A multi-award winning photographer, hailed as a “Landscape Master” by Outdoor Photographer Magazine, and called “one of Canada’s best photographers” by CBC, Graham Osborne has not been short of accolades in his career. His publication list includes many picture book triumphs including Plant Curator’s personal favourite Wildflowers: Seasonal Splendors of the North American West, which beautifully demonstrates what this region has to offer the wild plant landscape enthusiast. If you get joy and inspiration from being immersed in natural beauty then his work will speak to you. With a deep understanding and love of his subject derived from lived experience and his own personal faith, he is able to capture just how incredible nature is, just as it is. He is also an inspirational photography teacher, and if you are ever lucky enough to take one of his workshops then you will understand how his energy, contagious enthusiasm and relentless creativity have contributed to his success. Graham kindly agreed to be interviewed and speaks openly and interestingly about the impact of the digital photography revolution on his work, how he has adapted to a changing market and personal circumstance, and his approach and techniques for photographing plants. You can find more out about Graham’s work on his website including any upcoming workshops.
How did you first become interested in photography?
When I was a teenager I started photographing aquatic insects as a background for my fishing/fly tying efforts and then started to carry my camera as I fished. With time I got more and more interested in landscape imagery.
At what point did you realise that this was going to be your career?
When I was offered my first book contract by my publisher, Douglas and McIntyre, I quit everything and started focusing full-time on my photography. With time, more and more things happened and I started making more and more money at photography and at some point in there, I knew I could make a go of it.
Is there is a Graham Osborne Style?
I always try to use strong foregrounds to bring the viewers eye into the composition – trying to create an intimate portrait within a larger landscape context, often shooting fairly low to the ground, and with maximum depth of field and small apertures.
Who has influenced or inspired you most in your work?
David Muench as a landscape photographer, and Frans Lanting as a combination landscape and wildlife guy. Both very creative and talented.
What equipment do you use?
I used to use medium and large format transparency gear predominantly, but with the big digital changeover I shoot virtually all 35mm, using Canon gear.
What have been the greatest challenges to making a living as a photographer and why do you think you have succeeded?
Probably the greatest challenge for me is marketing. It’s not really my natural way to go about trying to convince people to contract me or buy my imagery. It’s a hard field to succeed in and those that can market well are often the most successful. That said most of the people I know that are successful have a natural talent and a real drive to create beautiful images, and that can sure help. Today for various reasons, mostly due to the digital explosion, the photography business world has just collapsed and it is very hard to make it, especially as a nature photographer. I have added video to what I have to offer clients and that has helped, but having been established a long time with several larger, loyal clients has helped too.
What changes have you seen to the profession of landscape photography since you started?
I’ve been at this for over 25 years. Unquestionably the biggest change has been the advent of digital, the collapse of photographic pricing, and of course closely connected to that is the ability to easily share images. I just love the ability to copy all my originals over and over to various locations with absolutely no loss of quality. When I shot all film, often the greatest danger was losing an original or having some catastrophic loss like an office fire. But with digital backup that is very much minimized now. It’s so much nicer to share images digitally with a client/friend than to login and logout priceless original transparencies and then package and courier them out – and everything that goes with that.
You have achieved acclaim within your field and have published many books. What has been the most satisfying accomplishments?
That’s a tough one to answer. I really enjoyed all of my book projects, as for the most part, they allowed me to go and shoot exactly what I wanted to shoot, with no concern of how someone else wanted it to look. To me, that is the most enjoyable way to work, and usually the most artistically satisfying – no stress at all! My favourite book is probably my Hawaii book. Who wouldn’t want to go shoot a book on Hawaii?! But above and beyond all that, probably the greatest things to me have been all the incredible experiences and all the spectacular places I’ve been to. I really feel blessed to have seen all the things I’ve seen and I don’t think anything could equal that.
Do you have much of a post-production process?
Not really. I work almost exclusively in Lightroom and virtually never use Photoshop. Anything I do in post usually just centres around adjusting contrast and saturation, and maybe occasionally colour balance or removing dust spots or the occasional power line. Sometimes I will go in and lighten or darken an area on an image as well, but that’s it.
What do you think of photographers that use HDR or post-production effects to create hyper-nature?
I’m not a big fan of HDR and I find that it tends to look a little artificial often. I personally never use it. I do use split neutral density filters on occasion to help balance an area in the scene that is either too bright or too dark, just to help the sensor handle the exposure range, and make it look natural and more like how I actually viewed it. There’s definitely a fine line between having something look natural, and enhancing an image to the point where it no longer looks real. To me, I want things to look natural.
You must like spending time alone – do you think you could have worked in an office 9-5?
I don’t mind spending time alone at all and find it very contemplative. I never feel alone out there, and that’s in large part due to my Christian faith. But now that I’m married with little ones, I miss them terribly if I’m ever a way, even for a little while, so I try to take them on any extended trips if I can, and now even shy away from the big road trip assignments that I did so much of in my earlier days. I think working a 9-5 job would be very tough, I love to work for myself (I’m my toughest boss mind you!). It just matches my natural personality I think.
Does your family ever worry about you out there alone with bears and things?
My family does worry about me a bit – mainly my wife because I try not to give my kids too much of a sense of any of the natural danger that’s around me – and that said, I’m always very careful. Now that I’m married with many responsibilities, I do my best not to do anything that would worry them unnecessarily, or put myself in danger. But that said there are some natural dangers connected to what I do, but I think years of being out there have helped give me a certain experience that goes a long ways towards helping me be safe in the wilderness. And I actually truly feel a lot safer hiking around in the wilderness than I do driving or walking around in downtown Vancouver!
