown where I looked for clients in the adventure tourism sector, and it all followed on from there.  So for me it didn’t really influence my career path, other than get me going in photography.  But the recommendation I would make is that sometimes you have to do something that’s not quite right for you, to help you find the thing that is right.

What does a typical photo expedition involve and how may expeditions would you go on a year?

That depends as every photo shoot and every time I travel is different.  Each year I do a number of commercial shoots where I literally turn up somewhere and take photos to a client’s commercial brief.  Sometimes the work itself is intrepid in nature (I might be filming for an adventure tourism company or similar), and sometimes it isn’t (I might be inside a five-star hotel for two weeks)!  I also run a range of Photo Tours each year and these are more like “expeditions”, in that I take a group of keen photographers somewhere amazing – usually off the beaten track – and we all get to experience and photograph wildlife or primitive cultures or similar (ie; the tribal cultures of Papua New Guinea, an Arctic expedition cruise to see the Polar Bears, on safari in Botswana or walking amongst the grizzlies in Alaska etc).  And some years when I am lucky enough I will also have time to fit in the occasional personal project, which can be quite different again.  This is when I get to choose where I go and what I photograph, and these trips are always the best.  So each trip can be completely different, but they all involve me, my backpack and camera cases full of gear, a few plane rides, and the chance to take great photos.  On average I am travelling overseas every month, and my trips can be from four or five days through to four or five months.  Each year I am usually away from home for over 200 days in total, which is why when I am at home, I like to relax if I can!

What equipment do you take on a shoot?

It depends on the shoot, but usually two or three DSLR camera bodies – I shoot with the Nikon D5 and two D810’s, plus a bunch of lenses.  I shoot with Nikkor lenses, from the 14-24mm f2.8 through to the 400mm f2.8 Mk2 (which is a terrific lens)!  I also have 20mm and 105mm prime lenses, 24-70mm and 70-200mm mid range zoom lenses, as well as a 300mm and a 200-500mm zoom lens.  I won’t necessarily take the full kit on every trip, but it does give me a range of options to choose from depending on whether I’m shooting the inside of hotel rooms in Fiji or wildlife in Africa.  The rest of my kit consists of SB5000 speedlites, flash transmitters, Aquatech underwater housing, Quadra lights and stands, brackets and mounting arms, filters etc.  I also usually take a drone with me, and use this on nearly every photo shoot.

What conservation role do you think adventure photography has in an increasingly electronic world and what would you say to criticisms that it simply increases impact by encouraging more people out into fragile environments?   Do you think that the artificial construct of the modern world deprives people of a sense of how they fit into the natural world? 

Emotive images of our world, whether of native wildlife species or indigenous cultures or stunning landscapes or simply of people out there enjoying it, do tend to bring the world that much closer for everyone.  The reality is that the vast majority of the world’s population don’t have the opportunity to travel or to experience that for themselves.  So capturing these experiences in images, whether for posterity or for conversation or just for personal fulfillment, ensures we keep a record of what’s going on out there and also gives us the ability to share that knowledge with others.  I do think most societies are finally starting to move more towards sustainable ideals and a better awareness of the need to look after our planet.  So while modern technology can be blamed for many of our failings, it has also helped us understand the natural world better and make it more “visually” understood by more people.  Plus, any artform that inspires and motivates other people and creates empathy and passion for the planet is serving a purpose, even if only to help us all strive for and achieve our personal goals and better ourselves.

Where or do you get your photographic inspiration from and do you follow any other photographers that you particularly admire?

My early inspiration was simply from my father, who was always a hard worker and such a positive person.  Back when I started in 1988 there weren’t many others around (in my field, and in New Zealand), so I was probably too busy getting on with it to follow others.  There are so many great photographers out there who’s work or styles I love or respect but I strive to continue on my own unique journey.

Which photo is your most popular photo and why do you think people like it?

That is a tough question but a couple of my most popular photos would have to be the Car-L lions images, simply because the whole video project went viral and that brought a huge audience to those images.  But others have also been successful and seem to generate a lot of positive response, such as my image of The Lost World here in New Zealand.


Which photo of yours means the most to you personally?

 The photo I am going to take tomorrow!  Lots of my photos mean a lot personally, especially where I have had a concept in mind and been able to make it happen.  But I am always thinking about the next project so I wouldn’t say any specific photo remains my favourite for very long!!  If you saw my wallpaper images on my phone or computer they change almost weekly.

What would you like your viewers to take away from your work?

I guess I’m trying to share with them what I’m seeing, and why it was special to me, and why I chose to capture it in that way.  If an image makes them feel something, or makes them see something in a different way, or even just makes them pause for a moment, then that’s great.

If you could pass on one critical tip or technique to someone, what would it be?

