Life Behind The Lens
An Interview with Nadir Khan
Nadir Khan is an adventure sports photographer. He also exhibited at the Landscape Photographer of the Year Finals exhibition. Sidetracked met him recently at the Kendal Mountain Festival 2013 and we spoke to him about life as a pro adventure photographer, his equipment choices and his year of experimentation.
How long have you been a photographer and how much of that time has been professional?
I’ve been involved in photography for over 30 years and when I was a student I used to print and sell cibachrome prints to keep myself in slide film and camera equipment. Not many people will remember cibachrome but it was a really nice finish for printing slide film onto. Over the years, photography has taken a back seat while family and my professional career as an oral and facial surgeon was developing and I’d be on call for 4 days in a row and living away from home for half my time (that’s when our children were born). It was a tough time with little time and creative space left for anything else.
Then, six years ago, the opportunity arose to join a specialist centre as the principal oral surgeon and I reduced my hospital work to two-and-a-half days a week. In the summer of 2011, I decided to leave the hospital service altogether and develop my photographic work and portfolio. It was a big decision and I struggled with the sanity of it but it came from a deep conviction that I had to take my photographic work to another level and the only way that would happen was by freeing up more time.
Turning professional was a gradual process. Firstly, I started doing work for Rab and then other companies contacted me and I used social media to get my work out there. I now split my time between working 3 days a week as an oral surgeon and working professionally as a photographer. I do shoots for a number of outdoor companies and my client base is continuing to develop.
How difficult is it for pro photographers now with the quality of kit available to amateurs?
This question is interesting in that almost everyone has a camera on them on their smartphone. But, it’s not about the camera, it’s about how your eye and brain work and the emotional connection you make with a scene or situation and how you use the tool that is your camera to communicate that feeling/emotion/experience to the viewer. You need to have a degree of technical expertise with the machine but being a photographer isn’t about the kit. You can give a good photographer an old 35mm SLR and you’ll still get a great image; you can give anyone a state-of-the-art DSLR and the result may be well-exposed but it’s the composition that counts and being able to think visually and see opportunities where many people will just walk on by.
It’s not about the camera, it’s about how your eye and brain work and the emotional connection you make with a scene or situation and how you use the tool that is your camera to communicate that feeling/emotion/experience to the viewer
The best photographers out there are the ones that are able to master the light and having the vision to come up with images that have drama, emotion and great composition
How do pros tend to distinguish themselves from ‘semi-pro’ and enthusiast amateurs?
What sets a pro apart is being able to think about all aspects of a shoot: the landscape, the light and the action and how to use strobes to augment the natural light. The best photographers out there are the ones that are able to master the light and having the vision to come up with images that have drama, emotion and great composition. At the end of the day either an image moves you and makes a connection or it doesn’t. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a so called ‘pro’ or an amateur, it’s the image that matters, not the title you give yourself or the camera you use.
What specific issues have you experienced in relation to adventure photography which makes it different from, for example, other outdoor or landscape photography?
My philosophy for the work I produce is based on a background of landscape photography and portraiture/lifestyle. Landscape makes you think about composition, leading lines, natural light, and the best time to get the best light. My experience in portraiture is using strobes in the outdoors to create soft or dramatic light depending on the situation. With adventure sports, I’m bringing all those elements together and working with the athlete to produce something hopefully different. The problems lie with the unpredictability of the weather, if you only have one day for a shoot and it’s a new range of adventure sports clothing and the client wants it all photographed outside and it’s terrible weather then you have to think quickly. Having a range of skills means you can adapt poor light with studio strobes outdoors and still get images that the clients are pleased with.
Tell us about an exposure you are extremely proud of.
