Showcase on X-photographer: Craig Robertson

1. When did you first become interested in photography, and at what point did you know that being a photographer was what you wanted to do as a career?

Once upon a time many years ago Santa delivered me a camera as a Christmas present. The family holiday was excitedly snapped. But then I was devastated as the plastic camera melted in the sun on the back window shelf of the old Cortina. Not to be deterred, I saved and saved until I could buy an SLR in a Customs seized goods auction. I was hooked. I soon discovered recording events for the school newspaper was an excellent way to avoid participating in them. 

As a keen outdoors enthusiast I choose to pursue a career in conservation, training as a wildlife ranger.  I took many photos to record my journeys to some of New Zealand’s outstanding wild places and my work with our endangered wildlife like Kakapo, Takahe and Black Robin. It was a life I will forever feel privileged to have experienced. 

Excited about sharing and protecting these special places I specialised in public relations and ended up looking after the development of Department of Conservation visitor centers and interpretation facilities in the Canterbury region and photography played an important role in communicating the conservation message. 

The obligatory OE followed laden down with a strict budget of 50 rolls of Fujichrome Velvia (36 frames a week!). That was probably my turning point. I decided then that pursuing a career, as a professional photographer was what I really wanted.  But had to bide my time for a few years working in corporate PR roles. The bonus of that period was I had the opportunity to work with and learn from some of NZ’s best corporate & industrial photographers. Then 18 years ago I stepped out on my own. It’s been quite a ride since then.

2. What or who is your ideal subject to photograph and industry of choice to photograph for? 

Industrial and corporate portraits have been my specialty in my career to date. Meeting and working with everyday people who are often in extraordinary jobs makes life extremely interesting. I’ve had little glimpses into many different industries - most more complex than people can imagine. 

I’ve had forestry contractor’s stop work and pull millions of dollars worth of machinery out of the bush and onto a skid site for a “group photo”; I’ve had to coerce a CEO and Chairman who weren’t on speaking terms to pose for their annual report photo; I’ve photographed prime ministers and mayors; I’ve captured powerful Maori performances; I’ve photographed a port management team on the very top of a container crane; I’ve hung out of a chopper numerous times for aerial views; I’ve crawled into burning houses to photograph firemen training; I’ve planned and set up the perfect portrait of a forestry CEO with the sun setting over the forest - only for the cloud to roll in; I’ve lain in kiwifruit bins and had bags of them emptied over me for a “fruit’s eye view” shot of the pickers;…. The list goes on and on. I’ve been lucky to experience all this.

But my journey is heading down a new road towards landscape based photographic art. Call it a mid life crisis if you like, but I’m returning to my roots. I have ALWAYS loved shooting landscapes. I’m not really interested in shooting brightly coloured iconic scenes. I’m searching out a new style. It’s developing and I’m pushing some personal boundaries. So now it’s less about seeking dramatic light and more about finding texture and minimalist composition within a constrained colour pallet. Joining me on that journey has been Fujifilm's mirrorless cameras. Starting with the X-10 then the X-E1 and now the X-E2 and X-T1. They’re light, easy to walk with for hours on end, produce beautiful files with optics that are truly outstanding. I love winding up my colleagues dragging around deadweight DSLR crammed
backpacks as I carry two X bodies and 6 lenses in a tiny belt pack.

3. What do you want your viewers to take away from your work?

My commercial work has been about telling stories to communicate value to my client’s customers or investors.

My landscape work it is about sharing elements of our spectacular landscape that people seldom see or take the time to notice. Gnarly old trees spot lit on a hilltop, straggling pohutukawa roots on a cliff face, textures on a beach, movement of water in a river, trees emerging from the fog, soft pastel light on rolling hills right before it gets dark. These are the things that excite me and I hope others will enjoy and relate to.

4. How has social media played a role in your photography? 

For my commercial work it hasn’t really been relevant. Social media revolves around immediacy and most of my commercial work is constrained by commercial sensitivity until it goes to press or until products are launched on the web. It’s a bit hard to post images or stories about assignments months after they’ve happened.

With changing direction to creating landscape art prints it’s become a different story. It all seems to be about building profile so social media is one of the key mechanisms in that process. It’s fair to say it’s a steep, but exciting, learning curve for me. On top of my website Full Frame Photography I now have a blog and just launched a new Facebook page for my landscape work. I’m yet to explore twittering, Google plussing or instagramming. I’m not sure you can do them all successfully.

It get’s pretty exciting when a site like Fujirumors links a blog post and you watch as the stats climb into thousands of readers all over the world. 

5. What do you enjoy most about the photography community online? 

Education and an endless resource of inspiration. Sometime it’s overload though and disheartening when you discover ideas you thought you were original have already been done. Having access so easily to a global audience is very exciting and full of new opportunities.

"Yes it can be exciting, but be prepared to work very hard in a rapidly changing industry and society where everyone is now a "photographer"."

6. When did you decide to make the shift to mirrorless technology – what prompted the move?

Just over two years ago I was about to undertake a tough cycle tour with friends. I didn’t want to carry a heavy DSLR system with me. I needed a light but very high quality compact camera. The Fuji X-10 ticked all the boxes and did the job well - two of the images from the trip won awards. And then a few months later at NZIPP’s Infocus event I was shown a pre-production X-E1. I ordered one there and then. Compact, lightweight, inconspicuous and stunning image quality. It was the perfect solution for me. 

Earlier this year my son won a mountain biking trip to Queenstown so I needed something that would handle action better than the X-E1. Time to upgrade to the more responsive X-E2. It didn’t let me down. Since then I’ve purchased the X-T1 and more lenses and now my DSLR system is gathering dust as my X-system becomes a fully-fledged pro kit. I’m now using for many of my commercial assignments. It’s hard to put my finger on it but the Fuji files seem to have a different feel to them that I prefer over my DSLR images.

The other huge benefit for me with mirrorless has been the shift to electronic viewfinders from optical. With an EVF what you see is what you get. I seldom use the exposure indicator scale anymore. I expose the image based on the feel of an image - light or dark, black and white, saturated velvia, soft astia - I shoot it as I see it and no longer need to “chimp” the LCD after taking a shot. I also watch the histograms to ensure I don’t “clip" information. The outcome is images based on emotion not technically “correct” exposures. 

7. Can you share some of your favorite images captured so far.

My commercial portfolio images can be viewed on my website

A couple of years ago we brought a campervan so we could spend more time exploring NZ cheaply. It’s packed and ready to go at a moments notice. The images seen throughout this piece are from some of the journey’s seeking out new images. 

8. What number one tip / advice you would give to yourself if you started photography all over again? 

I wish I had known that I would spend more time being a business person that taking photos. I was so naive when I started - I thought it was all about taking great images, I was SO wrong. I was fortunate that the other photographers I worked with taught me to value my work highly right from the outset - I wouldn’t have survived otherwise. This is a tough business to be in - very, very tough. Don’t expect to survive as a professional photographer if you can’t or don’t want to run a business. There is a perception that it’s a glamorous profession. Yes it can be exciting, but be prepared to work very hard in a rapidly changing industry and in a society where everyone is now a “photographer”.

Oh - and invest in good gear. It pays in the long run.