“I like the way photography can take small details that are lost in the everyday and make them the focus.”
James Robertson (born in 1986) is a contemporary photographer from Scotland currently living in Edinburgh. Other than a very basic course at school he hasn’t studied photography. His dad taught him to develop film and he spent a lot of time shooting for the student newspaper while studying physics at university. For James Robertson photography “is about taking moments and stretching them”.
“My photographic work is varied, spanning editorial, action sports, jewellery and product photography. My passion and my main focus, however, is documentary photography. Through my work I aim to either show the viewer a subject they haven’t seen before or to show a dimension to it that they haven’t seen.”
Interview with James Robertson
Robert, what was your first camera and photographic experience?
My first camera that wasn’t a point&shoot or a disposable camera was a Canon eos 500n. Really just your bog standard entry-level automatic film SLR. I spent a lot of time shooting friends mountain biking and really just fiddling with the settings to try to get the shots I wanted. I had a weekend job working in a small film lab so I was able to shoot and develop rolls and rolls of film relatively cheaply.
Why did you become a photographer?
I had an interest in photography from an early age and I think when that’s the case there’s alway a point where you have to make a choice as to whether you are going to continue photography as a hobby or to try to make a living out of it and I chose the later.
What does photography mean to you?
For me photography is about taking moments and stretching them. I like the way it can take small details that are lost in the everyday and make them the focus.
Which photographer has inspired you most?
The first photo I remember seeing that really grabbed my attention was a shot by Alexey Titarenko from his series “City of Shadows”. It’s a daytime long exposure of a mass of people walking up a set of steps. The handrail is completely sharp, while the figures a giant blur except for the occasional ghostly hand or head. It was the first image that made me realise a photograph could show more than just what was in the frame it could really say something about the photographers view of a place or and time.
What’s your favorite quote about photography?
“Point your camera at something interesting.”
It’s a little bit of an obvious choice, but Weegee’s “F8 and be there” quote works for me. Though I’d go as far as dropping the F8 bit. The number of times I been places where it seems like everyone is taking photos continually of essentially nothing, but then don’t have their cameras on them when there’s actually something worth taking a photo of or don’t go to the effort of getting into a good position. It basically the advice I give to anyone who asks how to take a better photo “point your camera at something interesting”.
How would you describe your photographic language and creative process?
I’d probably try to avoid doing so, and I’m not even convinced I have a photographic voice, but if I like to take simple photos as much as possible.
What’s important in order to develop an own photographic language and how did you achieve it?
I think obviously shooting lots, but also shooting for yourself is very important. If everything is an assignment for someone else or a client it makes it difficult to focus on the style you’re after. I think you need to be free to take images that no one else likes and to ditch ones that everyone thinks are amazing.
What do you consider to be the axis of your work technically and conceptually?
I can’t do colour, so more often than not and I’ll shoot b&w and only convert the image to colour much later on when I realise it adds something to the shot.
I shoot entirely with primes. Initially that was a cost thing where I would rather have a sharp 50mm than a mediocre 24-85mm, but now I’m just scared that zooms would make me lazy and less likely to move around a subject.
Conceptually I just try to find things that interest me and work from there.
What qualities and characteristics does a good photographer need?
“High technical ability if you’re worrying about technical stuff it’s going to get in the way.”
The ability to problem solve. High technical ability if you’re worrying about technical stuff it’s going to get in the way, you need to find that easy so you can spend more time worrying about all the other facets of photography.
What does a photo need to be a great photo in your eyes?
I don’t think there one’s particular thing. There are so many different ways in which a photo can be great.
Where do you draw inspiration from for your photographic projects?
From the things I enjoy doing I’ve recently done a couple of different skiing projects, one in Afghanistan and another in Scotland, and a large part of the desire to do that is that I really enjoy skiing. It’s the same with the road and mountain bike photography that I do.
What kind of camera and equipment do you use?
Anything I can get my hands on really! My main kit is a canon 5d mkII and a load of prime lenses, but I really enjoy playing around with 35mm film cameras as well as large format film cameras. I consider myself fairly indifferent to brands and only really shoot canon as my first camera was a canon what’s the point in trying to play keep up with the 18 month cycle of technological leap-frog they seem to play? Although, saying that I now shoot with a fuji x100s as well and it’s great in the ways it’s said to be.
What’s your favorite website about photography?
I’m not sure I really have one. I think burnmagazine.org is fantastic for the quality of essays that they continually have up although until recently I had a huge problem looking at it for too long as I saw the quality of photography as so far above my own that it was quite depressing. That changed when the featured a series of my images, but I am still awestruck the quality and depth that the essays have.
What book about photography would you recommend?
It’s called “Light Science and Magic: An Introduction to Photographic Lighting” by Fil Hunter, Steven Biver and Paul Fuqua.
Even if you never shoot in a studio or use strobes or flashes this book describes a way of thinking about and visualising light which just makes everything easier to understand. It’s far less about the examples it provides than it is the way it allows you to think about light.
Which advice would you give someone who wants to become a professional photographer?
Have a back up plan, not because it’s difficult to be successful as a photographer, but because the real aim is to be successful as the type of photographer you want to be. If you’re worrying too much about surviving you’re likely to take work that isn’t going to benefit you photographically. Personally I’d rather be an enthusiastic amateur than a pro with no time or opportunity to shoot the work I like.