How many days do you shoot a year and has this changed over the years?
I’ve been working over 25 years as a pro, and at my peak of busyness, it probably wasn’t uncommon to shoot up to 100 days a year. But with the huge falloff in the photography business over the last 10 years or so, that has declined to more like 40 or 50, sometimes less. Part of that is that I am not chasing assignments as actively as I used to, in large part, because I want to stay home more often with my kids, and in part because some of my work now includes working part-time for my church teaching the Catholic faith to adults and teens. Also, there are just so many photographers out there these days willing to work for very little just to get their foot in the door (and I understand that!), it can make it tough to get yourself even noticed when price is such a large driving factor these days.
How many of these days do you have a pre-planned concept of the shoot and how many are just about you in nature looking for a good shot?
Most days I now have a pretty well preplanned concept of the shoot that’s going to happen, as it is usually for a specific client, and there’s a specific image need. And I would say more often than not today that need is video. Probably 70%-80% of what I do now is video, which is really sort of stunning for me as three or four years ago I knew virtually nothing about it. Shooting video is pretty fun, and the compositionally disciplined aspect of still photography has been a great preparation for all of this – but there’s just way too much gear to carry around and set up now! Takes a bit of the fun out of it for sure.
I’ve taken a course with you, your energy is relentless. Do you think it’s a key quality for a landscape/nature photographer because it really is a physical job?
Yes I would say that having a lot of energy and self-motivation is a pretty big part of this job. It sure can help anyways!
If you are taking a shot where wildflowers are a key component, what is your process?
With flowers, usually the most important part of everything is scouting good locations and hitting things at the peak of bloom. I don’t do anything to prepare the flowers at all. Usually the most important thing is finding a very good stand of blooms that just happen to have a great backdrop to them – so, often, scouting is everything. In everything I shoot, watching for distractions in my frame is always a big part of things, especially distractions along the edge of the frame that can lead a viewer’s eye out of your composition. To me, good composition is really about drawing your viewers eye into the scene and then keeping it there.
Forest or wildflower meadow – which do you prefer to shoot?
I love them both. But forests can be incredibly challenging as they can be visually very complicated and even overwhelming. It can be very hard to get a strong composition in a forest unless it is a really remarkable stand (speaking here mainly about larger landscape shots as opposed to close-ups/macros). If I had to choose, I would pick a wildflower meadow, because I think they truly can be the most glorious thing to shoot, and you can find wildflowers in just about every setting in the world, so they can be that beautiful compositional element that can add that extra little spice to a landscape shot that can really make it sing. I think there are a few things in nature that can be as beautiful as an alpine meadow surrounded by big character peaks. If I had to choose one subject to photograph in nature, that might be it!
Are there certain plants that you feel work well?
Because I really love alpine meadows, paintbrushes and lupines are particular favourites. I always try and make strong vibrant colours a big part of my composition, and the strong blues and rich reds of these two can really add a strong compositional element to any scene. I also love to do close focus macro shots with very shallow depth of field – trying to create painterly watercolors with the out of focus foreground and background of the shot. I could literally spend hours laying on my stomach moving my camera and macro lens through a field of flowers – they don’t usually sell very well though!
What have been some of the most spectacular wildflower hotspots you have photographed?
California has some great areas. The desert in bloom can be spectacular in March and April. The Anza Borrego desert and the great wildflower hill country north of LA are particular favourites, as are the alpine and sub-alpine meadows of British Columbia’s/Alberta’s Rockies, and BC’s Kootenays.
Regarding light – say you are photographing an alpine meadow – what time of day do you prefer?
The first and last two hours of the day are my favourite. If I had to pick, I love morning light the best. The world is just different then. And there can be dew, mist, cleaner air. I can’t quite put my finger on it. If possible, I love to scout an area first, and that will often determine what time of the day I want to shoot it, based on which direction the light will come from and what I want in the scene. Sometimes it’s backlight I’m looking for, which provides challenges of its own, and is very direction specific. But often, it’s arriving at a spot, unscouted, and ideally getting there before the most beautiful light has started, and assessing the scene and making often fairly quick decisions about what to shoot, and where to move as the light changes. But it’s not uncommon for me to spend the whole day in one spot though, especially if it’s a particularly strong location.
Can you give us any tips for a great wildflower/plant landscape shot?
I love to try and maximize my depth of field with a very wide lens, maybe along the lines of a 17mm, and come in very tight to my foreground, creating a real intimate foreground scene in combination with a very strong landscape background. For me, the key here is scouting. Great locations are a real treasure so I try not to get pulled into the idea of shooting a spot that just isn’t that artistically exciting simply because I’m there. If I haven’t found a scene that I think is strong enough artistically, I try to keep myself moving and looking, rather than settling for just a mediocre scene. To me, a really stunning scene is usually stunning on its own merits. I think our challenge as photographers is to simply frame well what God has placed in front of us. So, that said, lots of scouting and really honing your compositional skills, and maybe trying to develop a creative way of looking at things, are all things that work towards creating really great imagery. And don’t overlook using a particular lens length in an untraditional or creative way – that can sometimes be the key to creating a very artistic shot that has a unique, fresh look to it.