In Conversation: Martin Bailey

Cynthia Haynes

C&V author Martin Bailey recently returned from Namibia, and we asked him to share some of his not-yet-seen photographs and tell us a bit about his experience, his favourite photograph, and the importance of printing your work. 

Given that photographs from Namibia have become instantly recognizable, what was your biggest challenge in trying to tell a different visual story of this place?

I never think about the photographs that have already been made at the locations I visit. I don’t look at photos before I go, so I don’t even know what I’m competing with. I think this is the only way that I can create art that has not been seeded from the work of others, and therefore is truly my own. If it ends up looking like work that others have already done, that’s an unlucky coincidence. If I’m able to create work that stands out as being different in any way, that too is purely coincidental, but it’s from my heart, and that’s all that matters to me. 

When scouting your locations, what are you looking for? What speaks to you photographically?

I’m taking a tour to Namibia in 2017, with my own personalized itinerary, but I was co-hosting a tour with my friend Jeremy Woodhouse when I made these photographs, and Jeremy had decided all of the locations. At each location, I’m constantly looking for the light, and a subject and composition that appeals to me.

I like to reduce clutter as much as possible, so for example with the Quiver Trees shot, the most important thing to me is finding an angle and camera height from which I can cut off the edges of the trees at a pleasing point, without letting the next tree creep into the frame, and get as few distracting elements in the frame as well. Unfortunately, there are lots of small bushes that are growing between the Quiver Trees, so I recall working really hard, even to find this composition, but I found something I liked just as the sky was at it’s most beautiful.

If you were marooned on a deserted (but very photographic) island, which three pieces of gear would you want with you, and why?

That would have to be a Canon EOS 5Ds R camera with a 24-70mm lens and a Really Right Stuff tripod. 

As I wrote in an early PHOTOGRAPH magazine article, there are ways to work with lower resolution images, even for large prints, but the 50 megapixels of the 5Ds enable me to print my images much larger than previous generation bodies, even without enlarging them. It follows though that I can also enlarge for high quality prints even larger than I’ve been working with to date. I’ve just had a new 44" wide Canon Pro-4000 printer installed, and am looking forward to printing some of my work at 44 x 66 inches, which is 3.7 x 5.5 feet!

Deciding on the lens to take presents the biggest dilemma. I love working wide with my 11-24mm lens, and going long with my 100-400mm lens, but I think for general purposes, I’d have to go middle of the road with the 24-70mm. I could then at least stitch multiple images together when 24mm isn’t wide enough, and crop down some from those big 50 megapixel files if 70mm doesn’t get me close enough. Of course, the look of the images would be different, missing the layered, compacted look that we get with a long lens etc. but I would make it work.

The tripod is essential, not only to steady my camera and enable me to do long exposures, but also as a compositional tool. I feel I work best when I can fine-tune the framing of my images from the steady platform of the tripod. I shoot fast-paced subjects hand held, but whenever I can slow down and use the tripod, I believe it improves my photography.

Walk us through your favourite photograph in this post, from inception to post-processing (idea, preparation, camera, lens, lighting, directing the model, choices in post, etc.).

My favorite shot is the Himba Girl image. For this photo, I asked her to go inside a hut, and the only light entering was through a small doorway, perhaps four feet high. The idea came about partly because I wanted to get the subject out of the strong Namibian sun, but mainly because I wanted to make the background very dark, and the light from the doorway was directional, yet incredibly soft. 

I was shooting as part of our tour group, and we have to respect the time of the Himba people who had allowed us into their village, before I even entered the hut, I ensured that the settings on my Canon EOS5Ds R were at least close to what I thought I’d need so that I could work quickly. For example, I knew that I would be working in very low light, so I increased my ISO to 5000. I may have tweaked the settings based on what I saw on the LCD and histogram, but in Manual mode I ended up at and aperture of f/5.6, for a reasonable depth of field, and a shutter speed of 1/80 of a second, to avoid camera shake at my maximum focal length of 70mm (using my 24-70mm lens).

The girl didn’t speak any English, so it was important to speak in soft tones so as not to give any sense of aggression or impatience. I gestured with my hands for her to look towards the doorway, but spoke the words as well. I sometimes see people simply grunting at subjects of a different language, along with their hand gestures, and find that incredibly disrespectful. You can’t capture the essence of your subject if you build a cultural wall between you both.

In post, I used the Levels and Curves in Capture One Pro 9 to deepen the shadows and highlight the eyes and other bright areas of the Himba girl. I also increased the Clarity and Structure slightly, to give the images a slight boost and a slightly gritty feel. I added an Adjustment Layer and brushed in a vignette with a large feathered brush, and reduced the mask layer’s Exposure by 0.7 stops. This increases the feeling of the light coming from the small doorway and just hitting the girl’s face and torso. 

In this age where our work tends to exist on hard drives, you are a master printer and an advocate for all photographers to learn how to print their photographs. In one sentence, tell us why this is so important.

If I have to say this in just one sentence, I’ll simply relay the joy that I felt the first time I held a quality fine art print of my own work, and the feeling that the photograph in its tactile form was finally "finished."

If you like this article, learn more from Martin in his eBook, Sharp Shooter

Martin Bailey is a Tokyo-based nature and wildlife photographer and educator who is passionate about creating photographs that evoke emotions, and helping others to do the same. He runs photography workshops and releases a weekly photography podcast and blog. See more of Martin's work at martinbaileyphotography.com.

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  • A good short sharp interview. With good photos. Thank you to you both!

    Cheers Jim

    Jim Embury on

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