For our latest Imagemaker feature we had the chance to speak with award winning FujiFilm X Series photographer and educator Chris Upton. Chris’s passion for travel is beautifully integrated into his work, making his portfolio a diverse collection of outstanding travel, landscape and social documentary photography. Chris is also an avid Domke user, brining his bag along as he travels the world.
Be sure to also read more about Chris’s experience with Domke by checking out his latest Domke F2 Review!
Tell me about yourself.
I’m a Travel, Landscape and Social Documentary photographer based in Nottinghamshire, UK. I am also an Associate of the Royal Photographic Society and proud to be an official Fujifilm X Series photographer.
My interest in photography started when I was a young lad, my dad was a keen photographer but it was when I started recording walking and climbing trips to the Lake District, Wales and Scotland that the bug really bit. Gradually, as my interest grew, I started taking more photos and walking less and less. Eventually the purpose of trips into mountains became photography.
I’ve always loved travel; experiencing different cultures and witnessing some truly wonderful locations. As my family grew, we were fortunate to go on some great holidays around the world. Over the past few years I’ve done quite a few bespoke photo trips and of course have been fortunate to win a commission to shoot in Thailand.
During my film days I shot with Nikon cameras, but when digital came along I switched to Canon and then about 5 years ago I bought a Fuji camera and I was smitten.
Having operated on a semi-professional basis for many years, I took an early retirement from a career in business and now am enjoying my second career, shooting, teaching, lecturing, running tours and workshops and inspiring others to get more from their photography.
As an Associate of the Royal Photographic Society, your role as a teacher, motivator and advocate for photography plays a crucial role in helping others achieve their goals. Can you give us a sense of what that role is like?
The Royal Photographic Society exists to promote photography and image-making and to support photographers in realizing their potential, irrespective of their level of knowledge, equipment or skills. It has an international membership and acts as a public advocate for photography and photographers.
The Society offers the opportunity to achieve various distinctions and I have been an Associate for over 20 years.
Many members also belong to local photographic clubs and societies, as there are currently 1000 plus in the UK. I offer lectures to these clubs across a wide range of photographic subjects, mostly travel and landscape and more recently social documentary, in addition to offering technique based lectures including post processing.
These clubs provide photographers with so much information and inspiration, it’s OK to search online but nothing beats a live lecture or demonstration where you can ask questions and have a go yourself. I benefitted tremendously in my early career from being a member at my local club, it’s nice now to give something back.
Your passion for travel is so beautifully showcased in your work. Although it may seem impossible to choose, do you have a favorite photographic destination?
A really difficult question but one I get asked a lot. How do you compare the chaos and frenzy of an urban metropolis like NY with the calm serenity of the plains of Africa or the mountains in Canada. That said there are two places that have really resonated with me. The first is India. It is such an incredible place to experience it literally assaults all your senses. It’s so vibrant, colorful, noisy, chaotic but at the same time beautiful and the people are wonderful. Sure some of the sights stop you in your tracks but if you can accept that you will experience the trip of a lifetime.
The second is Cuba. Such a unique place wrapped in 50’s time warp, though coming out of it pretty quickly now, this is a place that is a photographer’s nirvana. Whether it is traditional beautiful Spanish architecture, crumbling, decaying buildings, streets just coming to life in the early morning raking sunlight, the iconic old American cars (apparently there are 60,000 of them in Cuba) some restored with loving care and skill whilst many others seem to be held together by tape and string there is a photograph around every street corner.
But as with all these places it’s the people that make the country and despite suffering great hardship over the past 50 years the Cubans are so welcoming and friendly, always with a smile and so full of life. Walk down any street in Havana and you’ll hear music playing and see salsa dancing in the bars. Just wonderful.
Continuing the topic of travel, tell us a bit about your experiences as an expedition guide.
Having visited many stunning locations around the world, I have shared my experiences through my lectures and writings. The natural extension to this is to actually take small groups of photographers to some of these places so that they too can experience them and, through my help, capture some great images too.
I have several trips planned over the next few months to Venice (one of my absolute favorite places), Vilnius and Bologna.
Then I have two tours this later year to Cinque Terre, Italy and the Greek island of Santorini, both fabulous locations and I’m really looking forward to the trips. There are a couple of places remaining if anyone would like to come along! See my website for more details.
Your tuition program is inspiring! Aside from imparting essential technical skills on your students, is there a little something extra you always hope they walk away with? Perhaps a life lesson or cultivation of a new mindset?
As I mentioned earlier I get a real buzz from helping people develop. I guess this stems back from my career in business managing and developing teams. Many of the skills I learnt there are transferred into my workshops and one to ones. Whatever their skill level or experience they all have one thing in common, a desire to improve and my role is to help them. One of the key questions is and always has been “why”? In this case Why have you picked the camera up what have you seen and then we can concentrate on making the most of that through improving the composition or applying a certain technique. Whether it’s business or photography a positive attitude is fundamental. As an outdoor photographer you often experience conditions that lets say are testing, less than ideal. In those situations it’s really important to focus on what images you can shoot rather than what you can’t. Flexibility is another key attribute that will stand you in good stead.
