Panoramic landscape photographer Mark Gray began his working life as a web designer, but after a near-death experience he developed a passion for shooting landscapes – unusually, on film. He talks to Robert Keeley.
Mark Gray’s path to fine-art panoramic landscape photography was a long and winding one. A youthful interest in graffiti art, electronic music and digital technology was interrupted one night when he was seriously assaulted outside a hotel. He spent serious time in hospital, and underwent an operation in which a depressed section of his skull, the size of a 50 cent piece, was popped back out by a skilful plastic surgeon who effectively saved his life. In the aftermath of that harrowing experience, Gray rediscovered a calmer lifestyle, a long way from the life he’d been living. He soon found himself a wife, a love of nature and a passion for the craft of photography.
Digital days Gray never planned a vocation in photography. In fact, in his early years he didn’t really involve himself in serious image making at all. He learned graphic design while studying for a diploma in multimedia at Melbourne’s Swinburne Institute of Technology, and then used his skills in the business of web design for several years.
Gray later got the opportunity to work as a web manager in the field of search engine optimisation, while also exploring his more creative side via an interest in music. His involvement in photography was essentially limited to reviewing images which might be used on websites, though this gave him some feel for which ones were effective and which weren’t.
He also admits that in his teenage years he had a “rebellious streak”, and it manifested itself with a strong interest in graffiti art. Living in the northern Melbourne suburb of Heidelberg during his school years, Gray saw a lot of it, and he says, “I was in awe of it.” For a time he was a graffitist himself, even though he says “it was very much frowned upon”. He continues, “Now there’s much more respect for it. But I was into the artistic aspects of it.” He still has friends who make it.
At one point he found himself a job as a DJ in local pubs. “I had a personal interest in electronic music and dance parties,” he says. “I was a DJ for three or four years from when I was around 17 years old.” He suggests that he “went off the wagon for a bit, and I lost sight of a few things.” One (late) night outside a pub in 2002, he and a friend were approached by another clubber for a cigarette, which he said he didn’t have. It was the wrong answer, and an argument quickly developed into a brutal confrontation. He was punched to the ground and he cracked his skull.
A depressed fracture had caved in a small section above his left eye, and it ultimately took the skill of a surgeon and seven titanium plates to save Gray’s life. “I had been brought up as a Christian and I saw this incident as a wake-up call for me to get back on track,” says Gray. “I could have been in a wheelchair and I had 60 staples across my head. I had moved away from my faith.” He decided a readjustment was in order.
A new career He lost interest in the nightclub scene, and in fact soon found pubs and clubs to be uncomfortable places for him. “I did get some anxiety. I had felt invincible, but the incident impacted upon my personality. I was less confident in social situations, and quite at home with myself.”
Instead, he was drawn to quieter locations in the country. It was around this time he met the woman who would soon become his wife, Suzy Baryczka, and they began to travel together, often heading away for quiet weekends. On one of these excursions, to Apollo Bay on the south-west coast of Victoria, he rose early one morning and witnessed a spectacular sunrise.
“I hadn’t been interested in photography before,” he says. “I had a girlfriend who was into it, but I thought, ‘Why would you be into that?’ It seemed like a lot of effort for not much reward.” As he looked out over the ocean at Apollo Bay he says, “When I saw these colours, I realised these moments can happen.”
He shot some snaps of the scene before him, but he was disappointed with the results. He didn’t feel they did justice to what he had seen. So he started researching photographers and how they captured their images.
“I asked a guy in a store what kind of camera Ken Duncan used, and he told me it was a panoramic, but he talked me out of buying one,” says Gray. At that stage of his development, it was sound advice. Instead he bought a Fuji S7000, a neat digital unit, and put panoramic photography “on the back burner”. Initially, though, he started cropping the images from his S7000. However, with its fixed lens he says he soon found he was pushing its boundaries. But he was happy to use it as a learning tool, and he kept the camera for around nine months.
Upgrading and learning He soon bought a Canon EOS 350D and a wide-angle 10-22mm lens to go with it. He says, “I wanted a wide-angle lens for landscape images and my research showed I had to shoot wider. I was self-taught and I had no formal training. But working with technology was second nature to me and my creative side helped, which I’d developed with my design training. It does correlate.”
Combined with his early interest in graffiti he felt he had a solid background to explore new visually creative avenues. Gray’s thirst for knowledge was also prodigious, and he read about photography extensively. One book which had a major impact upon him was Steve Parrish’s title Photographing Australia.
