Q&A: Travel photographer Peter Stewart
Born and raised in Perth but now calling Hong Kong home, photographer Peter Stewart has forged a career that’s marked him out as one of South-East Asia’s most exciting and original travel photographers. He sat down for a Q&A with AP Editor Mike O'Connor.
How did you get started in photography?
The first proper camera I purchased was a Canon 1000D in 2008. And, like many others, photography started as just another hobby. Having never really pursued any creative arts before, I never gave much thought to the artistic possibilities this could provide beyond just taking simple snapshots.
I was living in the UK and had rarely travelled far beyond Europe, but in 2009, decided to move back to my hometown to Perth, taking a long solo trip via Asia on the way.
After moving back to Australia yet never really feeling settled, in 2012 I pretty much decided all I wanted to do for a living was photography. I sold most of my possessions, took my savings and just went for it. I moved to Hong Kong which became not only my base as a gateway to travel in Asia, but also the place where I would really start to find my niche as a photographer and elevate the quality of my work.
How did your first big break happen?
It was around 2013/2014. I was working on my architecture series in Hong Kong; documenting the public housing estates, when attention really started to grow online towards the series and my portfolio.
Not long after, I was fortunate to strike up a collaboration with a fine art gallery to represent me, and that was really the first major break in a way that assured me I was making the right choice by pursuing my passion, and more importantly would help with financially sustaining it.
How would you describe your style?
I’m very much a slow paced, locked down on tripod kind of photographer. I tend to favour wide angle framing, typically with a two-dimensional approach to my compositions to draw attention to fine detail all throughout the image.
Many of my images are also centrally composed, meaning important areas of interest are usually right in the middle of the image.
Processing also plays a huge part in crafting the final look, as I’m not afraid to manipulate an image far beyond what was originally captured. This can be a controversial issue for some, but I enjoy toying with the perception of reality in my work.
How do you visualise and conceptualise your images?
I’ve always felt influenced more by the desire to create a scene as if I were painting it, rather than opting for a natural, true to life approach. I’ll often carry a small notebook with me whilst out scouting potential locations and find myself scrawling down any crazy ideas I have for a scene or idea for a composite creation.
I really like the idea of taking a boring everyday scene and then turning it into something unexpected. Similar to how I envisioned images like “Fragments of Hanoi” which portrays the flow of motorcycle traffic as a sort of choreographed dance.
Can you explain some of the planning/shooting/editing in your work?
Generally when traveling, I’ll prepare a list of locations or even a specific shot list to work through. I still like to use Flickr for location scouting online beforehand due to the wealth of images uploaded and tagged throughout the years. This helps a lot if you’re trying to find alternative angles or spots to shoot from. Especially when visiting busy tourist heavy locations.
Researching other images also provides a good idea for the types of focal lengths needed, and insights to how the light falls on a scene at various times of day.
I don’t always have the luxury of revisiting locations again and again for ideal conditions, so usually will plan for a typical sunrise or sunset shoot. For general travel photography, this is often how things go.
With cityscape and/or architecture photography however, weather is thankfully less of an issue. I love to shoot at blue hour, or at night, where it is much easier to control the light and I can bracket my frames to capture all the highlight and shadow information in the scene. The only rule I have is never to photograph cityscapes at the weekend (especially Sundays). Skyscrapers and office towers simply won’t have as many lights on.
As I carry a lot of heavy camera gear with me everywhere I go, I tend to reserve the DSLR for specific shots where I’m aiming to create an image for print, and almost always the camera is locked down on a tripod. The majority of the time, I prefer to shoot with compact cameras such as the Fuji X100F, which I find a lot easier and faster to use for general photography whilst I’m out exploring.
For times where I’ve planned for a specific image however, I’ll often shoot bracketed frames in order to capture as much highlight and shadow information as possible to later work with. These don’t always end up being used, as I may change my mind later on whilst editing whether I want the image to take on a balanced “HDR” type look, or go for a high/low key feeling.
My secret to nighttime cityscape and/or night architecture shots is to use a remote timer to go beyond the 30 second limit most cameras will allow for automatically. Shooting either at f/8 or f/11, I’ll take three exposures. One at five seconds to protect for bright highlights), another at 20/30 seconds which typically is the overall correctly exposed frame, and then finally a longer 45 second to one minute exposure to really pull out the shadow detail and produce a bright night sky.
Finally I edit solely in Adobe Photoshop CC, using Camera RAW to perform all basic edits and color correction, before moving into PS for more complex work involving manual blending or luminosity masking if I’m working with multiple files for a composite. Occasionally I’ll make use of plug-ins like Nik Color Efex Pro or RNI Films for additional effects and color grading.
Post-processing for me is where a photo truly comes alive, so I can spend anywhere from a few minutes all the way up-to four hours tweaking just a single image depending on the complexity of the edits involved.
Your marketing across Instagram and Facebook is a bit part of your business. What’s your advice for photographers who want to better promote what they do?
Just like many creative industries, a higher percentage of your time is always going to be spent marketing your work, rather than working on your craft.
My advice would be to post your work to as many social media networks as you feel you can handle. See what sticks and after a while drop the dud ones. Services such as Hootsuite can be invaluable to photographers as they allow you to schedule all your posts in advance and then leave it to post on your behalf. It works with Instagram, 500px, Flickr, Facebook etc.
Have a story to tell, tutorial, or a photo series you want to share? Maybe try reaching out to some of the major photo blogs as they’re always looking for fresh content. If you also have a website, having them link back to you works wonders for SEO and boosts your visibility with Google Search.
Speaking of websites, if you don’t already have your own portfolio site, then now is the time to build one. There are lots of great services out there like Smugmug, Squarespace & Format where you can easily create your own site, advertise your services, show off your finest work, or even start selling prints.
What advice do you have for people who want to take images like you?
The hardest part of being a photographer today is finding a way to stand out among the crowd. In just the past few years Instagram has changed everything, and given rise to a sizable number of highly talented new photographers.
We are inherently influenced by the work we see from others, and as such this has given rise to a lot of popular trends and styles of photography which I see bringing about a bit of a copycat culture. The point is, I think it’s important to find your own themes and ideas in order to progress, rather than to simply emulate.
Crafting your own photo project is one of the best things you can do, and helps provide a sense of direction for your work. It’s not easy to come up with ideas, but when you do it arguably makes for a much more rewarding experience.
What gear do you use?
I currently shoot with a Nikon D810 and a range of Nikkor zoom lenses and primes, along with a Fuji X100F and Ricoh GR. I also like to switch things up a bit and shoot occasionally on 35mm, for which I use a Nikon F3. ❂