Unique, unusual, creative, outstanding, fantastic...all adjectives you could apply to the photography of Kevin McElheran - an artist I just became aware of this past week. When I checked out Kevin's website, I was blown away by his images. I have been able to interview him about his amazing night photography, and have found out that he is giving workshops to teach his techniques, beginning September 15th, and then September 29th. If you are unable to register for September, Kevin is giving his photography workshops twice a month over the next several months, so you could take one or more in another month as well. Make sure to email him if you are interested in being a part of this great opportunity, or if you'd like to purchase some of his amazing work: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Kevin, what was the spark that ignited your passion for photography?
Passion for photography, like love in a marriage, came after the infatuation period. Passion didn’t come right away…photography was something I wanted to try. I started shooting swimming sports as a quick means to an end, or rather a tool to move from the bleachers and enjoy the action on deck with the swim club my kids were members of. It was 2003 when I took the leap into the vast unknown digital world and spent $1000 on my first 5mp camera and offered the images to the swim club to post on the club website.
I didn’t realize at the time, the learning curve was going to be fast and huge and in 6 short months, I quickly pushed my camera’s boundaries past its abilities and the expensive, ill equipped camera, stayed home while I was back sitting in the bleachers, frustrated and not very happy. I needed a fast focusing camera with pro lenses and I realized too that I was going to have to spend some serious money to get it.
It was at this point I decided to make a business out of photography and shoot year end photos of the swimmers for the club and in 2004/05, I bought the latest and greatest 8mp Canon 20D (insert whistle!) with a couple of good lenses and the thought of providing year end photos for the club became a reality. Infatuation turned to a serious paid interest right away! Every spare moment I had, you would find me at Chapters or Indigo Books and with coffee in hand, I flipped through the pages of every photo magazine I could get my hands on. I would take what popped out at me in the pages, go home and try out what I read. (A tip for your readers that want to check out photography magazines….the best ones on the market are all from the UK. Chapters and Indigo Book stores sell a vast array of them.)
My photography skill developed year after year and the images just kept getting increasingly better. Typical snapshots transformed into images showing feeling and emotion…the athlete’s determination, fight, and purpose captured in ways I saw only a few pro photographers producing. It was during this time at around year 4 or 5 that my serious interest turned into a passion that reached deep inside me and the spark ignited into a raging fire.
Some of your most striking and unusual photography is what you term “night photography”. Can you tell us what inspired this art form, as well as what the challenges to night photography are?
I found that as I read all those photo magazines, the one type of photography that intrigued me the most were shots made at night. I remember my first attempt at it and rather than just go into the backyard and practice, I drove 2 hours to Vermilion Lakes to set up and shoot Mount Rundle with star trails all night long. It was winter and at least minus 20C…yes, I was crazy and my wife looked at me and said, “you’re doing what…where…when…NOW???”
One of two things could happen if I went as planned. The all night shoot would either be a success or I would fail miserably but the only way I would learn this technique is to get out there and do it!
The light at night is amazing especially when the only natural light is from the stars, moon or just a small flashlight. Other forms of light also add character, deepen shadows and increase visual interest such as light from cars passing by, light pollution from nearby cities and towns that reflect from the clouds or maybe it’s a single light on a pole in a farmyard several hundred feet away. Light is light no matter if you can see it or not and if you’re shooting with a decent DSLR with good to pro glass, the camera’s sensor will record it. If you’re wanting to take your photos to the next level or raise the bar, mastering night photography will certainly do it. The learning curve is a great ride and the end results are amazing!
Joanne, you asked about what the challenges are shooting at night. There are several but a little pre planning and forethought will help for the event. I like to travel away from the city where it’s dark and quiet. Often times I’m alone so I make sure I tell my wife and family where I’m going and provide an approximate time when I’ll be back. During late fall and winter, it gets dark early so I’m usually out the door at around 5pm and will get back home around 7am. The deeper we go into winter, the darker and cleaner the skies resulting in stunning milky way galaxy shots.
Now let’s talk for a minute about shooting all night in the winter as it is my favorite season but because of conditions, it’s also the most uncomfortable time of year. I make sure I have all the essentials like food, coffee, water, proper clothing, lots of hotties for the gloves and inside my coat and boots…I can’t stress enough to make sure you’re dressed really warm. It gets cold at night in the mountain parks or wherever you choose to be and I’ve done shoots when it’s been as low as -35C for a couple hours at a time. You also need to make sure you’ve put gas-line anti-freeze in your vehicle’s gas tank so you know the car will run all night if necessary.
