People are an endless source of fascination for photographer David Knight. He talks to Marc Gafen about his remarkable images and the art of shooting captivating portraits.
Like many professional shooters, David Knight did not originally plan to work as a commercial photographer. His career thinking revolved around studying a fine art degree.
“I always thought I’d be painting and drawing,” he says.
But after completing a one-year preparatory course before formal study, he enrolled in the two-year Higher National Diploma in Advertising and Editorial photography at Cheltenham & Gloucester College, opting for a more vocationally focused learning experience. From there, he’s never looked back. The course was practical and Knight found the experience to be invaluable in helping him prepare for working in the real world. Notwithstanding the hours he spent looking at and trying to make sense of light and shade, the course not only taught him how to use 35mm, medium-format and large-format cameras, but also the history of photography, business studies and the physics and chemistry of film.
The value of assisting
It was one thing to study and get practical experience, but during the course Knight says he was “chomping at the bit” to go out and assist because he knew he would learn his most valuable lessons while actually working. He was employed as a freelance assistant in London with various advertising photographers before he secured a full-time assistant’s position with two photographers.
Knight used the assisting experience to glean as much information as possible, but he soon realised he didn’t want to do that forever. When he felt he was starting to second-guess the photographers he was working for realised it was time to quit and launch his professional career.
Lauren screaming, 2011. A finalist in the 2012 Head On Portrait Prize. I like to keep images clean, simple and uncomplicated. Hasselblad H2 with Leaf Aptus back, 80mm lens. Photo by David Knight.
In early 1995, at the age of 23, Knight decided to swap the cold dreariness of English winters for the warmth of Dubai. Thankfully it wasn’t long before he landed a job assisting two photographers. Fortuitously, one of the photographers left and Knight took over his role in the studio. It was at this time he picked up his first advertising job, working with the joint creative directors of Saatchi & Saatchi in Dubai, who had much experience working on campaigns in the UK.
The first two jobs he shot for them went on to appear in Graphis Poster and Graphis Advertising and also in Creative Review magazine in England – an impressive achievement for a 24-year-old! Because there weren’t many photographers in Dubai at the time, the constant flow of work on offer meant things were never dull or boring. Besides the advertising work, Knight was also shooting corporate, PR, aerial and industrial work.
While there, Knight also undertook assignments across the seven Emirates of the UAE, Oman, Kuwait, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Armenia and Yemen. But after nearly four years in Dubai, Knight decided to move to Sydney.
The power of the portrait
Shooting a strong and powerful portrait is something that almost anyone who’s ever seriously picked up a camera wants to do, but just what makes a great portrait? In Knight’s view, it’s one where you are immediately engaged by the subject.
“I like portraits that leave me wanting to know more about the subject,” he says. “I want to feel a personal connection, and perhaps have an emotional response to them.”
But the best portraits, Knight believes, are the ones which don’t shout at the viewer, or demand attention, and instead simply and gently draw them in. Up until he shifted his focus away from cars and still-lifes to working with people, Knight says he had been “doing pretty much everything” in terms of what he photographed. He now steers his work in the very specific directions of people and portraiture.
“Faces and the human form are inexhaustible as subject matter,” Knight says. “I could make an image of the same person for the rest of my life and get something different every time.”
When shooting portraits, Knight’s primary aim is to try to make them as simple as possible, and honest, in the sense that they’re not overproduced or over-retouched. “When I make a portrait, I am projecting what I want on to my subject,” he says. “I know it’s pretty much impossible to capture someone’s spirit or personality in a single frame; it’s just a moment in time.”
The older Knight gets, the greater his desire to simplify the shot so he can make strong images without unnecessary distractions or gimmicks. “Treatments and post-production do have their place,” Knight says, “but they can sometimes get in the way of a good image or worse, try and compensate for a bad one.”
These days, Knight says that he is less focused on what he calls “proper” portraits, but more interested in playing with the human form to create shapes, movement and emotion. “When I do make a more traditional portrait,” he says, “I’m usually not concerned with trying to make a true representation of that person.”
Eunice, 2006. A wind machine was used to add a sense of movement and drama. Mud effects were added and tears were induced with eye drops. Canon EOS 1DS Mark II, 70-210mm lens @ 125mm. Three lights. Photo by David Knight.
