The Light Perspective with Mark Gray
Mark Gray’s fascination for light has translated to a career as one of Australia’s most acclaimed landscape photographers.
Photographer Mark Gray can distinctly remember the moment he first fell in love with photography. He was on a road trip down the Great Ocean Road. He and his then girlfriend, now wife, Susie, had stopped off at motel. It was the early hours of the morning and something had woken Gray up. He recalls sitting watching Susie sleep, when an unusual shaft of light hit her face. Gray remembers pulling back the curtain and being wowed by the spectacle of the sunrise.
“I witnessed this sort of incredible mauve, orange, and red sunrise,” he tells Better Pictures, “and given that I’d never seen anything like that before, I was quite taken aback. It was like ‘wow this really does happen – it’s not just Photoshop’. It was like suddenly I’d found my calling – to record and share these moments so even though they were fleeting, I could capture them in a photo.”
He reached across his slumbering partner for the point and shoot they’d bought to record their trip and a newfound adventure in photography began.
“From there I bought a DSLR and started learning the camera’s capabilities and seeing what it was and wasn’t capable of recording. And then I found photographers I found inspiring, like Ken Duncan.”
Gray soon discovered his passion lay in photographing landscapes and he went out of his way to shoot them at every opportunity. “I never considered studying photography,” he said. “Landscape photography is such a specialised field, you don’t often find courses in it, and I think if you look at any of the greats, they’re all self taught.”
When it comes to landscape photography, Gray feels there is so much more to taking the image than the technical aspects. “You need to get in touch with nature – the moon, the tides, the sun – they all have a massive effect on your photos and that’s a lot of stuff to teach.”
He said he’s spent a lot of time outdoors waiting for something special to happen, only to find it didn’t. “And that can be frustrating. But when it did, I took note of it and gradually I learned more and more. Then one day I got Steve Parish’s Photographing Australia book and it became like my bible – but in the end, trial and error was the best teacher. It was how I learned the most.”
Gray says the most important lesson he learned was to understand light. “To be able to actually identify and recognise good quality light and work with that light and make the most if it – that is the most important thing. Every scene requires the best light to get the best result.”
To ensure he does get the best result, Gray says planning a shoot is essential. “I’ve got some shots in my folio that have taken five years. There are a few that have taken one to two years. Every location I identify as having some kind of potential, I will look at and figure out what time of year, what time of day and what conditions I will need to get the photo I’m looking for, and then I will make repeat visits until it all comes together. Because you can never predict what is going to happen.”
All that preparation does leave the door open for happy accidents to occur. “One bit of advice I received early on was to always look behind you. You can get so focused on getting a particular composition that you can get tunnel vision and another fantastic picture could be developing behind you or around you. So there are some spur of the moment shots in my folio but the majority of my work has had an immense amount of research, planning and repeat visits.”
“But, light is number one. You can’t take a photo without light, for starters. You can make an ordinary subject look fantastic with good quality light. A close second to that is composition, with leading lines and rule of thirds – so you are drawn into the photo; and third and final to that would be the technical side – is everything in focus, is everything sharp?”
In terms of his most challenging shoot, where light and location coincided for a great result, he cites a now famous image he took of Craig’s Hut in the Victorian snowfields.
“It was challenging because of the efforts it took to get there,” explained Gray. “It took three years from the moment I conceptualised it to the actual shoot.”
He said he wanted to capture the hut in the snow, as he wanted to get a new treatment of quite an overused location. “But they close the road 38km from the hut during the ski season, so you cant get in unless you’re super fit, so I didn’t know how I would get the shot.
“I did some more research and I would go up whenever there was an early snow fall and try to capture it but it never quite worked – the snow would have all melted or the light wasn’t good.
“Then I had a tip off from a client about a helicopter pilot who was allowed to land in Craig’s Hut because it’s state forest not national park. So we packed up the gear and there were a lot of restrictions because of the weight, and I had to take rations for five days in case we couldn’t get out, but it was amazing. Every morning I was up at 5.30am just waiting to see what would happen, and then on the final day I got the shot. And it’s won a lot of awards now, so it was worth the effort.”
It’s rewards like this – getting the shot he wanted after months of preparation, location scouting for new images and the quest for the perfect photo – that keeps him interested in his craft.
“I think any photographer will give you the same answer – we’re all looking for that mind-blowing photo. It’s a challenge that will never be complete.”
In the bag:
Linhof Technorama 617s III (Medium/Large Format Film Camera)
Nikon D800e 36MP Digital SLR
Schneider 72mm Super Angulon XL f/5.6 (equiv. to 15mm in 35mm)
Schneider 90mm Super Angulon XL f/5.6 (equiv. to 19mm in 35mm)
Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8
Lee Grad ND filters (0.6 Hard & Soft, 0.9 Hard & Soft)
B+W Polariser Filters
Mark Gray Professional Signature Tripod
Analog Cable Release
Nikon DSLR Cable Release
Shoot like a pro:
This fixed aperture lens from Tamron eliminates low light dramas and is super fast and bright with a fixed focal length of f/2.8. It covers the standard zoom range from 24-70mm and utilises Tamron’s Vibration Compensation (VC) image stabilisation to reduce camera shake. An Ultra Silent Drive (USD) provides fast, smooth autofocusing. Two extra refractive index glass lens elements and low dispersion features provide excellent optics. This lens is in its element when shooting portraits and in studio setups, but is equally useful for photographing outdoor shoots and landscapes. It can be used with both APS-C and full frame DSLRs.
Top 5 tips:
1. Always use a tripod – Durability, stability and ease-of-use are the three most important factors when choosing a landscape tripod.
2. Invest in a polariser filter – A polariser is the most important filter a landscape photographer can own. .
3. Get out of bed early – The best light of the day is always around sunrise and sunset.
4. Always look behind you – Sometimes the best light is not where you want it to be. Be flexible!
5. Join a workshop – The fastest way to speed up the learning process is to join a high quality workshop with a professional landscape photographer.
All images © Mark Gray, www.markgray.com.au