Making a check list of essentials is important as it can be quite a lot to remember everything in your head. The time to find out you’re not prepared is not when you’re 2+ hours from civilization and there’s no signal for the cell phone, you have no coffee, you’re starving, your fingers are frozen solid, the car ran out of gas or froze up, the camera batteries are dead and to top it all off, you have to go to the bathroom and you didn’t bring any toilet paper! If you make it back alive, you and all your family and friends can laugh about the story later but when you’re in the midst of a life shattering moment and you’ve fallen to your knees shouting “WHY?!!!”, it’s no fun and it’s the wrong time to ask, “What would Jesus do?”
This may sound extreme but if any one of these things goes wrong, it doesn’t make for a pleasant night. I remember heading to Crowsnest Pass for an all night shoot a couple of years ago. The 2 hour drive was long but it was quiet and peaceful…lots of happy thoughts and lots of time to pre-plan my shot in detail…but I was glad once I got to my location… I go to set up and I forgot my tripod! The language instantly became quite colorful! The event ended faster than it started and I was then on my way home!
So to sum up the first challenge…the most important thing is to be prepared with the things you need to care for yourself, your gear and others if you’re not alone.
The second challenge is in making sure you have all the right equipment, camera and lens gear for shooting at night. A good sturdy tripod and a remote cable shutter release is a must have. Lots of batteries and a good DSLR is also necessary along with a wide angle f2.8 lens - essential if you're wanting to capture amazing Milky Way Galaxy shots. If you don’t have the right camera gear, both Vistek and The Camera Store in Calgary will rent these items to you.
The third challenge is how can your camera focus on a subject at night that you can barely see? This is one of the questions I’m asked quite often and it is a subject I cover in detail in my workshops.
The fourth challenge is being willing to roll with the conditions. If you’ve rented camera equipment for a specific date and the weather is less than ideal, go shoot anyway. Keep an open mind, use what’s given you, adapt with it and create some photos. If you were hoping for clear skies and it’s all fogged in, snowing, raining or the light is “bad” …these are all ideal times for amazing photo ops!
You teach students “in the field photography workshops”. What is the benefit to a person in taking this kind of a workshop?
Workshops are the best way for an individual to learn skills he or she is lacking plus my workshops are a ‘hands-on’ way of learning what is missed if you’re just sitting in a classroom reading books or listening to someone talk. Classroom sessions can be important but I am self-taught not by someone telling me what to do, but because I went out in the elements and experimented with the equipment.
How can a person sign up for your next workshop and when is the next one?
The next workshop is this September 15th and the 29th. The 15th is during the new moon and will be very dark. The 29th is during the full moon and very bright. Both sessions are quite different in that you’re working with two very different natural lighting situations. It will be a fun packed and informative two nights. Cost is $100 per night. People interested can send me an emailand from there we can discuss what camera equipment they have and discuss additional items they may need to rent or purchase. (email@example.com) If people want to sign up for one or both nights, they have to understand we shoot all night long.
What has been the greatest challenge you’ve ever had in your career as a photographer?
I’ve had a fear of heights and was offered a freelance photographer position for an aerial photography company. I’ve had to overcome that fear to do this job and am now into my 3rd year and love it. Some photos require very steep angles shot requiring the plane to bank hard on its side. G forces are extreme as I’m shooting out an open window during these times. HEADS UP!!
If you could give one or two pieces of advice to a novice photographer, what would they be?
Great question! I would say, dream big! Where do you want to be in 5, 10, 20 years of photography? If the novice has the desire to make a business out of their skill one day, I know that clients look for photography that’s different from the rest. And second word of advice is practice, practice, practice. Read lots of photo magazines and make time to develop their photography interests. Find their niche and hone their skills. If I could sneak in one more word of advice…get yourself a website! Clients want to see your work!
You have chosen (3) of your favorite photos to share with us today. Can you please describe what makes these special to you?
Fourteen sleepless nights I stood in this field and each attempt failed proving I had my camera settings wrong. Each night I micro adjusted the settings and it wasn’t until the 15th night, the shot was right! Everything just worked out perfectly. It took a lot of determination to get this shot and in the end, the sacrifice of sleep paid off.
Lastly, one morning very early, I set out as I’ve done many times to scout around the country side looking for photo ops. It wasn’t long into the drive that I came up to a thick fog bank just as the sun was rising. Noticing horses just off to the side of the road, I slowed down and noticed the sun was in the perfect spot!. The camera was ready and the rest is history. So many photos are captured this way by scouting around. Sometimes all I’ve accomplished is putting miles on the car and other times I come home with several shots I’m happy with.
Kevin, you are an inspiration to try new things, to practise, and to be willing to sacrifice and persevere. Thank you for your time for this interview!
Please be sure to check out Kevin's work, and to email him to sign up for one or more of his workshops at firstname.lastname@example.org.