Interview Series: Steve Skinner

I came across Steve Skinner’s images on flickr not that long ago and instantly, his pictures became my favourites. I see many excellent images every week but Steve’s work clearly stands out from the crowd. His beautiful, moody and enchanting images of the west coast captivate me every time I look at them.  On many occasions I spent long minutes trying to “deconstruct” his pictures, understand his approach to his subjects and ultimately, to learn from them.  You can understand then that when Steve agreed to do an interview for PhotoCrossroads I was overjoyed. Here is the interview:
Q: Steve, tell us a little bit about yourself and how you first got interested in photography ?
A: Ralph I have been interested in photography ever since my college days and have been shooting off and on (mostly off) for 47 years.  I retired from a Sales Management position a little less than 10 years ago and ran out of projects to keep me busy. My son was thinking about becoming a professional photographer and then changed his mind. He had purchased a few DLSR’s and some lenses that he was thinking about selling. I had always used film so I was intrigued with the idea of being able to see the image immediately and without the expense and delays of developing. An old addiction had returned!!!
Q: It seems that you predominant subject of your photography are landscapes of the Pacific Coast and the US South-West. Do you have any favourite location that you visit frequently ?
A: My two favorite locations for seascapes are La Jolla and Corona Del Mar. Both offer great rock formations and the change in tides and height of the surf guarantee ever changing conditions. Having just finished a trip to Alberta I have really come to appreciate the advantages of living on the West Coast. I always know where the sun is going to set and I can get there in the light. Banff and Jasper were new locations for shooting and I hadn’t a clue which location would be the most opportune for a sunrise setting. Added to that I would get up in the dark and drive a few hours in hopes that I would catch something.  It really helps to do a little research before you take a trip 🙂
Q: So, the fact that La Jolla and Corona Del Mar are your favourites, is because they are not far from where you live or there is something else there that makes it special for you ?
A: La Jolla is relatively close but it’s the alien rock formations, the way the light hits and reflects and the way the water flows that makes it special. Corona Del Mar is a 2 hour round trip but when the tide is right its well worth the drive. The reefs and jutting rocks and the water movement look ethereal doing long exposures.
Q: You mentioned that the conditions, especially tides, are something that you pay close attention to. Do you have any “routine” that you follow when you plan your shoot ? Do you check for example weather forecasts and/or other sources of information before you leave the house ?
A: I am fortunate enough to live a few blocks from the beach so my front deck is my best source for checking weather conditions. It is always just an indicator of how it might be at the target location. I have a Tide Book and I always check to see if the tides will work for the time of the shoot. Having said that I can’t tell you how many times things look perfect and then go blah!!!! On the other side the amount of surprise beauty you can find when conditions look the worst!! You can’t get rainbows without the rain!!
Q: Usually, I don’t mind the rain. What I fear is the dreaded “blue sky, no clouds” 🙂
So, as I understand correctly, if the tide is right you are going to your location regardless of the weather on the premise that the local conditions might be different than at home ?
A: No, if there is haze and or a cloud free sky no need to go!!
Q: Ok, so you are at the location. Take us through your typical approach to your subject. How do you work on your images in the field ? Do you actually have a “typical” approach ?
A: I take a “run and gun” approach. It’s a bad habit but having an A type personality I try to get in as much as possible. I consciously have to force myself to slow down and take more time in looking before I shoot. Manny times I will see the finished image and the composition before I even focus the camera. Those are always the good shots (at least for me, the viewer may disagree). I used to do HDR but no longer. I continue to bracket shoot (required in HDR) so that I can pick the best exposure or use a few exposures for layer masking or blending. I tend to take 5 or 6 sets of brackets for each composure just to make sure I get one good shot. I had a photography teacher years ago tell me “the better the photographer the bigger the trash can”. I must be half way decent because my trash can is HUGE!!!
Q: We’ll get into the post-processing in a second but let’s stay “on location” for a moment. In your “run and gun” approach, are you staying in one spot for a while exploring the possibilities or you just move around from one spot to the next one ?
A: I’ll pick a spot and stay there and shoot from different angles and POV’s. As the light starts to change I will move to a different location and do the same. I often will have 4 or 5 different locations covered within the hour to hour and half that I am there. Most of the time the early shooting yield is a throw away because the lighting is not optimal so it is not unusual to return to the original spot for another round at the peak time.. There usually are a number of other photographers at the prime spots so I often will have to settle for a less than perfect location. Take what is given.
Q: It’s interesting that you mention other photographers taking the prime spots. It sounds a bit exotic to someone from southern Ontario where we have no iconic locations (well, other than Niagara Falls) so the situations you describe simply don’t happen. I’m wondering if you witnessed any fights erupting over the prime spot ? 🙂
A: No it doesn’t ever come to that, thankfully.
Q: Now, let’s talk about post processing. You mentioned that in the past a lot of your images were HDR but it is not the case now. Could you please give us some of the reasons for why you first got “into HDR” and why eventually you stopped doing it.
A: My son introduced me to HDR and I was hooked. It gave life and zing to images and I had never seen anything like it before. Being able to shoot in a dark room with bright sun coming through the windows and having no loss of detail in the darkest darks and lightest lights was exhilarating!! Unfortunately like so many before me I” pushed the sliders” and created “over cooked” images. Over time even with subtle usage I started to notice the clarity and sharpness of a good image just wasn’t there. I started to use a High Pass filter to correct that but it still looked like HDR. I found that through the use of other processing techniques I could obtain most of the tonal contrasts that HDR offered with out the loss of clarity.
Q: When you say: “other processing techniques”, do you mean: layer blending ?