The image that made it into the book Landscape 7, was one that was most significant for me. It sums up my philosophy of great light, composition and something interesting happening from an adventure sports point of view. I took the shot last year in December. I was shooting images for my ‘Extreme Scotland’ project and had planned to hook up with Kev Shields on the Ben or Aonach Mor and shoot some mixed routes. I’d been keeping an eye on the weather and there had been a lot of fresh snow with a high avalanche risk and as I was sitting in the departure lounge of Stansted airport, Kev phoned to tell me that the hills were a no-go. One thing I’ve learned about photographing in Scotland is to be flexible and have back-up plans. So a quick call to Frazer, my go-to guy in Fort William who can make anything happen, and the next thing I know is Keir and his mates are taking the day off school the next day to shoot with me on Glencoe mountain.
You recently exhibited at Landscape Photographer of the Year on Southbank in London. How were you asked to exhibit and what did it feel like?
All the winning images from landscape photographer of the Year were exhibited for three months at the National Theatre on the South Bank so it was an honour to be exhibiting alongside some very gifted photographers who have been inspirational to me for many years.
What’s next for you?
As well as continuing to work professionally as a photographer, I’m also developing my film-making skills. It’s a lot of new technical things to think about but it still comes down to composition and light and having an eye for what will look good and being able to pre-visualise a sequence of shots and translating that into reality. So, I’ll be working in the Ecrins in January with a film-maker and climbers working on a joint project and then it’s off to Iceland climbing and film making in February. After that, I’ll be doing a workshop and lecture on adventure photography at the Fort William film festival on the 23 February, and a shoot with The North Face UK in March. This summer I’m doing a road trip around the Swiss, French and Italian Alps so that’ll be fun too.
The debate rages over how much processing makes an image dishonest and how much of the finished product should be ‘in camera’. Where do you stand?
The answer is the same answer that every photographer through the ages has said – photography isn’t about just reproducing what you see. It’s an art form and art is always subject to the emotional and intellectual interpretation of a scene by the artist. It is then captured with a machine called a camera. In the days of black and white film, acknowledged masters like Ansel Adams would use coloured filters on the camera to achieve a particular level of contrast and then spend a long time developing the right ‘recipe’ for printing each image, involving dodging and burning different parts of the image to darken or lighten certain parts of it.
With the move to slide film, some films were chosen as they enhanced colour saturation such as Fuji Velvia, again increasing the intensity of the colour and changing it from what was actually in front of the camera. Polarising filters and graduated filters also change the scene.
What setup do you use when at work outdoors (body, lenses, accessories)?
I use Canon bodies, specifically both the 5D Mark II and 5D Mark III, and Canon L series lenses. I use pocket wizard radio triggers for off-camera flash work when I have time and space to set things up. I’m also a user of the elinchrom quadra system portable studio quality flash when I’m outdoors and can get the flash to the location, and that depends on how much we’re carrying. I use a Manfrotto carbon fibre tripod and F-Stop camera bags.
How do you carry your kit?
When I’m doing technical climbing, the camera is in a Lowepro Toploader around my shoulder and clipped to the back of my harness. If I have space then I also carry a Canon Speedlite (either a 580 ex ii or 430 ex ii depending on the length of climb and how hard it is). When I know I’m going to be on my limit and we’re just climbing with no commercial pressure then it’s just the camera and no flash or, in fact, anything that will add weight and slow us down. If it’s a commercial adventure shoot, then I concentrate on the shoot 100% and jumar, or anything else I need to do, just to get into position to get the shot, and will also have 2 lenses and the flash.
We will be working with Nadir again on some of his projects later in the year, so keep your eyes peeled for more from him.
“Passion for wild places and photography go hand in hand. Whether its capturing the sense of a climber as he works out the crux sequence to unlock a route, or catching the breath of the wind as it ripples through the wild cotton in the evening light, I hope that in my photography the viewer has a feel for the drama of those moments.”
Much of Nadir’s portfolio is around adventure sports such as rock and ice climbing, kitesurfing, mountain biking and kayaking but he also works from commission for clients who wish him to document a specific event, clothing or equipment range or expedition. In addition to this, Nadir runs workshops in adventure photography as well as lifestyle and landscape photography or can offer multi media presentations in adventure photography.