A Q&A and Gallery from Yorkshire Photographer Ben Porter
Lifestyle, portraits and landscapes, with added grit, from York photographer…
Tell us how you started in photography – was it a career, a hobby, at school, or something else?
I used to play in a band, and our manager constantly nagged us to take photos when we were on the road so we could post them on social media. I started documenting things on my phone, then moved on to borrowing cameras from people, then eventually bought my own. I found the camera was a really useful tool for meeting new people, because I was able to offer something to them besides the request of going for a coffee. I began reaching out to all sorts of people in York who did interesting things, and found my circle of friends expanded very quickly. It became addictive!
What particularly appeals to you about the genre?
I mostly shoot lifestyle content, which to me is the perfect blend between commercial and documentary work. I previously ran a film production company making commercial content for brands, but often felt that I was compromising the authenticity of the stories I was trying to tell by spending ages setting up for the most aesthetically pleasing shots. I prefer to add a little grit to the gloss, and lifestyle photography allows me to work quickly to document a situation without overthinking it.
How do you go about looking for your images – do you research or is it more ‘spur of the moment’?
I usually spend an hour or two before a session doing research to ensure that I’m clear on what it is I want to achieve from the shoot. If I’m working for a client then this will be reading through the brief and creating mood boards to check we’re on the same page, and if I’m working with talent then this will be letting them know what is to be expected on the day. That said, you have to be prepared to throw everything away when you turn up on the shoot as there are always things outside of your control. If you’re shooting using natural light then that will change from minute to minute, and if you’re shooting in a public space then you have other members of the public to account for. Creativity is problem solving, and so you always find yourself reacting to things happening in the moment, which you can never fully plan for.
What is the most challenging part of being a photographer/taking good images?
The most challenging part of being a photographer is ensuring that your photographs are telling a story. It is so easy to get caught up in thinking about equipment, settings, light, composition etc that you can forget about the wider purpose of the shoot. If you’ve been shooting for a while then you’ll find that you can easily create images that look aesthetically pleasing, but if they don’t portray the right mood or give any useful information to the audience then they’ll end up being cut from the final selection. Remembering that whilst you’re shooting can be tricky, but will save you from spending lots of time getting a beautiful shot that never gets used.
Tell us about one of your favourite images – how did it come about and what do you like about the photo?
This (below) is a photo of my close friend Ross, taken on a walk through Hole of Horcum in the North York Moors. It was taken on a day in late spring, after we’d been walking for a couple of hours. The weather had been beautifully sunny up until around ten minutes before the shot, when it suddenly started snowing (you can just make out a few blurry snowflakes in the background). We managed to make it to this small building to take shelter, where Ross sat down for a rest near the window. I love backlit shots as they can create incredibly dramatic looking characters. Ross happened to sit in the perfect position for the light to fall across one side of his face, and I quickly managed to capture this shot a split second before he looked up and realised I was shooting. I often prefer natural shots where the subject isn’t aware they’re having their photograph taken, as the temptation to pose is too strong for most people. In this instance you can see Ross is taking a minute to catch his breath, and the surrounding walls act as a perfect device to frame the outside view. A few minutes later the snow had passed and it was warm and sunny again, making the photo all the more special.
What, if any, specialist equipment do you use?
I shoot on a Sony A7iii, which is a fantastic camera for documentary and lifestyle content. It’s mirrorless so it’s fairly small and lightweight, and you can really push the ISO compared to the DSLRs from five years ago – which gives you a lot more scope to shoot in low light. I have a bunch of Sony lenses for it, which work really well, but I also love using vintage lenses. You can get second hand lenses for next to nothing online, and they add a lovely haze to the shots. I do also shoot on film. I have a Canon EOS 3 and a Praktica 35mm, which I take with me when I travel. Not being able to view the images until they’re developed forces you to think more about the photo you’re about to take, and the cost stops you from being glued to the camera the whole time you’re supposed to be exploring!
Do you manipulate your images post-shoot?
I use Adobe Lightroom to fix the colour and contrast in my shots. I love the Sony alpha cameras but the stock settings I find too harsh, and the shadows are always too dark. I’m not a fan of photos that have been over manipulated, but it’s important to recognise that all digital photos are manipulated in one way or another. The way your camera displays the images you take has been programmed by an engineer, and so using the stock settings just means that you are using their way of processing the data. I see editing my photos as the final process in translating what I see with my eyes to what I publish, and often that means brightening some colours and darkening others.
Is there anything, e.g. events, people or locations, that you would particularly love to photograph?
I’ve always been drawn to outsiders. I spent my childhood at the skatepark, fascinated by people who pushed the boundaries of movement, style and adventure. Throughout my twenties I’ve surrounded myself with artists, musicians, performers and explorers, as I find their stories an endless source of inspiration. My dream project would be to fill a bus full of artists and go on a week long road trip (somewhere warm) and document the madness that unfolds!
What is your ultimate ambition as a photographer?
Having spent my early twenties working with large brands through my film company, I’m now much more excited about working with individuals and smaller independent brands. I feel I’m able to have more of an impact there, and enjoy working collaboratively with my clients rather than feeling like I’m just a cog in a big marketing machine. I don’t have any huge aspirations for getting my work into galleries, although that may change in the future. For now I love meeting new people, and if I get the opportunity to make someone feel good about themselves by creating photographs for them then to me that’s a happy way to spend my life.