Phil Norton is a photographer who needs no introduction. And in this exclusive interview, he told us about his career, how it all started, sharing some of his tips, the techniques that make his images work. As for the Olympus equipment, being Phil a full-time professional landscape photographer, it’s a tool that allows him to get the job done without getting in the way, inspiring him to think about the shot, not the camera.
Could you please introduce yourself to the readers?
I’m from East Yorkshire, now living near Manchester, and I have been interested in photography since an introduction to it at University in Hull, nearly 30 years ago. I was artistic so followed a career in Art and Design, eventually working in commercial interior design. Being artistic gave me an eye for composition and I soon found another creative outlet with photography, starting out in film with a Minolta and an Olympus OM40. Everything was black and white, being young colour was too expensive, so I convinced myself I was following the masters. Truth is it was cheaper.
Family and career meant photography took a back seat for quite a few years until the frustration with the constraints of working in design meant I threw myself into photography as a release. Digital had come of age so I walked into Jessops and bought a Canon EOS 300D. After many years I now work full time as a landscape photographer and consider myself fortunate to be a able to follow my passion.
What is the philosophy behind your images? Do you have a preconceived image in mind when you’re heading to a certain location?
I try not to but it can be hard when we are bombarded by images from social media. Sometimes it can be a help and also a hinderance. I run many workshops and always try to impress on people how to read the landscape, a location will have elements that speak to the viewer and will guide the composition, so being open to see it is important. Of course some locations have cliche compositions, it’s a word I don’t like to use because sometimes it will be the best composition, and the light will always make it different. It is important to explore the location, feel and connect with it and try to put your own vision into it.
My philosophy to my images is quite simple, to convey a mood and express an emotion. An image says a thousand words as the saying goes and we are the story tellers. It is always about the mood, and if there is no mood the image will fail because the viewer will not connect with it emotionally.
I want and hope to create images that will connect with the viewer, where they can stare at it and get lost in time exploring it and being captivated.
This is what I try to achieve and sometimes I succeed.
How do you scout locations with potential interest from places you haven’t visited yet, without actually going there?
These days it’s quite easy with the internet and access to so many useful tools. Searching online gives so much information we couldn’t get once, and there are quite a few apps available too. If I want to explore a location I will search online first for images, then check Google Earth. I subscribe to OS Maps so I can access extremely detailed map information, and then I will start to think about the detail, weather, sun position, tides.
I never plan weather too far ahead because it is so unpredictable and changes so much, forecasts are only a vague estimate. If it isn’t a flat grey sky I will go, something may happen and I like the thrill of the unexpected. It is important to know the sun position, where it rises and sets, and the tides if it’s coastal, after that it’s down to nature. I may get a glorious sunset, or a dark brooding image, or nothing. It’s part of the challenge.
Finding the perfect spot with the right weather is the result of a bit of luck and a lot of hard work. What was the most magical scene you’ve shot, and have you been pleasantly surprised by a location you had low expectations of?
The weather is mostly luck and perseverance. I once stayed in my car for 2 nights because the light did not deliver at all. But it did in the end. In Iceland the weather was horrendous most of the time, a dawn at Vesturhorn turned out to be grey, cold and raining, but I was happy to be there so I got on with it and got a shot that expressed the mood. Another time in Scotland with some colleagues we spent a whole day in sleet and snow and got nothing, but we tried and that’s what counts. The failures count as much as the successes, and they can be learned from.
Some locations will be a surprise, others can be a let down at first but again it is always about the mood. A very simple scene that would not be considered normally can be powerful with the right light. And the light doesn’t have to be a ‘sky fire’ sunset, it could be dark and threatening, misty and tranquil.
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