“I sat on a plane and read it,” he says. “There was a tremendous amount of useful information in it.” He says he started to analyse other photographers’ images. “I wanted to try to understand how and why an image worked. I was trying to absorb as much as possible. I don’t believe you ever stop learning. But I was also getting out and experimenting. All I’ve learned about photography is through my own experience.”
He used his Canon 350D as much as possible, and on occasion started fitting Graduated Neutral Density filters and polarisers. He also began to check out weather reports so he could learn when the best conditions prevailed for landscape photography. He also looked for patterns, so he could predict the best times to go to certain locations. But there was a lot of trial and error, as well as some classic mistakes. “One trip I made was north to Cairns in March – but it was still in the Wet Season. I got two weeks of solid rain, and I didn’t get any beach or reef images!”
Gray says his digital equipment helped to fast track his learning, simply because he was getting instant feedback. And while he sold images made with his early cameras, he says now he sometimes wonders to himself, “What was I thinking?” In fact, in 2005, six months after his trip to Apollo Bay, he started a website called Australian Landscapes and he made his first print sale to an uncle, and soon after another to his next-door neighbour. But he was already planning a more detailed business approach to photography.
“I have a bit of a business mind which I got from my father. He was an IT manager and ran his own business,” says Gray. As business gradually increased he also became painfully aware that the image resolution he was achieving from his camera would only allow him to print images up to 24 inches (60cm) wide. “I needed more resolution, and I lost sales because of it,” he says.
The switch to film Further research on the web led him to the view that he should finally look at buying a dedicated panoramic camera. He confirmed that the man whose panoramic images he admired, Ken Duncan, used a Linhof 617 panoramic camera, but it was still too expensive for him. So he opted for a less expensive panoramic model, the Fuji G 617 with a fixed 105mm lens (equivalent to a 24mm lens in 35mm format). “It was a steep learning curve from that point and I made a number of mistakes.”
At one point he spent a considerable sum of money on a photographic trip to Tasmania but he came back with over-exposed images due to a technical problem with the camera. A repair shop fixed it, and he set forth once again. He finally sold his Canon 350D SLR and bought a Canon 5D Mk II, and used it effectively as a light meter rather than spending money directly on a meter. “It taught me a lot about exposures,” he says. “I got a lot of duds with the film pano camera, but I thrive on challenges. It’s contributed to my success.”
He learned to keep going back to venues where he thought he might make a good image if the conditions were right. And rather than return two or three times and then move on, Gray would keep on going back until the ideal conditions eventuated. After three months he felt he was “getting the hang of it”.
“It takes a while to set up this camera, but it becomes second nature after a while,” says Gray. He notes that slowing down the process of shooting can pay off. “I put a lot more thought into an image, and I do my best to get it right ‘in-camera’. My photography skills developed a lot more. With the digital camera it’s a bit too easy. This [the film camera] is quite a slow process.”
He settled on Fuji Velvia transparency film for his primary stock, and he now scans the transparencies and prints digitally. He keeps his original slides in a fireproof and flood-proof safe, and backs up digital copies. After a couple of years he sold his G 617 and upgraded to a Fuji GX 617. This version of the panoramic camera had interchangeable lenses, and Gray obtained a 90mm lens (20mm equivalent in 35mm format). This really wide angle lens allowed him to capture scenes the way he wanted to.
Then one day, at Norah Head on the NSW central coast, he was shooting from a rock ledge when an ocean surge pounded a huge wave right over the top of him, as well as his film camera and his digital SLR. A last-minute turn away saved the digital kit, but the bigger and bulkier panoramic camera was swamped by salt spray. The camera was ruined, but because it was insured he decided to go “all the way” and he finally bought a Linhof panoramic film camera – the same model Ken Duncan has used for so long. With a 72mm lens (the 35mm equivalent of a 15mm) he was now able to shoot really wide. “It was a great camera,” says Gray, “And I’d achieved a long-term goal.”
Shooting for quality Gray says the photography market has become saturated, but collectors appreciate good images. “I shoot with film, and the perception of quality is critical,” he says. He now researches locations thoroughly. “With my work, it’s good to capture any location at its finest. I look for the best seasons, the best times, when tides are right at coastal locations, and the times for sunrises and sunsets.”