Do you have a daily photographic routine, or do you find yourself changing your process depending upon your assignment?
I do a lot of research before I visit a location. I read somewhere that you need to do enough research so that when you get to your destination you feel like you’ve been there before. This research culminates in a shoot list containing all the different types of images I’m looking for. Of course I’ll have an open mind to other possibilities too but it helps me to have that sense of order. In terms of a routine that’s repeated everyday I guess that starts the night before when I prepare my bag for the next day, checking and cleaning my camera and lenses together with the filters, recharging batteries and of course downloading images to my laptop and separate hard drive.
The beauty of your work speaks volumes to both your skill set and level of creativity. With this in mind, can you give us some insight into your creative process?
Oh that’s a big question! I guess it depends upon the type of image I’m creating. A very different approach would be made for a portrait to an epic sunrise or sunset. One thing however is common a desire to create a positive emotion in the viewer. That might be down to the subject, the action, the mood, the composition but photography is all about light and if you can capture an image that uses beautiful light then you’re on the right tracks. Probably the hardest thing for new photographers to grasp is composition. Let’s face it, there are no bad cameras these days and the equipment we have nowadays is so much better than we had 10 years ago. The camera can give you, on most occasions, a perfectly well exposed image that’s sharp but the one thing it can’t do is arrange the elements in the composition, that’s down to the skill of the photographer. I would say the best way to learn this is to study the work of other photographers, really looking to see why an image works and try to use that technique in your own images.
Do you ever find yourself trying to convey a message through your work?
Yes, all the time. What use is a picture with no message? It’s all about emphasis in a picture, leave the viewer in no doubt where you want them to look or what you want them to take from your image. As I’ve just mentioned that message may be different in many images but you can use the light, composition and lens selection to help communicate what you’re trying to emphasize.
Before you begin any assignment, regardless of subject matter, what essentials are you sure to include in your bag?
The relevant camera and back up, selection of lenses and hoods, spare SD cards and batteries, cleaning cloths and then if it’s a landscape there will be a range of filters and cable release. I’ll also carry a head torch, for use at the beginning and end of the day. Business cards, pen, small penknife tool, allen key to tighten my camera L bracket. If I’m wandering off in the hills and mountains I’ll take a whistle, map and compass and an emergency survival bag. The other essentials are a fleece hat and gloves, even in the summer it can get pretty chilly before sunrise and after sunset and you need to be comfortable to enjoy your photography.
Tell us about your experience with Domke. What is it about the bags that make them your preference for daily use?
The F2 holds all the gear I need plus some essential extras… I felt my gear was protected adequately and it was a dream to work from and comfortable to carry. The bag is certainly very easy to use, deserving of its name the shooters bag. Pull up the cover flap and all my gear is immediately accessible and, when required, the two metal clips simply secure the lid in place, no zips, no fuss, no delay. Jim Domke certainly designed a classic 40 years ago and the fact that it’s stood the test of time and still performs superbly…
Many Domke users feel a connection to their bag that goes far beyond its technical purposes, as the bag has served as their second in command while on assignment. Would you consider yourself having said connection to your Domke? Perhaps you also feel this way about your cameras and other pieces of gear?
I guess the typical image of a Domke bag is one that’s battered from years of use in hostile conditions. A bit romantic perhaps but lets say “characterful”. I really find it a joy to use and just like my favorite camera or lenses if I enjoy it I’ll use it more.
What does being a Fujifilm X-Series photographer entail?
I’m very proud to be an official Fujfilm X-Series photographer and to be included amongst such a talented group of photographers from around the world.
Being an X Photographer means that you shoot with Fuji cameras and lenses, as well as provide Fuji with images to regularly update the global X photographers website and to help with their various marketing campaigns. I also write articles for the FujiFilm blog and run some training events, experience days, where photographers can use the range of cameras and lenses helping them to decide what shiny bit of new kit they would like to buy next! I run my own workshops teaching new or prospective Fuji users how to get the best from their equipment.
I also get involved with testing new cameras and lenses and providing them with feedback and usually videos which are featured on the FujiFilm marketing channels.
They are a great company to work with, have some great products but one of their key strengths is their desire to listen to the customer and incorporate the key suggestions through new models or firmware updates.
How has this partnership with Fuji impacted your career?
It has been a mutually beneficial relationship. Fuji have an enthusiastic ambassador keen to highlight the system’s strengths to new and existing users and one who is regularly producing more work to help with their marketing campaigns. For my part I have the kudos of being associated with a great company which inevitably helps to raise awareness of my work to an ever growing audience.
What an outstanding honor to exhibit at the Masters of Vision Exhibition of Photography at Southwell Minster! How did you go about organizing your exhibitions for each year you attended?
