It is with pleasure that 2 Guys Photo introduces you to the next in our series of Featured Photographers: Curtis Budden.
Curtis has spent his life travelling the world and honing his considerable photographic skills. Read on to learn how he developed those skills and where he is taking his photography. Of particular interest to me is his approach to street photography. Enjoy!
Please tell us about yourself Curtis.
I was born in St. John’s, Newfoundland, in eastern Canada. When I was growing up, I split my time between the capital, St. John’s (summers), and a little town of about 2,000 people called Wabush, which is located in a pretty isolated part of the country called Labrador. I studied Russian Language and Literature and Classics at Memorial University of Newfoundland in St. John’s. I spent my last semester at Leiden University in the Netherlands in 1998.
One of my professors there was William Simons, the director of the university’s Institute for East European Law and Russian Studies. Once I finished my semester, I spent the rest of the year working for him at the institute. At the end of the year, he helped get me set up in St. Petersburg, Russia, where I spent the next three years.
After Russia, I went back to Leiden and the institute for about half a year, and then I moved to Prague, where I spent a year working at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but my next move would be an important one. I started working at the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe in Warsaw, Poland, in April 2003. I worked there for five years and left in 2008. After about a year and a half traveling, mostly in Spain, I moved back to Warsaw at the end of March 2010, and that’s where I am now. The reason it was an important move is that I consider Warsaw my home. I don’t mean any offense to anyone where I grew up back in Newfoundland, but of all the places I’ve ever lived, I feel most at home in Warsaw.
How long have you been a photographer and how did you get started?
That depends on your definition of photographer. I got my first camera when I finished high school. And if my first images had any value at all, it might have been as studies of bad compositions and even worse exposures. Like many people, I thought, “If I just had a better camera…”, and so I upgraded my equipment from time to time but continued to take the same bad photos, just with more-expensive cameras. So while I’ve been taking pictures for years, that fact alone certainly didn’t make me a photographer.
I moved to Granada in the south of Spain. When I wasn’t working on my Spanish, I started reading about photography and, more importantly, I started taking a lot of pictures. But it wasn’t until a bit later, during the summer of 2009, that I finally felt comfortable with exposure and made the switch from using my camera’s automatic mode to the fully manual mode. That was certainly one of the important watershed moments in my journey to becoming photographer. For the first time, I felt like I was responsible — and not my camera — for the images that I was creating. So while I would say that I started to become a photographer about two years ago, it’s an ongoing process of learning new techniques, both in the camera and in post-processing, not to mention lighting and new genres and styles. I know I still have a long way to go to reach my goals, but I love the process.
How and when did you make the transition from amateur to professional photographer?
Again, that depends on your definition of professional. I sold my first print in December of 2009, so that was the first time I earned money from photography. Despite the excitement of making a sale, my photography was still quite unpolished at the time. For one thing, I didn’t know much about post-processing, and so most of my images were published with only a few global adjustments to the exposure and some sharpening or a preset here and there.
Since then, I’ve sold more prints, and I’m now being hired for portrait shoots and events. For the moment, however, I still have a full-time job, so I would probably call myself a weekend professional.
That’s going to change soon enough, however. I recently resigned, and I’ll be finishing up my job at the end of June. My plan is to set up my own company in Warsaw over the summer and to start doing photography full-time.
What’s in your bag and what are your go-to applications for post-processing?
I mostly use two bodies, a Canon 5D Mark II and a Canon 7D. I also have a range of lenses: a 16-35 mm f/2.8, which is my main lens for landscape photography. I have a 50 mm f/1.4, a 100 mm f/2.8 macro, and a 70-200 mm f/2.8. The macro lens has its obvious function, but I also use it for portraits. The 70-200 is probably my most versatile lens. I’ll use it for sports, wildlife, portraits, and landscapes. In addition, I use a Lumix LX5 as my walking-around camera, having recently upgraded from my worn-out Canon S90. In addition to my cameras and lenses, I have a full kit of Lee neutral-density filters, which are absolutely essential for landscape photography.
I do all my organization and global adjustments in Adobe Lightroom 3, but I use Photoshop CS5 for any real processing, including black-and-white conversions.
Curtis, in looking at your SmugMug site, I see consistently breathtaking landscapes but also arresting images shot in the street. What do you like to shoot and why?
It wouldn’t be a lie to say that I like to shoot everything. The thing is that I haven’t been doing serious photography long enough to really establish any specializations.
I am passionate about shooting landscapes. I get excited about landscape photography in a way that doesn’t compare to the way I feel about other types of photography. In the past 13 months, I’ve done five landscape workshops in Scotland, and I always feel like a little kid on Christmas that first night before a workshop begins. I can’t wait to get up before sunrise, down a quick cup of coffee, and head out into the cool blue light of morning to see what I can see. I just never get tired of that feeling.