He says he will visit some locations up to 20 times, but on average he will go back between five and 10 times to make sure his chosen location offers the greatest potential for an image. With a very limited number of images available per roll, and with the time involved to set the camera up, each shot becomes extremely valuable. This technique is similar to how every film shooter used to work, but it’s the antithesis of the modern-day approach used by most digital camera users.
“There’s plenty of times I don’t even press the shutter button. It costs $5 every time I take a frame, and it’s $50 to scan an image. But I do enjoy getting out on the road. These days I’m time poor. I’ll drive to locations in Victoria but if, say, I’m going to Queensland I’ll fly.”
Workshops Gray had a gallery at Merimbula on the NSW south coast for a couple of years, but in August last year he opened a new gallery in Mornington, on the Mornington Peninsula, south of Melbourne. His initial business goal was to sell prints, but with business in that area sporadic, he developed a series of workshops for people who want to improve their knowledge and practical skills. The concept began with a trip along the Great Ocean Road in 2008, the region which first sparked his own interest in photography all those years ago.
He found that developing his workshops also meant he had to come to grips with being a tour operator, and all the regulations which that involved. “I had to cover things like public liability and learning First Aid,” he says.
He now aims to take six to eight people on his workshops, which can range as far afield as Perth or Sydney, or as close as Melbourne. Other locations include Victoria’s High Country, Cairns, Uluru, Tasmania, and the South Island of New Zealand. “You have to have enough time for everyone,” he says. He runs one-day excursions, and three to five day trips, and caters for beginners through to fairly competent amateurs.
“We’re up before sunrise and we’ll shoot all day,” says Gray. “In the evenings we’ll have critique sessions with everybody’s photos.” He says he prefers to work with people who have just got their cameras because, “it’s hard to retrain people”.
Philosophy and post production Gray aims to, “get it right in-camera as much as possible” and doesn’t use colour filters. “If the colour’s not there to begin with, I don’t feel I should have to add the colour. I’m quite happy to go back to a location and wait for what I want.”
Despite his youthful training in digital technology, he’s keen to minimise any post-production work with his images. “If you’re spending more time editing on a computer than shooting the image, the work is becoming digital art,” he says. “One thing that really inspired me to get into photography was that I was sitting in an office in a corporate environment. I feel more at home in nature. Really, my view is that some people enjoy editing on a computer and I think that should be called digital art.”
On a recent trip to Mount Hotham, Mount Buffalo, and the nearby country town of Bright in northeast Victoria, he began his days with a 4.30am alarm, and trekked out into the snow before sunrise to set up for a shoot. He had studied the snow reports closely before the trip to maximise his shooting opportunities.
Earlier this year Gray bought a Nikon D800E SLR (“Some locations don’t work in pano,” he says) and he notes there are some benefits to shooting digitally in low-light situations. He likes the ability to set a high ISO rating, and he can shoot RAW files and edit in RAW. Shooting film is a slower process all round, with no possibility of editing while on the road.
Gray uses specific labs for processing and scanning his film in Melbourne, and he has also set up a lightbox in his gallery so customers can view transparencies as they were shot. He says the scanning process can sometimes produce ‘flatter’ images, so he does some minimal tweaking with levels and saturation. Slide film can also exhibit a more limited dynamic range, and he sometimes also has to recover shadows and highlights. He may also occasionally adjust his transparency scans for dust marks or scratches. ❂
Mark Gray’s kit Gray has come a long way from his first tentative excursions into photography with a very basic kit. He now has two lenses for his Linhof 617 S III panoramic camera: a 72mm f/5.6 Schneider Super Angulon lens and a 90mm f/5.6 Schneider. He has a series of Graduated Neutral Density filters including a 0.6 two-stop soft grad, a 0.6 hard grad, and a 0.9 soft grad, as well as a B&W brand polarising filter.
His Nikon D800E SLR has a Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 lens which carries a special Fotodiox polariser to cope with its bulb-shaped lens. He uses a heavy duty tripod (his own design) with Manfrotto aluminium legs and a geared head. (“The heavier, the better,” he says.) He has a specifically built PC (an Intel Core i7-3770 @ 3.40GHz) with 32GB of RAM, two 2TB hard drives, with two 1.5TB external hard drives as backups, and an NEC Colour-Critical TA series 27in monitor for post-production work. When travelling overseas he works with a Venom Blackbook 15in laptop with 8Gb of RAM, which has a large colour gamut and a 1TB hard drive. He also uses Adobe Photoshop Creative Cloud and NIK Suite software for post-production.
Article first published in Australian Photography + digital, October 2013.