Sense of style
Examining Knight’s portraits, his style and approach become immediately apparent. Most of his work is collected in various personal projects where there is a common element or thread which links all the images together. Knight says that it’s his personal work that best demonstrates his photographic style.
“Looking back, I can see a pattern of experimentation, dating back to 2007, in which I am less concerned with technical perfection, but more interested in working in a free and unconstrained manner.”
Awards and accolades
No stranger to awards, Knight has been recognised both locally and internationally for his portraits. Recently, he was a finalist in the 2012 Head On Photographic Portrait Prize, a finalist in the 2011 Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize and a finalist in 2011 and 2009 for the Olive Cotton Award.
Originally from Oxford in the UK, Knight went on several school excursions to The National Portrait Gallery in London and recalls wondering what it would be like to one day have his work hanging in such a prestigious institution. He found out in 2009, 2010 and again in 2011 when his work was exhibited in The National Portrait Gallery as part of The Taylor-Wessing Portrait Prize.
These days Knight is less focused on awards and art prizes and admits that while they may be a good vehicle to keeps one’s work in the public eye, he prefers to focus his energy on shooting for and planning exhibitions of his own work.
Christian, 2009. He attended a casting for an advertising shoot and I invited him back on another day for a portrait sitting. Hasselblad H2 with leaf Aptus back and 80mm lens. Daylight and bounced light from a 3 x 3m background wall on wheels. Photo by David Knight.
A philosophy of light
Putting aside the need for an interesting subject, Knight says the next most important ingredient in portraiture is the lighting, – both the quality and the quantity. Knight’s philosophy is to take a clean, simple and honest approach with his portraits.
“I am trying to make my images clear of anything superfluous,” he says.
Knight’s approach does not specifically require plenty of expensive lighting equipment, since really powerful portraits can be produced with only one or two lights, or even daylight.
“If you don’t have access to lighting, then experiment with window light,” he suggests.
Tools of the trade
Following his first forays into digital imaging in 2002, Knight made a hasty retreat back to film until he was satisfied the technology was sufficiently mature and could produce results of a high enough standard. He then seriously considered digital only after buying a Canon 1Ds Mark II. He currently shoots on the Hasselblad H2 with a Leaf Aptus back. His favourite lens is the Hasselbad HC 80mm, and for almost every shoot he relies on his Foba tripod.
Disconnected 3, 2013. This image was created by shooting through a distressed transparent surface. Hasselblad H2 with Leaf Aptus back, 80mm lens. Three lights. Right Emily, 2011. For this shoot we kept the hair very clean and simple. I really wanted this image to be timeless. Hasselblad H2 with Leaf Aptus back. Hasselblad 80mm. Two lights. Photo by David Knight.
Pearls of wisdom
For anyone wanting to improve their photography, Knight’s advice is to never accept mediocrity. He suggests constantly striving to get better, and experimenting as much as possible. While some people are naturally more gifted than others, it’s his belief that it’s the ones who dedicate themselves to learning, improving and honing their craft who will ultimately succeed.
Knight says that if you only have a vague notion of what you’re doing, then the outcome is likely to be vague and ordinary. He stresses the importance of putting one’s energy into preparation and really thinking about what you’re trying to achieve with your images before going anywhere near a camera.
Further, he says, you need to seriously consider basic factors such as how the subject will be lit and what background would be best, and why. “You should aim to have most of the technical side squared away before you start shooting,” he suggests. “And if you have a really great idea that doesn’t work out or goes wrong, don’t be afraid to keep coming back to that same idea until you find a way to make it work.”
Working on his own projects brings Knight the greatest satisfaction and much of his attention and effort goes into his personal projects. His latest project, ‘Disconnected’, will be the subject of a solo exhibition planned for late 2013. Knight believes that being a photographer is not about the money or the commercial work. “It’s just what you are, what you do. I think the difference between a regular career and being a photographer is that even if I’m not working, I am still a photographer. That’s just what I am.”
To see more of David Knight’s remarkable images go to www.knight-photo.com
Article first published in Australian Photography + digital, August 2013.