That said, I also love portraits, which is a fairly new genre for me. Some five or six months ago, a friend of mine told me that, while she liked the photos on my site, she was disappointed that I didn’t have any photos of people. And she was right. I had always balked at portraits. I wasn’t really sure what I was doing in that area, and I didn’t know how to go about getting started. I didn’t want my first foray into the world of portrait photography to involve posed images, but I also wasn’t sure how to go about approaching people in the street or taking candid portraits. In the end, I just got out there and started doing it. And now, I think I feel a special sense of satisfaction whenever I take a portrait that I’m happy with. And I’m usually happy with a portrait when I feel it captures something of the subject’s character.
I enjoy all of your images but especially the street photography. Can you tell us about that process of “seeing” a great street shot and how you approach the actual making of the shot? (Most people are too intimidated to either just shoot, or ask a stranger for permission to take a picture. How do you handle that?)
Thanks. I’m glad to hear that you like my street photography. I think my landscapes and portraits tend to get the biggest response on my website, but I think there’s something special about street photography, and it’s an area that I definitely want to improve.
For me, there are two keys: preparation and the willingness to compromise. The two are interrelated, and I think you learn both of them with experience. So what do I mean by preparation? For me, it means deciding on what type of photos I want to shoot before I leave my apartment and taking only the necessary equipment for that type of photo. If I feel like shooting candid street scenes or portraits, I’m going to take one body and my 70-200 mm lens, and that’s it. By knowing my equipment and knowing the images I can shoot with that equipment, it helps me focus. I know I have to compromise on any potential wide-angle shots that I might see, but that helps me shut them out. It’s like training yourself to see only in terms of the focal length of the lens that you have at hand. In addition, I will set my aperture in advance and shoot in aperture-priority mode, and I’ll leave my camera on all the time so that I’m always ready to shoot if necessary. If I want to shoot candid portraits, for example, I might set it to f/2.8 or f/4, and then I’m only going to focus on potential portraits where I want to blur the background. If I want to spend some time shooting portraits or street scenes with more of the environment in focus, then I’ll only take my 50 mm lens and set it to f/5.6 or f/8. I might miss dozens of potential decent images this way, but if I get one great image, the compromise is well worth it.
I think there’s another area where you have to compromise in street photography, and that’s exposure. When you see something developing in front of you, you can’t take out your camera and tripod, work out the correct exposure, and take your shot. You can’t add a neutral-density filter to balance out the light. You just need to see it and shoot it, which might mean a lot more highlight and shadow clipping than you’d like, but it’s just something you have to live with. Or at least that’s been my experience so far. Of course, you can always use your processing skills to bring back some of the missing detail.
When I first started shooting street portraits, this fear of approaching strangers really held me back, and it still does from time to time. People are often suspicious of anyone with a camera, especially if you’re walking around with a DSLR and a giant lens on the end of it. But I’ve found that, in many cases, a genuine smile can allay a lot of suspicions. If that doesn’t work, and it’s clear that the person doesn’t want to be photographed, you just move on. I’m also fortunate in that I speak a few languages, and I find that if I address someone in their native language, it can really break the ice.
In some cases, it doesn’t even have to be their native language, just an unexpected language. I was in Belgrade last fall, and I spotted a woman selling souvenirs, and I really wanted to photograph her. I walked up to her and smiled and asked her if she happened to speak Russian. She smiled warmly and said that she had to learn it in school, and she was so happy to have a have a chance to speak the language again. She spent the next 30 minutes or so telling me all about her life — she was 80 years old — and once I felt we’d developed a certain rapport, I told her I’d really like to photograph her, and she quickly agreed. The resulting portrait is one of my favorite images.
So I think you have to approach street photography by understanding that not everyone is going to want to be photographed, and it’s important to respect that. If you’re friendly and you respect people’s wishes, you’ll be able to develop your own techniques over time. And in the end, it’s not about photographing everyone and everything. One really successful image makes all the failures worthwhile.
How do you stay motivated to keep on shooting? What (or who) inspires you?
Staying motivated was a big problem for me almost exactly a year ago. I had just started a new job, and it really wasn’t going that well. I ended up losing my motivation for a lot of things, photography included. In fact, between April and October, I didn’t take a single private photograph. The only images I took were for my job. Fortunately, I found the motivation for photography again in October, and the time since then has, without a doubt, been the most productive period of photographic life.
I would say that I’m motivated by a love of creativity, by the desire to learn and to constantly improve, and by the response I get from friends and strangers alike.
