Profile: Aaron Dowling
Although his beautiful images look like the work of a career photographer who has always been blessed with a clear vision, Aaron Dowling’s journey in photography is likely one that many of us can identify with.
Starting out shooting landscapes but becoming increasingly frustrated that his images lacked that special ‘spark’, he challenged himself to do something totally different with his work. Today, this simple decision has led him to many awards for his images as well as a successful photo tour and imaging software business he runs from his hometown of Port Pirie.
But it wasn’t quite the path the Canadian-born mechanical engineer initially envisioned he would follow.
At the start
“Like most people I’ve been into photography all my life, taking selfies with friends as a child with film cameras,” he says.
“But In 2002 I took a trip to Uluru, and while I was there, I started to think a bit more about photography – trying to think creatively and pushing myself to take something different.”
Despite this, a promising career in engineering initially seemed to be his calling. Dowling worked on the development of the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland before moving to Australia. By 2003 he’d applied for residency and was toiling away in the mining and engineering industries. But his passion for photography was still bubbling away.
Changing it up
For many photographers, the wide-angle lens and a landscape go together like peas in a pod. But for Dowling, realising this didn’t have to be the case was a key turning point in his image-making.
“In the early days, I was always looking for that grand landscape, that bright colourful sunrise or sunset,” he explains.
“It was probably only a year or two into my journey that I realised I was losing interest in photography, and I started to think about why that was. I realised that everything I was taking was starting to look the same – sunrises, sunsets, wide-angle shots with strong foreground elements.”
Something had to change. “I asked myself, who am I taking photos for, and do my images excite me? In most cases, it was a no. So, I decided to rewrite my ‘rules’ – my editing changed overnight, my style changed, and instantly my images became stronger.”
A part of this was joining the Australian Institute of Professional Photography (AIPP), a decision he says was instrumental in helping him to critique his own work with a more critical eye. But just as fundamental was shifting his approach away from ‘shooting to the lens in front of his camera’, and towards capturing the right type of subjects.
“A great image has to be about something, and I found that the more that is in a scene the harder it is to tell a story, and the harder it is to capture emotion. I’ll be the first to admit that a lot of my photos don’t get recognised as interesting to the average person on social media. But they excite me, and I won’t move away from that.”
Dowling’s approach is also at odds with many landscape photographers who plan every detail to the nth degree. He says he often doesn’t go looking for specific ‘things’, he just goes looking – for whatever it is that captures his eye.
“I’m not one of those photographers who’s going to research a location and go ‘I have to be here at this time.’ Don’t get me wrong, I still arrive at a location when the light is good, but I don’t have a predetermined idea of what I’ll capture. More often than not things don’t work out as you planned anyway, and I like to leave things to chance.”
This approach is also seemingly at odds with photographers who have a clear idea of what they want to capture.
“I see many photographers who set up in a location waiting for the light, and then spot something interesting but do nothing about it.
I can guarantee that the interesting thing you’ve seen that’s caught your attention is going to be more interesting than what you’re waiting to capture.”
Today, he describes himself as somewhere in-between a minimalist and a classical, ‘grand’ landscape photographer. And although he doesn’t exclusively shoot in black and white, it’ is something that’s become a signature of his style and plays well to his ideal of stripping the image back to its barest essentials.
And remarkably, he also shoots 90% of his landscape images on telephoto lenses.
“I use my 14-24mm lens maybe once or twice a year,” he says, laughing.
With his path set, Dowling’s images were getting better and he knew he had developed a unique eye. So, in 2013 he decided to take a calculated risk – he would become a fulltime professional photographer.
As any photographer will tell you, earning money from what you love is tough – and landscape photography may just be the toughest of all to make a living from. Early on, Dowling realised that the traditional path of selling prints would never be enough to keep him afloat.
“I’m definitely not in the business of selling my images. I lead photo tours and sell software. Do I need to be a great photographer to lead tours? Probably not. Do I need to be a great photographer to sell software? Probably not,” he explains. Despite his modesty, he’s clearly been able to make it work.
He’s also lucky that from his time working in the mining industry, Dowling doesn’t need to run many workshops, and as such offers just four or five a year. He does little marketing, instead relying on word of mouth and repeat clients to keep the business ticking over.
The editing side
Dowling describes his work as probably 70% landscape photography and 30% travel photography, and the latter sees much less editing than the former. The key with editing he explains, is to have a clear idea of where you’re going before you start.
“With landscapes, I’m looking for final perfection. I think about every little element – the images are often made up of bracketed exposures or panoramas, and as a result the edits are often complex.
In the travel images I’m looking more to evoke a feeling, or I’m taking photos of people, so they typically lend themselves to a lighter touch. My philosophy [with both] is to do what need to, to get the final image I want, with very few limits.
Although he says he doesn’t have a standard workflow, Dowling uses Photoshop primarily and says he typically starts by adjusting White Balance in Camera Raw, before checking exposure to ensure the image retains highlight and shadow detail. From there, he makes local adjustments to Contrast, something he says is probably 90% of the work he does on an image.
Every image is different, and requires a different path. There isn’t a simple one size fits all solution to image editing.
It was also this desire to have finite control over Contrast in his images that led him down the path of developing his own tool for the purpose, the ADP LumiFlow plugin for Photoshop.
Behind the mask
At its essence, the ADP LumiFlow plugin is a luminosity mask selection tool for Photoshop that allows a photographer to make accurate selections in an image based on brightness or luminance levels.
“By using it I can choose to work in the brights or the shadows or the midtones, and I can control the brightness of these individual elements over the whole tonal range of my image, without affecting other parts,” he explains. The other advantage of luminosity masks is they create seamless transitions between tones, without leaving distracting halos or other marks that show the hand of the photographer.
The ADP LumiFlow Plugin originally started as a tool for his own workflow, and was developed first as an action in PS.
“I started doing videos teaching editing techniques, and people would ask me about the panel I used. Eventually I worked with programmers to turn the tool into a product people could buy.”
Today, it’s on its 7th generation and has developed into a powerful workflow tool that has thousands of users around the world. It’s also provided another key part to Dowling’s diverse income stream.
If you ask a landscape photographer, they’ll likely tell you it’s that feeling of being out in the great outdoors and capturing something few other people get to experience that keeps them coming back, time after time. But for Aaron Dowling, it’s clear his desire to push himself and his work is just as exciting as any outdoor experience.
“For me, the best part about photography are those moments when you get excited, and you start smiling, and you can’t get that smile off your face,” he says. “It’s something that doesn’t happen very often, but it’s what you live for.”