A: I do use some layer blending/masking but that is the exception rather than the rule. I was referring to using Adobe’s Lightroom and various Nik’s Software products as well as Photoshop. The ability to work in Raw format with Lightroom offers a photographer limitless capabilities to enhance and or correct an exposure.
Q: It’s interesting to learn that you rarely find a need for additional control of the dynamic range beyond what Lightroom/Nik/Photoshop offer. In my work, I either use graduated, neutral filters or I take two frames which I then blend in Photoshop. Not too often I can get away with just one straight frame. With your approach (no blending or masking), do you see any problems with noise in the shadows ? Are you concerned about that at all ?
A: We were talking about processing so that was my answer but I have a full set of ND Grads, a Reverse Grad, a Polorizer and a 10 stop Lee that are in constant use. Most of the time I am using ISO 100 during the daytime and see very little noise. If we are talking long exposures of a night time sky and I am at ISO 1600 then there might be noise issues.


Q: Ok, this clarifies the issue. I managed to confuse myself a bit. Not the first time and likely, not the last 🙂  It seems then that your workflow is very similar to what I do in the field.  Since we just touched on the equipment, a quick question: what camera do you use and what is your favourite lens ? Is there a focal length that you subconsciously gravitate to ?
A: I use a Canon 1DS Mark III. It is the last camera Canon made that is strictly for still photography, no video capability at all. It is a heavy beast (weighing around 5 Lbs. but it can take a beating and is really made for someone shooting in bad weather, salt spray, rain you name it!!! My favorite lens is a Wide angle 16 to 35MM Canon zoom. I tend to stay in the 22 to 24MM range but made the mistake of buying a 22MM prime lens and never use it. The reason is I do a great deal of seascapes and I can’t always walk to the exact spot to make a 22MM perfect. Zooming is the way I can. I have also heard others complain about the edge distortion on the 16 to 35 but I find it pretty clean
Q: Now, let’s switch for a second to the images that are shown here. They are my favourites. I’m drawn into them and I absolutely love the other-wordly mood you created there. One thing I find absolutely brilliant is the fact that the horizon is hidden which creates this unreal feel. Can you tell us a little more about these images? When and how you shot them, any details about post-processing you want to reveal, etc.
A: I discovered a year or two ago that the really fun part of processing and image development was in doing composites. Blending two images taken from different times and spots and making them look as if they belong together. There are some really brilliant artists out there that do this with portrait photography with perfect lighting and compositions dropped into scenes such as factories, open fields, etc. There work is much more sophisticated then anything that I am capable of. I love the feeling of infinite space and timelessness. Removing the horizon takes away the focal point that tends to limit the depth of an image. Having the sky meld into the water lets the mind and eye create its own feeling of vastness. Filtered Light consists of a late afternoon long exposure of rocks in the water in La Jolla and a cloudy sky from the Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming. The light source always has to be the same for a composite to work (at least to make it look more realistic). In this case the colors were off between the two images. I used Nik’s Viveza to add color to both water and sky and they did some dodge and burn to add more interest with the lighting. With A Distant Shore” the foreground rocks and surf were taken as a day time long exposure in Carlsbad Cal and the sky was from a night shot a few days later. My poor job of layer masking on frame right luckily comes off as mist or fog and seems to work. Nothing else done as far as processing. I keep a file of interesting foregrounds and skies and when I am bored or have nothing else to work on I will play mix and match to see what can be created.
Q: Wow, this is quite revelation for me. I have never thought that these images were composites ! Brilliant ! When you say that the light source always has to be the same, do you mean that the direction of light (sun) has to be the same or close ? Or you include litght quality in this as well (soft, hard, …) ?
A: Direction mostly. I try to eliminate hard light by shooting at more opportune times. This isn’t always possible especially when traveling when trying to cover as many spots covered as possible. There are only 2 golden hours a day!
Q: Well, there may be more golden hours a day if your travel to the high Arctic    When you work on your composites, is it important to match focal lengths between frames ?
A: The 2 images have to look right so yes focal length is important but to me it’s mostly about the light.
Q: Now the final couple of questions. Who are the photographers who influenced your work the most ? What are the sources of your inspiration ? Do you look beyond the world of photography for ideas ?
A: Well the obvious choice for a landscape photographer is the master Ansel Adams.His images are the pinnacle of perfection. Other than Ansel there are so many out there too numerous to mention. I should also say my son Brandon has probably been the one who has spurned me on!! He is my biggest critic and I am always amazed when I produce something he actually likes!! He is an urban shooter and mostly works in black and white so a world away from my interests and style but his eye for good photography is pretty keen. My inspiration comes from the amazing work seen every day on Flickr and searching through the various groups devoted to landscape photography. Before I take a trip to a place I have never been  I will check the tags for that place on Flickr. I have found many spots that I wouldn’t have known about if it weren’t for Flickr’s other members. I graduated with a BA degree in Fine Arts. Totally worthless degree for tying to make money or earning a living but so worth while for a source for ideas. Look at any great painting and you will see phenomenal light. color and composition. That is the essence of what I try to capture with click of the shutter and the press of the mouse. Sounds corny but its true!!
Q: Any favourite period in art history ?  Any painter whose work touches you the most and who has had impact on your art ?
A: Neither of my favorites have anything to do with my photography but they both are surrealists. Rene Magritte and Salvadore Dali..
Well, I guess there is perhaps a bit of that surreal influence in your images like the ones presented here   Thanks a lot Steve for the interview. It’s been very informative and gave us a great insight into your art. I hope that we’ll see many of your new images in the near future.
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