Just practice, practice, practice.  It sounds straight forward, but a lot of people miss the opportunity to really get to know their gear inside out, to know how the different camera settings impact what they are photographing, to figure out what they are good at, and then using all of that knowledge and experience to really be able to capture images the way they want to.  That doesn’t come from luck or by being in the right place at the right time, it actually comes from knowing exactly what you need to do to maximise the photographic opportunities in front of you right now.   The harder you work the luckier you get!

 Are your compositions normally pre-meditated or developed on the fly?

Both.  Certain things I will play around with in my head for ages, either a concept that I’ve had and I’m just waiting for the opportunity to create it, or I know I have to deliver a certain type of image for a client so I’ll be visualising how to do that.  Other types of images – such as wildlife shots – may appear to fall into place “on the fly”, but there is still some degree of putting yourself in the right place so the light is the way you want it, you are at the right elevation for the composition you want, you choose the right background etc.  The more forethought and planning then usually the better the results.

What clichés in photography do you try and avoid?

 I guess all the “rules” like the thirds rule, leading lines, even lighting etc.  I am always trying to break those rules in a creative way, though often they end up in your image anyway, just in a different way!  I also try to avoid the supposed “photographic hotspots” and look for new locations and subjects whenever I can.

Can you elaborate on your post production workflow and what people might learn in the workshops?

My basic post production is to use Lightroom to import, catalogue and process all RAW images, and then from there I may do additional editing in Photoshop as needed.  Pretty simple really.  I go through Lightroom with everyone on my workshops and make sure they all have a good understanding of the software before they head home, and get them started on their own post production workflow.  But mostly my workshops are about being out in the field with the guests and their cameras teaching and learning in a much more hands-on manner with amazing subject matter.  Like I said, practice, practice, practice!

 You have been shooting professionally for almost three decades now, do you find it harder to get out there and maintain the passion for the work?  After so much travel what locations are still on your wish list for an extended photographic adventure?

It’s a bit harder leaving home some days, and obviously the long haul flights and the travel itself can be exhausting.  But the image making process is still as exciting for me as it has always been, and I can’t imagine ever wanting to do anything else.  (Just maybe a few more days off)!!  I am off to Myanmar for the first time next year so that’s exciting, and I always love getting back to Alaska at every opportunity, and I’d like to visit South America which I haven’t been to yet.  You make friends in every location so its always fun getting back to places I visit regularly and catching up with folk there, so that makes the travel more bearable.

You have an impressive list of industry partnerships with Nikon, Lowepro, Lexar, AquaTech, and HP to name a few.  Did you actively chase these long term commercial partnerships or was it a case of focusing on your photographic assignments and the sponsors came to you?

The relationships developed as they were all products I already used and loved.  For example I’ve been using nothing but Lowepro backpacks since I started shooting back in 1988, and the team at Lowepro always used to joke that I was their best “in field” tester as my bags get put through some pretty tough conditions!  So that was a natural fit and I have loved working with the Lowepro team on bag development etc.  The HP relationship came about when I was gaining a reputation for my work in an industry where a lot of the big names were on Apple Mac.  I have always been on PC and transitioned to HP with their DreamColor product, which is one of the best colour calibrated monitors on the market and was the perfect display for my imagery – its also available on laptop computers.  If you haven’t tried one you should!  The same with Nikon, Lexar and Aquatech, they are all products I love and used and so the partnerships were mutual and generally came through me using a product and over the years getting to know the teams behind them.  These partnerships don’t come easy and I don’t take them lightly – and remember, there is no such thing as a free lunch!

How important is social media in your strategy of deriving an income from photography related activities?   What do you see as the primary differences between platforms with respect to engagement and what recommendations would you have for someone starting out in the industry today who was aiming to earn a living from photography? 

For me, social media has been a way to keep connected with my audience and I use most platforms equally.  It was never a money-making venture, more just a way of sharing my imagery on a personal level.  However I can say I have received client bookings or referrals as a response to my posts, and a lot of my Photo Tour guests find me through social media.  So in today’s world it is definitely relevant and is similar to the more traditional “door knocking” or networking.  But I try not to invest my time in it too heavily, and I don’t invest any money into it.  I am also wary of relying too heavily on your “social media reach” as an indication of how good you are as a photographer.  There are lots of great photographers with little or no social media presence, and lots of average ones with huge numbers.  And that goes for other industries too.  So it’s a useful tool to have, but I wouldn’t personally base my business around it.

Anything else you would like to pass on to the readers?

Just to enjoy the image making process, don’t lose sight of why you started taking photos in the first place (don’t treat it as a means to an end, if you don’t stay passionate about it then find something else to do).  Otherwise, keep learning and practicing and experimenting at all times, and remember that it is a subjective artform, so what works for you won’t work for everyone, but that’s OK.

Where can people go to look at your work and get in contact with you?

You can find out more about me and the photo workshops that I run at  www.cmphoto.co.nz   or at my blog site www.beyondf8.com.   You can also follow me on social media at Facebook, Google+ or Instagram.

 

All photos in this article remain the copyright of Chris McLennan and have been reproduced with permission.

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