The Masters of Vision exhibition is a biannual event that was launched in 2009 and held in the magnificent Cathedral of Southwell Minster in Nottinghamshire. Typically there are around 8 photographers who are invited to participate, usually landscape photographers but the curator likes to push the boundaries so there is often a fine art presence within the exhibition. Selecting images for an exhibition is an interesting task as it can vary depending upon the nature of the exhibition theme. In all cases however you are looking for a range of images that hang together either in subject matter, technique or even color. Sometimes you find that there are images you would like to display that simply don’t fit with the others and therefore cannot be included. Photographers often struggle with exhibitions because you are putting your work on display for others to scrutinize and sometimes criticize. You need thick skin to exhibit your work! The flipside is of course the great feeling from seeing people enjoying your work, the comments in the visitors book and, hopefully, the red dots that signify a sale!
Is there an exhibition you feel most strongly about? A subject matter that suck with you throughout the years?
There are several exhibitions from other photographers that have really resonated with me. The first was in Yosemite at the Ansel Adams Gallery where the prints from one of the greatest landscape photographers were simply awesome. In a different genre I thoroughly enjoyed the work of David Bailey at the National Portrait Gallery in London. His high contrast, monochrome mages are instantly recognisable as “a Bailey” and he photographed so many icons of the arts and media world throughout his career. But as a Travel photographer the work of Steve McCurry, which I saw exhibited in Dubrovnik, was stunning. Famous for his “Afghan Girl” portrait but such inspirational talent displayed in so many images mostly shot in India and Afghanistan was just brilliant.
Do you have a favorite individual assignment?
Photographing in Thailand on behalf of the Tourism Authority was wonderful but I guess my favorite was my year long project documenting the final days of the last coal mine in Nottinghamshire which closed bringing to an end 90 years of mining in the county. This was such a significant moment in the cultural and industrial history of the county that to record it in detail was so important and rewarding. That project was a wonderful example of stretching yourself as a photographer, moving out of your comfort zone and trying something new. It resulted in a major touring exhibition, lectures and a book, raising my profile and exposing my work to many new people.
Has your experience with Social Documentary Photography ever intertwined with your exhibition work? If so, were there ever underlying themes or messages you hoped to share through your work?
As I’ve mentioned the Thoresby Colliery project was my most significant and successful exhibition. I wanted to show the harshness of the industry but retain some sensitivity and chose to produce the work in black and white.
What became evident as my time there progressed was that this was as much about the people, the miners, as it was buildings, machinery and mining. Most people have never witnessed a working mine and I wanted to share these images with as many people as possible. The pit has now closed and although my images have been extremely well received presently I think their “value” will only increase with the passage of time and serve as a valuable record of a once great British industry.
What was like photographing in Thailand on behalf of the Tourism Authority of Thailand? How did you go about deciding which photos would be taken to represent the country?
I was fortunate to win a commission to photograph in Thailand on behalf of the Tourism Authority. Their plan was to take small groups of photographers from around Europe to photograph some of the less well know parts of the country with our photographs being used to help with travel publicity. It was my first visit to this wonderful country and the opportunity to photograph in small towns and villages away from the major cities was brilliant.
I went to Isaan in the north eastern part of the country and we were free to shoot whatever we wanted though mindful of the positive image we wanted to portray. There was a real mix of portraits, landscapes, architecture, food, detail and fine art so a typical mélange of travel imagery. It was a fantastic trip, the Tourism Authority used many of my images and were so pleased that they invited me back two years later!
What are your thoughts on photography and social media?
I think social media is so important to photographers. When you think of the whole concept of communication, including social media, and how its developed over the past 20 years… it’s amazing. Being of “a certain age” (!) I perhaps feel this more than younger photographers who have grown up with social media as part of their everyday life. It is now an accepted part of everyday life and you can’t really operate in a bubble ignoring it, customers, whoever they might be, expect you to be present so you really have no choice. I think the challenge is keeping up with it all and which “horse” do you back. I put most of my efforts into Instagram as I feel it’s all about images though I find Twitter can be very useful too.
Do you have any advice for photographers who are just starting out, or those who are looking to further develop their skill set?
It’s not about the gear! Whatever you have go out and take pictures, experiment, look at different styles, other photographer’s work and keep practicing. Also learn to be a skilled post processor. Taking the picture is one thing but interpreting the image to reflect how you felt or what you want the image to convey can be a million miles away from the actual original RAW image. If you are keen on shooting landscapes then shoot at the best time of day, sunrise and sunset. It costs nothing but your pictures will improve significantly.
Do you have any upcoming projects? If so when and where?
I am currently shooting a project on Notts County Football Club, my local team and the World’s Oldest Football League Club, established in 1862! It’s not so much about the football, I’m not a sports snapper, but more about the ground, the staff and of course the fans.
What is the number one place on your list that you would like to visit or revisit?
To revisit would be India. There are so many different regions each with their own particular character and feel and as I’ve already mentioned it’s such a fascinating country.To visit would be South America, I’ve not been there and it looks incredible.
What do you hope you get out of your future experiences?
Enjoyment and hopefully good images! I’ve been very fortunate that my photography has taken me to some wonderful places around the world and I often feel that simply the experience would be enough. To be able to capture that in a photograph really is the icing on the cake.