I’ll expand on those points just a little bit. First and foremost, I’m motivated to create images because of how the process of doing so makes me feel. When I’m behind the camera and my mind is working creatively, it’s very therapeutic. I shut out whatever might be causing me stress in other areas of my life, and it’s just me, my camera, and the images.
I’m also motivated by the desire to learn and become a better photographer. I mentioned earlier that I’ve done five landscape workshops in just over a year, and each one has taught me something new that I was able to apply in the next one. If I look at the cumulative effect, I think it’s clearly visible if you compare the photographs I took in my first workshop and those in the most recent workshop. In fact, I see differences between the workshops I did two months ago and the one I did two weeks ago. When I see how I’ve progressed as a photographer over that fairly short period of time, it really gives me the motivation to continue shooting and, hopefully, to continue making better images.
And, finally, I am indeed motivated by the feedback that I get from others. Knowing that someone gets pleasure out of something that I’ve created is very rewarding for me, and it pushes me to continue doing it and to try to improve all the time.
Curtis, you actively update your photo website with new images – how do you benefit from this and who else does?
I benefit in a couple of ways. First of all, as I mentioned above, the feedback I get on my website is very rewarding, and the knowledge that there are people out there who enjoy my photography is certainly something that pushes me to keep creating images. In addition, using my site in an active manner has allowed me to form relationships, albeit virtual ones, with so many interesting people and photographers around the world. That is something that means a lot to me.
I’m not sure who else benefits from this, but I do get e-mails from people who like my photos and who have questions about certain techniques. By sharing my own experiences and the way I work, that might help someone improve their own photography. In addition, I think people might benefit from me in the same way that I benefit from them. If I find feedback motivating, presumably others do as well. I try to comment on photos that I like on a daily basis, though it’s been difficult the last couple of months, as I’ve had a hectic schedule with work, studies, and travel. But I like to comment and let people know what I think. Those comments might range from letting an accomplished photographer know that I really like a particular image to telling a new photographer that they did a good job or that they’ve been improving. I appreciate the encouragement that I got when I was starting out, and I want to give the same sort of encouragement to others who are just starting out now.
What are your future photographic plans?
As I mentioned earlier, my big plan is to start doing this for a living. That’s likely to happen once I leave my job at the end of June. I’m working on building up my portfolio and making contacts with potential clients, as I’m soon going to have to start treating this as a business. And I’m working on a complete redesign of my website as well.
I’m also going to be doing a lot of landscape photography in the coming months. I’m off to Scotland again in two weeks, where I’m going to spend five days photographing the Isle of Skye. After that trip, I’m going to have an exhibition of Scotland photos here in Warsaw. I’m going to spend a week photographing the Tatra Mountains in Slovakia in late June. Then, I’m going to spend 10 days camping and photographing in the Highlands of Iceland in late July/early August. And then in September, I’m off to Scotland again. I’m going to spend five days on the Isle of Mull in mid-September, and I’m probably going to go back to Skye and then to Harris in mid-October. A trip to Orkney may also be in the works. I hope that I’ll be able to put together at least one more exhibition out of all that.
I’m also going to develop my macro photography and, hopefully, start doing some product photography and weddings as well.
I also have some projects in mind on some social issues. I’ve been developing an idea for a photo project on women’s equality for quite some time, and I hope I’ll be able to develop this once I start working for myself. I also feel very strongly about children’s issues and mental-health issues, and I’d like to develop interesting projects where I can use my photography skills in some way to have an impact in these areas. For example, I’ve been working on an idea for a project related to depression that I think will be a long time in the making, but I’m looking forward to making the effort.
What advice do you have for someone who is either just starting out in photography and/or anyone wanting to improve their photographic skills?
I would suggest the following. Before you take another picture or buy another piece of equipment, spend as much time as necessary to learn how your camera actually works. I don’t mean by reading the instruction manual. I mean that it’s essential to understand that your camera doesn’t see light the way your eye does. The sooner you understand that, the easier things will be.
After that, I would suggest that you read, look at as many photos as you can and really think about their composition and why they work or don’t work, and get out there and practice. Don’t be afraid of taking bad photos. Everyone does it, including every working professional. Learn from those mistakes. I would also recommend experimenting. Shoot from strange angles and break all the rules. You’ll learn from experience what you like and don’t like, and you’ll develop your own vision.
~ ~ ~
Thanks Curtis for sharing your story with us, and best wishes as you embark on a full-time photography career. I recommend that readers visit Curtis’ site regularly for new images and to follow his globe-trotting through the lens of his camera.
Interview edited for length, posted by Ed